Monday, March 02, 2015

Triangle by Teri White | LibraryThing

This book was offered to me by the publisher in hopes I might write a review. It’s apparently a reissue of a book  originally published in 1982. Kudos to Open Media for resurrecting some of these titles. I gave it a couple of pages and was hooked.  It was excellent.  It could be described as part meditation on friendship, part noir novel a la Jim Thomson or James Cain, part police procedural, but all about obsession.

Alexander McCarthy (“Mac”) grew up in an orphanage so when his patrol stumbled across a shell-shocked kid who had been witness to, and perhaps participated in, the massacre at Tan Pret, “Johnny”, it became difficult to abandon the kid who now obviously had latched onto and needed Mac’s company.

Now out of the army, Johnny can’t survive on his own and is very protective of Mac who has a terrible gambling problem and finds himself owing thousands to the mob.  Johnny kills two of the them after they beat up Mac.

But the boss knows who did it and Johnny are forced to become hitmen for the mob.  One of the men killed happens to be an undercover cop.

In part two, Simon, the dead cop’s partner, vows to find the killer of his friend. (Simon’s euology for his dead friend is amazing.)  He becomes obsessed with it to the point where it starts to destroy his marriage and his life. Everything takes a backseat to his obsession at finding the killer.

The third part brings them all together.  But it’s not what you think. One thing to remember:  “There are no good guys.”

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

What's the Worst That Could Happen? (Dortmunder Novels) by Donald E. Westlake | LibraryThing

Dortmunder is another fine creation of Donald Westlake.  He occasionally appears in the Parker stories, but this one is devoted to Dortmunder himself.  Things always seem to go wrong and the beginning is no exception. They attempt to burgle a house on Long Island that’s supposed to be empty but it’s a house being used as a trysting place for Fairbanks (pun perhaps?) a thieving executive millionaire and his mistress.  He calls the cops and then has the temerity to steal a “lucky” ring off Dortmunder’s finger before he gets hauled off to jail. Dortmunder escapes the police car (a humorous event in itself) and vows to get the ring back and make the guy sorry for his humiliation.

The plot then revolves around Dortmunders extraordinary capers to get the ring back.  And in the process, they decide to rob a Las Vegas casino.  After conducting a little third-rate burglary at the Watergate.  A little third-rate burglary at the Watergate?” Andy said, “I already tried that on him, and it didn’t work. John isn’t much of a history buff.”... Herman paused to take a roll of duct tape from inside his tuxedo jacket, tear off a length, and attach it to the edge of the door over the striker to keep it from locking. Spies, political agents, and other amateurs put such tape on a door horizontally, so that it shows on both front and back, and can be noticed by a passing security person.  (There is a risk here that anyone under the age of forty will not get this reference at all.)

What makes these books are the little side comments Westlake throws in a social criticism. For example: “On the TV, people covered with blood were being carried to ambulances. Wherever it was, it looked like a real mess. Then, as Dortmunder watched, the people and the ambulances faded away and some candy bars began to dance.”  and “The thing is,” Andy explained, “when I feel I need a car, good transportation, something very special, I look for a vehicle with MD plates. This is one place where you can trust doctors. They understand discomfort, and they understand comfort, and they got the money to back up their opinions.”

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For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago by Simon Baatz | LibraryThing

I suppose that anyone who has read about the career of Clarence Darrow is familiar with his famous defense of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. In short, a little Jewish boy (Richard’s cousin!) from a wealthy Chicago family, Bobby Franks, was kidnapped after school and murdered by two intelligent and wealthy college students, both also Jewish. Suspicion initially fell on teachers at the school Bobby attended, the Harvard School, and despite lots of exculpatory evidence several of them were held by the police and beaten severely to try to get them to confess.  They didn’t and finally their lawyers convinced a judge to release them

Then there was an eyewitness who saw a gray Winton car right by the school at the time Bobby was kidnapped. Soon every person in Chicago with a gray Winton was being reported to the police.  One owner parked his car in the garage and walked to work rather than having to face the police almost every day as people reported seeing him in his gray Winton.  (The car they actually used was a dark green Willys-Knight.)

Pedophiles, homosexuals, anyone the police considered a “sexual deviant” were rounded up for questioning, although even the district attorney noted that it would be a rare event indeed for a pedophile to ask for a ransom and set up such an elaborate mechanism to collect it.

The story is horrifying in its depiction of the two psychopaths.  Convinced they were smarter than everyone else (Richard was the youngest graduate of the University of Michigan,) they had successfully embarked on a series of petty vandalism before deciding to commit the “perfect murder.”  They almost succeeded, except for Nathan’s glasses.

There was no question as to their guilt.  They had confessed and revealed all the details to the police. They were perhaps lucky that they committed their crimes at a time when research in genetics and animal instinct was being popularized. Darrow, who had engaged in a “lifelong campaign on behalf of the defenseless” had read Altgeld’s book, Our Penal Machinery, which argued that “criminal behavior... was less a consequence of free will and deliberation and more a matter of education, upbringing, and environment. The majority of criminals—the overwhelming majority, Altgeld stressed—had grown up in circumstances of dire poverty, in families where one or both parents were absent, and without the benefits of education, schooling, or discipline.”   

