Tuesday, May 29, 2007

BTK: Unholy Messenger, by Stephen Singular

The story of "BTK", a serial killer who operated without detection for many years, comes alive in a peculiar way in this book.

Dennis Rader, who named himself BTK - Bind, Torture, Kill - wrote and recorded his thoughts and plans and goals voluminously. Thus it was possible for Singular to get as much into Rader's mind as possible, a rare opportunity when dealing with a serial killer.

What emerges is a rather ordinary, average man, a man with a wife and children, active in his church and respected by many. What he hides is his essential lack of conscience.

Strangely, he wasn't really good at what he did. He was clumsy and often careless. It appears that it was his very ordinariness, his attachment to his community, that shielded him from discovery for so long. In many ways he does not fit the classic serial killer profile. He is driven as much by a compulsion to copy other killers he admires as by his own deep-seated fantasies. In the end, a boring, dull man who unfortunately ends the lives of many.

I felt the story was left unfinished. Singular frequently suggests that many of his crimes were never discovered. The author believes there were many other murders. I am not sure.

A far more interesting character who deserves another look is Rader's pastor, Michael Clark. Clark came to the priesthood by an unusual path and indulged his sense of humor and a delight in donning clown outfits, which may have seemed a little unseemly to some of the congregation. But it is his commitment to Rader that tells the story. His congregation believes in redemption and even though they felt betrayed by Rader they did not desert him. Clark in particular stayed by him, continuing to visit him in his cell to help him in his spiritual journey toward forgiveness. Certainly this is not what we see so often today in religious institutions, although we might wish it were so.

Not a typical true-crime book, which is in its favor.

4 out of 5 stars

A Strange Piece of Paradise by Terry Jentz

This large nonfiction book details a woman’s exploration, many years after the event, of a night when a man wielding an axe attacked her and her friend. The two were seven days into a bicycle trip across the country, and camping in the Cline Falls Park in central Oregon.

The attack took place in June 1977. Jentz started to become obsessed with it in 1992, after many years of almost-flippant references to it, a kind of denial of her feelings that lasted 15 years.

She began her investigation by traveling to the scene of the crime and the surrounding area, gathering police reports and interviewing people. The trip left her unsatisfied and she returned two years later to continue the search, even though at the time she wasn’t at all sure what she was searching for. From then on she returned frequently, making dashes at various lines of inquiry, tracking down leads and involving the different law enforcement agencies in the area.

In the course of this long, involved investigation, Jentz discovers that nobody was ever charged with the crime and there were few suspects. The police seemed unable to pursue what leads they had. It appears that the collection, storage, and use of the evidence was far from thorough as well. Eventually her search narrows into a search for the attacker. The statute of limitations on the crime ran out three years after the attack, so she knows the perp will not have to face the justice system, but she desperately wants to find out who he is and, if possible, find a way to keep him from hurting others. She also has a vague idea that when she knows who he is she can start to heal herself.

The story is, as many reviewers have written, gripping and absorbing, and hard to put down. Other reviewers have complained that there is too much “navel-gazing”, too much time spent on introspection. Overall, I find it a book well worth reading. But not perfect.

Jentz is given to a writing style that seems unnecessarily “literary”, yet also incorporates a type of jargon popular in “victims rights” and “women’s rights” articles. It gives in to the passive voice frequently and awkwardly. There is a kind of unevenness to it, as it veers from one style to another, sometimes using words inappropriately. For example,

How could I access the rage?

The use of “access” as a verb seems to have its roots in the women’s rights and group therapy movements.

…I’d never wrapped my mind around what the experience might have been for her;…

I fight in vain for the removal of the term “wrapped my mind around” from the language.

Meticulous cowboy

This is the term Jentz uses for her attacker. He was carefully dressed, with his shirt fastidiously tucked in so there were no creases. He wore western clothing. I find the adjective “meticulous” not really right for this case. Most often it refers to a way of acting, of doing, not a way of appearing. This young man was fastidious, was dressed immaculately, but it’s hard to call his actions - driving over a curb, knocking over a tent, and slashing out at his victims with an axe – “meticulous”. Each time Jentz referred to him this way it jumped out at me. And she uses it constantly, like a drumbeat. Probably her intention.

Almost as often she refers to her attacker as a “headless torso” or “headless cowboy torso”, bringing to mind just the trunk of a man, with no arms. In fact, that’s what the definition of “torso” says. Given that he used his arms to wield an axe, I suspect – I know from her book – she saw the arms, too.

