The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett: B

From the back cover:
Unrepentant book thief John Charles Gilkey has stolen a fortune in rare books from around the country. Yet unlike most thieves, who steal for profit, Gilkey steals for love—the love of books. Perhaps equally obsessive, though, is Ken Sanders, the self-appointed “bibliodick” driven to catch him. Sanders, a lifelong rare book collector and dealer turned amateur detective, will stop at nothing to catch the thief plaguing his trade.

In following both of these eccentric characters, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged deep into a world of fanatical book lust and ultimately found herself caught between the many people interested in finding Gilkey’s stolen treasure and the man who wanted to keep it hidden: the thief himself.

With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor, Bartlett has woven this cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his crimes and how Sanders eventually caught him, but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them.

When a man depicted in a nonfiction narrative is described on the back cover as someone “who will stop at nothing to catch the thief” who has been victimizing members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, a reader might be forgiven for expecting some sort of chase. The clever thief. The details of his crimes. The dogged pursuer. The final, satisfying capture. The end.

But that’s not what one gets with The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. I don’t fault author Bartlett for this—she probably had little to do with the way the book was marketed—but it’s rather disappointing all the same. Instead, the book is more a profile of John Gilkey, a mild-mannered guy who used a combination of identity theft and manipulative politeness to steal vast quantities of rare and valuable books. It’s not as if his methods are ingenious, it’s just that he found one that worked and employed it over and over again until enough booksellers finally pooled their information and got him caught. Until he made bail. Then stole again. And was incarcerated again. Then stole again.

The details of some of his crimes are provided, and the scenes of police investigations and sting operations are genuinely fascinating. I liked, too, that Bartlett began to wonder what her responsibilities were regarding some of the information Gilkey had divulged to her, and how much she herself had become a part of the story. Even the fact that Bartlett is more interested in why Gilkey steals than what or how is fine, but after being told for the fourth time that Gilkey steals because he wants a collection others will envy and feels entitled to have it, regardless of whether he can afford it—and how, but for “his crimes and his narcissistic justification of them,” he’s not that different from law-abiding collectors—I began to grow weary.

I admit to some peevishness over the title, as well. Gilkey is not a man who loves books, but a man who loves the status owning an impressive array of recognizable titles will bestow. Granted, that’s a little long for a book title, but as someone who genuinely loves books—for their content!—I am annoyed that someone who merely desires their sheer presence on a shelf gets to make the same claim.

Ultimately, those looking for a detective-style story with a definitive ending will be disappointed. Gilkey is brought to justice for only a fraction of his crimes and shows no intention of stopping any time soon. As the portrait of an obsessed thief with a grudge against those who would keep him from what he believes he deserves, the book is more successful, though somewhat repetitive.

Additional reviews of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much can be found at Triple Take.

The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir: B+

princesintowerFrom the front flap:
Despite five centuries of investigation by historians, the sinister deaths of the boy king Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, remain one of the most fascinating murder mysteries in English history. Did Richard III really kill “the Princes in the Tower,” as is commonly believed, or was the murderer someone else entirely? In this utterly absorbing and meticulously researched book, English writer Alison Weir, an authority on the history of the British royal family, at last provides a conclusive solution to this age-old puzzle.

There are two schools of thought on Richard III. One group, dubbed “revisionists,” believes that Richard’s unsavory reputation is undeserved and that he did not do the awful things attributed to him. The second, “traditionalists,” hold that Richard was tyrannical and ambitious and certainly did commit many terrible acts. Alison Weir is firmly in the traditionalist camp and, after reading her work, I must (reluctantly) conclude that Richard probably was behind the deaths of his nephews.

The way Weir organizes her information is interesting. After devoting the entire first chapter to an introduction and evaluation of her sources, especially contemporary ones, she proceeds to tell the story by citing many of the sources in turn. These do not always agree, and when they don’t, she points it out and explains which, in her opinion, is likely the most accurate account. The result is a narrative that feels thorough and yet not unnecessarily bogged down by detours into conjecture. While I lament the passing of my romanticized view of Richard III, Weir ultimately did compile enough irrefutable evidence to convince me of his villainy.

Some things about the way the information is presented rankle a bit, however. It’s clear from pretty early on that Weir, despite claiming that she approached the question of Richard’s guilt with an open mind, is completely dismissive of the revisionist view, saying “the majority of serious historians have rejected it.” Too, she often seems to base her arguments on behavioral assumptions like (paraphrased) “Surely a man of such integrity would verify his facts” or “This was published during a time when many people who knew Richard III were still alive and would spot inaccuracies.” Okay, sure, but in a political climate where beheadings occur frequently—and when the monarch (Henry VII) in power wants to avoid attention being called to the House of York, as Weir points out herself—are these people really going to feel free to defend him? It’s not that I dispute her conclusions based on the evidence, and I’m by no means a historian myself, but I do have to wonder whether this is how research is normally conducted and presented.

