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Best Crime and (In)Justice Books of 2018

A horrifying exposé of how a few individuals can infect an entire state’s criminal justice system.

THE CADAVER KING AND THE COUNTRY DENTIST

A TRUE STORY OF INJUSTICE IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH

A journalist and criminal defense lawyer combine their knowledge about wrongful convictions in Mississippi to expose a corrupt system, with a keen focus on a lying medical examiner and a dentist who concocted phony evidence based on bite marks on the bodies of crime victims.

The medical examiner is Steven Hayne; the dentist is Michael West. In the small world of detectives, lawyers, judges, and journalists trying to reduce the number of innocent citizens in prison, the perplexing rise to influence of co-conspirators Hayne and West is well-known, as is their eventual disgrace. But the saga has never been explored in such depth. Carrington devotes his life to freeing innocent inmates, serving as director of the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Balko’s (Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, 2013) focus as a Washington Post opinion journalist and investigative reporter is more broad, but he has experience chronicling innocence cases. Although the authors have reported on many wrongful convictions, the book focuses heavily on two murder cases, both involving innocent men: Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, both of whom were exonerated after years in prison. Their exposé of systemic injustice across Mississippi goes beyond Hayne and West to name prosecutors, judges, legislators, and others who catered to them. Why cater to two such craven incompetents? Because those inside the criminal justice system were more interested in closing cases (usually with black defendants) than in identifying the actual perpetrators. Detectives, prosecutors, and judges intent on getting cases off the docket knew they could rely on Hayne and West to testify dishonestly under oath. The authors explain the motivations of Hayne and West: zealotry on the side of law enforcement, money for accepting a huge volume of cases to lie about in court under oath, and perhaps racism.

A horrifying exposé of how a few individuals can infect an entire state’s criminal justice system.

Pub Date: Feb. 27, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-61039-691-2

Page Count: 416

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

By turns sobering, frightening, and thrilling, this meticulous account of the power and tenacity of officially sanctioned...

BENEATH A RUTHLESS SUN

A TRUE STORY OF VIOLENCE, RACE, AND JUSTICE LOST AND FOUND

A spellbinding true story of racism, privilege, and official corruption.

In 1957, in the tiny central Florida town of Okahumpka, a prominent white woman was raped; she described her attacker as a young "Negro with bushy hair." Lake County sheriff and reputed KKK leader Willis McCall indiscriminately rounded up nearly two dozen young black men for interrogation, ultimately holding two incommunicado for days as prime suspects. But then McCall astonished everyone by releasing them both and charging Jesse Daniels, a poor, mentally challenged 19-year-old white youth who could not possibly have committed the crime. He colluded with a prosecutor and judge to pack Daniels off to be warehoused at the state mental hospital with neither a trial nor a legal determination of insanity. It seemed the case was closed but for the persistence of McCall's nemesis, Mabel Norris Reese, editor of a local weekly. Pulitzer Prize winner King (Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, 2012, etc.) thus launches an electrifying 20-year saga of murders, beatings, cross-burnings, bombings, fabricated evidence, and conveniently missing documents, all part of a racist reign of terror victimizing both blacks and whites and supported by an impenetrable elite of white citrus planters, cops, lawyers, politicians, and judges. The author draws on thousands of pages of unpublished documents, including court filings and testimony, hospital records, legislative materials, and personal files, to assemble this page-turner, suffused with a palpable atmosphere of dread. He clearly documents the lawless ferocity with which much of Florida resisted granting equal rights to blacks even as it marketed itself as a space-age vacation paradise. From the opening pages, King's narrative barrels forward, leaving readers wondering what it will take for justice to prevail.

By turns sobering, frightening, and thrilling, this meticulous account of the power and tenacity of officially sanctioned racism recalls a dark era that America is still struggling to leave behind.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-399-18338-6

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

A Casablanca without heroes and just the thing for those who like their crime stories the darkest shade of noir.

CITY OF DEVILS

THE TWO MEN WHO RULED THE UNDERWORLD OF OLD SHANGHAI

Fast-paced, plot-twisty true-crime tale of the kingpins of Shanghai’s Old City, land of miscreant opportunity.

The old “Terry & the Pirates” comic strip had it right: The mysterious East was just the place for an enterprising lawbreaker to homestead. So it was for a sad sack named Jack “Lucky” Riley, who changed his name after releasing himself on his own recognizance from a stateside prison. He skipped across the Pacific to the Philippines and “buddie[d] up with the Navy boys and jump[ed] a U.S. Army transport heading for Shanghai.” In his past life, Riley had boxed for the Navy, and he knew his way around a ring and a gaming table. It wasn’t long before he graduated from flophouse to better digs and began to run his own gambling empire, clashing with a tightly run syndicate of Viennese Jews headed by “Dapper” Joe Farren, whom the press styled as a kind of China-based version of Flo Ziegfield. Other figures, including tequila smuggler Carlos Garcia and New York mobster “Yasha” Katzenberg, enter and exit French’s (Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, 2012, etc.) carefully constructed stage, each one up to no good. In addition to this suspenseful yarn, the author paints a striking portrait of a Shanghai on the eve of Japanese occupation, which would bring many a crime empire to its knees. Before then, foreign governments were as keen on divvying up the spoils as the gangsters were. Even if one jurist intoned that “we will have no Chicago on the Whangpoo,” French’s hard-boiled narrative makes it clear why Chinese partisans resented the presence of the foreign barbarians, to say nothing of unfortunate collaborators like Cabbage Moh, whose head ended up on a pole “as a reminder that nobody gets to play both sides in their Shanghai.”