Darrow was also determined to rid society of capital punishment. He had defended numerous people who faced the death penalty.   The Loeb/Leopold case was perfect  “not because the defendants were deserving...  the trial of Leopold and Loeb would capture the attention of the nation. … "The importance of instinct in the animal world, Darrow stated, provided a clue to its significance in higher forms of life. Human beings believe that they act rationally, but might they not also be subject to instinctual drives? …”human beings were no more capable of free agency than the mason bee or the red ant."

The trial provided a forum for the relatively new field of psychiatry (even then occasionally called “alienists”)  that wanted to impress upon the rapt audience their “belief that criminal behavior was a medical phenomenon best interpreted by scientific experts.”   That is, if they could avoid an adversarial battle between experts (each getting $1,000 a day - a huge amount of money in those days,) which would require the cooperation of the state’s attorney.  The facts might not be at issue but the interpretations could very well be, and that would be embarrassing to the new profession.  Darrow countered with the argument that no one wanted to see the boys freed by claiming insanity; they were trying to avoid the death penalty.  Interestingly, efforts to broadcast the trial --a first -- were nixed after opposition from religious and social groups worried about their children being exposed to the filth (homosexuality) that would come out during testimony.

To explain Darrow’s brilliant strategy would be to reveal too much.  Excellent read for anyone interested in Darrow, criminal motivations, and the justice system not to mention early nineteenth century culture.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

At All Costs: How a Crippled Ship and Two American Merchant Mariners Turned the Tide of World War II by Sam Moses | LibraryThing

Malta is an archipelago of seven small islands between Sicily, the boot of Italy, and Africa.  As such it held a strategic place during WW II, and despite heavy pressure from the Italians and Germans, withstood nearly incessant bombing.  But to do so required food and fuel necessitating many convoys which had to run the gauntlet of German bombers based in Italy.

Getting the required tankers and other freighters often involved extensive and complicated negotiations between Roosevelt and Churchill. Their efforts were often hindered by Admiral King, who insisted on certain American prerogatives regarding crewing the loaned ships, the profit-oriented motives of people like the CEO of Texaco who sold oil to anyone, including surreptitiously to the Germans, and the idiocy of the American ambassador to Egypt whose lackadaisical efforts at secrecy made his information about British operations almost immediately available to the Germans.

Conditions on Malta were frightful, often bordering on starvation.  AvGas was in terribly short supply for the fighters which were often decimated by German bombs even before they could get off the ground. Churchill, rightly, was adamant the islands be held at all costs so the convoys continued escorted by fleets of naval vessels, but at frightful cost.

A massive operation, called “Pedestal”, comprised of more than 50 ships including several aircraft carriers and battleships, was sent in an attempt to relieve the island and deliver airplanes, fuel and food. The AvGas was shipped in five gallon containers that had cork seals that leaked making the holds floating bombs. The idea was to make loading the gas into the planes much faster. Everything was a bit jury-rigged.  Spitfires on the ancient carrier “Furious” could just barely make it off the deck, so to save weight their guns were load with cigarettes, intended also as a morale booster for the islanders should the planes make it through.  Multiple security leaks meant the Germans and Italians knew all about the convoy.  

The Italians had several opportunities to finish off the convoy, an event that might have altered the course of the war.  The Germans had refused to deliver as much oil as they had promised so the Italian Navy was always trying to conserve what they had.  They were also exceedingly cautious and Mussolini overruled one of his admirals who wanted to send their cruisers after the British and American ships.  They fell for a Maltese trap, however, that broadcast, in the open, that British Liberator bombers were on the way and Mussolini ordered them back home missing an opportunity to perhaps change the course of the war.

A couple of weird Italian contraptions bear mention. They had invented a bizarre form of mine. Dubbed the “Moto-Bombay” (sp? - audiobook) it was dropped by parachute.  When it hit the water, a motor would engage sending the mine in successively large circles for a diameter of about 15 kilometers. They were easily avoided since the parachutes were quite visible from afar.  Another gizmo was to take a Flying Buffalo aircraft, load it to the wingtips with fuel and bombs and then after take-off, the pilot would jump out into the sea and the plane would be guided by remote control, hopefully into an aircraft carrier.  Didn’t work, the prototype exploding against an North African mountain.

The author has interviewed numerous survivors of the bombing raids and some of their stories are truly heart-rending. Even after sixty years, their eyes fill with tears as they recall comrades who could not be saved or the horrible trauma of watching people, badly burned, struggle in the water after being torpedoed.   Excellently read audiobook by Michael Pritchard, one of my favorites.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blood from a Stone: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon | LibraryThing

Donna Leon's books are more than just police procedurals books that take place in Venice.  They always, in my experience, deal with an issue confronting Italy and there's always a sub-current of corruption.  In this book, she tackles the difficult subject of street peddlers, quasi-immigrants from Africa who buy knock-off bags cheap and then resell them to tourists.

Two American tourists, both physicians, see an immigrant, ostensibly from Sierra Leone, assassinated in the square. The case, as you might suspect, revolves around the sale of "blood" diamonds. The characters, now familiar after having read at least 10 in the series, are used by Leon as springboards to focus on an issue in addition to the ubiquitous Italian corruption.

The Leon books will not please readers who prefer chases, gun shots, and action.  If you like characterization, fine writing, and intriguing stories, I recommend this series highly.  Well read by David Colacci although he will never replace Anna Fields, aka Kate Fleming.

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