Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Court Number One: The Trials and Scandals That Shocked Modern Britain, by Thomas Grant


John Murray, 2020
440 pp


I don't remember quite how I stumbled upon this book but I had picked it up in August  and sadly let it sit on my shelves for the next four months.  I'd actually forgotten about it until as part of my end-of-year cleanout I rediscovered it, making it almost like a belated Christmas gift to myself.   It took me about five days to read but I was completely engrossed throughout, since out of the eleven cases covered here, I was familiar with only three, and even  among those I'd had little to no clue about the courtroom side of things.  

I must admit to being a wee bit confused over the actual title of this book, which in 2019 was published as Court Number One: The Old Bailey Trials That Defined  Modern Britain

leaving off the words "scandals that shocked"  of this later edition.  I  would hate to think that the title change might have been an enticement based on those three words to garner a larger reading audience,  because this is much more than just a tell-all for titillation.  As the back blurb says, "Court Number One recorded the changing face of British society, providing a window on to the thrills, fears and foibles of the modern age."  As the author puts it, 
"This is a book about this courtroom, about some of the people who have appeared in it, whether as defendant, counsel or judge, and about the practice of criminal law. It is also intended to be about British sensibilities and preoccupations over the last hundred years. It is one of the contentions of this book that through the criminal trials that have occurred in Britain's foremost court there can be traced at least one version of social and moral change over the last century." 
The author takes his readers through eleven cases ranging datewise from 1907 to 2003, some familiar, others less so.   What remains constant throughout is the idea that, as Grant says, "the court is not a hermetically sealed space, divorced from the values and prejudices outside."  Setting each of these cases within its contemporary social, cultural and political contexts, it soon becomes clear that the "language of the courtroom is as much saturated in ideology as any other medium."   These words come directly from his coverage of the trial of Marguerite Fahmy, but they are appropriate in each and every case in this book -- as  times and cultural attitudes change, contemporary popular prejudices are also reflected in how the case plays out in court.   

The story of Marguerite Fahmy, as a matter of fact, is one of the best exemplars of this idea, and quite frankly, it makes for appalling reading.   In 1922, Marguerite Alibert married "Egyptian playboy" Ali Fahmy Bey in France, sealing the deal after converting to Islam and having an Islamic wedding in February 1923. It was a terrible marriage  in which Fahmy had expectations of "obedience" from his wife and she, "a hard-nosed adventuress" thought otherwise.  Violent quarrels between the two were commonplace as they traveled "around the finer cities of Europe."   On July 10 of that year, the couple were staying at London's Savoy hotel where at 2:30 in the morning a hotel porter coming out of the elevator and carrying luggage saw Fahmy Bey in the corridor, who demanded to see the night manager.  The porter, continuing on his way, heard three shots, turned back in time to see Marguerite throwing a gun to the floor. By 3:30, he was dead.  Marguerite was arrested for her husband's death, and what would seem to be an  open-and-shut case made its way to a trial that lasted for six days.  When it came time for the verdict, she was found not guilty.  How could this happen, one might ask, when she was caught dead to rights? It seems that her defense attorney had hit upon a defense that would not only acquit Marguerite but also cause "the whole of Court Number One" to break out into "thunderous stamping and applause" by conjuring in the mind's eye  "the abominations and cruelty of the Orient and the plight of a Western woman caught it in its maw."   The author calls her defense a "carefully constructed piece of rhetoric" drawing on "prevalent literary and cultural motifs" in which the "image of the Eastern man, cruel and sexually masterful," was the stuff of  "fiction and cinema of the time" that both fascinated and horrified. One need only turn to the "poisonously salacious"  story of Diana Mayo in E.M. Hull's The Sheik to understand why.  

As the author takes his readers through this century via the eleven cases tried in Court Number One, it is almost like having a front-row seat in the courtroom from which to watch every act of each drama unfold.  Murder, sex, "deviancy," espionage, prison escapes and more fill this book, as do serious miscarriages of justice.  I don't use the term "front-row seat" loosely here -- as the author also states, "the metaphor of the theatre is constantly employed in accounts of trials in the twentieth century," a theme that resonates throughout this book.   

