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The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh's Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous CrimesThe Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh's Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes by Lisa Rosner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


[library]

Up the close & down the stair / But & ben wi' Burke & Hare / Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief / And Knox the boy that buys the beef.
--Anonymous doggerel

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The Monster of FlorenceThe Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


[library]

Okay, so I'm going to start with something catty, for which I apologize, but it also serves as a pretty good tl;dr:

This book would be greatly improved by about 80% less Douglas Preston and a concomitant 80% more Mario Spezi.

I am NOT INTERESTED in Preston's story of the American naif whose romantic vision of Florence is ripped apart by his investigation of the Monster of Florence. This is a tired old plot--John Clute dissects it in The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror--and I don't think it works very well in nonfiction. It's so obviously a story about the blindness of privilege and Preston so completely fails to come to grips with the way he forces his friends into the roles he imagines their identities to be that I find it mostly a frustrating scaffold around the actual story. I am especially not interested in all the name-dropping and subtextual bragging about his obvious wealth. (Dude can afford to drop everything and move to Florence with his wife and two children on (a) a whim and (b) a moment's notice. This is a guy who is not worrying about his car payments, let's just leave it at that.) But ultimately, I just DON'T CARE about the perspective of a wealthy American bourgeois who waltzes into the story 40 years after its murky beginnings and foregrounds HIS anagnoresis & collateral angst over the story of either (a) Il Mostro & his victims or (b) the story of Mario Spezi, the Italian journalist who has been writing about Il Mostro since 1974, and who was actually arrested and imprisoned for his pursuit of the truth. (Preston was interrogated & threatened ... and allowed to leave Italy. Not quite the same.) I would be much more interested in a translation of Spezi's collected writings about Il Mostro, or even in a translation of the book Preston & Spezi wrote in Italian, Dolci colline di sangue--it's not the same as The Monster of Florence, since part of TMoF takes place around the publication of Dcds--possibly TMoF is just an expansion/translation of Dcds, but since Spezi gets equal billing in Dcds & is only a "with" for TMoF, I have some doubts. If Preston clarified this point in TMoF, I missed it.

LEAVING THAT ASIDE (and again I apologize for being catty), the story of Il Mostro di Fiorenze is trainwreck-fascinating, both the brutal unsolved murders and the absolutely lunatic theories of the official investigations and the terrible terrible damage they have done and continue to do to innocent people. Preston says, both in the book and in the vapid interview that was a bonus feature at the end of the audiobook, that he doesn't think the case will ever be solved, and I understand that belief. Unless Il Mostro himself confesses (and by now he may very well be dead), the truth may be hopelessly buried beneath conspiracy theories about organ-harvesting Satanists.

As I'm sure you're learning to expect from my reviews of audiobooks, I once again was driven nearly to distraction by the reader. He was so excellent for the most part that I was stupidly surprised that that's not what Douglas Preston actually sounds like, but whenever he was reading quotes (in English) from Italian speakers, whether they were speaking English to Americans, speaking Italian to Americans, or speaking Italian to other Italians, he used an Italian accent, complete with nasal sing-song, that was distracting as all fuck and just NOT NECESSARY. It's not like we're going to forget that the story is set in Florence or that everyone except Preston is Italian.



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The Witches: Salem, 1692The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


[library]

To get it out of the way, I hated the audio book reader. HATED. She sounded like a local TV news reporter doing a "human interest" story (smugly supercilious, like she finds it all too precious for words), and she had this way of pronouncing sixteen ninety-two that drove me UP THE WALL ("Sixteen ninedy-twoo" is the best rendering I can give; it made me understand why non-Americans can find American accents grating.) When quoting anyone's testimony, she over-emphasized and poured sincerity over the words like maple syrup over pancakes, making everyone sound like Gertrude, who doth protest too much. And The Witches is a VERY LONG book, so I was trapped with this woman's voice for a VERY LONG TIME. (I would have stopped, except that I sincerely wanted to hear the book, moreso than I wanted to get away from ther reader's voice, but it was sometimes a very close call.)

Okay. Aside from that.

This is really an excellent book on the Salem witchcraft-crisis. I don't agree with Schiff at all points (e.g., she's clearly following Breslaw in her assessment of Tituba's testimony, and I don't agree that that's the tipping point of the crisis), but she has done something that no one else writing on Salem has done, and it's something that needed doing. Schiff traces the relationships between the participants and she traces the history of those relationships back from the 1690s to the 1680s to the 1670s. Boyer and Nussbaum made a start at this sort of analysis in Salem:Possessed, but Schiff demonstrates how limited their analysis was, as she examines the web of relationships between afflicted persons, accused witches, judges, ministers, all the way up and down the social ladder from the indigent Sarah Good to the governor of the colony, Sir William Phips. This is a researcher's tour de force, and Schiff is a good, clear writer whose explanations are easy to follow, even when heard instead of read.

