Book Reviews: Misjudged Murderesses by Stephen Jakobi and Dead Silence by Ron Handberg

Misjudged Murderesses
Female Injustice in Victorian Britain
Stephen Jakobi
Pen and Sword, October 2019
ISBN 978-1-52-674162-2
Trade Paperback

Between 1836 and 1900 the wheels of justice often wobbled slowly and erroneously through British society. There were major changes in policing and some changes in social attitudes. However, the balance of justice most often was weighted in favor of the male side of things. Several women were accused of heinous crimes—mostly murder—and, according to this author, mistakenly convicted and executed.

The author, a private solicitor, in 1992 founded Fair Trials International, leading a persistent effort to balance justice world-wide. This volume of true crimes and results is part of his ongoing efforts.

It is a trudging look at the gathering of evidence and its presentation in English courts. The presentation is dense, careful and evokes textbooks of past classes. Indeed, the type on the page is small and readers might be advised to have a magnifier at hand. This is not bed-time pleasure.

However, for anyone intrigued by the evolution of our justice systems, police work and the attitudes of court authorities will find much of this book more than merely interesting.

Another rather fascinating aspect of the book is the role of religion. The author documents a case of torture of a woman prisoner by a chaplain and testimony in court by religious leaders who were supposed to be hearing confession by the female prisoners.

During the time between 1843 and 1900, 53 women were hanged after murder convictions. Thirty of those were poisoners. Fifteen of the poisoners never confessed. Eleven of the 53 were clearly guilty and of the rest, there were various problems that call into question the whole process and outcomes.

It appears that a good deal of the bias toward these women, some of whom were successful in society, was generated by a press that could be accused of being out of control over these sensational cases.

One of the most prolific murderesses described in the book is Mary Ann Cotton. Although convicted and hanged at 40 years of age, only for murdering her stepson, she was married many times, lost many children, and is reliably suspected of have used arsenic in tea to kill at least twenty men and children.

The book documents some appalling miscarriages of justice, as well as describing some appalling acts of murder that were never adequately resolved. Well researched, documented and written, this is not, however, something one would select to take to the beach.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2020.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Dead Silence
Ron Handberg
HarperPaperbacks, February 1999
ISBN 0-06-101247-5
Mass Market Paperback

On a steamy July afternoon in 1983, three young boys run gleefully from their front yard to the nearby park and down the bluff to the edge of the Mississippi River. They do not return home ever again.

Fifteen years later, top television anchor, Alex Collier scans a memory item, the disappearance, on this date, of those three Hathaway sons. The story mildly intrigues him. Now readers, introduced to Collier’s co-anchor on the news team, are drawn inside the routine workings of a major station news operation. The author, with vast and varied experience in such operations, is careful to avoid relying on the technical details of such an operation to move the story forward.

Rather, Handberg relies on the interpersonal relationships, decisions and routines of the people who spend their time researching, writing, taping and presenting the daily television news to help move the story forward. It’s an interesting and sometimes tension-filled situation, but the story really focuses on the three missing boys. Collier decides to use his star-clout to get the station to in effect reopen the case.

Careful logical moves, rather than sudden insightful intuition guides Collier and his young co-anchor to the people, many long retired who were involved in the original case, including the still distraught, still seeking answers, parents of the boys.

The novel is rooted in reality and makes good use of the unusual and often exotic internal scenes in a big-time television operation, the evolving life of officials and ordinary citizens, some of whom have moved on, retired or left the Twin Cities. Mysterious threatening phone calls, possible deliberate hit and run and new murder all populate this novel as the clues mount, incidents occur and Collier persists against mounting resistance and tension.

The physical presence of the cities and rural Minnesota are inserted judicially with logical and useful influence on the trajectory of this story. The narrative rhythm is appropriate and although the novel is long, it is a well-paced read that will capture the imagination and attention of anyone interested in missing person cases.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, January 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon, The Innocence Game by Michael Harvey, and Beyond Confusion by Sheila Simonson

Drawing ConclusionsDrawing Conclusions
Donna Leon
Penguin/Grove, March 2012
ISBN: 978-01431-2064-3
Trade Paperback

Donna Leon has been writing the Guido Brunetti series for a very long time. Her talents as a thoughtful observer of relationships between humans, whether at a casual, professional, or personal level, have never been clearer. Fans of this author will find everything they expect in this mystery.

In her twentieth novel, in this series, Leon again examines age-old questions of morality, law, and some of the dilemmas posed by confrontations with people who do bad things from good intentions. As always, Commissario Brunetti strolls the streets and rides the canals of Venice, this most intriguing of European cities. As always the master manipulator of criminals and his own superiors and staff, applies a dab hand to probing and then solving the crime of murder—if that’s what it was.

When an elderly widow is found dead on her apartment floor, it appears she has died of heart failure. Indeed, there is considerable pressure on Brunetti to avoid trying to make a case of murder out of what mostly appears to be an accident. But until all the reports and all the evidence is in and carefully considered, Brunetti is unwilling to consign the death to a dusty file.

His persistence leads to all manner of ethically questionable acts, some by prominent and highly moral individuals. Written in her usual smooth and careful style, Leon poses a number of questions and again brings to calm and peaceful awareness, the life of this great city, and its past glories and world influence.