In any case, Weir’s account of Richard’s life, deeds, and legacy is a fascinating and, ultimately, convincing read, even to someone like me who has enjoyed (and likely will continue to enjoy) reading historical fiction in which Richard is presented in a positive light.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt: B+

From the back cover:
Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self defense? The question captivated the city’s Society, high and low, for over a decade.

John Berendt, a veteran New York magazine writer and editor, traveled to Savannah and, having become enchanted by this isolated remnant of the Old South, made it his second home. Over a period of eight years, he encountered the city’s eccentric characters, became involved in bizarre adventures, and closely followed the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

A literary account of a crime + old houses + the South = a book with my name all over it.

It’s kind of hard to categorize Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, since it’s not a straight-up account of a murder. Instead, Berendt takes his time in bringing the “beguiling” city of Savannah to life, from its high society—the rich businessmen and who belong to the yacht club, the well-bred married ladies who gather to play cards every month, et cetera—to those who society would disdain, like a drag queen with massive attitude and a practitioner of black magic. Fully the first half of the book is the author getting introduced to various colorful characters and hearing tales about crazy parties and ancient yet salacious scandals that haven’t been forgotten. It’s all very interesting to read about—reads like fiction, really—but the picture Berendt paints makes me glad I don’t live there or know any of these people!

The crime part comes in when Jim Williams, a man who wasn’t born into wealth but earned it through his own savvy for antiques, shoots and kills his violent-tempered lover. He claims it’s a case of self-defense, though there are certain pieces of evidence that would indicate otherwise. Williams ends up getting tried for the crime four separate times on account of various errors and hung juries, and in desperation ends up turning to a black magic practitioner, Minerva, for help. It’s from an expedition to a graveyard with Minerva that the book derives its title.

I found it interesting that at first, Williams comes across as very urbane and polished and when he first consults Minerva, he’s pretty dismissive about what she’s doing. As time wears on and he grows more desperate, he begins to believe in things like curses and ghosts bearing grudges more and more. It’s like you’re seeing him come a bit unhinged before your eyes. I shan’t spoil the outcome because, really, the book reads rather like a mystery. We know who did it and how, but the mystery is whether he’ll eventually be acquitted and allowed to return to his posh life or if he’ll finally go to prison for good.

I might’ve rated the book more highly if there weren’t so many characters (or, I suppose, residents) who rubbed me the wrong way, but ultimately, I found it to be both well written and entertaining.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson: B

From the back cover:
In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.

Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.

Gripping from the first word and rich with fascinating detail about the time, the people, and the new inventions that connect and divide us, Thunderstruck is splendid narrative history from a master of the form.

As in The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck offers parallel tales of highest achievement and foulest crime. The book begins by showing how the invention of wireless telegraphy will be responsible, in 1910, for the capture of wanted murderer Harvey Crippen who has fled England on a ship bound for Canada. This gives the reader a nice hook to be reading towards as the narrative then cycles back a dozen years or so to show how things all began.

While it’s interesting to follow the progress of wireless telegraphy and the deterioration of Crippen’s marriage, I felt that sometimes the author was a little too proud of including random details his research had unearthed. One particular instance that sticks in my mind is a description of the childhood home of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless, down to the kind of plants that grew in the tubs that flanked the front door of the residence. He does, however, do a very good job describing the flawed personalities of those involved, particularly Marconi and his seeming inability to understand how his actions might hurt or impact others.

While the history is a little slow going at times—I never really understood the technical and scientific issues—by virtue of its construction, it gets more exciting as it goes along. In fact, I’d venture to say that the final chapters, featuring a Scotland Yard detective who hops a fast steamer in an attempt to intercept Crippen’s vessel before he can reach Canada and the world’s breathless anticipation of the results, are positively riveting.

Too, I liked the epilogue that mentioned what the central players ended up doing with their lives after these exciting events. It’s unfortunate that the whole book ends with an irritatingly unanswered question, though. I’m not sure why the author thought that necessary or desirable.

Between Good and Evil by Roger L. Depue and Susan Schindehette: B

From the back cover:
No one gets closer to evil than a criminal profiler, trained to penetrate the hearts and minds of society’s most vicious psychopaths. And no one is a more towering figure in the world of criminal profilers than Roger L. Depue. Chief of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit at a time when its innovative work first came to prominence, he headed a renowned team of mind hunters. In a subbasement sixty feet under the Academy gun vault in Quantico, he broke new ground with analytical techniques and training programs that are still used today. After retiring from the FBI, he founded an elite forensics group that consulted on high-profile cases.

But coming face-to-face with the darkest deeds human beings are capable of took a horrific toll. After suffering a devastating personal loss, Depue, on the brink of despair, walked away from the outside world and joined a seminary. And it was there, while counseling maximum security inmates, that he rediscovered the capacity for goodness in people, and made the decision to return to the world to resume his work.

Here is Depue’s extraordinary personal account, from growing up as a police officer’s son to tracking down some of today’s most brutal murderers. With its harrowing descriptions of human depravity and passionate call to fight against evil, Between Good and Evil is both a riveting dispatch from the front lines of a war against human predators… and the powerful story of one man’s journey between darkness and redemption.

