Tag Archives: crime

Does Free Speech Protect a Book for Hitmen?

This would have been a great topic for Banned Books Week, but, alas, I’ve had a long, sad year with a variety of responsibilities I haven’t wanted to work through. But now is as good a time as any to talk about the extent of free speech and the free press, isn’t it?

A 1983 book called Hit Man by Rex Feral purports to be a manual for contract killers with practical instructions on how to eliminate your targets without getting caught. The author says it is for entertainment purposes only, and you can see from GoodReads many contemporary readers think the book is too simple, dated, and even silly.

But things have changed a bit over 35 years.

In 1993 James Perry snuck into a Maryland home and murdered a disabled eight-year-old, his nurse, and his mother, following many of the details recommended in this book. A podcast from iHeart Radio and Hit Home Media, also called Hit Man, opens with an exploration of this murder and the man who hired Perry to carry it out. Later the families of the victims filed a lawsuit against the publisher, claiming the book was intended to be real-world advice that could be acted upon by anyone wanting to murder someone for a fee, and in doing so the publisher aided and abetted in murder.

The publisher argued that it did not intend for anyone to murder or be murdered based on what they read and that it has the freedom to publish whatever it wants.

In a style that may be a bit over-earnest, Hit Man the podcast tells the stories of the murder, this lawsuit, other crimes connected to the book, the identity of the pseudonymous author, and the possible inspiration for the book.

Should our country allow a book like this (and others like it which are still in print)? Is this the kind of abhorrent speech we say we would argue against but fight for the rights of others to use? You would need to know what’s in the book to make that decision; the podcast offers some details, and you can read the whole book by searching for the text file. It’s possible it doesn’t say anymore about pulling off contract killing than many other books, fiction and non.

The bulk of the legal argument against it was about intent. Is the book what it claims to be, “a technical manual for independent contractors,” or is it an imaginative book on crime? I think there should be a line that we don’t cross, but ours is a society originally suited for a religious people who actively submit to the governor of the universe, so that line will have to be a moral one. If we live with a morality that is only defined by the law, then we will not live happily for long.

Hit Man is a real banned book, by the way, so I hope it makes the big list one of these years.

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

The True Crime book Harper Lee never finished

Author Casey Cep writes about a true crime story Harper Lee could not complete. “Harper Lee always said that she was ‘intrigued with crime.’ She grew up surrounded by stacks of the magazine True Detective Mysteries, cut her teeth on Sherlock Holmes, watched trials from the balcony of the local courthouse as a kid, and studied criminal law at the University of Alabama.”

The story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a man accused but not convicted of murdering and collecting death benefits from five family members, was as compelling as any story Lee had grown up with. But she could not pull it together. Perhaps the characters were too much larger than life.

Part of why true crime stories are so appealing is that they force us to confront the limits of what can be known, and eliding those limits, whether by fabricating motives or means or inventing someone’s inner life, doesn’t just cross the boundary between fiction and nonfiction; it transgresses something deeper.

362 Cases of Innocent People Convicted of Crimes

Since we review so many crime novels on BwB, I occasionally think about posting something on true crime. I discovered a site today for the Innocence Project, a group seeking to “exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.” Their site summarizes the stories of 362 people like Joseph Abbitt, who served 14 years for a sexual assault he did not commit. Even though he was at work at the time of the attack and his employer backed him up, he could not produce a time card for the day four years prior. The two victims were sure Abbitt was the man who attacked them, so he was convicted. But DNA testing was able to rule him out several years later.

It’s chilling to think law enforcers would want to wrap up a case plausibly, even if it isn’t true. But that’s human perspective for you. I hope this Innocence Project is doing good work and not just bending plausibility in another direction.

Heist

A Danish scholar, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, is considered one of the fathers of the modern field of archaeology. He was the first curator to arrange artifacts according to the materials from which they were made, helping to develop the concept of historical ages – Stone, Bronze, Iron.

Scandinavian archaeology suffered a serious blow recently, when thieves entered the University Museum of Bergen, Norway, by way of a repair scaffold. Inventory still has not determined the entire extent of losses, though I’ve seen pictures of missing items posted on Facebook, with alerts to watch out for them on the antiquities market. It appears a number of Viking Age items are among those missing.

True Crime Podcasts That Catch Your Ear

I don’t listen to podcasts much, mostly because of technical limitations. My commutes haven’t been long. My iPod probably qualifies as a vintage edition, and I’m not a regular iTunes user. When I listen to podcasts, it’s through a computer, sometimes while washing dishes, usually while doing things that don’t require my full attention. I’ve heard a few episodes of Crime Writers On, which has put me onto two other true crime podcasts.

via GIPHY

Both series talk through a current criminal case, but that’s where their similarity ends. The first series is out of Hawaii. “Offshore,” produced by Honolulu Civil Beat, focuses on 2011 incident in which an off-duty federal officer shot and killed a young Hawaiian man. Here’s the preview.

