Magazine journalist Harvey (Outside) charts the case of Gilbert Bland Jr., who in the 1990s stole vast amounts of rare material from some of North America’s most prestigious research libraries and thus became “the greatest American map thief in history.”
In his map of Bland’s life, Harvey leaves a few blank spaces—primarily because Bland refused interviews and threatened the author with civil and criminal proceedings if he persisted. Nonetheless, Harvey does a remarkable job of reconstructing the biography of Bland, who, employing aliases and a manner so colorless as to render himself practically invisible to librarians, was able to remove from various facilities (some with high security) hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare maps, which he then sold to somewhat complicit collectors and dealers. Harvey’s method is to paint the background so meticulously that the foreground will somehow appear. It works. He interviews a myriad of persons related to Bland’s story. We hear from W. Graham Arader III, “the most recognizable figure in the world of antique maps,” who had dealings with Bland and was among the first to suspect him. We hear, too, from other dealers, collectors, librarians, mapmakers, and even psychiatrists who specialize in the obsession of collecting. (One theorizes that collecting is an “ancient urge” traceable to our hunter-gatherer ancestry.) Enriching the text is the author’s prodigious research into the history of cartography, and in most chapters he intercuts his story of the pursuit of Bland (who actually turned himself in and is now free) with supplementary information about subjects as varied as satellite imaging, the career of explorer John C. Frémont, the library of ancient Alexandria, the D-Day invasion (a map theft was involved in its success), and the lost Arctic expedition of John Franklin. So entranced was Harvey by his subject, in fact, that at one point he worries that in chasing Bland he was “hunting down some enigmatic citizen of my own psyche.”
Harvey stretches some analogies to the snapping point, but has drawn a lovely map of an exotic world. (18 maps, not seen)
The author’s adventures as a top crime reporter for Japan’s largest newspaper.
As he completed his studies at Tokyo’s Sofia University, Adelstein took the exam to become a reporter for Yomiuri Shinbun and, surprisingly, was hired. Thus began 12 years of reporting on, and living within, the underbelly of Japanese society. Initially assigned to cover crime in a Tokyo suburb, Adelstein is at his best describing the intricate rules that govern relations among the press and police. As with so much else in Japan, good reporting, or gaining a scoop, depends on cultivating personal relations. A reporter spends much time “schmoozing and massaging” police detectives, bringing them gifts and drinking long into the night with them, which helps develop mutually beneficial friendships. After covering stories like the “Chichibu Snack-mama Murder Case” and the case of a serial-killing dog breeder, Adelstein became the only American journalist to gain admittance to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club. His beat became Tokyo’s infamous Kabukicho district, an area of “pure sleaze,” and soon he was investigating the trafficking of women in Japan, a widespread illegal business often protected by the politically powerful and by the yakuza, Japan’s ubiquitous organized-crime syndicate. The yakuza were heavily involved in sex trafficking, and a story about a yakuza boss receiving a liver transplant in the United States led to a threat on Adelstein’s life. He eventually published the story, but only after returning to Japan as an investigator on human trafficking for the U.S. State Department. Though the author occasionally echoes the writing of Mickey Spillane—“She could milk a customer like a dairymaid with a fecund cow”—this is a serious story focusing on the sexual abuse of women in Japan and the official indifference to that abuse.
Not just a hard-boiled true-crime thriller, but an engrossing, troubling look at crime and human exploitation in Japan.
A vivid account of the tragedies and triumphs of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the concurrent depravities of America’s first serial killer.
