April 1, 2013
Customs come and go but people’s fascination with the diabolical and the deadly is a constant throughout history. Greed, pride, and lust are among the most resilient of the Seven Deadly Sins. These perennial human failings help to power the stories of the books under review here, whether they take place in antiquity or in our own time period. Here are five books that are certain to captivate any aficionado of the true crime genre.
by Denise Noe
Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill (Crown Publishers, 2013). This timely, deeply researched, well-written volume completes their trilogy on Whitey Bulger, The Boston Mafia, and the corrupt FBI that allowed Bulger a 20-year-year reign of terror in Boston. Lehr and O’Neill were longtime investigative reporters for the Boston Globe with front row seats to the FBI scandal that enabled Bulger to run his syndicate and murder with impunity. For all things “Whitey,” this is the definitive account, from his teenage years in the 1940s in South Boston, his time in the U.S. Air Force (honorably discharged in 1953), his bank-robbing spree that sent him to the Atlanta Penitentiary in 1956 where he volunteered to participate in a clandestine CIA-financed LSD project, his shipment to Alcatraz, and his parole from the Lewisburg Penitentiary in 1965, a release greatly abetted by U.S. Speaker of the House John McCormack, a friend of Bulger’s younger brother, Bill, a powerful member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Over the next 20 years Bulger thrived in the Boston underworld thanks to the protection he received from FBI Agent John Connolly for being an FBI informant against the Boston Italian Mafia. Bulger’s ties to the FBI rank as one of the most reprehensible alliances the agency ever formed. It was an alliance that time and again saved Bulger from indictment and arrest while he was murdering at will to solidify and expand his multi-million-dollar criminal empire. By the time a federal indictment was issued against Bulger in 1995 he was long gone, tipped off in advance by Connolly. Over the next 16 years Bulger the fugitive rose to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted List with a $2 million reward offered for his capture. On June 22, 2011 Bulger, then 81, and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, 58, were arrested at an apartment complex in Santa Monica, California. In June of 2013, Bulger is scheduled to go on trial for 19 murders and other crimes. Greig pled guilty to conspiracy to harbor a fugitive and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The Dark Side of Sunshine by Paul Guzzo (Aignos Publishing, Inc., 2012) is as cleverly written as it is titled. Paul Guzzo has written a collection of stories about colorful malefactors in Tampa, Florida of both the somewhat distant and very recent past. Guzzo keeps the pace moving briskly as the chapters introduce his readers to a fascinatingly motley crew. He begins with a brief chapter about the founding of Tampa and how the “known history” of the city “dates back to the 1500s when the Spanish explorers arrived and discovered the area.” Among the most deadly characters Guzzo introduces are Robert “The Firebug” Anderson, an arsonist and murderer who terrorized Tampa for “seven long months in 1912.” An African American, he was outraged at white man-black woman liaisons – and expressed his displeasure through murdering people – ironically, often black people. One of the most colorful characters in this book is Charlie Wall, a gangster prominent in the 1920s and ‘30s who survived until 1955 and claimed he lived longer than most mobsters because the “devil looks after his own.” Guzzo tells a tale that requires a double take when he writes that Carlos Carbonelli “fled the United States for Cuba” in 1960. Like so many well-intentioned people, Carbonelli had hoped that Castro would bring democracy to Cuba. Perhaps the champion oddball in this collection is the modern-day adventurer Gene Holloway “who once owned the eighth most profitable restaurant in the nation – the Sea Wolf – married a former Miss Tampa, collected dozens upon dozens of priceless antiques just to brag about how much money he spent, ran for president and tried to bribe the pope to come to dine at his restaurant.” Holloway also faked his own death only to be arrested for dealing dope in Canada a few months after his supposed demise in Tampa. A slim book, The Dark Side of Sunshine is captivating and quick paced as Guzzo shines a wickedly vibrant light on some nasty, nutty, and nefarious personages.
