#31: The Killer of Little Shepherds, by Douglas Starr

Begun: 4/06/2011
Finished: 4/25/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 3/5

First of all, this book has a bit of a misleading subtitle.  It purports to be “A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science” but it’s really more about forensic psychology.  As if becoming a common pattern among historical true crime books, the author follows two threads, one about a criminal and the other about an investigator, until the two converge.  Now, the investigator here is Alexandre Lacassagne, who is considered one of the founders of modern forensic science, but the trial detailed in the book, that of French serial killer Joseph Vacher, was not really about forensic science, nor was forensics used to convict him (he confessed, but pled insanity).

The advent of modern forensic techniques, many of which were developed by Lacassagne, did help to corner Vacher and capture him, but most of the work was done by a magistrate named Fouquet, and he tracked Vacher the old-fashioned way.  The connection between this case and forensic science is pretty thin, although much is made of the difficulties of rural autopsies in late 19th century France and how Lacassagne worked to standardize the practice of medico-legal investigation and developed techniques that are still used.

None of which really impacted Vacher’s capture and trial.  In fact, most of that boiled down to the then-heated (and still murky) debate about what constitutes criminal insanity, how you know someone has it, and the ethics involved in trying and executing someone who may or may not have a mental illness that excuses him from culpability.

Vacher’s crimes were indeed horrendous.  Starr’s descriptions of Vacher’s vagabond life in the French countryside is vivid and interesting, as is the historical information about the development of the scientific side of things in urban centers, but the connective tissue here is pretty thin.  The writing is serviceable, although some maps and illustrations would have added much to the text.


#30: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

Begun: 4/19/2011
Finished: 4/21/2011
Format: hardcover (library)
Rating: 3.5/5

First, on a totally shallow note, I like it when I can find a cover image that’s a 3D image of the whole book, like at left, as opposed to a flat image of the book cover.  Great, now that I’ve covered that, I’ll get to my review.

I have little patience with people (of any age, although it’s far more prevalent among the more seasoned of us) who speak wistfully or even condescendingly about how much better things were Back in The Day, how it was A Simpler Time.  No, it was not.  It was complicated in a different way.  I hate it because it’s an escape into fantasy nostalgia.  That attitude is basically saying that what’s good about the present is less valuable than what was good about the past.  All that matters is what was good then and what’s bad now, never mind what’s good now and what was bad then.  Not to mention the fact that people have an egregiously distorted idea of how bad things are now (i.e. they’re really not), but that’s a different topic.

Major Pettigrew, the protagonist of this novel, is one of the people who relentlessly looks at the present through the rose-colored glasses of his nostalgia for the past.  And yet somehow I had trouble hating him for it.  The book seems to have been written expressly so as to make it impossible to discuss it without describing it as “charming” or “adorable,” or both at once.  Adorably charming, or charmingly adorable.  It also treads the line of the increasingly populous genre of books that seem written specifically to be read by women’s book clubs who don’t wish to take on anything challenging or potentially polarizing (with the caveat that some book clubs seek out things that are challenging or polarizing).

After the first 50 pages, the book was definitely steeped in Austenian preciousness.  I worried that it would become too precious.  Happily, it did not.  In fact as it progressed, I lost my borderline impatience with all the Capital C Charm as the characters began to surprise me.  To be sure, there’s still not a lot of surprise.  Major Pettigrew is an upstanding English chap of the old school who is surrounded by boorish offspring, boorish Americans, annoyingly busybodyish neighbors and a suitably dastardly real estate developer.  His trials are many, including the inheritance of his father’s prized shotguns, his new friendship with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani village shopkeeper, the possibility of his village being turned into a theme park and his son’s total lack of social niceties (and his acquisition of an American girlfriend).  And yet somehow these predictable plot points began to bear some resonance.  The American girlfriend turns out to be not so bad.  Mrs. Ali’s potentially stereotyped nephew, a grimly Muslim young man, becomes intriguing.  Pettigrew’s son never quite redeems himself but demonstrates the potential to do so at a later time.  And the sweet romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali is given time to develop believably.

Simonson lets the quotables fly and at times I wished I was reading this on my Kindle so I could more easily mark the passages I might want to quote.  The writing is skillfully held back from overadornment and avoids tipping over into caricature – only just.  Mrs. Ali is subtly spirited but avoids becoming tiresomely “sassy,” and the Major has a dry humor that’s appealing.

So why am I only giving it 3.5 stars?  Because at the end, Simonson resorts to Grand Climactic Confrontations as a resolution.  Seriously, it’s like something out of The Graduate.  There’s a midnight escape and a secret tryst in a cottage and an attempted murder and a moonlight confrontation on the cliffs overlooking the sea, and a couple of one-off characters who suddenly fly in from left field.  It’s all quite a bit much and isn’t really in keeping with the rest of the book.  I found it jarring.