In roughly alternating chapters, former Wall Street Journal reporter Larson (Isaac’s Storm, 1999, etc.) tells the stories of Daniel H. Burnham, chief planner and architect of exposition, and Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, whose rambling World’s Fair Hotel, just a short streetcar ride away, housed windowless rooms, a gas chamber, secret chutes, and a basement crematory. The contrast in these accomplishments of determined human endeavor could not be more stark—or chilling. Burnham assembled what a contemporary called “the greatest meeting of artists since the 15th century” to turn the wasteland of Chicago’s swampy Jackson Park into the ephemeral White City, which enthralled nearly 28 million visitors in a single summer. Overcoming gargantuan obstacles—politically entangled delays, labor unrest, an economic panic, and a fierce Chicago winter—to say nothing of the architectural challenges, Burnham and his colleagues, including Frederick Law Olmsted, produced their marvel in just over two years. The fair was a city unto itself, the first to make wide-scale use of alternating current to illuminate its 200,000 incandescent bulbs. Spectacular engineering feats included Ferris’s gigantic wheel, intended to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” and, ominously, the latest example of Krupp’s artillery, “breathing of blood and carnage.” Dr. Holmes, a frequent visitor to the fair, was a consummate swindler and lady-killer who secured his victims’ trust through “courteous, audacious rascality.” Most were comely young women, and estimates of their total ranged from the nine whose bodies (or parts thereof) were recovered to nearly 200. Larson does a superb job outlining this “ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”
Gripping drama, captured with a reporter’s nose for a good story and a novelist’s flair for telling it. (6 b&w photos, 1 map, not seen)
The gripping narrative of a twisted serial killer preying on the most vulnerable citizens of Paris during the Nazi occupation.
In King’s third work of historical nonfiction (Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, 2008, etc.), he turns to World War II and the city of lights, narrating a frightening tale. When a chimney fire led to the discovery by Paris police of countless bodies hacked into pieces, they immediately suspected the home’s owner, the respectable doctor Marcel Petiot, of committing these unspeakable crimes. A manhunt ensued, and Petiot managed to elude authorities for a time. Set against the backdrop of the Allied invasion of Normandy and the Nazi’s retreat from Paris, King successfully weaves together the search for Petiot with the world-changing events surrounding the chase. The second half of the narrative focuses on Petiot’s trial, during which the atmosphere in newly liberated Paris had changed drastically. The author demonstrates that while Parisians were ecstatic to be free from Nazi occupation, the stink of collaboration was everywhere. People were desensitized to the details of Petiot’s crimes because of the abhorrent details that had reached them of the Nazi treatment of Jews. King writes history in an engaging manner; the narrative is fresh and clear, told succinctly, but with a befitting level of detail. The tale never drags as the author accelerates the suspense, revealing Petiot’s staggering crimes at an appropriately stirring pace. However, King succeeds in never allowing Petiot’s murders to overwhelm their context.
The author’s successful transition into the true-crime genre—expertly written and completely absorbing.
From the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats (2005), another readable, entertaining excursion into extreme territory.
London-based journalist Ronson delves into the realm of mental illness, traveling to the notorious British facility Broadmoor to meet “Tony,” who claimed to have successfully “faked” madness—he feigned a disorder to avoid jail for a violent assault, and has been held ever since despite his protests. Psychiatrists assured Ronson that Tony was not insane, but psychopathic, a distinction that led the journalist to Canadian psychologist Robert Hare, who developed a “checklist” of personality traits to reveal psychopaths (who are by definition glib and deceptive). Ronson interviewed Hare and took his seminar. Hare contends that “psychopaths are quite incurable” due to brain abnormalities, and that his research provides the best methods for rooting them out. Hare’s seminar suggests that the detached sadism and lack of empathy which criminal psychopaths demonstrate can be seen in the wider world, where they cause great harm despite being only 1 percent of the population. “Serial killers ruin families,” he says. “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies.” With this notion in mind, Ronson experienced chilling encounters with a Haitian death-squad leader and with Al Dunlap, a corporate raider who took great joy in firing people. Although the book’s various strands don’t fully coalesce, they remain engaging; Ronson is skilled at handling disturbing subject matter and difficult interview subjects with breezy insouciance. Yet the undertones are disturbing: While society seems unable to stop true psychopaths before they inflict major damage, Ronson argues that disturbed people like Tony essentially become “nothing more than a big splurge of madness in the minds of the people who benefit from it.” The author’s critique of these individuals within the mental-health industry will surely attract controversy.
Bizarrely captivating look at the terrifying mental disorder of psychopathy, the difficulty of its treatment and the professional infrastructure surrounding it.
Riveting account of a multiple murder and trial that led to a paradigm shift in Europe’s relations with post-revolutionary Iran.
