June 8, 2010
Crime Magazine's Review of True-Crime Books
When international playboy Joran van der Sloot was arrested in Peru and confessed within days to the brutal slaying of Stephany Flores, the first thing that popped into countless crimewatchers' minds was that Flores wasn't the first woman he had killed — nor, had he remained free, would she be the last. The wheels of justice are as yet to reveal more about this story, but our grim thoughts spring from what might be the first and foremost fact of crime, which is this: History repeats itself. The same criminals commit the same types of crimes again and again, doing the same thing to the same type of victim in the same type of scene. I suspect that this is what we'll learn about van der Sloot. But, as the books reviewed in this column reveal, history also repeats itself in the sense that some types of crime seem intrinsic to human character, impervious to cultural evolution, raised consciousness, or anything else. Sex-killers and drug dealers and kidnappers made headlines in our great-grandparents' era and are still doing so today; all that has changed are the styles of the jackets and shoes they wear.
by Anneli Rufus
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan: by Jane Adelstein (Pantheon, 2009): A Midwesterner who went to Japan at age 19 seeking Buddhist-style tranquility, Adelstein attended Sophia University and became so skilled at speaking and writing Japanese that he netted a prestigious post as crime reporter for the popular Yomiuri Shinbun. This engagingly self-aware — if often self-deprecatory — narrative exposes a dark underworld behind the sushi bars and bullet trains. Adelstein offers an insider's perspective on the Lucie Blackman murder case, among others, and recounts in grim but lucid prose his ever-deeper entanglements with yakuza gangsters.
Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, the Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease, by John Heidenry (St. Martin's, 2010): Like all child-abduction cases, this is the tragic tale of an innocent victim picked because he was so vulnerable. In 1953, 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease was kidnapped by a couple who asked his Kansas City car-dealer father for $600,000 in ransom. Although this was paid, the boy had been killed within an hour of his abduction. Longtime journalist Heidenry competently traces a complex web of wrongdoers including mobsters, cops, and the kidnappers themselves. Before her execution, the convicted woman wrote to the victim's parents: "I never realized that Bobby would be such a sweet child until it was too late."
Most Wanted Killer, by Robert Scott (Pinnacle, 2010): Featured numerous times on America's Most Wanted, Jesse James Hollywood was an aggressive drug dealer who grew up in a chichi Los Angeles suburb and already owned a home and fancy car by age 19. With his always-expansive research and eye for poignant detail, the prolific Scott recounts how Hollywood led a team of underlings to abduct and slay an innocent 15-year-old — the brother of a fellow dealer who owed Hollywood money. After this murder, Hollywood fled the country. Living luxuriously in Brazil as a fugitive topping the FBI's Most Wanted list, he was the classically heartless, handsome criminal.
Original Gangster: The Real Life Story of One of America's Most Notorious Drug Lords, by Frank Lucas with Aliya S. King (St. Martin's, 2010): For decades, Lucas was one of New York City's most powerful drug lords — having forged a plan in 1968 with African American soldiers in Vietnam to ship heroin to the U.S. in fake coffins modeled on military ones. The blithely recounted lush life of a crime boss accustomed to earning $1 million a day can't help but inspire sorrow and anger for the countless addicts whose lives were ruined (and no doubt ended) by this former megadealer who is "currently living a quiet, retired life" and is involved in "art projects."
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore (Random House, 2010): A Rhodes Scholar and decorated combat veteran who served in Afghanistan with the elite First Brigade of the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division, the author was startled to learn of another Wes Moore his age who, like himself, had grown up with a single mother in Baltimore but is a convicted killer serving a life sentence in prison. In this intriguing double memoir, the author interweaves his own history with that of the other Moore, whom he visited in prison many times, and whose role in a jewelry-store robbery led to the slaying of the store's security guard, an off-duty police officer.
A Poisoned Passion, by Diane Fanning (St. Martin's, 2009): In this account of a Texas veterinarian convicted of injecting her war-hero husband with animal painkillers and dumping his body in a pond, Edgar Award finalist Fanning displays her knack for exposing the weird underbelly of intimate relationships gone horribly awry. At 24, Michael Severance had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, but a one-night-stand with then-stranger Wendi Davidson resulted in pregnancy, a very short marriage, and murder. Transcripts of taped Davidson-family dialogues are especially eerie.
DNA Crime Investigations: Solving Murder and Serious Crime Through DNA and Modern Forensics, by Stephen Wade (Pen & Sword/Wharncliffe, 2009): Joining older crime-investigation methods including fingerprint retrieval and handwriting analysis, "DNA has proved to be the ultimate dispenser of certainty," asserts crime historian Wade in this very thorough collection of cases on both sides of the Atlantic that have been solved with the help of this marvelous milestone. These many cases include that of 11-year-old Lesley Molseed, who was abducted, raped, and slain in a small British town in 1975; her accused killer served 16 years in jail before DNA revealed her real killer, a comic-shop owner, in 2007.
A Date with Death, by Michele R. McPhee (St. Martin's, 2010): As a brilliant 23-year-old medical student whose planned wedding to a wealthy, attractive, and adoring fiancée lay just four months away, Philip Markoff literally had everything going for him on April 14, 2009. By the end of that month, as revealed in this no-nonsense blow-by-blow, Markoff had attempted suicide twice, both times unsuccessfully, while under arrest for the brutal murder of Julia Brissman, a masseuse he'd hired via Craigslist. Focusing on this case allows McPhee to expand chillingly on the growing field of Internet-facilitated crime.