THE LAST MADAM

A LIFE IN THE NEW ORLEANS UNDERWORLD

Wiltz’s biography of Norma Wallace, proprietor of New Orleans’s longest continuously operating bordello, exposes the madam’s sordid tricks of the trade, yet somehow manages to strip the most titillating frills away from her story. Wallace, learning early in life that sex could pay for many things she otherwise couldn’t afford, began her life of prostitution in Memphis at the ripe age of 14. With a savvy knack for self-preservation, she returned to her roots in New Orleans and established her own sporting house, beginning her celebrated career as a New Orleans sexual institution. The city’s richest families patronized her establishment, as did movie stars, foreign dignitaries, and local officials. With such a range of clients, Wallace gained access to all the town’s dirty secrets, making her more than a match for the many reform-minded district attorneys and mayors who hankered to shut her down. In addition to Wallace’s professional life, Wiltz (Glass House, 1994, etc.) depicts her subject’s search for domestic bliss with five husbands and many more lovers, including a former boxer punched nearly blind, a hit man for Al Capone, and a young Louisiana buck 39 years her junior who helped her try to go legitimate as the owner of a family restaurant. Wiltz also roams beyond Wallace’s professional and romantic affairs to spotlight her state’s infamously crooked politics, the licensed depravities of the French Quarter, and Wallace’s humorous attempt to realize a pastoral ideal in the backwoods amid a community of righteous citizens. Though using Wallace’s illustrious X-rated career to balance a wider range of Big Easy corruption should produce surefire pleasure, only the most ravenous consumers of brothel culture will stand for Wiltz’s cutesy wordplay (almost 20 percent of the chapter titles pun on “trick”) and pedestrian prose. The real shame here is that Wiltz dressed up her story so licentiously instead of borrowing more of Wallace’s own shoddy finery.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-571-19954-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1999

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At times slow-going, but the riveting period detail and dramatic flair eventually render this tale an animated history...

THUNDERSTRUCK

A murder that transfixed the world and the invention that made possible the chase for its perpetrator combine in this fitfully thrilling real-life mystery.

Using the same formula that propelled Devil in the White City (2003), Larson pairs the story of a groundbreaking advance with a pulpy murder drama to limn the sociological particulars of its pre-WWI setting. While White City featured the Chicago World’s Fair and America’s first serial killer, this combines the fascinating case of Dr. Hawley Crippen with the much less gripping tale of Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of radio. (Larson draws out the twin narratives for a long while before showing how they intersect.) Undeniably brilliant, Marconi came to fame at a young age, during a time when scientific discoveries held mass appeal and were demonstrated before awed crowds with circus-like theatricality. Marconi’s radio sets, with their accompanying explosions of light and noise, were tailor-made for such showcases. By the early-20th century, however, the Italian was fighting with rival wireless companies to maintain his competitive edge. The event that would bring his invention back into the limelight was the first great crime story of the century. A mild-mannered doctor from Michigan who had married a tempestuously demanding actress and moved to London, Crippen became the eye of a media storm in 1910 when, after his wife’s “disappearance” (he had buried her body in the basement), he set off with a younger woman on an ocean-liner bound for America. The ship’s captain, who soon discerned the couple’s identity, updated Scotland Yard (and the world) on the ship’s progress—by wireless. The chase that ends this story makes up for some tedious early stretches regarding Marconi’s business struggles.

At times slow-going, but the riveting period detail and dramatic flair eventually render this tale an animated history lesson.

Pub Date: Oct. 24, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-8066-5

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2006

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Smart hopes that sharing her story might help heal the scars of others, though the book is focused on what she suffered...

MY STORY

The inspirational and ultimately redemptive story of a teenage girl’s descent into hell, framed as a parable of faith.

The disappearance of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002 made national headlines, turning an entire country into a search party; it seemed like something of a miracle when she reappeared, rescued almost by happenstance, nine months later. As the author suggests, it was something of a mystery that her ordeal lasted that long, since there were many times when she was close to being discovered. Her captors, a self-proclaimed religious prophet whose sacraments included alcohol, pornography and promiscuous sex, and his wife and accomplice, jealous of this “second wife” he had taken, weren’t exactly criminal masterminds. In fact, his master plan was for similar kidnappings to give him seven wives in all, though Elizabeth’s abduction was the only successful one. She didn’t write her account for another nine years, at which point she had a more mature perspective on the ordeal, and with what one suspects was considerable assistance from co-author Stewart, who helps frame her story and fill in some gaps. Though the account thankfully spares readers the graphic details, Smart tells of the abuse and degradation she suffered, of the fear for her family’s safety that kept her from escaping and of the faith that fueled her determination to survive. “Anyone who suggests that I became a victim of Stockholm syndrome by developing any feelings of sympathy for my captors simply has no idea what was going on inside my head,” she writes. “I never once—not for a single moment—developed a shred of affection or empathy for either of them….The only thing there ever was was fear.”

Smart hopes that sharing her story might help heal the scars of others, though the book is focused on what she suffered rather than how she recovered.

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-250-04015-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

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