These are picky points and I can’t explain why they bothered me, except that they were repeated so often.

I fully believed that he was guilty of the attack against Shayna and me. But I couldn’t connect the dots between this man and the fingerprints he had left in my psyche. His presence had not triggered a seismic reaction in me.. . .

Some part of me at the edges of consciousness had lost trust in the order of things.

The facts of the world broke faith with me.

I was no longer deceived that life was following a script in which certain things would never happen.

Passive, passive, passive. “I was no longer deceived”? This type writing suggests that something other than Terri herself was taking control of her life. It’s an interesting perception, given that the book is also saturated with references, both direct and indirect, of fate somehow leading Terri here and there and forcing her to find the meaning in the attack or to make sense of random incidents and comments. She frequently runs into names of places that include “axe” in them and seems to think there is a personal reason for this. The reason is actually simpler than that they were put there for her alone. Oregon in the 1970s and before was a place where axes were far from uncommon.

Well into the book, Terri meets up with a couple who fight for victims’ rights and who do a great deal of investigating for other victims (their daughter was murdered in 1980), to help solve cases or otherwise right wrongs. This couple fills Terri in on their theory of crime and punishment in Oregon: they believe that a misguided “liberal” public favored the view that criminals are not responsible for their actions; “society” is.

I have met a few people who more or less subscribed to this theory, to some extent, in my life. Very few, even though I consort with so-called liberals (and am one). I believe that this couple, and Terri herself, misread the justice system, as do many victims’ rights advocates. They feel that the accused perps are given more attention and more help than are the victims, and that this comes from that perception that it isn’t really their fault.

It’s true that our justice system leans over backwards to protect the rights of the accused. The reason, however, is that it is “better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent man be convicted”. The laws that protect the accused protect all of us. Terri and her friends forget this. Terri makes it clear again and again that she would never want to see anyone wrongly convicted, yet she rails against a system that tries to prevent wrongful convictions.

Jentz also joins her investigating friends in the view that “permissive parents” are more likely to raise criminals than those who abuse their children. One chapter begins with a quotation from the book Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore, brother of Gary (murderer of two who was eventually executed). The quotation is from a legal system that incarcerated Gary at one point, and it says that Gary’s parents would do anything for him, were overly permissive. If Terri actually read that book (which I did) she would realize that his father repeatedly beat Gary while his mother just watched. Is this a type of permissiveness? The quotation clearly did not represent the truth in that particular case.

I do not lack compassion for the victims. I believe that both the accused and the victims deserve special treatment, and to accord such treatment to one doesn’t automatically exclude it from the other.

This is Terri’s book and these are her thoughts and she has every right to them. Nevertheless, I feel a need to offer my own counter-thoughts to some of her conclusions.

One theme that screams loudly in here, and that needs to be heard, is that the law enforcement agencies did not do a good job investigating this crime. There appear to be many reasons for this lack of attention, which Jentz offers and which make sense:

· The term “serial killer” had not even been coined; what were called “stranger murders” were perceived as near-impossible to solve. The investigators apparently felt helpless without a motive or witness. There was plenty of physical evidence (tire tracks, a footprint, probably more if the forensics team had been really diligent) but the investigators seemed to believe they could do nothing with it.

· The attack did not result in murder. Attempted murder takes a huge backseat to actual murder.· There were two women involved. Some people believe there was a sense in the community that women should not be bicycling alone, that they somehow brought this on themselves.

· The law enforcement agencies were overworked. They had to set priorities.

· The head of the state police department that investigated this crime was not expert in criminal investigation and tended to block real investigation, certainly did not aid it.

· Although a great many people in the community immediately “knew” who did it (and many had stories to tell that more than backed up this charge) only one or two actually made an attempt to tell the police what they knew. A part of the reason for this strange neglect seems to be the “individualism” so prevalent in Oregon – a preference for staying out of the way rather than accusing someone who may not be guilty. What struck me was that the law enforcement officials did not follow the leads and find these persons themselves.

Jentz also considers a theory that some of the investigation was simply covered up. Records disappeared. To protect the community from its own? There doesn’t seem to be an answer.

