Book Reviews: The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Isenberg and Cogheart by Peter Bunzl @frumpenberg @HachetteBooks @peterbunzl @JollyFishPress

The Third Rainbow Girl
The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia
Emma Copley Eisenberg
Hachette Books, January 2020
ISBN 978-0-316-44923-6
Hardcover

The summer of 1980 gave the people of Pocahontas, and its neighboring Greenbrier county, something brand new to gossip and gripe about. A bunch of (probably) dirty, drunk and drugged-out dudes and chicks were about to descend. The Rainbow Family Gathering was moving east for the first time and the meeting place this year was in the Monongahela Forest in West Virginia.

Individually, the people are quite warm and welcoming. However, many did not want this Rainbow Festival happening on their pristine land. Some did long for a spectacle, eager to see a ‘freak show’ of nude, free-loving, tree-huggers dancing and skinny-dipping, flitting through their forests like true faeries.

I was only nine years old. I remember grumblings almost masking anticipation.

Before the gathering properly began, two female travelers were killed merely miles from their destination. Based on the location alone, there was no doubting that the shooter was a local. Determining who it was and why, though, would prove to be more challenging than anyone imagined.

Conducting an investigation when essentially everyone knows each other isn’t easy. There really aren’t secrets in small towns. Yet, the inexplicable killing of two “Rainbow Girls” was not a mystery to be solved quickly, or with collective satisfaction.

I remember watching an America’s Most Wanted episode about “The Rainbow Murders.” Jake Beard was a suspect, whereabouts unknown. Only, my younger sister piped up quickly, “He’s in Florida! I just got a letter from (his daughter).” Before leaving the mountains, Beard would pull his snazzy red convertible into our driveway and happily haul my sister and his daughter around town.

We did not immediately assume his innocence, though. Public opinion was absolutely split down the middle between the people who couldn’t believe Beard would flick off a flea, to the ones that swear he always had a wild, hateful streak.

Finally, there was a trial and a conviction. But that conviction was overturned.

Would the killer ever be identified? Or, do we already know who got away with murder?

I was excited to learn of The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg; although I admit to some apprehension due to a protective feeling towards my home state. I was pleasantly surprised and tremendously pleased with how well this author was able to understand the mountaineers and convey their way of life in an honest, objective manner.

I found her research and study of this criminal case to be tenacious and thorough without being too tough. The way that she shares what she learned was informative, but not suggestive. When I finished this book, my opinion of who killed those young ladies so many years ago has changed. And, I’m feeling a tiny bit homesick.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2020.

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Cogheart
A Cogheart Adventure #1
Peter Bunzl
Jolly Fish Press, February 2019
ISBN 978-1-63163-287-7
Trade Paperback

Set in the skies above and the streets running through London, this scintillating story of clockworks, mechanimals, hybrids and humans is the book that will keep kids reading well past bed-times. It has to be hard for a young reader to step away from this fast-paced, perilous plot because as an adult, I found myself hurrying through a chore or four so that I could get back to the search for the oh-so-secret cogheart.

Professor John’s airship was attacked and it seems the sole survivor is Malkin, the mechanimal fox that serves as family pet and pseudo-protector. He must get a message to John’s daughter, Lily, but even a creature as clever as he cannot make that journey alone.

Slinking and thinking, Malkin has no idea he has been spotted. The teen-aged boy living above Townsend’s Horologist’s was having trouble sleeping and he spied the fox from his window. With a watchful eye, Robert realized the fox was a mechanimal and impulsively sought him out to see if he could be of assistance. He is his da’s apprentice, after all.

Robert and Malkin are indeed an unlikely duo, but it is apparent that they must work together to get to Lily, because they are definitely being pursued. Mr. Creepy-Mirror-Eyes Scary-Face (not his real name) and his equally alarming pal are popping up everywhere and it soon becomes obvious that the four share the same goal but for very different reasons. One pair wants to protect Lily and provide comfort, the other is after the Professor’s greatest invention.

When we finally meet Lily, and she pulls her little nose out of her beloved penny dreadful, we see a young lady that needs no protecting. But she’s no fool, so she is willing to let Robert and Malkin assist in her quest to obtain the elusive perpetual motion machine and to keep it safe from the heinous hybrids and whoever they are working for.

Cogheart could be categorized as an epic action-adventure and that would be accurate; but there are also some subtle, yet intriguing, conversations that provided unique points to ponder. I just love everything about this book and I cannot wait to give my copy to my favorite classroom library.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2019.