Between Good and Evil was pretty good, but wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. Reading over the back cover blurb again, I see that it’s not at all deceptive; I simply got the wrong impression.

The book chronicled Depue’s professional career, including the development of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit. Depue wrote of the struggle to get profiling accepted as a legitimate investigative technique and how it proved its worth time and time again. Quite a few specific cases were featured as were the research efforts (primarily interviewing the notorious perpetrators of heinous crimes) the agents undertook in order to ensure they could devise the best possible profile. Without a doubt, profiling is useful, but I wanted to see how it is done.

For example, in one case, the Unit concluded that a kidnapper likely drove a conversative family vehicle, a sedan or station wagon, four years of age or older. It turned out they were right, but I wanted to know what about the crime made them come to that conclusion! There was only one such detailed analysis included—of the ransom note in the Jon Benet Ramsey case—and I would’ve liked more examples.

As a memoir, it was pretty interesting, though Depue seemed to take special pride in his high school fighting prowess and was fond of anecdotes wherein he got to say something tough and intimidating to somebody. There were plenty of gruesome crime details, too, including some things that I had never imagined and will probably never forget. The chapter on the death of Depue’s wife was affecting, but a some of the religious stuff near the end was a bit much.

All in all, Between Good and Evil functions better as a life story than it does as an introduction to the actual task of criminal profiling.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: B

From the back cover:
In Under the Banner of Heaven, John Krakauer shift his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by a pair of brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they were commanded to kill by God.

Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this “divinely inspired” crime, Krakauer constructs a multi-layered, bone-chilling narrative of polygamy, savage violence, and unyielding faith. Weaving the story of the Lafferty brothers and their fanatical brethren with a clear-eyed look at Mormonism’s violent past, Krakauer examines the underbelly of the United States’ most successful homegrown faith, and finds a distinctly American brand of religious extremism.

I hadn’t realized I was going to get so much information about Mormonism in this book, and I now know more than I ever wanted to about it. Most of the included history was contextually important for understanding the background of the Lafferty brothers (who were actually the focus only about 1/4 of the time), but sometimes it wore on interminably.

Krakauer’s writing was clear and easy to understand and fulfilled the promise of remaining “clear-eyed.” The portrait of Mormonism that was presented may’ve been unflattering, but it wasn’t malicious. Events were recounted and allowed to stand on their own without being made to serve one opinion or another.

I particularly found interesting the hearing to determine whether Ron Lafferty could be deemed delusional (and thusly incompetent to stand trial) because of his extreme religious beliefs, or whether that would mean that everyone who believes in irrational things (an example given was transubstantiation) as part of their religion must also be considered insane.

All in all, Under the Banner of Heaven was informative and accessible. I learned a great deal and was prompted to ponder a great deal. That said, as I neared the end I was really ready for it to be over.

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon: A+

From the inside flap:
The scene is Baltimore, the year is 1988. Twice every three days another citizen is shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned to death. And at the center of this hurricane of crime is the city’s homicide unit, a small brotherhood of hard men who fight for whatever justice is possible in a deadly world.

The homicide detective is an American icon, the hero of a mythology created by film and television. But until now, no journalist has spent enough time on the killing streets to get behind the myth and show us how a detective really operates. In a book that boils with drama, humor, and haunting truth, David Simon tells a riveting tale about the men who work on the dark side of the American experience.

As a fan Homicide: Life on the Street, I was interested to read the book upon which it was based. I recognized many characters and events, some having undergone significant changes for the TV series, others virtually untouched.

Homicide provides a thorough portrait of the unglamorous working lives of this band of detectives, including long hours, sweltering summers, personality quirks, conflicts, the joys of paperwork, recalcitrant witnesses, crude humor, actually amusing humor, superiors fixated on clearance rates, details of current cases, and one old lady bleating like a crazed goat. I could never in a million years do this job.

The book’s a dense read; dealing with such sheer volume of names and incidents requires attention to keep things straight, and even then some of the detectives are kind of indistinguishable. And it’s a bit dated. Yet, it’s also completely fascinating and well worth reading. I was sorry to see it end.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: B

From the front flap:
In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson tells the spellbinding true story of two men, an architect and a serial killer, whose fates were linked by the greatest fair in American history: the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, nicknamed “The White City.”

What The Devil in the White City excels at is evocation of time and place. One really gets a sense of what life in late 19th century Chicago was like, and what kind of people populated it. Impressive self-made men, desperate laborers, women coming to the big city on their own for a life of independence, criminals like Holmes (the aforementioned serial killer) who exploit the unsuspicious natures of those around them…

Where it dragged for me was in the planning stages of the Fair, with innumerable names being bandied about, so many men flitting in and out of the scene that I continually had to go back and try to refresh myself who this guy was and why was he talking to this other guy, etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the serial killer bits were interesting, and the Fair was, too, once it actually got up and running.

All in all, I liked it and will be checking out Thunderstruck in the near future.