Many on the island see the case as a tangible symbol of powerful Americans running over native Hawaiians, which some have said it how the island kingdom became a US state in the first place. This abuse of privilege dramatically unfolded in an 80-year-old case remarkably similar to the current one. Reporter Jessica Terrell draws the parallels between the two cases and gives an ear to the hearts of Hawaiians who want justice and respect. Continue reading True Crime Podcasts That Catch Your Ear

Now 75: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. Bill Morris offers his thoughts on the magazine and an exhibition of it in the Butler Library at Columbia University.

In a land where most magazines have the lifespan of a fruit fly, how is it possible for one magazine to survive — and thrive — for 75 years? Janet Hutchings has a theory: “The great power that Frederic Dannay gave this magazine was its variety and its reach.”

For the first time in American publishing, the magazine published any good mystery it could: “hard-boiled stories, classic English mysteries, noirs, suspense, cozy mysteries, the work of literary writers.” It broke down barriers to what was acceptable to publish. “Now, writers of every stripe gleefully plunder one or more genres, stitching together scraps or horror, pulp, crime, fantasy, ghost stories, mysteries, westerns.”

Marcella Will Have a Second Season

The new Netflix crime show, Marcella, starring Anna Friel and Nicholas Pinnock, will have a second season. The eight-show series labeled “crime noir” has a bleak tone to the visuals, soundtrack, and characters, and perhaps this bleakness left me wondering if my watching it was time well-spent.

Marcella is a detective who has been off the force for ten years at the beginning of the story. She comes back because it appears the murderer she tracked but did not catch in her last case may have returned. Perhaps she can contribute to the investigation by remembering her own history. But Marcella brings with her some gaping wounds. In the first episode, she sits trembling in her tub, possibly wounded. We can see blood on her head and the wall. Even when we see at what point in our non-linear storytelling she is traumatized in her home bath, the explanation barely connects. Did she do something and is covering her tracks? Is this a kind of Jekyll and Hyde story that will end with Marcella being the murderer all along?

In the first episode, she confronts her husband about leaving her, which happens in the first few minutes, and they fight. She rages against him and blacks out, but this isn’t a typical fainting spell. It’s “dissociative fugue.” She detaches from reality enough to lose all memory of what she does but is still able to function while detached. So she shoves her ex-husband down the stairs and calls him later to ask what happened. This is the chink in her armor.

Marcella isn’t presented as a genius detective whose skills outpace her police comrades by several steps. She just has good instincts and isn’t bound to a set of political rules or a timetable that prevents her from seeing uncomfortable questions. Some may see her story as a replay of returning star vs. uninspired police force, butting heads constantly over what should be done next. I see it more as a team of professionals with slightly varying priorities, looking at a difficult problem together. It works.

The season ends on a curious thematic note, a question that will have to be explored in season two, but I can’t say I enjoyed the story overall. I was interested, but I didn’t connect to these characters. I remember how invested I was in Idris Elba’s Luther. I wanted him to succeed. I hated the pain he suffered. For Marcella, I was a bit concerned but more puzzled. The storytelling doesn’t allow much time to develop her or the many (perhaps too many) other people around her. It dwells instead on creepy moments that tease you with another horrible revelation. Though the overall story works, it probably has too many moving parts.

Crime Fiction Returning to Cozies

A hundred years ago, Agatha Christie wrote her first novel, which featured her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Today,  Sophie Hannah is writing Poirot’s cases and the crime genre as a whole is returning to the type of story Christie helped popularize. The Guardian asks:

Why does crime’s golden era continue to exert such a pull? Hannah says it’s largely down to our desire to be entertained.

“I think the resurgence in the popularity of golden age crime fiction is partly down to the fact that we do, at some level, like to have that satisfaction of having a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way,” she says. “Inherent in golden age crime writing is the message: ‘This is a great story and you will have fun reading it’.”

Nothing to Hide by J. Mark Bertrand

She rolls her eyes. “The Song of Roland. Don’t get me started. That was the first one we had to read. If that’s chivalry, then you can have it. That book infuriates me.”

“Really.” I flip through the pages, many of which are underscored. I’m familiar with the story, of course, though I can’t recall having actually read the poem. In fact, before now I’m not sure I realized it was a poem, with all the stanzas and verses. “He’s supposed to blow the horn to signal the ambush, is that it?”