Court Number One is likely not for a reader who wants just a quick look at these cases, because it takes time for the author to establish the current cultural/social/political scene, to examine past cases that reflect directly or indirectly on the ones under study here, and most importantly, to try to offer a window on  the changes from one period to another over the century that also had a bearing on the action in the courtroom.  In that sense, it does seem to meander a bit, but with purpose.  It is a job well done,  an extremely interesting and informative book that made for fascinating (and at times, spellbinding) reading.   

very, very highly recommended

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Onion Field, by Joseph Wambaugh


Quercus, 2007
originally published 1973
410 pp


The back-cover blurb of this book reads as follows:
"The Onion Field is the frighteningly true story of a fatal collision of destinies that would lead two young cops and two young robbers to a deserted field on the outskirts of Los Angeles, towards a bizarre execution and its terrible aftermath."
After having finished reading The Onion Field  last week I can say that this short and succinct paragraph doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what happens here.  While the book discusses the horrific killing of a policeman that took place on March 9, 1963, the real story here is that of the surviving officer, Karl Hettinger and the long ordeal he faced after the murder.  

The traffic stop made by LAPD officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger on the night of Saturday March 9, 1963 led to the death of Campbell as the two officers found themselves disarmed by a pair of thieves who were out to commit robbery.    The "official" reason for the stop was that the Ford's license plate lights were out, but the men in the car had already aroused their suspicions.  Campbell approached the car and opened the driver's door carrying only his flashlight;  he then asked the driver to get out of the car.   Greg Powell complied, but quickly disarmed Officer Campbell, while ordering his partner Jimmy Smith to take Hettinger's gun as well.  Campbell, who by now had a gun in his back, told Hettinger to give up his gun,  which he did.   The policemen were ordered into Powell's Ford coupe, with Powell ordering Campbell to drive and Hettinger forced onto the floor of the back.  Powell assured both men that they would be driven up the Ridge Route and let go on a side road so that they would have a "long walk back to the highway."  Indeed, about ninety miles from where they'd started, Powell ordered Campbell to turn off on a dirt road and to stop the car; both officers were told to get out.  Within minutes Campbell is dead and Hettinger is running for his life.  He makes it to safety, but as Wambaugh so clearly shows here, he will never escape the onion field. 

from Ali Express

After Campbell's death and the arrest of the killers, it doesn't take too long  until Hettinger's actions that night are being second guessed, with the first comments coming from a former roommate of Hettinger's and fellow cop who told his friends that 
"You can always do something. I just don't see giving up your gun to some crook under any circumstances. And even after that you can do something. Karl should've..."
and then things get worse.  As a "young red-faced vice cop at Wilshire Station" who had been on the job for less than three years (whom I'm guessing is Wambaugh himself, as he started his police career in 1960) had learned during his time there, 
"Policemen thoroughly believed that no man-caused calamity happens by chance, that there is always a step that should have been taken, would have been taken, if the sufferer had been alert, cautious, brave, aggressive -- in short, if he'd been like a prototype policeman." 

In reading "prototype policeman," think tough guy.  An order in memo form was then circulated throughout the LAPD that basically labeled Hettinger and Campbell  as "cowards no matter how you slice it."  Written by an Inspector Powers ("a cop's cop") on "Officer Survival," it instructed officers that "Surrender is never a guarantee for anyone."  Prior to reading it at a roll call, the station captain added his two cents' worth, saying that 

"Anybody that gives up his gun to some punk is nothing but a coward."
Although there had been other recent instances of policemen being disarmed, no harm had come to any of them and it is likely that neither Campbell nor Hettinger expected anything different in their experience.  And while some of the men didn't necessarily agree with its contents or its bottom-line message, the memo "was given the chief's blessing," and thus  became part of the LAPD's manual.  As Wambaugh states, 
"Both the dead man and the survivor were implicitly tried by police edict and found wanting. There had to be blame placed."

Hettinger himself believed that "almost all policemen were critical of his behavior that night."  Now I get that what we know now as PTSD wasn't a term yet invented or even defined in 1963, but when he is forced to resign after being caught for shoplifting, one might have thought that someone would have connected the dots and viewed Hettinger's acts as a cry for help, but that didn't happen.  Hettinger himself wasn't fully aware of why he did this or why he was plagued with nightmares and other symptoms.  

