Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Enigma Woman --- The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison

The accused murderer known to 1934 Los Angelinos as Nellie May Madison had come a long way from the Montana of her child hood when she sat on the witness stand at her trial and claimed the body found on the floor of her apartment was that of a stranger. It seems to the modern reader a far stretch for her defense attorney to encourage her to make that claim. But Los Angeles in those days was a noir kind of place and strange stories sometimes worked. Nellie’s attorney convinced her that as a much married and childless woman she was not going to get off by claiming self defense when the victim was found shot in the back. It was the era of Bonnie and Clyde and L.A. authorities, led by hanging judge Charles Fricke, were clearly out to prove that a woman who’d become notorious couldn’t get away with killing her man.

As Kathleen Cairns lays out the engrossing story of how the accused and her brother, a former sheriff from Montana, dealt with all her plight, I came to feel truly sorry for Nellie even though it was clear she pulled the trigger.

I think if you read this book you’ll not forget “The Enigma Woman” --- a proud, “crack shot” Irish girl from off a Montana sheep ranch. She never gave up, never wanted to see herself as a victim.

Cairns renders her story with the impact of a fine writer possessed by her subject and with the thoroughness of a solid researcher. In the end, the reader gets to decide whether Eric Madison indeed “had it coming.”

For more information see the listing on my favorite links.

The Innocent Man --- Murder and Justice in a Small Town

John Grisham chose a compelling story to feature in his true crime book about Ron Williamson’s scandalous treatment at the hands of Ada, Oklahoma police and prosecutors. It’s too bad the book is not quite as great a read as it is an important and empathetic discussion of justice gone awry. Now I understand he’s signed onto a movie deal for the book, a film that I’ll no doubt rush out to see. Grisham may write better when he relies on his imagination rather than the record, but I’m truly thankful that he made the effort to write this book and I’m pleased he’s apparently gone on to help the unfortunate soul who was convicted with Williamson, Dennis Fritz, sell his own book about the experience. Don’t give up on the true crime genre John. You’ll get better at it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Murder in Greenwich

Mark Fuhrman is more of a cop than a writer and this book has few pretensions, but that’s one reason Murder in Greenwich makes a good read. And even though it is based on a sensational case that is generally well-known by followers of political and-or celebrity gossip, it delves into details in a way that keeps a reader with the story page by page. It also has cautionary value. Parents of some of the victim’s friends knew better than to trust the likely killer or killers. Parents be warned --- trust your inclinations.

All of that said, this is a lightweight book about people who have more money than sense and the problem of insular small town police departments. Like John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, the story can disgust you enough to put the book down wondering “what is wrong with these people?”

In the end, Fuhrman’s work is noteworthy because it deserves some credit for making a strong circumstantial case that Michael Skakel --- of the extended Kennedy family --- was involved in the murder. After it was published by Harper Collins in 1998, Skakel was brought to trial and ultimately convicted of the murder. While the victim’s family has credited the police work of Connecticut law enforcement, it remains an open question whether anyone would have followed through with an indictment if Fuhrman had not put together a compelling case.

In sum, there is not a lot of texture to enjoy in this book, there is more than a little drive to the narrative.


24 Days --- How two Wall Street Journal reporters uncovered the lies that destroyed faith in corporate America, Devil in the White City, and my truly obscure find, True Tales from the Annals of Crime and Rascality.

The Poet and the Murderer

Simon Worral is clearly an accomplished writer and his book, The Poet and the Murderer, demonstrates that skill. It’s a fascinating story about a forger who earns a good living faking historical documents, mainly those that could be important to the Mormon Church. The reader learns a great deal about how document forgery is accomplished, about how little concern the nation’s major auction houses demonstrate for the validity of what they put on the block, and about the roots of Mormonism.

The only problem with the book is that the story wanders around in interesting but not necessarily riveting detail --- detail that sometimes loses sight of the story line. What was auctioned off as a poem of Emily Dickinson frames the story in an opening that zeros in on the purchaser, Daniel Lombardo, then the curator of special collections for the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts, the center of Dickinson lore.

The character who turns out to be a forger and murderer, Mark Hoffman, fails to come alive in the sense one can identify with him, or pity him or even be truly appalled by him. Raised a Mormon and obsessed by the church, he is portrayed as mechanical man. If his crime had been foreshadowed in greater detail, with a more sympathetic portrayal of the victims, I think the story would have held more of my attention.

