Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot is a deeply researched, fascinating cultural history of one of our most unique cities, San Francisco. Talbot focuses on the city’s slide toward the dark disillusionment of the 1970s and the devastating AIDS years of the 1980s. The founder of Salon magazine, Talbot knows how to tell a great story, offering fascinating glimpses into the lives several SF notables, including Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Harvey Milk. Talbot rounds out his history with San Francisco’s redemption, as the City by the Bay transformed itself into one of the most innovative urban centers in America.
This epicenter of “flower power” took a more ominous turn toward the end of the 1960s. Harder drugs like heroin became more prominent. City government was less effective. Crime was rampant. Talbot illuminates the dark underbelly of the city during the 1970s and 80s. He writes of its overall dangerous quality during this time. He also highlights several major San Francisco crime stories that transfixed the nation, such as Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, Harvey Milk, Jim Jones and the Zebra Murders.
Still reeling from the difficult 1970s, San Francisco was then ravaged by the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. Talbot reminds us of those dark years when San Francisco virtually became a ghost town, a time when it seemed like everyone knew someone (or many people) who had died of AIDS. Coming out of these harrowing years, San Francisco emerged to be one of the most vibrant, progressive cities in the country. Talbot does an outstanding job of describing San Francisco’s lowest years in modern history and then tracing this city’s path to greatness.
Here in America, we don’t have a Charles, Diana, and Camilla nor a William and Kate. We do, however, have the Kennedy clan. From the enchanted Camelot era to the recent tragedy of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s wife’s suicide, this extended family’s accomplishments and foibles play out in the press and provide fodder for books to satisfy a public curiosity which shows no sign of waning. Two recent releases, the true crime Mary’s Mosaic by Peter Janney, and the fictional Jack 1939 penned by Francine Mathews, mine the Kennedy history and mystique while each traveling a very different path.
Who really killed Jack Kennedy? Trying to sort out the conspiracy theories surrounding the President’s death is akin to falling down a rabbit hole. Author Peter Janney takes on the 1964 murder of Washington DC denizen Mary Pinchot Meyer in Mary’s Mosaic and ties the fatal—and unsolved-- shooting of the well-connected Meyer to the events surrounding the assassination of her lover and confidante JFK. Heavily researched and footnoted, Janney posits that the CIA engineered both deaths because Meyer’s pacifism and use of marijuana and hallucinogens were influencing President Kennedy’s views leading to policy decisions contrary to what the CIA felt best for the nation. Janney implicates CIA officials including his own father, Wistar Janney, and Mary’s former husband Cord Meyer in the tangled web of DC agendas and cover-ups. Reading like a who’s who of the Cold War era, Mary’s Mosaic will appeal to those well-versed in the Warren commission report as well as Kennedy family buffs.
Jack Kennedy and family also make an appearance in Francine Matthew’s novel Jack 1939. Set in the Europe of pre-World War II, Kennedy is anointed a secret agent by President Roosevelt who is bucking for a third term in office; Jack’s mission is to interrupt the German machinations interfering with Roosevelt’s ambitions. Matthews, a former CIA analyst, mixes history with a spy thriller in this fascinating and fast-moving story of what-if conjecture.
A rush to judgment was all it took to set in motion an unjust arrest, trial and imprisonment. In Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, Raymond Bonner walks readers through a little-known crime and its subsequent investigation which was marred by police blunders and mismanagement of the crime scene. Further, poor legal representation prevented anything close to a fair trial for the suspect.
In 1982, an elderly white woman in Greenwood, South Carolina was found brutally murdered in her home. The man eventually arrested and convicted for the crime was low-income and African-American. His only connections to the house were a single fingerprint and a few checks from the owner for maintenance work. Yet prosecutors persisted and Edward Lee Elmore was tried, convicted, and served 30 years in prison. Twenty-seven of those years were spent on death row.
The case is meticulously researched by Bonner, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Investigation of the crime scene did not follow official procedures, and Elmore was represented by lawyers who did a shoddy job at best. It was not until 11 years later that Diana Holt, a lawyer working with the disenfranchised, took on his case. Her persistence eventually led to the overturning of Elmore’s death sentence. But it wasn’t until March 2012, just after this book was published, that he was actually released from prison. Anatomy of Injustice is as much a saga of an unsolved case as it is a look at what goes wrong when the justice system is compromised by politics, inefficient lawyers, and a desire to solve a crime at the cost of a fair investigation. A fascinating true crime read, it will also appeal to anyone interested in human rights and the legal process in the United States.
People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Perry chronicles the disappearance of hostess Lucie Blackman in the summer of 2000, and the investigation that followed. Blackman, a British citizen, had been working as a flight attendant for British Airways, but increasing debt made her consider a more lucrative career change. Her best friend Louise had a connection to Tokyo and suggested that they join the ranks of foreign hostesses in the Roppongi district.
Japanese men who have a desire to feel superior and important choose to visit hostess clubs, where tall, international women are trained to light their cigarettes, pour them drinks and keep them occupied by conversation so that their hourly rate will increase the longer they stay in the club. A hostess can make bonuses by repeat business, or selling expensive bottles of champagne. But she must also arrange dates with the customers, at outside restaurants. Many hostesses are required to make five dates with a customer or risk losing her job. In July of 2000, Blackman made such a date.