On September 17, 1992, heavily armed assassins burst into a restaurant in a quiet immigrant enclave in Berlin, rudely interrupting a dinner honoring Sadegh Sharafkandi, a leader of a dissident Iranian-Kurdish political organization. Opening fire with automatic weapons and following with a series of single shots, they murdered Sharafkandi and three other Iranian and Kurdish activists. Although the chief assassin was never caught, three of his accomplices, one Iranian and two Lebanese men with connections to Hezbollah, were quickly taken into custody. The ensuing five-year trial, where the crimes of the Stasi were tried after Germany’s reunification, were presided over by the same meticulously fair Judge Frithjof Kubsch who had overseen the sensitive Stasi trials. Hakakian (Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, 2004) deploys all of her talents as a former producer at 60 Minutes and a poet in her native Farsi to tell the human and political story behind the news. She closely follows the surviving family and friends of victim Noori Dekhordi, who immediately suspected that the orders for the assassinations came directly from the Iranian regime’s top officials. Hakakian’s novelistic narrative details the intrigues in the Iranian diaspora as the prosecution unearthed threads leading from Tehran to hundreds of murders and a plot to kill hundreds more around Europe in the 1980s and ’90s. These findings caught the German government between Tehran’s vengeful mullahs, whose interests it had represented in Europe in exchange for contracts with German businesses like Siemens, and the hundreds of thousands of Iranian dissidents who had settled in Germany since the revolution. Even knowing that relations between Iran and Europe would never be the same won’t prepare the reader for the surprising—even shocking—twists the trial took.
A nonfiction political thriller of a very high order.
Mexico City–based investigative journalist Beith presents the bloody story of Mexico’s drug-trafficking kingpin.
In 2009, Joaquin Guzman appeared on the Forbes magazine billionaire list. Better known as “El Chapo,” Guzman, since his sensational 2001 escape from a maximum-security prison, happened also to be Mexico’s most-wanted man. Chapo hasn’t been seen in public for more than two years. Sequestered in the hills of Durango or his native Sinaloa, he’s virtually the last man standing in the savage drug wars that have crippled Mexico. Beith traces the country’s serious drug trade back to the ’70s, when the Colombian Medellín and Cali cartels ruled, and Mexican capo El Padrino served as point man. In charge of logistics for El Padrino and fueled by his ambition, efficiency and ruthlessness, Chapo steadily rose through the ranks. By the ’90s, with El Padrino in prison and the Colombians muscled out of the way, Mexican drug lords were growing their own product and fighting each other for control of the $40-billion-per-year industry. In a desperately poor country, many people see drug traffickers as Robin Hoods, but they also bring kidnappings, assassinations, beheadings and torture. Chapo’s emergence from this sanguinary scrum is the heart of the author’s tale, but he forthrightly concedes the difficulty of reporting on the elusive boss and organized crime in general, dealing as he must with so many untrustworthy sources. He offers a discouraging list of the dead journalists who’ve gotten too close to the story. Thus, only a faint picture of Chapo emerges: his four wives and many mistresses, the relatives and allies he’s lost to prison or murder, anecdotal evidence of his ability to charm, seduce and strategize. His near-mythic status has been enhanced by a variety of factors, including his influence (at one time he employed as many as 150,000 people) his many escapes from near-capture, the narcocorridos (drug ballads) and public banners mocking thwarted rivals and feckless law enforcement (“You’ll never get Chapo”). More successfully, Beith paints a depressing picture of the culture of corruption ensnaring Mexico’s government officials, military and police. The trade also thrives because of the flow of illegal weapons south and because of America’s apparently insatiable demand for heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines. Today, the Sinaloa cartel has cells in more than half of American states.
A startling account of a desperate problem boiling on and spilling over the border.
Ambitious, vibrant true-crime narrative from the dangerous deserts of Southern California.
Stillman (Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, 2008, etc.) seizes on the too-common flashpoint of a police officer’s murder by a marginalized individual to examine larger social changes, embodied by the unusual locale of the Mojave Desert. In 2003, desert hermit Donald Kueck shot Deputy Sheriff Steve Sorensen after a brief confrontation on Kueck’s property. The ensuing weeklong manhunt was one of the largest law enforcement operations in recent history, involving local, state and federal agencies determined to bring Kueck to justice, lest he set an example for the desert’s “eccentrics, ex-felons, [and] fugitives.” Stillman intersperses this narrative of pursuit with chapters that offer a panoramic examination of tangential elements of the story, and this approach pays off in providing a thorough consideration of a place and character set that could be easily caricatured. One sad thread involves Kueck’s son, a doomed punk rocker representative of a larger population of neglected youth in California’s hardscrabble “Inland Empire.” Kueck comes off as a menacing and complex figure, a struggling, antisocial dropout who was nonetheless well read, skilled and capable of kindness to others. Sorensen gave up a stereotypical “surfer” adolescence for military and law enforcement service; he’d partnered with a few established residents in the rural desert community to push back against the entropy and violence that ultimately claimed him. Stillman’s prose can become heated—the deputy “was blazing a path behind a badge and a wall of will”—but she does an admirable job building a full portrait of this beleaguered landscape by looking at individual characters, including Sorensen’s aggrieved fellow officers and the eccentric ruffians who compose the hermit and punk subcultures, which Kueck and his son embodied. The result is lyrical and intense, if slightly unwieldy, with aspirations that suggest influences including Joan Didion, Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy.