Whatever caused this “miscarriage of justice” certainly needs to be evaluated and if there haven’t been changes to address it (current members of law enforcement say major changes have been made – and ultimately these agencies were more than helpful) there should be. I was constantly reminded of how criminal investigations are most often presented in television fiction, and how that representation is more the ideal than the real. Books like this do us a service by letting us see how horrific crimes can be left unsolved, in spite of adequate forensic and witness evidence. More, it gives us insight into how many lives are affected by a single incident, and for how long.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 28, 2007

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

In his response to criticisms of the hard-cover version of this book, Harris says, "I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable".

This line says it all if suffering of humankind matters. Unfortunately, because of bizarre beliefs, many people believe suffering does not matter, or that it is a price to be paid for an eternity in some kind of afterlife. In this book, Harris sets out the case for concern for others, for the guiding hand of ethics.

I find this book remarkable for its thoroughness and care. I occasionally have a difference with Mr. Harris but overall I find it a good conversation and the book well worth reading. In fact, it is a book that could change the world - if enough people read it and understand it.

Harris is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford, has studied Eastern and Western religions, and has also pursued study of spiritual disciplines, like meditation. His comfort with philosophy and with his knowledge of many religions gives his argument against religions great force, especially as his words are passionate and imbued with empathy.

Harris indicts "moderates" along with extremists. He argues that the moderation comes from outside the various holy books, not from within, from a congregation that takes the good and tosses the bad. Further, he challenges the moderates on their tendency to tolerate the more extreme religious practices. Just as we would not tolerate a society of flat-earth people, so we should not tolerate a group that believes in suicide bombing as a way to personal redemption.

He suggests - his hope knows no bounds - that our civilization could turn around in one generation. We could sweep the power of religion away and pursue our lives more thoughtfully and rationally. I suspect it will take many generations, if it happens at all.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Cities of the Red Night by W.S. Burroughs

I read Cities of the Red Night because I wanted to know what Burroughs was up to.

Frankly, I had a terrible time with it. A friend of mine worked with W.S. Burroughs for several years and even created a hotel that he called "The Beat Hotel" - a hotel where you can study about the "beats", talk with other interested and interesting persons, see original work, particularly by Burroughs. It's a wonderful small hotel (unfortunately, my friend died unexpectedly and the hotel is not open now and may never reopen).

I broached the subject of Burroughs with my friend several times,but he never really answered my questions.I am not sure if he thought I was too prudish to hear it? It seems laughable, yet that may be the case.Because of his connection to WSB and because he worked in particular on Cities of The Red Night with Burroughs, I wanted to read it so I could understand Burroughs better.

I can't understand him. In addition to reading this entire book, page by halting page, I have read much of a substantial biography and have read many websites about him. My overall impression is not good. I suspect that his work appeals to men and of course particularly gay men. I felt sticky with semen every time I touched that book.I keep looking for what I may have missed. Certainly his writing is unusual, although to me it seems to be unusual in a druggy sort of way, along with that obsession with sparkling, colored semen and the ecstacy of hanging.

I am open to alternative opinions, explanations of what I may have missed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

An amazing book. Barry started out to review just what had started the epidemic of 1918 and how it was handled, and he got caught up in politics and scientific history and ended up developing the most comprehensive story of this epidemic ever written. He reviews the state of medicine at the time, how it got to that place, and what top researchers were doing. He lays out how the governmental agencies responded and why. He follows how the scientists pursue identification of the cause of the epidemic, what mistakes they make, who they are and why they behave as they do.

The Great Influenza: the story of the deadliest pandemic in history is a history of many men and women as well as the history of the study of bacteriology and virology. In the end, it is also a warning to us. We are not any better prepared than we were in 1918, probably even less prepared. We haven't really learned from it.

The book, though long, is highly readable, intelligently written, clear and detailed, a wealth of information. It is fascinating.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is the remarkable story of a young boy (age 12) who struggled to stay alive after rebels attacked his home village in Sierra Leone. His struggles kept him constantly on the run until he finally landed in a village protected by government soldiers, who eventually recruited him and his friends. It wasn't as if he had much choice. If he had refused he had little chance at living.

Ishmael Beah was thoroughly indoctrinated into the soldier's way of life and it wasn't long before killing was commonplace, unremarkable to him. It sounded to me rather like a gang mentality: kill them before they kill you. He didn't hesitate to kill villagers, including other children, with rarely a second thought. He even laughed at the stark terror in the eyes of his captives.

Ishmael was one of the lucky ones. He was rescued by UNICEF and placed in a camp with other boy soldiers, where he slowly learned how to become "human" again. Because of his excellent memory and literacy he was eventually whisked off to the UN in New York to tell his story, and later he found his way there to live.