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 Review: Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

Provenance
Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo
Penguin Press, July 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59420-220-9
Hardcover

Stunningly comprehensive, this real-life tale of one of the most elaborate and wide-spread art cons in the history of the world is at the same time a real page turner. It is very easy to turn an examination like this into an in-depth passionless academic examination of the development and actions of a high-level immoral thief and his minions. These authors have not done that. Rather, they have produced a novel-like high-wire examination of the people and those who consciously or inadvertently aided and abetted the talented counterfeiter, and his masterful, flexible Svengali, the consummate con artist, John Drew.

Of course, their weaving, dodging path of destruction through the British art scene in the mid twentieth-century was supported in great measure by the lustful desires for acquisition of great art by relatively unschooled but wealthy “patrons.” Many of these supporters of artistic creators and their art seemed to care more about the public and private recognition they received for their art collections, and supposed taste, than they did for the actual art and artists.

After reading this reportage, one is forced to wonder who now, in the halls of their mansions, look upon their prized, often expensive, framed pictures and wonder if they are real, or are they too, victims of this great con. Because art experts, as reported by these authors in this meticulously researched book, aver that there are demonstrably hundreds of still unrecognized fakes, valued in the multiple thousands of dollars, hanging in homes and museums and offices all over the world. It gives one pause, and it should.

A stunning work everyone interested in the world of making and collecting art should read.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

The Crimes of Paris
Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler
Little Brown & Company, April 2009
ISBN 978-0-316-01790-9
Hardcover

The book begins with the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 from the Louvre. It ends only a few years later when an artist of some renown named Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on a small reproduction of La Gioconda which, in effect, as the authors say, transformed the painting from a “masterpiece of Renaissance art to an icon of modernism.”

That was in 1919. A mere eight years had passed, during which Paris had experienced a World War and been the host to nearly every giant of science, literature, the arts and politics. It was an amazing time when Trotsky and Marx, Hemingway and Picasso and Cezanne met and drank and socialized in Montmartre and Montparnasse and attended original short plays at the Grand Guiginol.

It was a period when the first professional private investigator appeared and the science of forensic investigation developed as a recognized arm of law enforcement. And it was a period during which some of the most vicious and creative gangs of criminals roamed the streets of the City of Lights.

The book is engagingly written and organized in a thoughtful way to encourage readers to delve more deeply into intriguing topics with voluminous notes, and an extensive bibliography. Yet, a reader who is only casually interested in the period and the players will find this book a fast and enjoyable read. But a casual reader will be drawn in, to the writing, the style, the language and the content. This is a fascinating work of great consequence.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: In Plain Sight by Kathryn Casey

In Plain Sight
The Kaufman County Prosecutor Murders
Kathryn Casey
William Morrow, March 27, 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-23635-0-3
Mass Market Paperback

From the publisher:  On a cold January morning, the killer executed Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse in broad daylight.   Eight shots fired a block from the Kaufman County Courthouse.  Two months later, a massacre.  The day before Easter, the couple slept.  Bunnies, eggs, a flower centerpiece gracing the table.  Death rang their doorbell and filled the air with the rat-a-tat-tat of an assault weapon discharging round after round into their bodies.  Eric Williams and his wife, Kim, celebrated the murders with grilled steaks.  Their crimes covered front pages around the world, many saying the killer placed a target square on the back of law enforcement.  It seemed that Williams’ plan was to exact revenge on all who had wronged him, one at a time. Throughout the Spring of 2013, Williams sowed terror through a small Texas town, and a quest for vengeance turned to deadly obsession.  His intention?  To keep killing, until someone found a way to stop him.

The book’s Prologue references the murder of an assistant DA, Mark Hasse, in the small city of Kaufman, Texas.  The identity of the killer is unknown, although there is speculation that it was the work of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a powerful prison group, as well as a Mexican cartel.  Mike McLelland, Mark’s boss and Kaufman County’s DA, believes that the killer is local, and is “somebody bent on revenge.”  Meanwhile, one Eric Williams believes that “he has pulled off the perfect murder.”  The Prologue ends with these words: “The killing wasn’t over.”