A dynamic synthesis of Western saga, true-crime thriller and California-based transformation narrative.
The man who reenergized the hard-boiled detective genre (American Tabloid, 1995, etc.) delivers a true-crime noir unflinchingly detailing his mother's murder and his own belated but obsessive investigation of it. Jean Ellroy was strangled in 1958, when James was 10. Initially relieved because her death allowed him to fulfill his wish to live with his father, young James develops an obsession with crime—especially homicide. In his teens he begins a life of petty theft fed by alcohol and drug abuse, social alienation, and his father's laissez-faire approach to child-rearing. This steep personal slide—related frankly and graphically in Ellroy's trademark tough-guy staccato—lasts into his 30s, when he channels his murder fascination into a first novel. His feeling toward his mother during these lost years is an unseemly mix of emotional disconnection and sexual attraction. Active interest in her death is ignited in 1994 when a reporter writing about unsolved murders contacts him. Ellroy writes about her death for GQ, which only whets his appetite. And so he enlists the help of retired L.A. police detective Bill Stoner and launches an exhaustive investigation that revisits old witnesses and reconciles Ellroy with family members long abandoned. Eventually, the quest transmogrifies from identifying the killer—an elusive suspect known only as "The Swarthy Man"—to learning the details of his secretive mother's life. Jean's murder remains unsolved and under investigation, but the child is reconciled with his late mother. Ellroy's short, simple sentences set up a punchy but monotonous rhythm that's as unrelenting as a jackhammer—and as wearing, since the book, bogged down in background that indulges Ellroy's fascination with police procedure, is overly long. Fanatics will undoubtedly savor the facts behind Ellroy's fiction (and his murder riffs), but those expecting autobiographical exposâ€š of the writer's psychological clockwork will feel stonewalled by macho reserve.
A devastating history-cum-exposé of the Church of Scientology.
Wright has written about religion on several occasions (Saints and Sinners, 1993; Remembering Satan, 1994) and received a Pulitzer Prize for his book on terrorism (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 2006)—all of which clearly served as excellent training for this book. It begins, of course, with the life of L. Ron Hubbard, a manic-depressive, wannabe naval hero, sci-fi writer and self-styled shaman who “believed that the secrets of existence were accidentally revealed to him” after receiving a gas anesthetic in the dentist’s chair. After that experience, the visions kept arriving, leading to his 1950 self-help best-seller, Dianetics, which laid the groundwork for a “religion” where “thetans” (souls) are stymied by “engrams,” self-destructive suggestive impulses lodged in the brain (not a few of which were inflicted on mankind following an intergalactic war that took place 75 million years ago). Through personal, deeply revelatory counseling sessions known as auditing, adherents deal with these obstacles, and for wealthy celebrities, Scientology (and its many Hollywood connections) has supposedly cleared the path to success. It has also destroyed many others, usually less well-heeled people from within, who raise questions or try to leave, or outside forces (journalists, the IRS, family members) investigating the church’s multiple personal or financial abuses. Wright exposes the church’s many sins: covert espionage, psychological torment, threatened blackmail using confidential information from auditing sessions and constant physical assaults on members by tyrannical current leader David Miscavage. The author is also interested in something deeper: If it's all a con, why is everyone involved (especially the late Hubbard) so deeply invested in its beliefs? Wright doesn't go out of his way to exaggerate the excesses of Scientology; each page delivers startling facts that need no elaboration.
A patient, wholly compelling investigation into a paranoid “religion” and the faithful held in its sweaty grip.