“He’s supposed to blow it if they need help. Only Roland’s too proud for that, so he waits and waits until everybody’s basically dead. Does that sound like heroism to you?”


Bertrand’s third thrilling novel in his Roland March series begins with a body dumped in a recreational park. The head is missing and the hands, one of which is pointing, have been ‘degloved,’ which is a clinical word for skinned. March’s partner on the case, Jerry Lorenz, suggests the hand is pointing at something, maybe the missing head, and March nearly breaks his back looking for it. No dice.

I don’t care to outline the plot any further, because I enjoyed jumping into this novel having forgotten almost everything I’d heard about it. It’s a fun story, as are all of Bertrand’s March novels. Personal moments are filled with dialogue like the above interchange on The Song of Roland, showing Bertrand’s appealing bookish style. This brief description of the poem absolutely foreshadows the plot, which is exactly the way they do it in the movies, which reminds me how someone should be throwing money at Bertrand for the honor of taking his March trilogy to the big screen.

March isn’t any kind of super cop or brilliantly quirky detective. He’s a seasoned professional, like many homicide detectives on the force today. He has overcome the difficulties of his past, put numerous criminals behind bars, and continues to seek (and question) trust from his colleagues. He solves his cases by hard, honest work: asking questions, following leads, and pressuring forensics to cough up the right evidence. Like the title suggests, Nothing to Hide drives its story to a bold climax where all cards are on the table and everyone’s exposed.

Women Who Wrote Mysteries

No voracious reader of detective fiction will complain [about Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s: A Library of America Boxed Set], since these were all better-than-average books of their era, which was no mean feat in the days that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler defined the new prose of the hard-boiled American crime novel. It’s just that the uniting theme—declared in the book’s introduction and echoed in its many reviews—is that women authors of those days were unfairly oppressed by mystery publishers and neglected by mystery readers, but those women nonetheless managed to create, unnoticed, the never-seen-before genre of the psychological and domestic crime story.

Joseph Bottum says this theme is nonsense (via Prufrock).

Crime Fighting, Old and New

“For me, Batman has the most spiritual narratives. I’d venture to say that, in general, D.C. excels Marvel in exploring the hero’s soul, and no soul is darker than Bruce Wayne’s.”

Smoking GuyBrad Fruhauff talks about his appreciation of Batman’s character and storyline, and he’s probably right. Batman wins by sheer force of will, despite the flood of evil he faces.

Turn the page. Author Christopher West says the Chinese were telling the equivalent of police procedurals far before anyone in the West.

A genre known as gong’an began in the Song dynasty (960 to 1279): the term means a magistrate’s desk, and the modern equivalent would be police procedural. Stories would be narrated by wandering storytellers or in puppet shows, and usually told of upright officials exposing corruption and cover-ups. No examples of these stories have survived, however. The oldest gong’an tales come from the next dynasty, the Yuan (1279 to 1368).

Turn another page. For a limited time, BBC Radio 4 is airing a production of an unfinished work by Alfred Hitchcock, The Blind Man. “The world premiere of Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman’s unfinished screenplay, the follow-up to North by Northwest, now completed by Mark Gatiss” stars Hugh Laurie and Kelly Burke.

“Set in 1961, a famous blind jazz pianist, Larry Keating [Laurie], agrees to a radical new medical procedure – an eye transplant. The operation is a success but his new eyes are those of a murdered man, and captured on their retina is the image of his murderer. Larry and his new nurse, Jenny [Burke], begin a quest to track him down – before someone else dies.”

‘Undercurrents’ and ‘The Body of David Hayes,’ by Ridley Pearson

As you’ve probably discerned from my reviews, I continue to read for pleasure even as I toil for my master’s degree. I don’t think I’d keep my sanity if I couldn’t take fiction breaks from the textbooks.

So, recently, casting about for something new to read, I decided to check out one of my consistently favorite authors, Ridley Pearson. I’ve always enjoyed his Lou Boldt police procedurals, but I discovered I’d never read the very first in the series, Undercurrents. And then I got the most recent novel in the series, The Body of David Hayes, which is closely related though separated in time.

At the beginning of Undercurrents, we find Detective Sergeant Lou Boldt of the Seattle Police Department, never a lighthearted guy in the best of times, in a particularly bad spot. He recently closed a serial killer case, and the accused murderer was himself murdered by a family member of a victim. But now he’s called back from a conference in Los Angeles, summoned by the news that there’s been another murder. They got the wrong guy.

Not only that, his marriage is falling apart. He has personally observed his wife meeting another man at a hotel. He’s moved out, and is considering divorcing her.