The ensuing tale reads like a fine work of fiction, although it is immediately apparent that that is not the case:  This is a true crime story, proven on nearly every page by the quotes from conversations by the author with each of the parties involved, from the killer and his wife [and collaborator], Kim, as well as from the aforementioned Mike McLelland, about whom nothing more will be said for fear of giving anything away.  Suffice it to say that a man thought of as a small-town good citizen turns into a vengeful killer.  The publisher has called the book an “expertly researched account” of the killings, and truer words were never said.  Frequently, while reading this wonderful book, I felt as though I were reading an interesting novel, then almost immediately coming across a photo, or a fascinating quote from one of the main, or even subsidiary, characters, making it plain that this was a fascinating true account of the proceedings.  Eric Williams had had his life ruined, his livelihood taken away for $600 worth of computers, especially when one sat on his county desk, “did seem excessive.”  But “Eric never admitted the murders.”

A riveting book, and one which is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2018.

Book Reviews: Where Hope Begins by Alysia Sofios with Caitlin Rother and A Conspiracy of Ravens by Terrence McCauley

Where Hope Begins
Alysia Sofios with Caitlin Rother
Pocket Books, September 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3150-3
Hardcover

This is an interesting and at the same time, an appalling story. How is it that even relatively uneducated people, mostly women, can succumb to such abuse for years without speaking up? After all, this family, under the destructive thumb of their patriarch, Marcus Wesson, wasn’t living in some isolated desert camp. They lived in a home in an urban center, Fresno, California. Some of them worked, even if most never went to school and while they were obviously in thrall to an evil man, some of them, especially Marcus’ wife, Elizabeth, should have spoken out.

It is also hard to accept that this “family” was not known to local authorities.

Reporter Alysia Sofios is assigned to a case of mass murder of nine children in their home. She soon breaks protocol by becoming intimately involved with the surviving family, helping them create a more normal life. The book is the story of that deepening involvement and the reporter’s gradual entanglement with the Wessons. Finally, although her intentions are benign, echoes of Marcus Wesson’s control and manipulation of his offspring seem to be descending on Alysia and her decisions regarding the family going forward.

Ultimately, the emotional/straightforward style of the narrative becomes a little tedious. Still this is a story well-told and should be examined by members of every social service agency in the country where suspicions of out-of-the ordinary family situations arise.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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A Conspiracy of Ravens
James Hicks Series #3
Terrence McCauley
Polis Books, September 2017
ISBN: 978-1943818716
Trade Paperback

A classic thriller from an experienced, award-winning thriller writer. This is by no means McCauley’s first rodeo. I do confess that while the link of the title to an earlier book, A Murder of Crows, is apparent, the meaning of the title in the context of this novel is obscure to me.

The story is another fraught episode in the continuing saga of James Hicks, now Dean of a super-secret intelligence operation, privately funded, operating as much as possible in secret from somewhere in the Northeast. The group is called The University. Most of the operatives and executives are labeled with college-centric titles. Hence, the former Dean of the agency is called the Trustee.

Mr. Hicks leads a rambunctious organization of marvelously talented shooters, mission planners, analysts, translators and the most advanced technicians in the world. This University operates a highly sophisticated satellite system designed to monitor and counter both friendly (CIA) and unfriendly (China, Russian GRU) computer and surveillance, banking and law enforcement systems.

Ducking drone-carried bombs, machine and shotgun-toting killers, Hicks zooms about the world, thwarting killers, meting out hard-fisted lethal justice, all with the help of a wonderfully varied cadre of close and talented associates.

The characters are distinct, consistent, lethal and fit into the thriller mode comfortably. For fans of this kind of crime novel, everything is presented in plain, straightforward, brutal and realistic language. The one truly intriguing and off-kilter character, Roger Cobb, plays an unusual, really close, friend of Dean James Hicks, a character worth a closer look.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: Every Night I Dream of Hell by Malcolm Mackay and The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Every Night I Dream of Hell
Malcolm Mackay
Mulholland Books, April 2017
ISBN: 978-0-316-27177-6
Hardcover

From the publisher:  Nate Colgan would be the first to admit that his violent reputation makes him very good at his job – and bad at everything else. After eighteen years spent working on the sidelines of Glasgow’s criminal underworld, there’s no question he’ll accept the central position that Peter Jamieson’s crime organization offers him, despite his better judgment.  The organization isn’t as strong as it once was:  its most powerful members are either dead or behind bars, including Jamieson himself, and the time is ripe for change.  Change begins with an execution – – a message for Jamieson’s supporters – – which promptly sets the various factions within the organization against one another.  Colgan’s position as “security consultant” means his duty is clear:  identify the killer and find out who’s wiling to seize power at any cost – – even if it means igniting a war.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the law, DI Michael Fisher conducts his own investigation into the murder. Both men can’t help but wonder: Why do these events coincide with the return of the mother of Colgan’s child, Zara Cope, a disreputable woman who seems to have an uncanny ability to attract trouble and troublemakers?  A dark and thrilling crime drama, Every Night I Dream of Hell takes us deeper into a world of violence, fear, and double crosses.

