Monday, August 19, 2019

The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom

9780802125088
Grove Press, 2019
376 pp

hardcover

"We are all born into histories, existing before us. The same is true of places. No place is without history."



Toward the end of this book, author Sarah Broom reveals that for the first time in five years, while visiting relatives, she had dreamed about  the Yellow House  before a trip to New Orleans.  On waking,  she wrote in a notebook the following question:
"How to resurrect a house with words?"
which is precisely what she does in this stunning, deeply personal, and unforgettable memoir.

She begins her story
"From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a miniscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana's boot"
then moves closer to ground level to the neighborhood of New Orleans East.  The mention of this area where the author grew up is "rare and spare, afterthoughts" in the "twelve of thirteen history-telling books about New Orleans" she has stacked up; she also mentions an Avis Rent a Car map that cuts off New Orleans East, "a point beyond, a blank space on someone's mental map," although this area is "fifty times the size of the French Quarter, one-fourth of the city's developed surface."  It is also a part of New Orleans which doesn't find its way into the city's mythology; it's not that it  is "too young for history," but sadly, has been
"relegated to the sidelines, deemed not to matter as much, the place not having earned -- through demographics or economic success -- a spot on the cartographer's nearsighted map..."
It is also an area that reflects ongoing inequalities faced by African-Americans since before the author's childhood, but above all, it is someone's home. People lived and live there.

 Moving on, we are given a tour of the area as if the author is giving directions for driving there, a tour which hints at events involving her family at various locations along the way, slowly coming to Wilson Avenue until "finally arriving at what used to be our Yellow House," bought by the author's mother Ivory Mae in 1961 at the young age of nineteen and where thirteen children spent parts of their childhood.   It is there where the author's brother Carl often sits at a table at the spot where the living room of  4121 Wilson Avenue used to be, "where instead of floor there is green grass trying to grow."  This perfect beginning is beyond appropriate for many reasons which will become apparent while reading but more so because, as the author says in an interview on NPR,
"this is so important for me that I be able to act as a kind of cartographer and include my family on the map of a place that we love so much and also belong to" 
 an idea pointed to at the outset by her use of two different quotations, including part of Kei Miller's poem "The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion:"

"draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?"

It was in the Yellow House, which no longer exists,  "within its walls" that her mother "made her world."  And although it is no longer there, it has not been erased;  as the dustjacket blurb reveals, Sarah Broom demonstrates
"how the enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure."
I find it appropriate that she unfolds these stories in "movements," since there is nothing at all static in the lives of these people (or for that matter, the street, the neighborhood or the city itself)  -- it is a story of people coming and going, absences, returns, displacements and dislocations, especially after 2005 and Hurricane Katrina.

The Yellow House is a beautiful, intricately-woven, often metaphorical book that allows the author to place her readers not  just inside  the house itself, but also moving outward,  inside the history of the family who lived there, the street, the neighborhood, and the city, about which the author has "braided, contradictory ideas."   It also moves inward, exploring her own connections to each, often from a distance.

Speaking of absences, and again quoting the author from the above-mentioned NPR interview, she says that
"it occurred to me that unless you knew a house had been there, you would never know. And I made this book in a way to stand in for that absence, to be a record, a history, so that some things might be saved.
While Carl keeps up the plot of land at 4121 Wilson Avenue to avoid it being taken away after the house had been demolished, "for any and for no reason, American History 101,"  he is also there  as "the keeper of the memory,"  knowing that he "could not put the house back together again," but still keeping watch, "letting the space transform and be the place it always was."

While I haven't even begun to scratch its surface here, I can't begin to say how much I loved this book; it is poignant, eye opening, and often funny, but above all,  so very down to earth and real, as it is told not only from the heart, but from the author's journalistic, investigative interviews with people within her own family.

 I have to say thank you to Sarah Broom for going against her "leanings" and bringing me to the Yellow House.  I have never read anything like this before, and I doubt I ever will again.  To say I loved it is an understatement.