But it says something that I overran my usual one hour of post-workday reading to finish this book almost entirely in one sitting (I began my reading today on page 90 and finished the book).  So it’s recommended, with some criticisms.

#29: The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton

Begun: 4/11/2011
Finished: 4/19/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4/5

I’m normally not much of a genre reader, i.e. mystery/romance/sci-fi.  I like nonfiction or lit/contemp fiction for the most part.  But if a genre novel comes highly recommended and seems a bit outside-the-box of the usual potboiler format, I’ll gladly give it a go.  This one came recommended as just that, and I’m glad I read it, because it was quite good.

A young boy is traumatized by a Mysterious Event which leaves him mute, and he discovers a near-supernatural talent for picking locks.  A chance misdeed involving a football-rivalry prank leads him through a series of unfortunate but inexorable non-choices to a life as a criminal safecracker, beholden to a mysterious mastermind.  The story is told somewhat confusingly in two sets of nested flashbacks from the present day, where Michael is serving a ten-year prison sentence.  He is flashing back to the events that landed him in prison at age eighteen, and to the events of one year previous that led to his involvement in criminal activities in the first place.  Needless to say there’s a girl, and eventually the circumstances of his Mysterious Event are revealed (and they don’t disappoint, as so many MEs often do, in that they are definitely horrific and also lead believably both to his muteness and his safecracking ability).

Michael is an appealing narrator, acknowledge his culpability in having become embroiled in this life while at the same time showing us that it would have been damn near impossible to make different choices.  His ladylove is more a cardboard cutout, disappointingly.  The more interesting characters, namely a gang of high-end thieves he lands in with in California (and who sort of remind me of the cast of the TV show “Leverage”) don’t get as much screen time or development as I would have liked, and the climax of that storyline is somewhat…well, anticlimactic.  I felt vaguely as if some aspects of the arcs were left unresolved, but all the same it was a good read, tolerably well written (by which  mean I didn’t notice the writing and was never jerked out of the story by it).

#28: The Devil’s Gentleman, by Harold Schechter

Begun: 4/02/2011
Finished: 4/11/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4/5

It is sometimes interesting to read two similar books at one time.  I’ve been doing that for a week or so, although the other book is my lunchtime reading so I’m making far slower progress on it.  Both are true-crime books about murders that took place in the last few years of the 19th century.  This one is about Roland Molineux, who lent his name to an often-cited legal statute familiar to viewers of Law & Order (it has to do with the inadmissability of prior bad acts that aren’t part of the indictment before the court) and was tried in 1899 for several poisonings.  The other is The Killer of Little Shepherds, which is about the notorious  French serial killer Vacher, who was killing at almost the exact same time in the French countryside.  That book is about the birth of modern forensic science, but this one is more about society’s reaction to sensationalized criminality.  In essence, it’s about the birth of tabloid journalism and the genesis of what we now accept as the standard conflation of news, information and entertainment.  Schechter asserts that this was the real beginning of the twentieth century, and after reading the book, I find myself agreeing.

Schecter is a well-known writer to aficionados of true crime, and he’s taken his game up a peg with this well-researched and well-written history.  He has a knack of giving a great deal of interest to the biographical details of the key players, building up the crime itself, and setting the stage of the events of the time.  He doesn’t lapse into New Journalism Capote-esque fictionalization, nor does he do much editorializing.  In fact Molineux’s guilt or innocence is never clearly established, and Schechter doesn’t take a position.  The book was very interesting, especially to watch the interplay between the press, the popular opinion, and the actual investigators.  Molineux’s father was a venerated Civil War hero.  His wife was an ambitious socialite.  The world of journalism was changing with both Pulitzer and Hearst’s papers trying to out-yellow each other with sensationalist reporting.  The whole thing was hopelessly partial and ridiculously biased.  Say what you will about our legal system, at least it’s no longer acceptable to use blanket insinuations about men who are possibly gay killing in a “women’s fashion” like poison to bolster one’s defense strategy.

A very accessible and interesting book and a good start for newbies of true crime who don’t want to delve right into the most gruesome books about serial killers. And the book is just as much of interest to those interested in journalism history or legal history.

#27: The Devil’s Candy, by Julie Salamon

Begun: 3/29/2011
Finished: 4/05/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

I read Bonfire of the Vanities so that I could read this book, an account of the making of the big-budget, star-studded film adaptation, which became one of the most legendary flops in film history.  You wouldn’t have to have read the book to enjoy this account but I’d think you would at least have to have seen the film (which I have not, incidentally).  That being said, I felt like I got a lot more out of the book having read Wolfe’s book, and knowing what its message and tone was in comparison to how the film was made.