She called her friend Louise to tell her that she was going for a drive to the seaside and would be home later that evening. She called once more to let Louise know she was all right. Then she was never heard from again. It would be months before her body would be found and a suspect arrested. Her mother and father were divorced and barely speaking. She had two younger siblings wondering where she was. Many years would pass before there would be justice for Lucie Blackman.
Richard Lloyd Perry is the Asia editor and Tokyo bureau chief of The Times (London) and became fascinated by the case when he worked in Japan. He wanted to pull the story together, to make Blackman into a real person and not just a sordid news headline, and with People Who Eat Darkness he has succeeded. Thoroughly researched and very compelling, this is destined to become a true crime classic along the lines of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Where were you on September 11, 2001? Almost all Americans who were old enough to remember that fateful day will have a story. At first glance, The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. appears to be a tale of individual courage and triumph. Tania Head had one of the most remarkable 9/11 stories of all. She was working for Merrill Lynch on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower, and witnessed the first plane hit the North Tower. Badly burned, she barely escaped alive. She also lost her fiancé, who worked in the North Tower.
Head’s story was so powerful that when she shared it on survivors’ network sites, she quickly became an inspiration and a leader. She successfully lobbied to bring more recognition and funding to survivors, and led tours at Ground Zero. Shockingly, in 2007 a reporter uncovered that all of the information she provided, including details about her job and her fiancé, was false. But that was just the beginning. Why would someone go to such lengths to deceive?
Head’s story is presented as fact for most of the book, with her deception revealed only towards the end. Guglielmo directed a documentary, also called The Woman Who Wasn’t There, chronicling Head’s status change from heroic survivor to fraudulent imposter. This is an amazing story of vast deception and extreme irony. Although Head technically did nothing illegal, her falsification of information and betrayal of trust of the survivors was egregious. Her deception in the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy left many feeling further victimized. But ironically, in spite of the lies, her story led to more recognition and services for actual 9/11 survivors.
Looking for a little history to go with your true crime? Two recent titles provide thrilling accounts of historical murders. One is set in Chicago and chronicles the rise and fall of Al Capone’s chief assassin, Jack McGurn. The other is about a serial killer in World War II Paris. Both are thoroughly researched, emphasizing the mayhem and extremism prevalent in these time periods. In Deadly Valentines: The Story of Capone's Henchman "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and Louise Rolfe, His Blonde Alibi, Jeffrey Gusfield opens with an account of the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 Chicago. Known assassin Jack McGurn and his girlfriend Louise Rolfe are the likely suspects. But how does a boy from an immigrant family and a middle-class Midwestern girl end up embodying the Roaring Twenties’ hallmarks of excess, liquor, and grisly murder? By tracing their lives from childhood, Gusfield draws a connection between humble beginnings and a gangster lifestyle rife with crime and corruption.
David King’s Death in the City of Light follows the rise of Marcel Petiot, who was regarded as a kindly doctor of the less fortunate until multiple human body parts were found in the basement of his Paris home in 1944. His subsequent trial quickly devolved into a media circus. The Nazi occupation and government corruption further complicated matters and added to the train wreck of judicial proceedings, leading to a frustrating and perplexing conclusion. Perhaps most fascinating about both books are the unanswered questions. Was Louise cold-blooded, or just someone unable to live a conventional life? How did Petiot actually kill his victims? Those who enjoy historical accounts full of drama, danger and mystery (like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) will find these books to be satisfying page-turners.
He really did deceive the entire world. In a moment’s time, thousands of organizations and individuals worldwide lost their financial savings when Bernie Madoff’s massive investment fraud was uncovered. The widespread public outrage was directed not only at him but also his family. Surely those closest to him knew everything and were reaping all the benefits, right? Two recent books tell otherwise.
The first, Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family, by Laurie Sandell, chronicles the lives of his wife Ruth and sons Mark and Andrew both before and after the 2008 revelation that brought the financial empire crashing down. Ruth, who was married to Madoff from the age of 18, had all property seized. Mark committed suicide two years to the day of his father’s arrest. Andrew struggled to rebuild his own reputation in the business community. The writing at times entertains frivolous details and inconsequential family spats but provides an honest look into a tightly controlled family whose trusted patriarch was their ultimate undoing.
While Truth and Consequences focuses more on family dynamics and less on the actual logistics of Madoff’s crime, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust by Diana B. Henriques gives a detailed recounting of the Ponzi scheme itself. Henriques, a financial writer for the New York Times and one of the few to interview Madoff in prison, follows a substantial “cast of characters” including family members, accountants, federal investigators and lawyers to examine how a respected businessman could carry out deception on such a grand scale. If her earlier narrative seems dry and overwhelming in places, the latter half of the book provides plenty of courtroom drama and emotional testimony to keep readers engaged. As both authors note, family members and outsiders alike had their lives upended by the “Wizard of Lies”, and the rebuilding for many has just begun.