**********

Since I'm just a reader, neither a critic nor reviewer, here are a few reviews from people who know what they're doing:

The New York Times - Angela Flournoy
NPR - Martha Anne Toll
The AV Club  - Joshunda Sanders


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and The Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep

9781101947869
Knopf, 2019
311 pp
hardcover


On Saturday June 18, 1977, The Reverend Willie Maxwell and his wife Ophelia  were in the House of Hutchinson Funeral Home in Alexander City, Alabama, to mourn the death of Ophelia's sixteen year-old daughter Shirley Ann Ellington.  Shirley had left home one evening, and the next time she was seen was on Highway 9 not even a mile from home, but Shirley wouldn't be coming back. She had ostensibly stopped to change a flat tire, only to have the rim come loose and slip from under the jack; as a result, the car fell down with its full weight on top of her.  But hold on a moment.  Her hands were clean, the car's lug nuts were underneath instead of beside it, and the tire that she'd taken off wasn't even flat.  The rumor mill and the whispers started up immediately -- everyone in the county had an idea about  who had set up this scene and who was responsible for Shirley's death.  At the funeral, her grieving sister Louvinia noticed that Shirley's stepfather had "no tears or nothing in his eyes," and with a raised voice yelled out "You killed my sister and now you gonna pay for it!"  At that precise moment, someone fired three rounds into Maxwell's head, killing him almost immediately.   The shooter surrendered, confessed on the way to the station, leaving the question of whether he was a "hero or a cold-blooded murderer," the answer depending on, as the author notes,  whom you asked.  (By the way, I've said nothing at all here that can be taken as a spoiler, since I haven't told you anything much beyond what the dustjacket blurb says.)

It was this case and the ensuing trial that captured the imagination of author Harper Lee, who had not written another book since her To Kill a Mockingbird had been published in 1960.  It was in New York in 1976  that she'd first met the defense attorney for Maxwell's killer; a year later he had written up and sent her a summary of "the strange life and shocking death of the Reverend Willie Maxwell," a case in which she discovered "the kernel of a true-crime book" that took her to Alabama.  The attorney, "Big" Tom Radney, was "thrilled" at her interest, and gave her all of his files on the victim which encompassed "hundreds of pages of material," a veritable "gold mine."  Lee was excited, ready to face the challenge of doing something new and different, and on another level, Alabama was home.  There was also the fact that she knew that Truman Capote had stretched the facts in his In Cold Blood -- as she noted to Capote's New Yorker fact-checker and her partner  in various letters, Capote had "long ago put fact out of business" and made her "despair of 'factual' accounts of anything" -- so she was more than ready to put together a truly genuine account of her own.  At a time when, as Tom Wolfe noted about the so-called "New Journalists" of the 1970s,  "nonfiction had eclipsed the novel and that it was "the most important literature being written in America today," Lee was committed to writing "the old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired," wondering whether or not she could stand on her own as successfully as the writers "trying to make nonfiction read more like fiction."   The truth is though that with  all of the resources available to her including Radney's files, newspaper clippings, interviews, court transcripts, a background in criminal law, no set deadline and above all encouragement, only four pages were ever passed on and the book, which she had tentatively called The Reverend, never got written.  In Furious Hours, the author tries to piece together why.

This book, among other things which I won't mention here, examines the events, legal and otherwise,  that inspired Lee back in the late 1970s to write again; to get to the heart of the case that caught her attention the author goes back in time to give us a glimpse at why the question  arose as to whether Maxwell's killer was a hero or a cold-blooded murderer.  To do this, Cep had to take a look at the Reverend himself and the people in his community who knew him, or at least knew of him; his reputation was larger than the man himself, for many reasons.   She then goes onto the trial with Tom Radney and how he handled the killer's defense,  and I have to say that all of that is quite interesting --  while not a lot of suspense happens in the unfurling of that tale, it still had the power to definitely keep me engrossed, largely because of Maxwell himself, and  I can totally understand why Harper Lee would have entitled her book  The Reverend.   The biggest issue I have with this book is that it isn't until page 150 that she finally gets to Harper Lee herself, and by that time, not counting the acknowledgments, notes, and bibliography, we're down to the last 126 pages of text.


the author in 1957, from Minnesota Public Radio

These last 126 pages, however,  are well worth the reading, especially for anyone not familiar with Lee except through her work and occasional bits of biography here and there,  meaning people like me.   In essence it's a biographical section  that takes us through Lee's life up to the time of her decision to write her book in the 1970s; it continues on through Lee's time on the project while working on it and not, and then comes down to her later years and her death, and then finally gets into the issue of whether or not she actually finished it.  As she relates the information here, Cep also  tries to discover what might have been the reasons behind Lee's giving up the project, but really, I think one of the issues is that Lee seems to have been so much inside herself with her own demons that trying to fathom her as a whole is just plain not doable. I will say though that I was impressed with the author's attempts, as well as her willingness to take on a woman who seems to have been far more enigmatic than can be easily conveyed on the page. As an aside, I'm also  impressed with the way she handled the whole Go Set a Watchman issue (a book I did NOT like and in so saying gained the derision of many of my reading peers) without actually offering an opinion on it, instead just relating facts around the book both in its early years and then later after it had been "discovered."

