Prodigious research enlivens a vigorous reappraisal of the writer’s life.

THE SINNER AND THE SAINT

DOSTOEVSKY AND THE GENTLEMAN MURDERER WHO INSPIRED A MASTERPIECE

A 19th-century true-crime/literary tale in which two lives become enmeshed in evil.

Award-winning literary historian Birmingham elaborates on the trials and travails of Dostoevsky (1821-1881) by interweaving his life with that of notorious French outlaw Pierre Francois Lacenaire (1803-1836), a figure whose “base instincts” fascinated Dostoevsky. Lacenaire, who studied law and wrote poetry, detailed his many grisly crimes—including the murders of a gay man and his mother—in a scandalous memoir. Widely celebrated as a romantic iconoclast, Lacenaire came to represent “the radical artist undermining bourgeois society” and fueled Dostoevsky’s imagination as he wrote Crime and Punishment, with a protagonist whose motivation to kill was a mystery “even to himself.” Dostoevsky set himself the challenge of grappling with the nature of evil by telling “a murderer’s story from the murderer’s perspective.” The trajectory of Dostoevsky’s life is by now familiar: He burst onto the literary scene in 1845 with the publication of Poor Folk, but within a few years, his critical reputation waned and he was drawn into the left-leaning Petrashevsky Circle. Arrested when the czar clamped down on political protest, he was imprisoned for eight months, faced a firing squad, and was pardoned at the last minute and sent into exile in Siberia. There, he sought out stories of his fellow convicts, including murderers; he was transfixed by their renderings of their crimes. Bedeviled by epileptic seizures, a gambling addiction, and overwhelming debt, he made an “ill-fated marriage,” suffered a doomed love affair, and found himself, at the age of 43, owing 15,000 rubles—some incurred when he took on his late brother’s debts, most because of his gambling losses. Drawing on his addiction for The Gambler, he exposed the irrationality and “fantasy of the power of daring” involved in roulette. Birmingham conveys in vibrant detail Dostoevsky’s literary aspirations, struggles to publish, and tumultuous world of “angels and demons.”

Prodigious research enlivens a vigorous reappraisal of the writer’s life.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59420-630-6

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2021

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A thimbleful of fresh content lies buried in tales familiar and often told.

THE LAST DAYS OF JOHN LENNON

Beatlemania meets autopsy in the latest product from the Patterson factory.

The authors take more than half the book to reach John Lennon’s final days, which passed 40 years ago—an anniversary that, one presumes, provides the occasion for it. The narrative opens with killer Mark David Chapman talking to himself: “It’s like I’m invisible.” And how do we know that Chapman thought such a thing? Well, the authors aver, they’re reconstructing the voices in his head and other conversations “based on available third-party sources and interviews.” It’s a dubious exercise, and it doesn’t get better with noir-ish formulas (“His mind is a dangerous neighborhood”) and clunky novelistic stretches (“John Lennon wakes up, reaches for his eyeglasses. At first the day seems like any other until he realizes it’s a special one….He picks up the kitchen phone to greet his old songwriting partner, who’s called to wish him all the best for the record launch”). In the first half of the book, Patterson and company reheat the Beatles’ origin story and its many well-worn tropes, all of which fans already know in detail. Allowing for the internal monologue, things improve somewhat once the narrative approaches Chapman’s deranged act—300-odd pages in, leaving about 50 pages for a swift-moving account of the murder and its aftermath, which ends with Chapman in a maximum-security cell where “he will be protected from the ugliness of the outside world….The cell door slides shut and locks. Mark David Chapman smiles. I’m home.” To their credit, the authors at least don’t blame Lennon’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” for egging on the violence that killed him, but this book pales in comparison to Kenneth Womack’s John Lennon 1980 and Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life, among many other tomes on the Fab Four.

A thimbleful of fresh content lies buried in tales familiar and often told.

Pub Date: Dec. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-42906-1

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 7, 2021

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

TOMBSTONE

THE EARP BROTHERS, DOC HOLLIDAY, AND THE VENDETTA RIDE FROM HELL

Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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