Early on we meet Kevin Currie, a major part of “The Organization,” a guy “in his late forties getting slowly fat and jowly.”  Colgan, a member thereof since he was 18, is now replacing the man formerly Jamieson’s hitman, a line Colgan himself “had never crossed.”  Actually and directly causing the death of another was against his principles, as odd as that may sound, as Colgan is and can be as brutal as necessary.  An insomniac, Colgan thinks “the only world darker than the one I lived in was the one I slept in. . . I was always waking up growling at the darkness, scared of the things I was yet to do.”  He says of himself “I’m not an ugly man, a little weathered and starting to grey at the side of my dark hair, but not wholly unattractive and certainly well built. I’m smarter than most in this business, but not exactly a bundle of laughs.”

To call Colgan “morally complex,” as some readers have done, is an understatement.  The novel is hard-boiled, filled with dark humor, and Colgan is a fascinating protagonist, if one wants to so characterize him.  This is the fifth book written by Malcolm Mackay, the 2nd standalone after The Glasgow Trilogy, and is, as the earlier ones, highly recommended.

Not to detract from that sentiment, it should perhaps be noted that there is a five-page long list of characters provided at the beginning of the novel, and that is a good thing, although I must admit I did not refer to it as often as I needed to – the plethora of characters at times [many!] making it difficult to keep them straight in my mind.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2017.

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The Long Drop
Denise Mina
Little, Brown, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-316-38057-7
Hardcover

From the publisher: William Watt’s wife, daughter, and sister-in-law are dead, slaughtered in their own home in a brutal crime that scandalized Glasgow.  Despite an ironclad alibi, police zero in on Watt as the primary suspect, but he maintains his innocence.  Distraught and desperate to clear his name, Watts puts out a bounty for information that will lead him to the real killer.  Peter Manuel claims he knows the truth that will absolve Watt and has information that only the killer would know.  It won’t come cheap.  Manuel is an infamous career criminal, a degenerate liar who can’t be trusted and will say or do anything to make a buck.  But Manuel has something that Watts wants, which makes him the perfect target for Manuel’s consummate con.  Watts agrees to sit down with Manuel, and before they know it, one drink has turned into an epic, forgotten night of carousing across the city’s bars and clubs that exposes the thin line between a yarn and the truth.  The next time the unlikely pair meet is across the witness stand in court – – where Manuel is on trial for the murder of Watt’s family. Manuel calls Watt to the stand to testify about the long, shady night they shared.  And the shocking testimony that Manuel coaxes out of Watt threatens to expose the dark hearts of the guilty and the innocent.  Based on true events, The Long Drop is an explosive, unsettling novel about guilt, innocence, and the power of a good story to hide the difference.

It won’t be a spoiler to state that the eponymous “long drop” is a reference to the method of the hanging process which was still the sentence of choice in murder cases when this case occurred, although capital punishment has since been abolished.  I am probably among the majority, at least in the U.S., when I confess ignorance of this crime, trial and the outcome thereof, so this True Crime novel was my first awareness of the apparent scandal that surrounded the case in the country where it took place.  Manuel, 31 years old at the time, and his trial, become a sensation.  The killer sought here “attacks women in the dark, hides in dusty attics, waiting for people to leave their homes so he can steal their mother’s engagement ring, lies on pristine linen bedclothes with dirty boots on or drops food on precious rugs and grinds it in with the heel of his shoe, spoiling a modest home for spite; he drags women down embankments, scattering their shopping in puddles, telling their three-year-old son to shut the f*** up or he’ll kill their mum.”  A rape charge against Manuel ends in a unanimous decision of Not Proven.  But there are still 8 murder charges against him, including that of two 17-year-old girls.  The trial is recounted in very convincing form by the author, whose previous books I have found extraordinarily good.  The chapters alternate between early December of 1957,and January of 1958, when the crimes occurred and May of 1958, when the trial takes place.  The characters are very well-drawn, especially that of Manuel and his parents, as well is Laurence Dowdall, “Glasgow’s foremost criminal lawyer”.   Another terrific novel from this author, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2017.