Friday, November 20, 2015

real-life Law and Order: Crooked Brooklyn, by Michael Vecchione and Jerry Schmetterer

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2015
255 pp

hardcover (my copy from the publisher, thank you!)

The Rackets Division of the Brooklyn DA's office was where the author (Michael Vecchione) of this absorbing memoir "always wanted to be."  With co-author Jerry Schmetterer, Vecchione invites his readers to join him in a look back at his career.  Vecchione headed the division for over a decade, and was involved in several very high-profile cases that "struck Court Street like an earthquake."  I have to say that it took me longer than normal to read this book, not because of the book itself but because as I started to become more absorbed in his story, I grabbed my iPad and spent quite a bit of time finding more info on these big corruption cases as I read.

To whet potential reader appetites, here's just a very brief preview of a few cases that readers will find in here, most of which had repercussions that spread outward like a ripple in a pond:

  • the crooked ADA known as the Undertaker, "the nephew of a community political leader"  
  • a judge who held up the disbursement settlement in the case of a "permanently brain-damaged" baby by demanding $250,000 from the family's attorney before signing any papers
  • another judge who ruled on the side of whoever would pay him the most, took bribes and gifts from attorneys (this one just killed me -- a woman's custody of her children hung in the balance)
  • a huge case that brought down the "corrupt Democratic county leader and number three man in the New York State Assembly," which Vecchione notes would expose "the dirty political machine that ran Brooklyn politics -- a huge eye opener for me as Vecchione reveals how things worked in Democratic party politics at the time (and face it, probably still works on some level in the same way even now) 
  • two "Mafia cops," NYPD detectives who were "carrying out hits for the Mafia" 
  • the case of the theft of bones from a funeral home used to build a doctor's fortune
and more.  Personally,  the corruption doesn't surprise me -- I'm sure that these sorts of things continue to happen on a daily basis in cities throughout the United States.  

Crooked Brooklyn makes for compelling reading.  Some of the cases in this book would also make for great movie material.  The downside is that I found it to be a little disorganized in the writing itself -- for example, Vecchione would be talking about a particular case and then in the middle of the story, would go back in time, most of the time talking about something in his personal life that would bring us right up to where he'd left off.  To be very honest, from a reader point of view, when he would do that it was a bit distracting when all I wanted to do was to get back to the cases that to me were the high point of this book.

I have to say that I disagree with the reviewer who wrote about this book in Kirkus Reviews, who stated
"However, the author’s focus on courtroom maneuvering and investigative procedures can become tedious without greater context regarding New York’s labyrinthine government and history of corruption."
I didn't find this to be the case -- a) he does briefly touch on the Tammany machine in this book, b) it is certainly not at all tedious; in fact, the opposite is true, and c) "New York's labyrinthine government and history of corruption" are not the focus of this book, so I don't think that the reviewer is playing fair here. The dustjacket blurb says that this book is "perfect for fans of television shows like Law & Order, readers of true crime, and those hungry for details about the system that keeps us safe." Having watched hundreds of hours of Law and Order  in my day (the original -- not the spinoffs), and cheering on Jack McCoy in his long-running crusade for justice, I'd say that the blurber gets it right.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, by Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
441 pp (followed by photos)

Paul Theroux has written some incredible travel narratives -- my favorites (of the ones I've read) are his Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster, but there's something to enjoy about all of his books. In Deep South, it's the author's ability to a) reflect the beauty of the southern landscape through his writing and b) encourage strangers he meets to open up about their lives that really made this narrative work for me.

Theroux has traveled all over the planet, but in this book he's changed directions and stays in his own country -- more specifically, he makes several tours through the "deep south," discovering and examining the paradoxes that exist there. Making his way through South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta area by car, he spends four seasons visiting some of the poorest rural areas in this part of the country. He takes to the "proud highway, the rolling road," starting from Cape Cod with no specific destination in mind, at least on the first trip.  What he discovers (among many other things) is that, as Faulkner noted in his Requiem for a Nun, "the past is never dead. It's not even past."  I will leave it to others to find out why and how this is true, because I could go on at some length about what he encounters on his various sojourns -- there's a lot packed into these pages.  

To be very honest, there were parts of this book that were repetitive that I didn't care for much -- the repeated visits to gun shows and the discourse on why there are so many Patels who own seedy motels in the South are just two examples of overkill here  -- but if you can get past that, he does have some very good points to make in this book.  Most eye opening to me is the idea that many of the poorest areas in the southern United States are that way because of the ongoing legacy of the South's racist past combined with the loss of industry (moved to foreign countries after NAFTA was passed) that put huge numbers of people who had decent, steady jobs out of work and into the margins of society. There's another thread running through this narrative about how the US Government spends way more money on helping people in third world countries with housing, etc., while ignoring its own people; the upside, however,  is that there are a number of people in these small pockets of rural poverty who are there to help the locals through various programs supported by grants and other sources of funding. It's not enough, but it is definitely a move in the right direction. Here, as he notes,  the poor are "less able to manage and more hopeless than many distressed parts of Africa and Asia," and that the United States, "singular" in its "greatness," "resembles the rest of the world in its failures."   

Maybe Deep South isn't perfect, but I've been on some of those roads in Alabama when we did an African-American  Heritage Trail roadtrip and I have to say, he's captured the landscape, the poverty and the racism that I witnessed for myself along the way. He has also captured the cautious but overall warm attitudes of the people he meets on his travels that I  experienced as well.  Let's just say that whoever says we're living in a post-racial society hasn't seen what I have during my own travels.  There is at least one professional reviewer who sees this book as reopening "Deep South cliches,"  and there are several naysayers among readers who complain about Theroux's "agenda", but this is a book a reader must judge for himself or herself. To me it was a real eye opener of a narrative -- strengthened  by the stories of people who live the realities of the Deep South on a daily basis. 

Recommended but watch out for the ongoing repetition that just sort of needlessly weighs this book down.  And maps would have been helpful -- but the photos at the end of the book are just amazing.