The UNICEF camp appeared to be experimental; they didn't know what they were dealing with at first. But they seem to have figured it out eventually. After years of seeing nothing but greeting cards from UNICEF and no real stories of what they do, I was gratified to hear that they actually do some good.

It's a sad, horrifying, unreal story that actually has a happy ending. This incredible young man is only 26 years old. His ability to tell his story simply, without melodrama, makes it compelling reading.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Nicole Brown Simpson, by Faye Resnick

Truth: I am writing about this book as comic relief. Not because I think murder is funny and certainly not because I think it's funny to get away with murder. But because this is essentially the story of the rich and brainless.

The one thing Faye Resnick (written with Mike Walker) does in this book is convince us that she was a friend of Nicole Simpson's. She further provides the build-up to Nicole's murder somewhat convincingly, although I have to admit that I wonder if some of her histrionics are really after-the-fact. Did she really plead with Nicole to get away from Los Angeles because O.J. might murder her? Did she take O.J.'s proclamations, that he would kill Nicole, seriously right out of the gate? I will probably never know and I won't lose any sleep over it.

Much of the book details the friendship between Nicole Simpson and Faye Resnick. The two of them had married men who made a lot of money so they generally were not hurting financially, even after divorces. It appears that they spent their time going dancing, shopping, and to Cabo San Lucas. And occasionally hooking up.

When Faye goes to a friend's house she describes it as a nice house, "20,000 square feet". When she talks of Nicole, she amost always mentions how beautiful she was, how fit. Most of the adjectives describing places and events and people emphasize how expensive, how big, how beautiful. Quintessential Beverly Hills women. Which is to say, really, the newly rich, anxious to prove they have friends with money.

Although she frequently mentions what a great mom Nicole is, she usually means that she takes them to dance classes or recitals or holds big parties. We don't get to know the children at all in this book. We only get their names. And an odd, somewhat sensual photo of Nicole's two children which is described as her favorite.

Resnick says she wrote the book to quell the rumors about Nicole. I'm not at all sure she did her any favors. I came away seeing Nicole as a party girl, a woman lacking the ability for deep reflection, a woman lacking any sense of wrong when she has affairs with married men ("I deserve happiness"). She comes across, worse, as a woman who has "had black and can't go back". Such a cliche yet it's spelled out in here.

I have absolutely no idea about what kind of mother she was. Her long relationship with O.J. seems to have existed on a bizarre sense of what's important in a marriage - is it the diamond earrings, Nicole? The sex? Really?

Resnick drags out her dimestore psychology books and makes some attempts to explain Nicole's personality and she gets some of it right but doesn't go nearly far enough. The theories are hackneyed and in some cases just plain wrong. The result is a cardboard cutout suitable for teen boy adoration.

No reason to look for this book unless you are obsessed with Nicole. It's badly written and has nothing to illuminate Nicole's murder.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Body Trace by D.H. Dublin

Body Trace:

Nancy Drew plays forensic scientist is how I see this book. The book's hero is Madison Cross, recently graduated from medical school, who has just taken a job with the Philadelphia Crime Scene Unit, the forensic investigation team. We can understand - somewhat - how Ms. Cross might be a bit green and might make mistakes, but I don't think we can give the same break to the rest of the team. We watch Madison and her more experienced coworkers return to the scene of the crime again and again - three times at least - because they didn't bother to do a thorough job of collecting evidence the first time. Instead of following a routine, they wing it. What kind of scientist does this??

They analyse materials only when they have a theory for them. Madison follows along but nobody tells her what she should be doing.

Twenty years ago a writer might have gotten away with some of this because the reading public wasn't as knowledgable about forensic science and techniques. Now we are. We can pick up that the photographer doesn't know how to do a proper job, for example, when told that "she took photographs from every conceivable angle". Then she backed up and took more. No. Wrong. You start with the wider view and photograph in circles, gradually closing in on the body. There are specific methods for collecting evidence,as well, including the collection of trace evidence. We see none of that here. Instead, this crack team visits the scene many days later and finds a bit of hair here, a bit there.

Yet the writer, D. H. Dublin (a pseudonym for Jonathan McGoran) is writing a series on the C.S.U.! Who does he think he is??

What he does well in this book is describe Philadelphia, the city where he lives. I suspect Phillie readers might enjoy the book because they can recognize the landmarks, the restaurants, the bridges and highways. It's not enough for me.