May 20th, 2013

Larger-Than-Life Crime


I recently heard a news story so bizarre I could hardly believe it was true.  A series of crimes in France was linked to a suspect, but then the case took a very odd turn. Police discovered the man was living with his identical twin and because twin DNA is virtually identical, they were at a loss to figure out whodunit. Did one or both twins commit the crimes? If only one twin was the assaulter, did the other twin know?  Would scientists be able to find case-breaking minute differences in their DNA?  The story seemed more like a best-selling thriller than real life, adding to that well-known adage that truth really is stranger than fiction.

Add to this mix the odd case of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympic athlete who shot and killed his supermodel girlfriend on Valentine’s Day.  At the same time, Pistorius’s brother Carl also was on trial for murder, this time in the form of vehicular homicide.  To top it all off, the lead investigator in Oscar’s case had to resign because he too was accused of attempted murder after firing into a taxi full of innocent passengers.  Like a well-written suspense with many twists and turns, I can hardly keep all these crimes straight.

Give it a few years, and I predict we’ll see a rash of books, movies and maybe even a few cheesy made-for-tv-movies about these cases.  But in the meantime, these larger-than-life crimes inspired me to wander the stacks in search of real life cases that could touch this level of outlandishness.  Turns out, there are many true accounts of cases so bizarre, you can hardly believe they are real:

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – The riveting history of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, who took advantage of the 1893 Chicago World Fair to cover up his crimes.

Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich A charming and brilliant young scientist pulls off the audacious theft of a 600-pound safe of moon rocks from a high-tech government facility, all to impress his girlfriend.

The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perryman  – The true tale of scandal and sex-filled murder cases involving beautiful Jazz Age women. This story inspired the musical “Chicago.”

Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal – Hard-to-believe but real account of a master identify thief who posed as a member of the wealthy Rockefeller family for over a decade, married a wealthy woman, and then kidnapped and disappeared with his own daughter.

Midnight in Peking by Paul French – In 1937, a British schoolgirl’s dissected body is found propped against an old building in Beijing. The building is notorious for being haunted and though the murder becomes a media sensation, the crime is never solved and the public’s attention is quickly drawn away by invasion of Japanese forces.

Anyone You Want Me to Be: A True Story of Sex and Death on the Internet by John Douglas – Shocking account of a seemingly harmless family man who used the anonymity of the Internet to seduce and murder vulnerable women.

Provenance by Laney Salisbury – Fast-paced thriller of an elaborate, international con in which villains exploited high-profile art institutions into legitimizing hundreds of forged artworks, many of which still hang in museums today.

The Bobbed Haired Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York by Stephen Duncombe – With her modern haircut and fashionable wardrobe, Ceila Cooney seemed anything but a criminal mastermind. Nevertheless, she engineered a thrilling series of thefts, taunted police, and escaped the largest manhunt in New York City history, becoming a celebrity and icon of the rebellious Jazz Age spirit.

What are your favorite shows, books and movies about crime?

Photo credit: “Crime Scene Do Not Cross” by Curtis Gregory Perry

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January 11th, 2012

American Civil War Fiction

Civil War Header

April 12, 1861 marked the moment that our nation was plunged into one of its darkest hours.  The first bullet of the American Civil War was fired at Fort Sumpter in South Carolina.  There was no turning back from the anguish that citizens from both North and South would bear for the next 4 years, and long beyond.

I am fascinated with this time in our Nation’s history.  Several of my ancestors went into battle, some for the North and many for the South, a fact that many of you can also boast about!  I feel that there is a certain romance in all the tragedy that surrounds those days – how brave these men were and how brave their families were back at home!  Several brilliant works of fiction have fed my Civil War curiosity over the years.  These books are so wonderfully crafted that they will transport you back in time.  Most of these titles, while they are fiction, have been carefully researched and written with many facts interwoven through the story.  While you are immersed in these works it will be clear that no matter to which side the loyalties fell, the thirst for freedom and the love for their country ran deep in everyone.

book compilation

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
This is the Granddaddy of all Civil War fiction and a must read for anyone who searches for a story with a great deal of fact and military tactics entwined.  Shaara won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975 for his brilliant portrayal of the major players for both North and South during the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  The book mainly focuses on two characters, General Robert E. Lee and his vision of a final victory for his Army of Virginia, and the young and newly appointed Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who is thrown into command just in time to hold the Union Line at Little Round Top.  The Killer Angels is one of those books that you may read again and again so that you will capture every detail.  It is heartbreaking in the reality in which it shows the thoughts and feelings of many of our greatest military heroes as they face their old friends and their own fears at the hour of death for many.  Shaara was absolutely spot on in his details of the battles, locations and positions of the armies.  These men and their causes will become so real to you that it is impossible not to feel passion for one side or the other.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Frazier managed to write a beautiful, romantic novel while still working in enough gritty details to appeal to both men and women, and keep all of us under his spell!  The story revolves around Inman, off to join the Confederate Army and Ada Monroe, who has just moved to Cold Mountain.  Just days before he leaves for battle, Inman falls in love with the lovely and frail Ada.  His love for her is what drives him to desert the army and start the harrowing trip back to Cold Mountain.   The book travels back and forth between Inman’s journey home and Ada’s fight to survive alone after the death of her father.  Both of them must fight the brutal “Home Guard” who travel the countryside searching for Confederate deserters and punishing the citizens who help them.  Throughout the book you will meet an eccentric cast of characters who somehow bring the story together.  Cold Mountain is a love story, a war story, and a raw glimpse at how harsh life during the war was for those at home and on the front lines.

March by Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks is well known from bringing history alive in her novels.  She has done it again in bringing us this gem.  Does anyone remember the March girls and their loving Marmee from the beloved classic, Little Women?  If so, you will remember that Mr. March spent the majority of the story away from the family, fighting dutifully for the Northern Army.  Who was he?  What was he experiencing?  What were his feelings towards his family and being parted from them?  How had the war changed him?  Within the pages of March, you will find your answers.  This isn’t the same gentle tale that follows Louisa May Alcott’s style.  This is an honest look at a man battling good and evil within himself while desperately trying to remain true to his beliefs.  It is the story of a man who must face his failures and keep the love of his family and his hope alive.  March is a very graphic portrayal of the horrors of battle and treatment of slaves.  This novel also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006.

The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
If there was ever a historical book of fiction written for the ladies, this would be it!  The Widow of the South is one of my favorite pieces of all time and I have read it at least 4 times.  Based on real characters and real events that occurred around the battlefield at Franklin, Tennessee, the story weaves around Carrie McGavock and her beloved Carnton Plantation.  As the armies approach her home, Carrie is already grieving the loss of three of her children, the indifference of her husband, and is fighting to keep her sanity.  Without the strength of her house slave, Mariah, the family would have already been in ruin.  Then war blazes through their world and lives are changed forever.  Carrie’s sacred home is turned into a field hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers and she must decide if she will continue to hide in anguish, or come back to life and find a way to help those who are suffering around her.   Her decision gives her life new meaning and through the work that she does and the men that she meets, she begins to feel alive and worthwhile again.  As you read on, relationships are not always what they seem and by the end, you will be uplifted by the strength that Carrie finds to do what is right. Carnton Plantation is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to visitors who want to honor Miss Carrie McGavock, the true Widow of the South.

What’s your favorite Civil War book?

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