The story is as much about Lou’s struggle to keep his sanity as about his conflict with the serial killer, a smart and devious one who has singled Lou out as his police contact and personal foil. As Lou tries to function on too little sleep, too little food, and too much coffee, he tries to deal with his attraction to a beautiful police psychologist, and is brought face to face with his own culpability in the collapse of his marriage. When he truly achieves self-knowledge on that issue, it’s in terms that will please almost every Christian reader.

The Body of David Hayes picks up on a thread from that first book. David Hayes, a banker, was a colleague of Boldt’s wife and the man with whom she had the affair. He was later convicted of cyber-embezzlement and sentenced to prison. But now he’s been released early, only to be kidnapped and beaten. There’s more to his crime than anyone knew, and some very dangerous people are looking hard for the money David Hayes stole and hid in the bank’s own records. Lou is forced to bring his wife into the investigation, and old wounds get opened.

Frankly, The Body of David Hayes was above my head in terms of plot. The schemes of criminals and police (not all of whom may be honest) are so convoluted that I just lost track at certain points. But, as you may have noticed, plot isn’t my main concern in my reading. What I love is the characters Pearson creates — believable, sympathetic (in most cases), and grounded in a moral universe.

Both books recommended. Adult themes and language are relatively mild.

‘Werewolf Cop,’ by Andrew Klavan

He parked in a little neighborhood near the service road. He sat behind the wheel with his eyes shut, his fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. He told himself that this would pass. He’d track Abend down. He’d “confront” the dagger, whatever that meant. After that, he’d be free to turn himself in or die or… do something to make this stop. Meanwhile, though…. The guilt and horror were like thrashing, ravenous animals in him. Guilt and horror – and grief too. Because he’d lost something precious, something he’d barely known he had: he’d lost his sense of himself as a good person. Even death wouldn’t restore that. Nothing word.

As you know if you’ve been following this blog for a while, I’m a confirmed fanboy when it comes to Andrew Klavan. I discovered him after he’d become a conservative, but before he became a Christian. I consider him one of the foremost thriller writers – and one of the best prose stylists – of our time.

Still, although I’ve praised all the books he’s written since then (specifically since the Weiss-Bishop novels, which I consider unparalleled) I’ve honestly thought he’s been kind of treading water, not quite sure where to go with his art.

Who’d have thought he’d hit his next home run with a horror-fantasy book? But Werewolf Cop, in spite of its William Castle title, is an amazing reading experience. Klavan has moved in on Dean Koontz’s turf, and done the genre proud.

Zach Adams is the hero of the book and the titular werewolf cop. He’s a Texas native relocated to New York City, where he works for a shadowy government police agency called “Extraordinary Crimes.” Along with his partner, “Broadway Joe” Goulart, he’s become a legend and a sort of a celebrity. He has a beautiful wife and a family he loves. But his life isn’t as great as people think it is. He’s worried about his partner, who has come under suspicion for corruption. He’s afraid of being blackmailed by a woman over a mistake he made. And he’s got the murder of a gangster by a mysterious, almost legendary European criminal to solve.

And that’s before he gets mauled by a werewolf.

I could quibble a little about the fantasy element in this story – werewolves here are pure Universal Pictures, rather than the genuine folklore article. But Klavan mines that old movie scenario for amazing psychological – and spiritual – insights. I was riveted from the first page to the last, and deeply moved at the same time.

You should be cautioned – there’s rough language, as in all Klavan’s books, and the gore element is what you’d expect in a werewolf story.

But if you can handle that, and wish to see old material raised to new levels, Werewolf Cop has my highest recommendation.

The Jack Stratton novels, by Christopher Greyson

It’s a rare treat to discover an author and a series of books I enjoy very much, and which I can recommend to our readers almost without reservation. But that’s the case with Christopher Greyson and his Jack Stratton novels.

Jack Stratton, the hero of the series, is a cop in a South Carolina town. He’s a good man, but wound tight. As a boy he was abandoned by his prostitute mother, but found refuge in a loving mixed race foster home before being adopted by a good family. As a young man he served in Iraq beside one of his foster brothers, Chandler. He saw Chandler die, and because of survivor’s guilt he hasn’t contacted his foster family since.

That’s until Replacement invades his life. “Replacement” is the nickname of a young woman who grew up in his old foster home, though after his time there. She shows up in his apartment and tells him Michelle, a foster sister to whom he was always close, has disappeared. She’d been studying in a local college, but supposedly transferred to a California school. Only she hasn’t gotten in touch with her family, and she wouldn’t do that.

With Replacement as his uninvited assistant, he starts looking into Michelle’s life, and discovers troubling things. Continue reading The Jack Stratton novels, by Christopher Greyson