Things slid further downhill for Hettinger during the trial, since he had expected to tell his story once and then get back to his life, without having to live through it again. That wouldn't be the case --  Wambaugh, who read through thousands of transcript pages,  carefully goes through what happened in the courtroom to reveal how this trial was prolonged for nearly seven years after a retrial, a number of appeals, and a defense attorney who seemed to delight in causing trouble and shakeups.  

If you're expecting your standard true crime book, look elsewhere.  Not only does the author do an excellent job of portraying Hettinger's ongoing suffering in the wake of Campbell's murder,  but he is in no hurry to get right to the killing, periodically cutting away from the night of March 9, 1963 to examine the lives of all four of the main people involved as he takes his readers right up to the point of intersection when everything went so wrong.  The Onion Field is well written with a depth so rarely seen in true crime reporting; it is intelligent, suspenseful, and above all compassionate, all making for an excellent read.  It's a book I put down only to sleep. 

Oh - and don't miss the film! It doesn't quite capture the immense depth of the book, but it comes very  close. 

very highly recommended 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America's Hurricanes, by Eric Jay Dolin

Liveright Publishing/WW Norton, 2020
392 pp


As someone living in South Florida, about a third of a mile as the crow flies from the coast,  reading this book during a very active hurricane season may not have been the brightest idea in terms of mental health.  I needn't have worried: it was so well done that I found myself completely engrossed almost immediately.    As it turns out, all is not doom and gloom here -- as the dustjacket blurb reveals,  it is a melding of
"American history, as it is usually told, with the history of hurricanes, showing how these tempests frequently helped determine the nation's course." 
 From the beginning, the author acknowledges that in writing the "history of the American hurricane," this book must be "selective," given that there have been  quite possibly "more than a thousand" of them over the past five hundred years. Among the individual hurricanes discussed throughout the book,  found here also is a history of meteorology,  which Dolin notes is "intriguing, and at times rather nasty,"  the "influence of hurricanes on the course of empire, the outcomes of war," "critical innovations in communication, aviation, computer, and satellite technology," and he examines how
"the history of American hurricanes forces us to confront thorny questions of how we can learn to survive and adapt to the continued barrage that is sure to come from the greatest storms on Earth."
Beginning with Columbus, the author moves forward through time as he highlights various storms that had some sort of historical impact, for example two which played a "critical role" in the early colonial history of Florida, one of which kept the French from conquering the Spanish.  The 1609 storm that affected  the people of Jamestown also "left its mark on literary history" as Shakespeare's inspiration for The Tempest.  The Treasure Fleet Hurricane off the coast of Florida hit in 1715, sinking an entire fleet of ships carrying "jewels, coins, ingots, and "exotic goods" and ramped up piracy in the Atlantic.   Moving into the 20th century,  the author highlights the  1900 Galveston Hurricane that not only  killed thousands of people but also remains the "deadliest natural disaster in American history."  There's an entire chapter on "Death and Destruction in the Sunshine State," beginning with the 1926 hurricane that "battered Miami," and then the book moves on to more recent hurricanes including Hugo, Camille, Andrew and Sandy through Harvey, Irma and Maria.  As he is discussing these storms, the author adds in the technological advances over time in the areas of forecasting, weather science, and discusses the pioneering efforts of those who put themselves potentially in harm's way, for example, those people who were brave enough to fly into the eye of the hurricane itself.   Most importantly, Dolin reveals that throughout our history with hurricanes, it's not been just a matter of stories about "death, destruction, and despair," but also "charity, kindness, humor, and resilience."