Speaking as just an ordinary reader person,  I think one of the problems other readers have had with this book (and one I completely understand)  is that somewhere along the line it's been labeled as "true crime" (and I'm just as guilty, tagging it this way but I couldn't come up with the right phrase), so when Lee finally steps in to the story, there's a bit of a disconnect somewhere. Had the book actually started with Harper Lee having met Radney, which sparked her interest in the story, then continued on as it began here with the look back at events leading up to why Maxwell was killed and what happened afterwards before circling back to Lee, things would have been a bit more straightforward and would have had more of a flow, and readers wouldn't be commenting about it seeming like two books, which it sort of does. However, after giving it a lot of thought since finishing, I'm thinking that beginning her book as the author did here, perhaps we're getting the factual story that Lee might have told had she actually finished her book, but it's a bit of a cart-before-the-horses approach that Cep has taken here, which can be confusing.  It's an issue that's hard to ignore, along with sections of text filled with what I felt were extraneous information that didn't make a difference to how the narrative progressed and could have easily been left out. On the other hand, to be very fair, anyone who reads the Prologue will clearly see that Cep lays out exactly what you're going to be reading and the order in which things are going to be happening, with Lee coming in at the last, so just beware.

Having said all of that, though, despite the confusion, I was blown away by the fact that this was Cep's first book, and I found the story to be engrossing, intriguing, a bit sad and quite satisfying.  It's a book I would certainly recommend to anyone at all interested in Harper Lee, racial politics in the American deep south, and in (for lack of a better phrase that I still can't think of) true crime. 




Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story, by Cara Robertson

9781501168376
Simon and Schuster, 2019
375 pp
hardcover

While I was reading this book, I wanted to share something in it with my darling spouse, who shares his work stuff with me (most of it I don't understand but because I want him to think that I care,  I nod and pretend like I do).  Before I began to launch into what I was going to say, I stopped a moment and asked him "You do know who Lizzie Borden was, right?"   Imagine my surprise at discovering that he'd never heard of Lizzie Borden, one of the most recognizable names in American history, a woman whose case continues to fascinate to this day.  (As a pertinent aside, I sat him down and made him watch two  (non-sensational) documentaries about Borden so he's been schooled.)


In The Trial of Lizzie Borden, just so we're clear, the author does not endeavour to solve the mystery of who killed Abby and Andrew Borden, but rather to peel away the sort of mythical elements of this story and get down to realities of the crimes, the investigation,  the trial and its aftermath.   At the same time, in presenting her account, she also examines the social and cultural factors of this time period, as the dustjacket reveals, to offer "a window into America in the Gilded Age, showcasing its most deeply held convictions and the most troubling social anxieties."   By the time I turned the last page, it seemed to me that the trial and the media coverage turned less on guilt or innocence and more on whether or not someone in Lizzie's respectable position could have possibly done such a horrific thing.  As  her attorney would later say as part of his closing arguments,
"It is not impossible that a good person may go wrong ... but our human experience teaches us that if a daughter grows up in one of our homes to be 32 years old, educated in our schools, walking in our streets, associating with the best people and devoted to the service of God and man ... it is not within human experience to find her suddenly come out into the rankest and baldest murderess." 

  Robertson's book plays out the story of the case in three parts.  First, in looking at the facts of the murders themselves, she doesn't open this account with the gruesome events, but rather Lizzie's attempt to buy prussic acid at a local Fall River Massachusetts drug store.  Lizzie wanted the acid supposedly "to put on the edge of a sealskin cape,"  but the author brings in a later article from the New Bedford Evening Standard as reporting that
"If a person wished to kill and avoid detection, and that person were wise, hydrocyanic acid would be the first choice among all deadly drugs."