Wealthy Men Only by Stella Sands (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) reads like a film noir in the contemporary era. As prosecutor Matt Murphy correctly notes, “You can’t find a more interesting group of people for a murder case.” There is wealthy middle-aged divorcé Bill McLaughlin who became rich by inventing a special mechanism to separate plasma from blood. Then there is the lovely and seductive Nanette Johnston who took out an advertisement for a romantic partner that began “Wealthy Men Only.” When she is cohabiting with Bill, she meets up with young, handsome hunk Eric Naposki, who once played professional football in the NFL. More heartbreakingly, there is Bill’s son Kevin, handicapped from being hit by a drunk driver, who found his dead Dad. Suffering a speech impediment, Kevin called 911 to report the shooting of his father. He was hard to understand and it is possible Bill’s life slipped away while the dispatcher struggled to understand Kevin’s slurred speech. It took authorities over 15 years to assemble a case that put both Johnston and Naposki behind bars for life with no possibility of parole. Sands tells this dramatic story in a straightforward way that makes the book hard to put down. She includes enough detail to paint a picture in the reader’s mind but never enough to bore. Wealthy Men Only will be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates a well-told true crime story.
Katherine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy by Joanna Denny (Portrait, 2005) reads like an especially exciting historical novel but it is in fact a well-written and well-researched history of crimes and punishments that took place in one of the most colorful eras of Early Modern history. Denny brings the reader wholeheartedly into the Tudor period as she recounts the birth of Katherine Howard, the 10th baby born to Lady Jocasta Howard. Denny writes, “The midwife quickly cleared the baby’s mouth to aid her first breath and rubbed her little red body to encourage her cry. Next, she cut the umbilical cord and bathed her in a mixture of warm milk and wine. A coin was placed on the baby’s buttocks to drive the devil away.” Denny is more sympathetic to Katherine than some historians. Denny notes that knowing Katherine’s age at certain points is crucial to how she is viewed. At the time music teacher Henry Manox was to “handle and touch the secret parts” of Katherine’s body, she was 11 years old. Denny rightly asserts that Katherine was not the over-sexed juvenile delinquent she is often seen as but the victim of child sexual abuse. She was 12 or 13 when initiated into actual sex by Frances Dereham. Denny depicts Katherine as a naïve girl, not yet an adult, when she was dangled before the aging and ill King Henry VIII by ambitious relatives. Unlike some historians such as Retha Warnicke and Elisabeth Wheeler, Denny accepts as true the received wisdom that Katherine was enamored of Thomas Culpepper although she observes that he was a nasty man. Denny writes that in 1539 he “attacked and raped the wife of a park-keeper while three or four of his followers held her down.” A neighbor attempted to intervene and was murdered. King Henry VIII pardoned Culpepper, a man who had “won the King’s favor with his good looks and by his skill at dressing Henry’s ulcer.” Denny’s account of Katherine’s sudden rise, dizzying fall, and heartbreaking end is a captivating story that lingers in the mind long after the book is finished.
The Murder of Cleopatra: History’s Greatest Cold Case by Pat Brown (Prometheus Books, 2013) is an original and incisive exploration of the life and demise of one of history’s most intriguing figures. Brown brings the special skills of a crime analyst to the story of Cleopatra and points out how the story of her suicide, accepted for over 2,000 years, is filled with gaping holes as to its credibility. Almost everyone believes that the conquered queen, fearful of being led through Octavian’s triumph in Rome, smuggled in a poisonous snake to commit suicide. Brown points out that this story is fatal flawed and in vital respects simply implausible. She asks, “How was it that Cleopatra managed to smuggle a cobra into the tomb in a basket of figs? Why would the guards allow this food in and why would they be so careless in examining the item? Why would Octavian, supposedly so adamant about taking Cleopatra to Rome for his triumph, be so lax about her imprisonment? Why would Cleopatra think it easier to hide a writhing snake in a basket of figs rather than slip poison inside one of the many figs?” There are many other unanswered questions about the commonly accepted suicide scene that Brown points to in asserting that it was a cover story for a murder. Brown makes a persuasive case that Octavian was far more likely to murder Cleopatra than take the risk that she might escape before being marched in chains through Rome. She also points out that degrading Egypt’s last Pharaoh in such a way might have outraged the Egyptian people and garnered sympathy for Cleopatra. This book is a powerful and remarkable study that should be read by anyone interested in such dynamic historical personages as Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian. It is certain to stimulate fresh thought in open-minded readers.