 A Furious Sky is one of the most compelling and seriously educational nonfiction books of my reading year so far, combining history, personal accounts, the science of meteorology, the growth of forecasting/prediction technologies, politics, and a look at the very real hazards of climate change, which has the potential to bring ever more powerful storms into our lives.   It's tough to do a broad history like this one, but Mr. Dolin's done a fine job here and the book makes for  great reading even for people like me who aren't particularly gifted in the realm of science.  Very highly recommended.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic, by Eric Eyre

Scribner, 2020
293 pp


Even after being diagnosed and beginning treatment for Parkinson's in the midst of it all, the author of Death in Mud Lick, Eric Eyre, stuck to his guiding principle of "sustained outrage" as he continued to investigate and to report on the flooding of opioids into West Virginia, ultimately winning a Pulitzer in 2017 for his hard work. The word dogged doesn't even begin to describe his determination to get to the truth.   At the same time, this is not just another book on the opioid epidemic -- here we are provided with an intense scrutiny of what goes on behind the scenes of a number agencies which are supposed to be regulating the flow of these powerful drugs to safeguard the population. What happens here is real, it is not at all pretty, and if you had to choose only one book on the topic, this would be the one.

Five years before his death, William "Bull" Preece fell off of a ladder while working at the Penn Coal Mine in West Virginia.  The resulting back injury led to a prescription for pain pills; when that prescription ran out, he would find doctors who would give him more OxyContin and Lortab, and two years after his accident, his older sister Debbie realized that he was addicted.  While she tried to help him, including getting him into rehab, and while he tried to help himself at a methadone clinic, the pull of the pills was just too much.  Eventually he died of an overdose in 2005.  Debbie was left with several empty prescription bottles with their labels still intact:
"ninety Valium; sixty oxycodone; ninety OxyContin, an extended-release form of oxycodone, and thirty Zestril tablets."
When Bull died, his autopsy revealed that he had "five times the lethal limit" for oxycodone in his blood, and the case was closed after his death was ruled an accident.  For Debbie, however, someone had to pay.  She hired attorney  Jim Cagle, and by the summer of 2007 they filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a doctor who had written Bull's prescriptions, and also against the local pharmacy that filled them.  Had this been the entire story, it would have been interesting enough, but this is just the jumping-off point for what follows.  As it turns out, Debbie Preece, who had had her own previous trouble with the law, and her attorney had missed an important part of the opioid epidemic, the distributors who were responsible for the flow of the drugs into the area.

Enter reporter Eric Eyre, who covered the state government, who had heard newly-elected state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey  (the "first Republican attorney general in West Virginia since 1933")  was about to kill off a lawsuit "on behalf of the citizens of West Virginia" that his predecessor had filed against "Cardinal Health, Amerisource-Bergan, and a dozen other prescription drug distributors" responsible for flooding the area with an overabundance of opioids.   Eyre was also "tipped off" that Denise Henry Morrisey, the wife of the the new AG, had served as lobbyist for Cardinal Health since 2002.  Making things even more interesting,  Patrick Morrisey had himself been a lobbyist for "two trade groups" that represented Cardinal and a couple of other distributors. Regarding the lawsuit, it seems that Morrisey did not want the two attorneys the former state AG had appointed to prosecute the case, preferring to have his own attorneys instead.  One of these attorneys just happened to be Jim Cagle, the same lawyer who had earlier worked on Debbie Preece's behalf.

Death in Mud Lick puts an eagle-eyed focus on Eyre's efforts to gain information from not only the huge and powerful drug distribution firms, but also from various government officials and government agencies, and reveals how Morrisey in turn set out to "derail" Eyre's investigation.  Just reading this book frustrated me to no end -- not because it is bad (because it is most certainly not), but because, as Eyre writes in the preface,
"As the addiction crisis spread across the country, some health advocates sounded the alarm, but industry lobbyists snuffed out policymakers' efforts to stop the scourge. They found politicians willing to do their bidding.  The regulators -- the DEA, the pharmacy board -- failed to do their jobs. Pablo Escobar and El Chapo couldn't have set things up any better." 
  I am a natural cynic and even I was shocked at what goes on behind the scenes to protect not the citizens of this nation but rather the ultra-lucrative pharmaceuticals industry.  I am a huge believer in the power of investigative journalism done the right way, and I have to say that Death in Mud Lick is one of the best books I've read on this subject.  After what he went through during the course of his investigations, Mr. Eyre deserves all accolades this book may receive.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, by Jerry Mitchell

"Those guys got away with murder...It's not too late."