Prussic acid is, as she reminds us, a "diluted form of hydrocyanic acid."  Immediately  we're wondering exactly why  Lizzie Borden is  trying to buy it -- was she really interested in her cape or was there some other use she may have had in mind?   From there we're taken directly into the Borden household, a place rife with tensions that had prompted locks for every door, Lizzie's resentment of her father's "determined economies" that among other things, kept the family from living on "The Hill" with the rest of the Fall River elite and put his daughters in "virtual social quarantine.  And then, of course, there is the daughters' attitudes toward their stepmother Abby, which had gone  from "chilly tolerance to open animosity" some five years earlier, resulting in the daughters' refusal to eat with their parents and to even speak with Abby "except  in response to a direct question."  Just before she launches into the murders, the investigation and the inquest,  Robertson reminds us of an incident involving two possible food poisoning attempts in the Borden home.

  
Part two is the longest and most detailed of the three, covering the trial.  It is, in my opinion, the best and most interesting part of the book, because not only do we get a look at the actual court proceedings, in which we come to realize exactly what a circumstantial case it actually was, but even  more fascinating to me was Ms. Robertson's presentation of the press coverage of the time.  Journalists not only sat in court each day to record the events of the trial and Lizzie herself as she sat in the dock, but went on to provide speculation and opinion  to its readers,  in some cases making it very clear which side they were taking, rather than offering a more objective stance. Biased media? You bet.

Part three examines the verdict and Lizzie's life after the trial and gets into the "Enduring Enigma" and "popular fascination with the Borden mystery," which combines the "enduring force of myth and the more prosaic intellectual challenge of a detective story, it is a 'locked room' mystery written by Sophocles."     She goes on to say, in getting to the heart of her argument here, that
"Even as the murders themselves seemed summoned from a mythic reservoir of human darkness, the trial of the alleged perpetrator occurred in a specific time and place: America in the Gilded Age, its most deeply held convictions and its most troubling anxieties inscribed in every moment of the legal process.  Lizzie Borden was a devout young woman 'of good family' -- a lady -- and an accused axe-wielding patricide. It should not have been possible."
According to the "science" of the day,  no one would have been surprised had the murderer turned out to be either someone whose "criminality" would have shown in features marking their ethnicity or class.  It might have also been less sensational and more acceptable had the perpetrator turned out have been some strange man who just happened to be on hand to commit these terrible murders.  But a woman of Lizzie's station hacking her parents to death so brutally seems to have been a scenario that would have,  when all was said and done, constituted some sort of threat to the existing order of Fall River in that particular place at that particular time.

 The Trial of Lizzie Borden  is a book well worth reading for anyone who may have an interest in this case.  Aside from placing the case within its particular social/historical context,  the author seems to adhere closely to fact, doesn't go off on any tangents or theories that weren't expressed at the time, and keeps the narrative interesting enough for rapid page turning.    I'm also utterly impressed at the scope of her research.  I have read enough reader reviews to know that not everyone agrees with me, but aside from the weird word choice of "mansplaining," I have nothing to complain about.  Very nicely done.

I still think she did it.








Saturday, November 24, 2018

Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, by David C. Woodman


9780773545410
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015
(second edition)
390 pp

paperback

This is the second edition of this book, originally finished in 1988 and published in 1991.   In the preface to this second edition, the author notes that it "could not have come at a more appropriate time," citing the 2014 discovery of Franklin's HMS Erebus, a find that has "widely been seen as validation of oral history,"  in  "the area uniformly indicated by Inuit testimony." Woodman's book not only, as the back-cover blurb says, stands as a challenge to "standard interpretations and offered a new and compelling alternative" but as he states in the preface, questions "the prevalent dismissal of non-documentary sources."   His assumption throughout his research was that "all Inuit stories concerning white men should have a discoverable factual basis," even though many historians had often completely ignored these oral traditions
"because of the inherent difficulties of translation and analysis. When historians did consult the oral record, they often selectively used tales that supported their own preconceptions or the physical evidence, while ignoring the other tales as impossibly vague or unreliable."
It took ten years for Mr. Woodman to research his book and another five to put it all together, and what emerges are a number of accounts offered by a number of different witnesses, painstakingly and thoroughly examined by the author.   A very large part of the process involved sifting through recorded oral histories that were taken over a century earlier, which in itself seems to have been problematic, often because there were issues with the original interrogators, whose translations weren't always perfect and who had their own preconceived notions, often leading to misunderstandings.   The author had to read and correlate all of these accounts while also trying to sort out Inuit conceptions of time as well as place, no easy task given that in some cases, for example, place names used by one group of Inuits might be used by others to denote a different place altogether.  In the long run, however,  he was able to
"discover a scenario which allowed use of all of the native recollections, solved some troubling discrepancies in the physical evidence, and led to some significant new conclusions as to the fate of the beleaguered sailors."
It is important to realize that the author doesn't claim to have definitive answers here, since as he says, the Franklin mystery is a "puzzle without the prospect of complete solution," but he does point out in the preface that the 2014 discovery of the Erebus "validates the long-known Inuit traditions" that he explores so thoroughly in this book.