But it is wrong to be too critical of Worral’s work, which is an easy read. I just wanted more. That is not a bad way to leave a reader, but it does seem that more might have been available to Worral, more of what I wanted to know about Lombardo as well as Hoffman’s victims. Finally I’d like to have footnotes on Worral’s detailed analysis of the early years of Mormonism, or at least some citations of his secondary sources, so I could easily follow up where my interest was stimulated by this book.

Playing Hoax to Zodiac

In case you hadn't noticed, true crime stories are making the rounds of the theaters. I decided it was worth spending some time with the books that spawned Zodiac and The Hoax.

The Hoax, due out on film in a few weeks, is the more rewarding book of the two. The tell-all story by Clifford Irving entertains with detail, gracefulness and unselfconscious prose, though the author himself is easily despised. Irving's version of the story was of particular interest to me because I happened to be, in another lifetime, something of a Howard Hughes buff and an acquaintance of Jim Phelan. It was a well-researched Phelan manuscript was grist for Irving's prodigiously audacious and in the end criminal attempt to sell, and then produce, a fake autobiography of Hughes. I can still picture Phelan charging into the newsroom at the Long Beach Press-Telegram, his manuscript under his arm, having to tell his friends there that he was off to New York to prove that Irving was a plagiarizer, a liar and a thief.

As Irving tells the story --- under threat of returning to jail, he insists --- he began larking with the idea, got caught up in the excitement of his own plan, and sold it to his publisher for an advance of a couple of hundred grand. He worked the book all the way until it was ready to go to print, got caught and ultimately tried to give most of the money back as he found himself headed to prison. As with many true crime accounts, all of this is known to the reader from the outset of the book. It's how Irving's caper evolved that makes this off beat true crime story engaging. Awfully impressed with himself, as Irving would have had to be to, he spends too much verbiage in the middle of the book on some of the fanciful stories he made up about Hughes. But the opening chapters are wonderful and the story works all the way to the end.

Zodiac Unmasked, which is the first Roger Graysmith version of Zodiac story that I could get my hands on, reads like one long unedited police report of the disjointed kind that I used to plow through in police stations across Los Angeles County. If you see the movie and want to know more, you might want to try it out. I am still interested enough in the story to see the movie, which many critics have suggested drones on too long. I can put up with that, but if I were starting over I'd be inclined to skip the book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Murder of Helen Jewett

This blog aims to help readers find the true crime stories that, for reasons of this writer’s particular interests, equal or exceed Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tommy Thompson’s Blood and Money.

Our particular interests include, but are not limited to, finding an educational and involving story that carries all the way to its end. We also look for cultural and historical value when it’s well embedded. The simply sensational is of little interest, and I’m trying to search off the beaten path to find true crime books that measure up.

The Murder of Helen Jewett by Patricia Cline Cohen. was recommended by an academic friend as a true crime effort with historical weight. She couldn’t have been more correct about the weight business. The story of the murder of a New York City prostitute in 1836 generally interested me. I noticed before I started reading that one reviewer on Amazon commented that the book itself was more of a history lesson than she was interested in. For non-academic readers, I think that bottom line would usually hold true.

I spent hours with Cline’s work and, at the outset, felt well rewarded for the time spent. If detail and context were enough to make a great book, this would qualify. Few books that I have read contain as much detail as carefully analyzed as this one. Much of it illustrates the business of newspapers directed at the common person during the 1830s, something that I have a passing interest in, but it was all too much. By the time I had reached Chapter 4 on “The New York Sex Trade,” I knew the basic story and most of the key characters in some detail, and I knew Cline’s approach would be to analyze, reanalyze and again reanalyze each aspect of the murder so thoroughly that I couldn’t stay with the repetition. I skipped to the end, found out what happened with the likely murderer and moved on to another book.

That said, her work seems to hold up in terms of relatively frequent purchases on Amazon years after publication, probably as a result of being frequently assigned as required reading in history courses. Personally, I’d have liked it more if she had found an editor determined to serve the reader. Close, research-based document analysis makes good academic work, but it loses a reader looking for the true-crime counterpart of P.D. James.