My biggest quibble with her is the same quibble I have with almost all scholars who write about Salem. She ends up making it sound like the entire thing was a series of nested frauds rather than the result of anyone's genuine belief in witches and witchcraft. I've talked about this in other reviews, how to a modern reader, it seems almost impossible that it could be anything but fraud and how hard-bordering-on-impossible it is for us to understand, much less enter into, the Puritan worldview, their sincere belief that they were at the center of the cosmic struggle between Go(o)d and (D)evil (sorry, can't resist the wordplay) and their sincere belief that the Devil was real and walking in New England. Puritanism was a culture that enshrined delusions of persecution/grandeur and in that culture witchcraft made sense in a literal way it doesn't in ours. And some of it was fraud. Some of the afflicted persons confessed as much. But fraud alone did not kill twenty-five people (19 were hanged, 1 pressed to death, 5 died in prison, 2 of them infants), and that's the weak spot in Schiff's otherwise excellent book.



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In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS JeannetteIn the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


[library]

This was extremely entertaining, and taught me a great deal about the WACKED-OUT science of the late 19th century, with its paleocrystic seas and thermal gateways. It also provides excellent competence porn, as George De Long, his chief engineer George Melville, and the ship's doctor James Ambler were all insanely good at their jobs, and had plenty of opportunities to show it in the two years the U.S.S. Jeannette was trapped in the Arctic pack ice. (There's a fabulous piece of CSI: Jeannette as Dr. Ambler tracked down the cause of the lead poisoning that was slowly killing the crew.) 20 of the 33 members of the crew, including De Long, died in Siberia after exhibiting more epic heroism than should have been allowed to end in failure (but history, unlike fiction, does not care about your heroism), and the Jeannette's voyage remains eclipsed by the Erebus and the Terror

Trigger warning: aside from the ghastly deaths of De Long, Ambler, and most of the crew, horrible and cruel things happen to sled dogs, polar bears, and innumerable Arctic birds.

The audio book reader was competent and mostly a pleasure to listen to, except for his habit of raising the pitch of his voice when quoting women's writing and lowering the pitch of his voice when quoting men. This makes all the men sound excessively MANLY, and makes Emma De Long sound like a simpering idiot, when it's clear she was anything but.



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Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New EnglandDamned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England by Elizabeth Reis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I hate starting a review with "this book was meh," but . . . this book was meh.

Reis' thesis is that in seventeenth-century Puritan New England, when everyone was obsessed with scrutinizing their souls for signs of damnation or salvation, and when a central event in a person's life was likely to be their conversion testimony (you stand up in front of the church you want to join and tell the church members how you came to realize that (a) you were a sinful crawling worm and (b) God had chosen you to be among the Elect regardless), while men tended to say that their sinful actions corrupted their souls, women were much more likely to say that their corrupted souls led them to sinful actions. She talks about how this led (or might have led) to women's confessions of witchcraft--if you view sin as a continuum, and if your corrupted soul means you cannot deny that you are sinful at heart, then how can you be certain that you aren't a witch?

Reis proves her thesis, and it's a subject I'm quite interested in, but the book itself just . . . meh. It was a book. I read it. If you're researching the subject either of Puritan witchcraft or the experience of Puritan women, it's definitely worth reading. Otherwise, not so much.



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Circles of Delight: Classic Carousels of San FranciscoCircles of Delight: Classic Carousels of San Francisco by Aaron Shepard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is full of gorgeous photographs of the carousels and carousel animals of the San Francisco Zoo carousel, the Yerba Buena Gardens carousel, and the Golden Gate Park carousel. I am particularly enamored of the carousel at Golden Gate Park, both because it was built by Herschell Spillman (Celebrating North Tonawanda Carrousel Animals 1883-1959) and because it was restored (1977-1984) by an artist named Ruby Newman, who made the transgressive choice not to follow the original color scheme (and Golden Gate Park loses major points for not crediting her in their description of the restoration). Normally I am all about AUTHENTICITY!, but her choices make the carousel alive in a way that sometimes purely authentic historical restorations fail to achieve. (For one example, look at this stunning fellow.)

If you are as hopelessly in love with carousels as I am, I recommend Circles of Delight wholeheartedly.