from "Inuit Tales of Terror: The location of Franklin's Missing Ship," by David C. Woodman
(note "Woodman's search area," the area where the Erebus was eventually discovered.) 

There is so much worthwhile happening in this book that I can't begin to cover it all.   As only one example, after the discovery of HMS Terror in 2016,  Mr. Jim Basillie, founder of the Arctic Research Foundation stated in a Guardian article that finding the missing Franklin ship "changes history," noting that
"it's almost certain that HMS Terror was operationally closed down by the remaining crew who then re-boarded HMS Erebus and sailed south where they met their ultimate tragic fate."
By examining different but amazingly consistent Inuit accounts, Mr. Woodman had come to  much the same conclusion in this book over twenty years earlier.  And while he was a bit off when it came to the location of the Terror in terms of the location of the Erebus he relied on clues given by the Inuit that put one of Franklin's ships somewhere near O'Reilly Island on the western side of the Adelaide Peninsula that ultimately proved correct -- including the fact that not only had it been visited by Inuit people while still intact, but he also discovered what would turn out to be an important revelation: the ship eventually sank in shallower waters where they could still see mast heads above the surface. 

While I'm just a very casual armchair explorer, it wouldn't surprise me if  Unravelling the Franklin Mystery might someday gain recognition as one of the most significant works about the expedition, not just for the author's theories but mainly because of its focus on illuminating the importance of Inuit oral tradition.   At the same time, it can be a difficult and most challenging book to read, since it often gets a bit confusing with threads of one story that are picked up in later chapters as he tries to connect dots between accounts, often causing me to have to go back and reread what was said earlier.  The other thing I wasn't in love with were the maps in this book.  I had several tablet windows open off and on while I read, each with a map so that I could follow the known progress of the expedition, the routes of previous polar expeditions,  more specific maps of both coasts of King William Island and then, of course, the western side of the Adelaide Peninsula where the author posited that one of the ships had finally come to rest.  Having said all that, I was immediately engrossed and I probably can't even look at another book about the Franklin Expedition for a while, because this one is so good.   Very highly recommended to anyone even remotely interested in the subject.

All I have left to say is that I'm completely in awe of the author's research skills and what he's done here;  I'll have to work very hard to find another one that can impress me as much as this book.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, by Michael du Preez & Jeremy Dronfield

9781780748313
Oneworld, 2016
479 pp

hardcover

"Were I not a girl, I would be a soldier!" 


In trying to make a dent in my hugely-oversized tbr pile, I picked up this book some time ago to read alongside Patricia Duncker's novel about James Miranda Barry, The Doctor (0060090413, Ecco, 1999),  which has probably been sitting there since it was published.    As I noted on my brief post-reading entry for this book at Goodreads, Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time  is probably one of the best biographies I've ever read, and trust me, I don't say that lightly.

The dustjacket blurb reveals that Dr. James Barry
"was many things in his life: Inspector General of Hospitals, army surgeon, duellist, reformer, ladykiller, eccentric.  He performed the first successful Caesarean in the British Empire, outraged the military establishment, and gave Florence Nightingale a dressing down at Scutari."
Barry had left Ireland and enrolled in medical school in Edinburgh in 1809, and in his last year of study nearly missed being able to take his final exams because he was believed to be "too young to take a degree."  By 1812, though, he had graduated as an MD.  It was then that "Dr. James Barry had been officially conjured into existence," which may seem an odd statement except for the fact that James Barry had started his life as Margaret Bulkley in 1789.

