Thursday, April 26, 2007

Murder at the Washington Tribune, by Margaret Truman

Murder at the Washington Tribune: A Capital Crimes Novel (Truman, Margaret, Capital Crimes Series.)

The theme is a good one: a long-time journalist succumbing to a temptation to invent to get a better story. But the details drag it down, make it unbelievable.

First, the protagonist has been a highly-ethical straight-shooter for his entire career. As he engages in his bit of fraud he hardly seems bothered by it. The reasons for his deception are slim and not convincing. I simply didn't buy that this type character would do these things.

Second, the police investigation. At heart of the story is the contention that two closely-spaced murders could be the work of a serial killer. The conclusion is drawn from the fact that both women were strangled, both were young and attractive, both were in journalistic careers. There are, however, many ways to strangle someone, and each creates a kind of "signature". It is unlikely that two different persons would have exactly the same signature. Yet there are no details of the killings given. Only that they were both strangled. It is as if the police were investigating a crime in 1950, not now.

THere are other aspects of the investigation and of the reporting that don't ring true. A lead is a lead, and both the police and a reporter are likely to follow it up, whether or not they think it's useful. Yet we have most of these characters deciding what's important and what isn't without making the extra effort. I simply do not buy it.

Then there is the matter of the missing brother who turns up suspiciously. His story never falls together right.

Read it on an airplane or waiting room. It will give you something to do and it's better than a romance novel.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Blaming the Brain, by Elliot S. Valenstein, Ph.D.

If you believe that some mental disorders are caused by a "chemical imbalance" you need to read this book. Blaming the Brain: The Truth About Drugs and Mental Health is perhaps the most definitive, heavily-researched, and thoroughly-detailed book on how mental health professionals and the public came to believe in a biological basis for mental disorders and why this belief is ill-founded.

Valenstein, a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan, takes us through the history of mental illness treatment from the nineteenth century through the beginning of this one. He explains that his original intent when he began work on the book was to track how views about the basis of mental illness changed over the past fifty years plus. There have been many theories over the years that suggested a biological basis for mental illness, but in the 1940s and 1950s there was a strong belief in the power of psychotherapy alone. Valenstein was curious about how we have come to where we are now, to a commonly-held belief that depression and schizophrenia in particular are caused by chemical imbalances "similar to the imbalance of insulin for those who have diabetes".

The book evolved into more than a history. Valenstein discovered along the way that the basis for this common belief is shaky. What studies there are that seem to support the theory are flawed and can usually not be replicated. Further, too many persons with depression and schizophrenia do not respond to the current drugs. If these drugs actually corrected a problem present in all depressed or schizophrenic patients then we would expect them all to be helped.

Why, then, do so many patients - and doctors - honestly believe such an iffy theory?? Valenstein devotes much of the book to this question and answers it clearly.

Valenstein's research is exhaustive and his caution in interpreting what he learns is admirable. His writing is clear and comprehendible to laypersons but not simplistic. In the end he summarizes his findings and makes clear that he is not saying that nobody should use these drugs. But they should not be used without investigation into alternatives and certainly should not be considered the best option in all cases. His greatest concern - and it should also be ours - is that such a tunnel-visioned view of mental illness is dangerous and will not lead to improvements in care.

Dissecting Death, by Frederick Zugibe, M.D., Ph.D., and David L. Carroll

I admit to being a forensics buff. There are times I wish I had gone to medical school and become a pathologist.

Zugibe is a highly-respected pathologist who has worked in a county in New York State for many years. In those years he has not only seen it all but in some respects done it all. He has developed or refined techniques for forensic examination that are commonly used today.

In this book he examines ten cases, each illustrating a different forensic point. He then describes the examination process and what additional steps he took to learn what was there to learn. After educating us on these elements he uses the final chapter to take a quick look at some famous cases and to offer his evaluation of them. He's not shy in saying the Jon-Benet Ramsey case was botched from the beginning or that the prosecution took the wrong tack in the O.J. Simpson trial.

The writing is simple and direct. There is one aspect of the style that I found irritating: whenever he is about to examine a death scene he moves into the present tense. It feels awkward and unnecessary to me.

Overall, highly readable, informative description of forensic techniques. Those who are like me will already know most of them from television! But we don't necessarily know just how a forensic photographer approaches a scene or the order of an autopsy. Right after reading this book I watched a forensic fiction show on television and caught some major errors. That, of course, is the curse of knowing too much.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

It's hard to resist this book's modest hero, Rebecca, a comfortably large woman of 53 who finds herself wondering how she got so far off the track she meant to take so long ago. She looks at her present-day self and concludes that it is a fake, of sorts, not at all who she really is.

Thus begins her gradual exploration of her past and her ruminations about how she might regain that lost self.

Rebecca turns out to be the center of a large, gregarious family, the family of her long-dead husband, and, of all things, an outgoing party planner. She inherited the position from her husband, whose family had been offering the ground floor of their row house for rent since the early 1950s. Living upstairs with her husband's elderly father, Poppy, she is surrounded by this family day and night and is constantly in the middle of one celebration or another.

Whereas she originally saw herself sequestered in hallowed halls of academia, writing important books, doing important research, and married to a similarly-inclined private person.

There are many questions left unanswered in this exploration, but the primary one, did Rebecca really take a wrong turn?, is unashamedly answered by the end. Tyler doesn't leave us hanging or dissatisfied but she does leave us thinking, just a bit, about loss, about the choices we make, about the need, now and then, to claim ourselves.