Simon & Schuster, 2020
418 pp


It's January, 1989 in Jackson Mississippi, and reporter Jerry Mitchell was on assignment for his newspaper The Clarion-Ledger to cover the state premier of  the film Mississippi Burning.  He normally had the "court beat," so this was something different for him.  Mitchell found himself seated next to someone who seemed to know a lot about what was and wasn't true about the film, based on the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.  As it happened, that man turned out to be retired special agent Roy K. Moore, who had been in charge of the FBI in Mississippi at the time.  Later, when the rest of the press had gone, Mitchell stayed behind to listen to Moore talk to two other men, another FBI agent and a journalist who had covered the events at the time.  During that conversation he learned that nobody had ever been prosecuted for the murders of the three men, even though "more than twenty Klansmen' were responsible.  Mitchell wondered how it was possible that twenty people, their identities known by locals who'd never turned them in, could get away with murder.   Why hadn't the state of Mississippi done anything about it?  From further conversations with Moore, Mitchell learned that although one killer eventually talked and had given the FBI what it needed for prosecution, the governor of the state "couldn't" do so, "essentially refusing to uphold its own murder laws."

As Mitchell began to research this case he came to learn about the connections between the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which "worked with and even helped fund the white Citizens' Councils" to help fight desegregation in the state, and  the murders of the three activists.  He'd hoped that by bringing certain facts to light he would "spark"  the Attorney General to "pursue new  charges in the case," but it was not to be and the case remained cold.   Feeling like he'd failed, his colleagues reminded him that they had been able to help
"ferret out unreported details about a twenty-five-year-old murder case that many powerful figures had wanted to keep sealed."
That was at least "something."   He  continued to read about other civil-rights "cold cases," and eventually his research  would lead him to into the murder of Medgar Evers, the firebombing of the home and store of Vernon Dahmer Sr. which led to his death,  and the September 1963 bombing of the  Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls -- Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.    All of these crimes were the work of members of the KKK; none of those responsible had ever been punished.  The main issue facing Mitchell was that time was not on his side: witnesses and suspects were dying off.  In a "race against time," Mitchell was determined to bring the details of these crimes into the light through his investigations, hoping that his work might be a driving force into not only getting these old cases reopened, but also that people like Byron de la Beckwith, Sam Bowers, and Bobby Cherry (the KKK members responsible) would finally be brought to justice for their crimes.   Yet, what continued to "gnaw" at him after these successes was the "Mississippi Burning" murders that by 1998, still had not been "reckoned with."  Undaunted, and even as the "pool of witnesses and evidence" decreased, Mitchell continued his efforts for justice in this particular case, determined to bring Edgar Ray Killen, "the moving force" behind these murders, to trial.

The book is divided into five parts, each section under the names of the victims of these horrific crimes, beginning and ending with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.  It is his contention that the "Mississippi Burning" murders were not only the "result of a months-long battle plan," but also that the head of the Mississippi branch of the KKK (the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan), Sam Bowers, meant to send a message
"not just to African-Americans and civil rights activists throughout the state but to the nation at large.  Bowers meant to tell all of America who held power in Mississippi, who called the shots, who could do as they pleased, and who needed to live in fear."
What was just as important, notes Mitchell, is the message of the "murderers' impunity."  As long as they were still in power, as long as they were still free and living among the public, the message would continue to be heard and understood not just in Mississippi, but throughout the entire nation as well.  In each and every case presented here, he offers clear proof of how these people managed to maintain this impunity and escape prosecution;  what I discovered here chilled me not only down to my bones, but to my very soul.  Quite honestly, I was so stunned by what came to light here that right after I'd finished, I could not move for the longest time, just sitting here staring into space and trying to digest what I'd just read. 

While he notes other cases he'd worked on but could not solve, saying that he felt that he'd failed more often than succeeded, I say that he should be beyond proud of what he's accomplished; in bringing out the truth behind these four crimes, he also paved the way for bringing about a long-overdue measure of justice.    He had been told a number of times just to "let the past be," but he has long believed that "Truth rules, while hate thrives on obfuscation, murkiness and fear."   It is important, he says, to know and to remember the truth of what came before in the "past waves of white supremacy" so that we are able to act now and in the future. 