The book, however, opens with Barry's death in 1865 and the discovery of Barry's long-held secret.  It was  shortly afterward that "the sensational story flew around the Empire,
reaching the ears of people who'd known James Barry throughout his career and all the way back to his youth more than half a century earlier."
The question then arises not only as to how all of these people who'd known him could have missed the fact that Barry was  actually a woman, but also how he had managed to pull off this "audacious deception," but more importantly, as the authors ask,
"...if she wasn't 'James Barry' -- which she manifestly wasn't -- then who the devil was she?"
The two authors of this book then move back in time to answer this question, starting in Ireland with Margaret's childhood, moving on to the plan for Margaret to pose as a young man as a means to acquire an excellent education and then move on to university in Edinburgh for medical training.  The idea, it seems, was that after Margaret finished medical school as James Miranda Barry, she would travel as Margaret to practice medicine in Venezuela after General Don Francisco de Miranda had  liberated the country.  After Barry obtained his degree and "the coveted 'MD' after his name,"
"the time was coming for Margaret to cross the ocean and fight for revolution, putting aise the shell of James Barry, casting off the surtout, the cravat, the breeches and hat, the posture and imposture, Margaret Bulkley would emerge again, bringing her dresses out of storage, saved forever from the doom of drudgery as a governess or a man's possession. In the new revolutionary utopia of Venezuela, all that would matter would be her hard-won skills and knowledge."
According to the authors, the plan hit a snag when Miranda was arrested and sent back to Spain, where he would spend the rest of his life in prison.  Because of this turn of events,  Margaret was left with little choice regarding her future:
"Without her principal benefactor and the unique escape route he had offered, she had no choice but to remain in Britain, no more able to escape her male persona than Miranda could free himself from his Spanish gaol. Whatever the future held, Dr. James Barry was not yet done with, and the trunk of dresses and petticoats would remain shut."

James Miranda Barry from the website of the University of Edinburgh College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine


Her options as Margaret were rather few -- she might have become a governess or a  married with limited  freedom; instead she decided to continue as Dr. James Miranda Barry,  and the authors go on to document his long and distinguished Army career which began in 1813.  He was fortunate enough to have great connections which helped him through rough spots more than once; he was  compassionate toward his patients, and made a number of innovative reforms.  On the other hand, Barry also had a tendency to rub some important people the wrong way due to his temperament, most especially people who either got in his way or proved themselves to be quacks or ill qualified to be practicing medicine, garnering the  reputation as a "tyrant," with  an "irritable and impatient temper" which "brought him into constant collision with authority."   As the authors explore the course of his career which took him throughout the British Empire, they reveal that there were several people who likely knew or at least guessed at Barry's secret, and never revealed it.  Sometimes, "the general impression and general belief were that he was a hermaphrodite,"  but the few others who knew protected him, keeping their first-hand information to themselves.

Anyone considering reading this book ought to know that while each and every facet of this study has been meticulously researched, Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time is a compelling read that kept me turning pages.  Margaret Bulkley made a choice that allowed her to live life to its fullest, and while we get some hints that she may have missed her  identity as a woman at times (for example her trunk with the pictures of ladies' fashions on the lid), for Margaret and for James Miranda Barry it seemed to have been the right choice. 

An excellent and truly exquisite book, I would recommend this book to anyone.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Conan Doyle For the Defense, by Margalit Fox

9780399589454
Random House, 2018
319 pp

hardcover

On the night of December 21, 1908, 82 year-old Marion Gilchrist sent her maid, Helen Lambie, on an errand to pick up an evening paper.  When Lambie returned, a downstairs neighbor was waiting at the door of Miss Gilchrist's flat on West Princes Street, Glasgow, and told her about some "fearsome noises" he and his sisters had heard in the Gilchrist flat from their flat below.   Lambie had a likely explanation in the pulleys used for the clotheslines, but the neighbor decided to wait at the door anyway while Lambie went in. As she did so, a man came toward her from the flat's spare bedroom and walked past Lambie and the neighbor.  Lambie, going into the dining room, called for the neighbor to come in, and discovered Marion Gilchrist laying on the floor with "nearly every bone of her face and skull being smashed."  The neighbor ran to get the police while Lambie made her way to find Miss Gilchrist's niece.  By the time she went back to West Princes Street and the scene of the crime, a doctor had discovered a "heavy dining room chair" that was likely the murder weapon, since Miss Gilchrist's wounds matched the shape of the "spindle-shaped legs."  As the night went on, a few Glasgow police detectives came to the flat. Papers had been strewn all around in the spare bedroom, jewelry belonging to Miss Gilchrist seemed be present and accounted for, with the exception of a "crescent-shaped diamond brooch", valued at fifty pounds.  Also noted: there was no sign of forced entry, meaning that the woman who normally kept her doors soundly locked most likely let her killer into the flat.  A warning went out to the "Pawns" about the brooch, and four days later, a bicycle dealer revealed to the police that he knew a man who'd been trying to sell a pawn ticket for a brooch matching the description of the stolen one.  It wasn't long before detectives honed in on the man with the ticket, a certain Oscar Slater.