Author Salamon sat in during the entire production of the film.  Of course at the time, she and director Brian De Palma, who approved her journalistic presence, were unaware of the disaster the film would turn out to be, so Salamon would have had no idea that she’d be chronicling a symbol of Hollywood hucksterism.  Sometimes the universe just hands you a big juicy plum for no particular reason.

Salamon’s account of the filming is precise and detailed, even a tad dry at times, but she admirably sticks to what she witnessed and learned through interviews.  She doesn’t speculate or traffic in gossip, presenting the actors and Hollywood power types as she experienced them.  The book was a fast read and very interesting, as well as illuminating of the frustrating process of trying to make a good film when every single thing is piecemeal.  It’s like the death by a thousand cuts, or like being pecked to death by ducks.  I would have appreciated some more material at the end and some analysis of why the film failed so badly.  There is some, of course, but the end felt a tad rushed.

#26: Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher

Begun: 3/31/2011
Finished: 4/4/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 2/5

It is a truth universally acknowledged (or at least clung to with desperation) that if something works once, it ought to work again.  Nowhere is this less true than in the world of novels and writing, where when one author captures lightning in a bottle, a hundred lesser imitations inevitably follow, attempting to duplicate the first author’s success.  It never works.  Okay, it hardly ever works.

Just as Rick O’Riordan went after the Potter audience with his Percy Jackson series, Catherine Fisher is going after the Hunger Games audience with this first book of a series.  Call it the dystopian-future-fantasy genre.  The difference is that the Percy Jackson books are…well, good.  The same cannot be said about this book.

You know how a lot of people will say about a book that they could see everything happening in their heads?  That the writer had a strong visual sense, and a vividness to the writing that made the characters, plot and settings come alive in their imagination?  This is the opposite of that.  If I had to choose one word to describe the writing in this book, it would be vague. Everything is vague.  You know you’re in trouble when some event or situation is being described and you have to go back and re-read to figure out if it’s metaphorical or not.  There is no strong sense of setting or place.  I was never quite sure where we were or what it looked like or the relation in space of the various settings or events of the plot.  I spent the whole book sort of adrift in Stuff That Was Happening, none of which was ever made very clear or striking and none of which invoked a strong emotional response.

The plot itself is pretty vague, too.  A young man, Finn, is a prisoner in Incarceron, a seemingly infinitely large facility that people simply are born inside, live and die in.  For 150 years the population has lived there, wondering if Outside really exists.  Well, it does, and Outside lives under a decree that they must all be stuck in Protocol, being true to the Era, which seems to be a sort of pseudo-Elizabethan time period (although the rich are able to cheat rampantly).  There, Claudia is set to marry the heir apparent to the throne, and her father is Warden of Incarceron.  She and Finn both separately discover crystal keys to the prison that allow them to communicate, Finn vows to escape, she vows to discover the truth about the prison, and stuff happens.  It’s all rather haphazard, the characters are ciphers, and the Big Revelation about the true nature of Incarceron (you knew there’d be one) is profoundly unsatisfying and left me going “Really?  That’s what you’re going with?  That’s the best you could do?”

I didn’t think it was possible for characters in a novel to have so little chemistry with each other, but there really isn’t any life to the interpersonal interactions here and everything’s just fairly flat and vague and without affect.  I’m giving it two stars for creativity and because…well, it isn’t that bad, I guess.  But I can’t recommend it, and I don’t think I’ll bestir myself to read the sequel.

The downsides of setting goals

I’ve just come up against a drawback of setting an ambitious books-read goal for myself: it means I can’t abandon a book that’s not really doing it for me.

I mean, if I were to hate a book in the first ten pages, I could put it down and pick up another without too much sturm und drang.  But if I’m a third of the way through before I realize hey, this isn’t my cup of tea, it’s not really grabbing me — well, now I’m too invested.  I’ve spent too much time on it and if I stop reading now, I won’t get to add it to my tally and I will have wasted the time I’ve already put in reading it.

I find myself in that situation now with Incarceron, the next young adult title I picked up after finishing the excellent Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I knew it was dystopian fantasy, somewhat in the Hunger Games style (I did love that series).  It isn’t my usual genre, but what the heck.

Well…it isn’t terrible and i don’t hate it, it’s just not really blowing my skirt up, you know what I mean?  But I’m almost 200 pages in, I’ve put in a good four or five hours’ reading time, and dammit now I have to finish it.  I might not do so if it weren’t for The Project.

I may finish it and find that I’m glad I did, or I might just begrudge that reading time in perpetuity.  Only another 300 pages will tell for sure.