The careful and measured release of important information, Brunetti’s amusing and warm relationship with his wife and children, all here is artful competence. A wonderful story is successfully realized and is another star in the author’s pantheon.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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The Innocence GameThe Innocence Game 
Michael Harvey
Alfred A. Knopf, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-307-96125-9
Hardcover

Three college graduates come together in a special seminar designed to teach them some of the fundamental tools of high-level investigative journalism. Under the tutelage of seminar leader, Pulitzer prize winner, Judy Zombrowski, they will examine cases in which there is a suspicion of serious error, error which may have resulted in serious miscarriage of justice.

The three students are Northwestern University graduates Sarah Gold and Ian Joyce, and brilliant University of Chicago Law School graduate, Jake Haven. Although the seminar plans to be a relatively calm and rational look at distance cases, from the relatively sane academic halls of Northwestern University in Evanston. But in short order, the question of the conviction of a deceased James Harrison, for the murder of a poor young runaway, becomes the central focus of the trio’s efforts, and the action sags south to Chicago.

Tautly written, the author masterfully develops the characters and relationships of the three students and at the same time releases more and more clues and other pieces of information that can, at times, be distracting. The author does not neglect the physical side of their investigation. A number of intriguing and powerful events embroil the students in activity that tests their mental and physical abilities.

The Innocence Game is a first class thriller replete with twists and surprises and a smashing climax. Readers interested in the uses and conditions of our modern legal system will find this novel a first class experience.

A free copy of the novel was supplied to me with no conditions attached.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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Beyond ConfusionBeyond Confusion 
A Latouche County Library Mystery 
Sheila Simonson
Perseverance Press, April 2013
ISBN: 978-1-56474-519-4
Trade Paperback

This novel is a stunning achievement and this reader was drawn in immediately, although I confess I don’t fully grasp the meaning and connection of the title. Several things are clear from the very beginning. In the space of three pages is established the unique relationship between head librarian, Meg McLean and Undersheriff Robert Neill. They live together unmarried in the small rural community near the border between Washington and Oregon.

The Klalo band of Native Americans are an important part of a story that cleverly and skillfully combines an insouciant and wicked humor with penetrating and thoughtful insight into terrible and moving events that would shape the future of the community.

Meg McLean demonstrates, at times, an incisive understanding of her library staff and even of herself and her relationship with Neill. The author’s wit is evident throughout the novel, yet her restraint keeps this on track as a serious examination of personalities, and the way their disparate views influence the operation of the county library system. Ms. McLean is in specific and frequent conflict with one librarian, Marybeth Jackman, who persists in attempts to undermine her boss, not just inside the library, but among the community leaders and the general public as well.

Author Simonson brings in other influences, attitudes of off-shoot religious organizations, rebellious teenagers, and prejudices affecting relationships between the white and native communities. With considerable care and expertise she weaves a complex yet understandable emotional whole. I found this to be an enthralling and moving novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Review: In Desperation by Rick Mofina

In Desperation
Rick Mofina
Mira, 2011
ISBN No. 978-0778329480
Mass Market Paperback

Jack Gannon is working on a story in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  Jack is a journalist employed by Word Press Alliance.    Jack and Isabel Luna, a crime reporter for El Heralda, a family owned newspaper in Juarez, have just discovered a mother cradling her dead son in her arms.  The boy was only 16 and the third child that Paula Chavez had lost to the drug wars raging in Mexico.

Jack has also lost his family.   His sister, Cora, left home when she was just a teen-ager.  Jack’s parents are deceased.  Prior to their death, they had done everything possible to locate Cora but they were not successful in their search.    Members of a drug cartel had murdered Isabel’s father.  Isabel confided in Jack that she had actually witnessed her father’s death and had seen his murderer.

Meanwhile in Phoenix, Arizona a mother named Cora Martin is terrified.  Her eleven year-old daughter, Tilly, has been kidnapped.  The men who took Cora said that her boss, who was also her boyfriend, Lyle Galviera had stolen money from them.  Lyle owns Quick Draw Courier and had been using his company to launder money for the drug cartel.  The kidnappers’ state that Tilly will not be returned until the money is recovered.  Cora is told if she wants to see her daughter, she must find Lyle and make sure he returns their money.

The kidnappers have left Cora tied up but she was finally able to free herself.  She knows Lyle is out of town on business but when she tries to make contact, she cannot reach him.

Back in Juarez, Jack has just heard from Isabel that a power struggle is about to explode within one of the major cartels and assassins might be used.  Jack assures Isabel that he will be there. However, that promise to Isabel is one that Jack was unable to keep.

When Jack opens his email, he eyes are drawn to a subject line that says “Your sister Cora Needs Your Help Now”.  Jack has not heard from Cora for twenty years but he still cannot turn his back on her.  His next step is to fly to Phoenix to help Cora deal with the kidnappers and attempt to get Tilly back alive.

Jack’s emotions are playing leapfrog as he tries to help Cora.  At times, she is the sister that he had known so many years ago.  Other times he feels that she is a stranger who is holding back details of her life that might have a bearing on the current situation.  The World Press Alliance wants the scoop on the story but Jack is not able to feed them any inside information.  Even the authorities are not open with Jack because of his work as a journalist.

Rick Mofina has written another exciting story that will keep readers holding their breath.  This is the third in the Jack Gannon series.  It is not necessary to read the first two in the series to enjoy this book.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, February 2011.