Oscar Slater, from Wikipedia


 The police became focused on this man, believing they had the right guy since, after all, he was already a man of interest -- he was reputed to be a pimp, a petty criminal, and they also discovered that Slater was on his way to America with his girlfriend.  He was picked up, arrested, held in New York City, but agreed to be extradited back to Scotland to prove that he was not guilty.  In the meantime,  the brooch that had been pawned turned out not to have been the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist;  the Glasgow police, however,  were certain that they had the right guy, and explored no other avenues, leaving out any other possible culprits and dismissing testimony from people who could have exonerated Slater.   The case, which came down to some pretty iffy eyewitness identification, went to trial; in May, 1909, Slater was found guilty and sentenced to death, with sentenced commuted to hard labor for life. The story might have ended there, but in 1912, Arthur Conan Doyle was asked to take a  look at the case, which he did using  the same sort of logical, rational approach he had imbued in his creation Sherlock Holmes  to go over the particulars of the Slater case in order to try to redress the huge miscarriage of justice that had occurred three years earlier and sent an innocent man to prison.

The questions at the heart of this story concern two main issues.  One, why was it that  the police, knowing that there was nothing but some pretty dubious eyewitness testimony to connect Slater with the Gilchrist murder, continued to pursue the case against him, and two,  given that factor,  how could the trial culminate in a guilty verdict that carried a death sentence?

Fox slowly takes us through the circumstances of Slater's case and its aftermath;  around these events she puts us squarely in a "watershed moment" in which these events occurred. As she notes, the case
"straddles the twilight of nineteenth-century gentility and the upheavals of twentieth-century modernity,"
a "Janus-headed era" which looked both forward and backward. It was a time in which police work moved along  two investigative  paths, both of which she notes, existed side by side:  a "nascent, rationalist twentieth-century  science that would come to be called criminalistics" -- a "scientific, rationalist" approach,  and  the "murky nineteenth-century pseudoscience known as criminology,"  based largely on work developed by Cesare Lombroso whose theories posited that criminality was inherited and that there were "born criminals" who could be identified on the basis of certain racial and ethnic "signifiers." That's just a quick version of his ideas; there were even worse parts of Lombroso's ideas that I won't go into here.  The Glasgow police evidently chose to not take their time and do a rational analysis of the case based on what they actually had in the way of evidence (which was pretty much nothing), but set against the backdrop of rising anti-Semitism and xenophobia, police, prosecutors, and even the judge  succeeded in making Slater, a German, a Jew, and a known petty criminal, and  "one of the most convenient 'convenient Others' of his age" into the perfect a murder suspect. To get a conviction, they all they engaged in some pretty dodgy practices involving "suborned perjury, withheld exculpatory evidence, and all the inflammatory  illogic that the criminological method allows."

Over the course of this narrative, among other things,  the author also seeks to reveal Oscar Slater as a human being rather than just an unwanted "Other."  She also examines Conan Doyle as a crusader, an "emblematic avatar" of the "long nineteenth century," which as the author says, ran beyond the century mark up to the outbreak of the first world war.

  The inside dustjacket blurb of this book tells its readers that
"For all the scores of biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in the world, there is no recent book that tells this remarkable story, in which Conan Doyle becomes a real-life detective on an actual murder case."
 The Slater case may not be as well known as the Edalji case,  the basis of the novel Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, so this book is good mainly for people who may be interested to learn about Conan Doyle outside of  his role as the "creator of the most famous detective in the world" and as a man with a "code of honor" who more than once refused to let justice take a wrong turn and affect innocent lives. But beware --  I've read three or four biographies of Conan Doyle since I read this book, and I don't completely agree with Fox's conclusions about the man himself, in which she sort of glosses over more than a few facts. I'll refer you to Russell Miller's The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle and Out of the Shadows by Georgina Doyle for further reading.  And while personally I think that there's a lot that could have been edited out without any detriment whatsoever to this story, one of the strengths of this book is that the author has managed to place her study  meaningfully into the context of that "watershed moment" mentioned above, socially, culturally, and scientifically, rather than just rehashing the bare bones of the case.