A Casablanca without heroes and just the thing for those who like their crime stories the darkest shade of noir.

Pub Date: July 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-250-17058-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: May 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2018

A significant contribution to our understanding of Middle Eastern politics and its far-reaching effects.

RISE AND KILL FIRST

THE SECRET HISTORY OF ISRAEL'S TARGETED ASSASSINATIONS

Forget about an eye for an eye: That leads to reciprocal blindness, and it’s always better to blind the enemy first when possible, as this excellent account shows.

Striking first before the enemy does has been the prevailing logic of Israel’s Shin Bet, or state security agency, and its predecessors since the first days of Zionism. As Israeli journalist Bergman (The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World's Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, 2008, etc.) writes toward the end of this long but event-filled book, the portrait in Steven Spielberg’s movie Munich isn’t quite right: “The connection between the movie…and reality is very slim.” Still, the notion of identifying Israel’s enemies and then dispatching them is a time-honored one. Lately, writes the author, it has been adapted by the United States, which has also borrowed assassination-helpful technologies such as drone strikes from its ally. It is somewhat ironic that toward the end of his life, former intelligence director Meir Dagan, who enjoyed “enormous adulation…as the ultimate Israeli master spy,” called for a political, two-state solution to the long-standing enmity between his country and Palestine. The irony hinges on the fact that so many of Dagan and company’s targets were Palestinian, including, Bergman suggests without ironclad evidence, Yasser Arafat. It may well have been that Ariel Sharon “ordered Arafat’s liquidation,” and if things have become a little less hectic since Arafat’s death, the unintended consequence of the killing of Sheikh Yassin, another foe of Israel, was to give Iran an open door to establishing power in the region, since Yassin was an outspoken opponent of the Iranian regime and its aims. While recognizing the efficacy of political assassination, Bergman is also sharply critical of its use, which is rife with those unintended consequences and often involves the killing of civilians—leading, in turn, to the deaths of civilian Israelis.

A significant contribution to our understanding of Middle Eastern politics and its far-reaching effects.

Pub Date: Jan. 31, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6971-2

Page Count: 784

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2018

An exemplary true-crime book, and with an HBO adaptation in the works, this book will be enjoyed by any reader with an...

I'LL BE GONE IN THE DARK

ONE WOMAN'S OBSESSIVE SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER

The Golden State Killer is once again in the headlines after finally being caught. This book about the search for him is sure to catch—and keep—readers’ attention.

McNamara, a TV screenwriter and true-crime blog and magazine writer, was particularly captivated by the man she dubbed the Golden State Killer. A prolific criminal who left dozens of cold cases (including at least 12 murders and 50 rapes) in his wake, the GSK had been glimpsed but never seen, and the author was sure he would be caught despite evading police for over 30 years. She hunted him mostly through online research, and she became friends with other cold-case enthusiasts, detectives, and others who still pursued justice, giving her unparalleled access to information about the GSK and his crimes. In this explosive book, McNamara combines her prodigious research with her impressive storytelling skills and ability to seamlessly weave the narratives of all those lives into one terrifying story. Sadly, the author died in 2016 before finishing the book (her husband, Patton Oswalt, provides the afterword), and the manuscript was completed by investigative journalist Billy Jensen and her lead researcher, Paul Haynes. The last section of the book is written in exactly the style one would expect from an investigative journalist: no nonsense and loaded with facts and relevant observations. For armchair true-crime enthusiasts, this cold case, packed with countless cases and near misses, would have been captivating based on nothing but the dry facts. However, in McNamara’s skilled hands, this enthralling book becomes so much more: a detective story with an unlikely narrator, a study in changing forensic techniques, a multidecade saga that never loses urgency, and a potent analysis of human behavior in victims, witnesses, investigators, and onlookers.

An exemplary true-crime book, and with an HBO adaptation in the works, this book will be enjoyed by any reader with an interest in human nature, crime, puzzles, and investigative dramas.

Pub Date: Feb. 27, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-231978-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 1, 2018

A potent cautionary tale of urban neglect and indifference. Infuriated readers will be heartened by the determined efforts...

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THE POISONED CITY

FLINT'S WATER AND THE AMERICAN URBAN TRAGEDY

The story of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.

