Fiona's Recent True Crime Reading

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Ann Rule  /  Bitter Harvest

Fans of Ann Rule will find much to relish in this tale of a brilliant female physician who can hold herself together well enough to put on a decent show for the outside world, but in the heart of her horrorstruck family, is a violent and baffling monster. She drinks, she abuses drugs, she spews invective, she even lights fires. At one point she learns from an Agatha Christie novel about a potent toxin contained in castor beans, and starts poisoning her long-suffering husband. And yet until the final fire that consumes two of her children, they continue to love her and defend her to attackers. Ann Rule is good at drama: she tells the story with flair, conveying all the heady feelings involved. Yet the book has a flaw: Rule fails to understand the main character. When a psychiatrist testifies that the doctor is at a younger age than a toddler in her ability to process or sustain emotions, Rule writes, "That was a shocker. Could a woman with an IQ of 165 and a biting, facetious wit, a woman who had zipped through college and medical school, be a child emotionally?" Yes, she could. Bitter Harvest would've been a stronger book, if Rule had shown us how.     INFO

Lowell Cauffiel  /  House of Secrets

"Eddie Lee Sexton is evil incarnate. Like Charles Manson, he exercised a cult-like mind control over others who did his dirty work. But unlike Manson, both Sexton's victims and his subjects were his very own flesh and blood." As strong as they are, these words from an Assistant D. A. barely hint at the depravity hidden for years within the Sexton family. Strange notions about "Futuretrons" and hand markings that convey absolute power, revelations of incest and physical abuse, bodies buried in the camping area of a Florida state park: this story has so many layers of weirdness, it will amaze even seasoned readers of true crime. Lowell Cauffiel is one of the best writers in this field. He has a rare talent for combining quotations from interviews and unembellished facts into prose that reads like a good novel. Two people are dead, and the children who suffered the cruel fate of being born into this family may never completely heal from their injuries; but at least their story has been told.     INFO

Christopher Seymour  /  Yakuza Diary

In the spring of '93, freelance writer Christopher Seymour talked his way out of the grasp of a suspicious immigration official just in time to extend his stay in Japan during a countrywide yakuza (organized crime) gang war. From the opening pages, his lighthearted enthusiasm is infectious. As he works his way into the yakuza network of physically imposing men with full-body tattoos and a weakness for tacky golf clothes, Seymour has adventures both scary and farcical. And he collects a slew of revealing details. For example, Seymour tells us that part of the affected romance of the hugely successful and influential Japanese underworld is that they style themselves as losers: "ya-ku-za" literally means "8-9-3," a losing hand in an old-fashioned Japanese card game. The Village Voice writes, "Christopher Seymour's journey into Japan's netherworld is alternately funny and harrowing, and always thoroughly original. His self-effacing style makes the perfect foil for this fascinating guided tour of institutional crime and ritualized violence."     INFO

Eileen McNamara  /  Breakdown

Paul Lozano was a beloved son of a Mexican American family in El Paso, Texas. In his first year at Harvard Medical School, he had a hard time adjusting to the loneliness and the strange environment. He sought psychotherapy with Dr. Bean-Bayog, a member of the Harvard psychiatry faculty. She told him to think of himself as a 3-year-old, and gave him flash cards with messages like "I'm your Mom--I'll always be your Mom." Paul regressed, and his mental functioning deteriorated. As their relationship grew more peculiar, Dr. Bean-Bayog apparently gave Paul more than 50 pages of her handwritten sadomasochistic sexual fantasies about the two of them. Then she stopped seeing him, because she was adopting a baby boy. Paul killed himself. It's a harrowing story, suspensefully told. As the New York Times writes, "Breakdown: Sex, Suicide, and the Harvard Psychiatrist, its lurid title notwithstanding, makes a serious attempt to arrive at the truth in this strange case." Eileen McNamara also uses the case as a springboard for discussing broader issues such as the need for professional standards and accountability in psychotherapy.     INFO

Robert Hare  /  Without Conscience

"Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets. Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please..." Without Conscience is a true crime, psychology, and self-help book all in one. Robert Hare argues convincingly that "psychopath" and "antisocial personality disorder" (a psychiatric term defined by a cluster of criminal behaviors) are not the same thing. Not all psychopaths are criminals, he says, and not all criminals are psychopaths. He proposes a Psychopathy Checklist that includes emotional/interpersonal traits such as glibness, grandiosity, lack of guilt, and shallow emotions, as well as social deviance traits such as impulsivity, lack of responsibility, and antisocial behavior. His writing is lucid and compelling, and illustrated with numerous anecdotes. The final chapter, "A Survival Guide," is especially recommended. As Hare writes, "Psychopaths are found in every segment of society, and there is a good chance that eventually you will have a painful or humiliating encounter with one."     INFO

Edward Humes  /  Murderer with a Badge

As a police offer, Bill Leasure was so lacking in ambition, he was content to be a traffic cop who hardly ever gave out tickets. As a thief, he ran 6-figure scams stealing yachts, and collected guns and cars, but also stockpiled worthless goods like other people's linens. He was involved in murder for hire, but didn't pull the trigger himself, and never seemed to care much about the outcome. Was he a thrill seeker? Did he get off on hanging out with criminals and planning elaborate schemes? As the New York Times writes, "In Murderer with a Badge, Edward Humes presents us with a puzzle... Despite [his] admirable assembling of the facts, the secret of William Leasure remains inviolate." Perhaps the "secret" is that "Mild Bill" is the type of psychopath who's so completely self-contained, and empty on the inside, there is no secret. Even Leasure's savvy wife, a city prosecutor, was bamboozled by him. Despite how baffling it is, this is a well-crafted, absorbing story.     INFO

Joe Domanick  /  To Protect and Serve

The opening scene is a doozy: Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles, faces an angry crowd just after the acquittals in the Rodney King beating trial. "Say what you gonna do," a fat woman bellows. "It's your police department. Say what you gonna do!" Little does the crowd realize the power of the LAPD. Joe Domanick goes back to the '30s to find the roots of that power, and takes the reader through the history of what he accurately calls "a quasi-military organization ... outside of the democratic system of checks and balances." Domanick has a delightfully energetic prose style. In his hands these stories of anti-labor squads and Red baiting, dragnets and "robocops," generate so much suspense, reading this book is almost like watching a movie. And, as the Los Angeles Times writes, "While Domanick unearths much dirt about the LAPD leaders, To Protect and to Serve excels at drawing fair, empathic, multidimensional portraits of their lives." Winner of the 1995 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. END     INFO

[All reviews copyright ©, Inc. 1998]

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