While the blurbers call this book a "thrilling true-crime procedural," I wouldn't go that far, but  it is a story that speaks to our own contemporary concerns not only about "the racialization of crime" but also about some pretty shady practices in law enforcement and the justice system which all too often ruin the lives of innocent people.



Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann

9780307742483
Random House/Vintage, 2018
373 pp

paperback

I love David Grann's work. I've read his The Devil and Sherlock Holmes which I loved, The Lost City of Z which I loved even more, and I've already pre-ordered his next book The White Darkness, which comes out in October, although you can get a head start on it via The New YorkerThis book, Killers of the Flower Moon, is probably the most difficult of all of his books to read on an emotional level, since it deals with such an horrific topic.  This one I had to read sections at a time because it was so powerful; it also made me so damn angry I actually found myself yelling.  Personally,  when a person like David Grann can hand me a story that gets me that emotionally involved, well, he has done his job and has done it well.

The back cover blurb gives the basic story, which is divided into three different "Chronicles."  In the first part, we discover that (and this isn't spoiling it -- just sort of paraphrasing the blurb) people in the Osage Nation had the sense to buy up the rights to the land on which they were eventually settled in Oklahoma.  When oil was discovered, as the blurb says, by the 1920s, they became "the richest people per capita in the world."  However, the Federal Government decided that the Osage people weren't capable of managing their own wealth, and as though they were children, assigned guardians to do just that.  As Grann reports,
"Over the tribe's vehement objections, many Osage ... were deemed  'incompetent' and were forced to have a local white guardian overseeing and authorizing all of their spending, down to the toothpaste they purchased at the corner store.  One Osage who had served in World War I complained, 'I fought in France for this country, and yet I am not allowed even to sign my own checks.' "
Even worse than the Feds' prejudice in setting up these guardianships in the first place, these people were generally chosen from among the most prominent citizens in Osage County, and in what can only be called a racist move, all of them were white.  In telling this story, Grann has focused on the family of an Osage woman named Mollie Burkhart.  As he explains in an interview at vice.com, placing Mollie at the center of the story allowed him to treat her as a real person, not just a statistic or a descendant, and it also gave him the opportunity to tell things from the point of view of the Osage.  The first section takes us to the murders of several members of the Osage Nation, of which Mollie's family became a "prime target," "one by one."

The FBI becomes involved in part two, in which Grann goes through why J. Edgar Hoover wanted his men on the case, the possible suspects, and introduces us to Tom White, a former Texas Ranger turned FBI agent who put together a team that would work undercover to try and solve the case.  While I won't dwell here on what happens next, one of the most infuriating parts about these murders is that the more deeply White delves at the time, the more a much larger picture of a huge and all-encompassing  conspiracy develops and truthfully, I wondered if anyone was ever going to be brought to justice for these horrible crimes. 

But it's really part three that shook me to my core, because of what Grann discovers in his research. About that I will say nothing, but I could hear myself gasping at the implications of what he found.  And to be really honest, I was so upset after finishing this book that I had to step away for a few days just to get myself together again. 

The book is masterfully done, especially since the author sets what happens to these people in the context of the broader period of rampant corruption and graft at the highest levels of government, and in that sense, provides a background for what will occur over the course of this narrative. At the same time,  this book further reinforces the fact that when history is recounted in this country, it's white history, while the Native Americans' stories are for the most part completely ignored.  You only have to be breathing these days to understand why that is.  But overall, what really hit home was the fact that this is not only a story that needed to be told and to be brought out into the open, but that as Grann says, it continues to resonate with the Osage people -- that it is a story that is "still living history for them." 

Killers of the Flower Moon is not a long book so you may be tempted to read it all in one go, but don't.  This book is so powerful that even now while thinking about it, I'm getting angry all over again.  And now that I'm looking over what some other, less than enthusiastic readers have to say, I have to wonder what they expected.  This one from an Amazon reader especially killed me:
"I couldn't connect with any of the victims due to a lack of back story or personal history.  The reader just doesn't get to know the characters. It read like a boring history book that could have been so much more."
To each his/her own, of course, but evidently we didn't read the same book. 

Highly, highly, highly recommended.