With notes, bibliography, index, etc., the page count runs to just over four hundred pages, but I was so completely engrossed in what I was reading here that the hours just flew by.  I do think it would have helped to have included photos along with text,  but I sat with tablet in hand when I wanted to match names with faces, or to reacquaint myself with the four cases discussed here. And although this rarely happens, I happen to agree with the dustjacket blurber who says that Race Against Time is a "landmark book" and "essential reading for all Americans," adding only that it should be read especially by anyone with even a passing interest in civil rights both past and present.  It's one I'll never, ever forget.

My thoughts are from a reader's perspective; here are a couple of real reviews of this book:

from David J. Garrow, at the Washington Post
from Dean Jobb at The Southern Review of Books

Friday, May 15, 2020

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard

Anchor Books, 2006
416 pp


The River of Doubt begins with Theodore Roosevelt hovering between life and death "deep in the Brazilian rain forest."  It was apparently not quite his time though, as he would go on to finish out his journey through an uncharted tributary of the Amazon, not entirely unscathed but living to tell the tale.  It is a harrowing story of an expedition in which whatever could go wrong did go wrong.  At the same time the author offers a look at the often-unforgiving natural world surrounding these men; she also examines what it was about these particular men that got them through the dangers they faced on their nearly one-thousand mile journey. 

Suffering from a "bruised spirit" after a landslide defeat in his bid for president in 1913, Theodore Roosevelt decided to accept an offer from the Museo Social in Buenos Aires to be a guest lecturer.  He was offered a rather large sum of money for three engagements, but beyond the fees, the trip would allow him the opportunity to see his son Kermit who was working in Brazil.  Roosevelt also had a "passion" for natural history and science, and wondered if perhaps he might be able to somehow "indulge" that passion while in South America. Turning to a friend who just happened to be the president of the American Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt was offered "full support," and was eventually put together with old friend Father John Augustine Zahm, who was at that time planning his own expedition to the Amazon.   Roosevelt was, of course, delighted and at this stage of the game anticipated "a 'delightful holiday' that would provide 'just the right amount of adventure.' " 

The plan was that the expedition would travel north from Buenos Aires by boat along "well-known navigable rivers to the Amazon."  From there the group would go up the Rio Negro and down the Orinoco before crossing Venuezula to the Atlantic.  Plans changed, however, when Brazil's minister of foreign affairs suggested to Roosevelt that perhaps he would prefer to take a trip "down an unknown river" with Colonel Cândido Rondon, who had earlier discovered and named the Rio da Duvida, but knew very little about either its "course or character."  Rondon would use the opportunity to do a survey of this uncharted territory; it would be more dangerous than the route planned by Zahm for sure, but it was just the challenge that Roosevelt "had been yearning for."   Little did anyone know exactly what was in store for them once they set off on this journey that would ultimately leave Roosevelt at death's doorway.

Millard has done a fine job here, using a number of primary sources which include the journals of other expedition members to give a more rounded view of not only events but of the Amazon itself.  Her writing about the flora, fauna, and people indigenous to the area become integral to the story of the expedition as the group moves further into uncharted territory.  She also realizes that this is not solely Teddy Roosevelt's story; indeed it is probable that no one would have survived had it not been for Colonel Rondon.  Throughout his many years of working in the Brazilian wilderness, Rondon had become a devoted and dedicated advocate for the country's indigenous people; Millard notes that even when attacked by them, Rondon's men had orders to never retaliate.   Rondon left gifts for them instead, and although his peaceful tactics toward the Cinta Larga people was an issue of debate between Roosevelt and the Colonel, it seems that it worked, as the expedition, which could have been decimated "by consensus" of the tribe, was allowed to continue on down the river.

Roosevent and Rondon; photo from the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Dickinson State University

While the book is informative,  the way Candice Millard wrote it also offers readers a suspenseful narrative as to how they survived, as the back-cover blurb reveals,
"an unbelievable series of hardships, losing their canoes and supplies to punishing whitewater rapids, and enduring starvation, Indian attack, disease, drowning, and a murder within their own ranks." 
I am focused on people in whatever I read, and here, when it comes right down to it,  the question becomes this: when at a point of no return where things are at their worst, what is it within people that allows them to carry on?  In that sense, The River of Doubt is not just about the physical journey made by these men, but a sort of journey of self-discovery as well. 