In 2014, the city of Flint—pop. 99,000, majority black—turned off its drinking water in preparation for joining a new regional water system. In the meantime, the city began using Flint River water. Officials said the interim source was safe. It wasn’t. In this complex, exquisitely detailed account, freelance journalist and Detroit Free Press contributor Clark (Michigan Literary Luminaries, 2015, etc.) draws on interviews, emails, and other materials to describe the ensuing catastrophe, in which city, state, and federal officials engaged in delays and coverups for 18 months while residents complained of discolored drinking water that caused rashes, hair loss, and diseases. Citizen demands for government action went ignored, “even ridiculed,” until public pressure, media coverage, and independent studies revealed the cause of the contaminated water: lead and other toxins traveling through aging pipes that lacked mandated corrosion control. The shameful story has its heroes—e.g., persistent engineer Marc Edwards, journalist Curt Guyette, and NPR’s Michigan Radio—and its “buck-passing and turf-guarding” villains, including countless officials who dodged responsibilities while lead-laced water killed 12 people and left a lingering uncertainty over possible long-term health effects. “An Obscene Failure of Government,” said a Detroit Free Press story. Clark goes far beyond the immediate crisis—captured nationally in images of bottled water being distributed to Flint’s poor, the most severely affected—to explain “decades of negligence” that had mired the city in “debt, dysfunctional urban policy, disappearing investment, disintegrating infrastructure, and a compromised democratic process.” She warns that other declining American cities are similarly threatened. A report of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission pointed to the long-standing “systemic racism” of segregated Flint, once a General Motors–led innovation hub that attracted many African-American workers. The city faces continuing lawsuits and use of bottled water until lead pipes are replaced by 2020.

A potent cautionary tale of urban neglect and indifference. Infuriated readers will be heartened by the determined efforts of protesters and investigative reporters.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-250-12514-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

A potent, necessary broadside against incarceration in the U.S., which “imprisons a higher portion of its population than...

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AMERICAN PRISON

A REPORTER'S UNDERCOVER JOURNEY INTO THE BUSINESS OF PUNISHMENT

A penetrating exposé on the cruelty and mind-bending corruption of privately run prisons across the United States, with a focus on the Winn facility in Louisiana.

That prison was operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, but after a shorter version of this book appeared in Mother Jones, the company rebranded as CoreCivic and lost the Winn contract with the government. Bauer (co-author: A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, 2014), who has won the National Magazine Award in addition to many others, spent four months inside the prison as a corrections officer, carrying out an undercover journalism assignment to find the truth behind CCA’s documented record of lies about its practices. At least 8 percent of inmates in state prisons must adjust to the practices of laxly regulated private companies rather than those in government-run facilities. At Winn, correctional officers (a term they prefer to “guard”) risk their safety every day for $9 per hour. Bauer determined that the guards, most of them unarmed, were outnumbered by the inmates by a ratio as high as 200 to 1. The author had also viewed prison from a different perspective, having been incarcerated for two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison because he had unwittingly crossed a border while hiking as a tourist. Despite the awful conditions in his Iranian cell, Bauer found many of the conditions in Louisiana to be even worse. Nearly every page of this tale contains examples of shocking inhumanity. During his four months at Winn, Bauer also noticed a cruelty streak developing in his own character; even some of the inmates told Bauer that he was changing, and not for the better. Interspersed with the chapters about Winn, Bauer includes historical context—e.g., after the end of the Civil War, states continued slavery by a different name, forcing prisoners to pick cotton and perform other grueling tasks that produced income for prison administrations.

A potent, necessary broadside against incarceration in the U.S., which “imprisons a higher portion of its population than any country in the world.”

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2358-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2018

A solid, convincing argument based on experience, research, travel, and intelligence.

A SAVAGE ORDER

HOW THE WORLD'S DEADLIEST COUNTRIES CAN FORGE A PATH TO SECURITY

An argument for the ways in which countries can emerge from political polarization, corruption, violence, and chaos.

Kleinfeld, who advised the State Department under Hillary Clinton and now is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and founding CEO of the Truman National Security Project, offers a book that is simultaneously grim and hopeful. Richly researched—there are more than 100 pages of endnotes, 50 of bibliography—the text is both highly organized and easily accessible. She begins with the murder of a Honduran teen and ends with a consideration of ways that failing states can begin the process of moving toward better circumstances. Throughout, the author uses as exemplars a few places that have successfully emerged (places she has visited and researched)—e.g., Colombia and Georgia, the former Soviet republic. Both, writes Kleinfeld, were once in full collapse; both have rescued themselves. She also discusses other places, including the United States (especially the post–Civil War Deep South), to flesh out the body of her argument. Along the way, she introduces us to key terms and concepts, such as “privilege violence” (e.g., whites vs. blacks in the American South) and “dirty deals,” arrangements that governments sometimes make with criminal or violent elements to begin to restore order and confidence. The key to recovery, Kleinfeld argues cogently, is the stability, involvement, and solidarity of the middle class. If they remain aloof or disengaged, positive change is not really possible; if they are polarized, hope is more fragile and progress far more difficult. The author also writes about the importance of talented and dedicated politicians—rare birds that are key to the political and social recovery and survival of fractured states—to what she calls “recivilization.” If we denigrate and demonize all politicians, we have little hope.

A solid, convincing argument based on experience, research, travel, and intelligence.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-101-87199-7

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2018

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