At times a true white knuckler, The River of Doubt makes for compelling, page-turning reading. And don't miss the PBS American Experience episode "Into the Amazon" which brings this book and this expedition to life. I am a huge fan of Amazon exploration narratives, and this one is definitely high on my list of good ones. 

very much recommended

Sunday, April 19, 2020

La séquestrée de Poitiers, by André Gide

Gallimard, 1977
138 pp


A few weeks back the name Blanche Monnier cropped up during an online discussion, reminding me that I had a book about her case  on my foreign language shelves.  Oho, I said to no one, reading this book might be a great way to pull my brain away from coronavirus stress.  First of all, it's in French so it's different from my general reading fare,  and then, of course, Monnier's story is so bizarre that I figured it would hold my interest for the duration.   It did. 

I first came across Gide's interest in both the Monnier case and that of Marcel Redureau (also included in this volume) a while back while reading Sara Maza's excellent Violette Noziere: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris (University of California Press, 2011), so I picked up this little book, but by the time it arrived I had likely already moved on to something else and so the poor thing sat gathering dust until the recent above-mentioned conversation.   Reading it now, I'd only made it through the first few pages and I was glued.   As someone who reads mainly to try to understand what Gide calls the "unexplored regions on the map of the human soul, the terrae incognitae," and reads historical crime to see what it says about various facets of contemporary society,  I found both cases covered in  La Séquestrée de Poitiers to be utterly fascinating, and I can certainly recommend it to others with the same mindset.

 Based on a multitude of documents on the case which Gide studied, the book begins with the story of Blanche Monnier, although here the family name has been changed to Bastian and Blanche's to Mélanie, who was found living in horrific conditions after twenty-five years of confinement in her mother's home.  The case made for sensational headlines since the "respectable" Monnier family had been held in high esteem for many, many years.   I will refer to her as Mélanie since it is written as such here, but think Blanche.  On receiving an anonymous letter that "a spinster" is "locked up" in the home of Madame Bastian, "half-starved ... for the past twenty-five years -- in a word, in her own filth," the attorney general of Poitiers ordered the Commissaire of police to go the address on rue de la Visitation to investigate.  It seems that the story told in the letter was true;  Mélanie was removed from the home and taken to the hospital, while her mother and her brother were arrested. While I won't go into any detail (if you wish to read about it, you can find one version here) the point of Gide's examination of this case was this:  how was it that this "monstrous-seeming case" which led to "public outrage," one  "... in which Madame Bastian and her son appeared clearly guilty from the start," could end "with the accused being acquitted?"  It's actually in combing through what these documents reveal about life and society in this provincial town that the real answers are discovered.

from All That's Interesting

Next up is the case of Marcel Redureau, a fifteen year-old boy who in 1913 seemingly for no reason went to work one day and killed his employer's entire family and their servant,  leaving only a small boy behind. Seven people lay dead in a most gruesome fashion, and Redureau was arrested and confessed that it was a particular remark made by his employer that had set him off. While the crime is particularly heinous, Gide's focus here is on the prosecution and the trial of this boy, which I won't go into, but which led him to question the "current psychological expertise" which "doesn't allow us to understand everything."  And then of course, there's the jury, which clearly failed in its duty ...

 Thom Nickel states in his 2016 article at The Spirit of The Riverwards that Gide, who had a "fascination and even obsession with crime and punishment,"  could see "facts that judges and jurors overlooked."  He goes on to state that "Gide recorded his impressions and analyses of judicial cases while serving as a juror," writing about them in depth,
"examining both the facts of the case and the background of the accused in a way that dovetailed with his lifelong rejection of traditional morality." 
 which is beyond evident throughout this little book.  Don't get hung up on the somewhat sordid details ... it is well worth reading for Gide's understanding of what's actually happening in these two cases.


 Note: To those people who had asked me if there was an English translation and to whom I said no, I didn't realize it at the time, but these two cases are part of a larger work I just bought today called Judge Not(originally published in 1930) translated by Benjamin Ivry.