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Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and MurderSmall Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder by Ann Rule

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Ann Rule wrote mediocre books, good books, and excellent books. This is one of the excellent ones.
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Nothing But MurderNothing But Murder by William Roughead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


facsimile reprint of the 1946 Sheridan House edition from Literary Licensing, hardbound, high-quality

Contents
"An Academic Discussion: A Macabre Conceit"
"The Boys on the Ice: or, the Arran Stowaways"
"Killing No Murder: or, Diminished Responsibility"
"Pieces of Eight: or, the Last of the Pirates"
"The Boy Footpads: or, More Murder in Murrayfield"
"Nicol Muschet: His Crime and Cairn"
"The Adventures of David Haggart"
"The Fatal Countess: A Footnote to 'The Fortunes of Nigel'"
"Physic and Forgery: A Study in Confidence"
"Locusta in Scotland: A Familiar Survey of Poisoning, as Practiced in that Realm"
"My First Murder: Featuring Jessie King"
"The Crime on the Toward Castle: or, Poison in the Pocket"

A collection compiled by Roughead for an American publisher, with a strong focus on Scotland and Edinburgh (except for "The Fatal Countess": Frances Howard must count among Roughead's "darker favorites," even though he only lists her nineteenth century sisters in his essay (in a different collection) "To Meet Miss Madeleine Smith": Madeleine Smith, Jessie M'Lachlan, Florence Bravo, Adelaide Bartlett, and Florence Maybrick). I found "The Boys on the Ice" both horrifying and creepy, with its sad, terrible image of the boy M'Ginnes, left to die on the ice in St. George's Bay when he was too exhausted to continue: "He was 'greeting.' We heard his cries a long way behind us although we could not see him" (24-25). And "Locusta in Scotland" is a magnificent overview of some five hundred years of murder by poison.



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Ripperology: A Study Of The World's First Serial Killer And A Literary PhenomenonRipperology: A Study Of The World's First Serial Killer And A Literary Phenomenon by Robin Odell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have tried and tried, and I can't think of a better word to describe this book than "charming." Which seems so wrong in the context of the Whitechapel Murders and Jack the Ripper. But Odell is not writing about Jack the Ripper, exactly. He's writing about the people who write about Jack the Ripper, what they write, and why, and considering the crazy theories that have been put forward in the last century, Odell's wry, generous, thoughtful voice is charming, like a Virgil to lead the reader patiently and clear-headedly through the Inferno of Jack the Ripper Studies, otherwise known as Ripperology.

Odell is himself a major contributor in the field, so he knows the ins and outs of the community of Ripperology very well. He doesn't explain the actual historical crimes and investigations as well as Philip Sugden or Neil R.A. Bell, and the occasional circumstances of the book's production (the Kent State University Press asked him to write about the relationship between American Ripperologists and British Ripperologists for their imaginatively titled "True Crime Series") create an odd, intermittent emphasis on what the Americans happened to be thinking but he's very good at timelines and cross-correlations and using them to poke holes in various whacked-out theories. (His lack of patience for Patricia Cornwell made me very happy.)

This is an excellent overview of the evolution of the historiography of Jack the Ripper, and a great way to get the gist of books you (a) most likely can't find and (b) most likely don't want to have to wade through (the elaborate castles-in-the-air accusing the Duke of Clarence, Walter Sickert (with or without Sir William Gull), James Maybrick, and a number of other unlikely suspects), but that are important artifacts in the history of this particular and very narrow field of criminology.



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The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and MemoryThe Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory by Harold Holzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Unexpectedly apposite this week (*facepalm*), this is a collection of essays originally presented at the Lincoln Forum (except for a reprint of the first chapter of The Lincoln Nobody Knows). As is inevitable, the quality varies pretty widely, from the essays by Edward Steers Jr. and Michael Kauffman on the trial of the conspirators, which are well-written and thought-provokingly at odds with each other, to Frank J. Williams' disorganized assemblage of remarks about Lincoln, Obama, and the constitutional rights of political detainees. I disagree with Williams' politics pretty vehemently, but my actual problem with the essay is that it has no clear thesis and doesn't seem to be sure what it's trying to talk about.

The essays in this collection have in common the attempt to understand Lincoln's assassination, and the responses to it by various parties, in the context of April 1865. These attempts range from a collation of newspaper accounts of Lincoln's funeral procession in New York (and how much of the route and the buildings along it are still extant today); to a biographical assessment of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, the man who oversaw the conspirators' trial and who became lost in his obsession with avenging Lincoln's death on the men he thought responsible: the leaders of the Confederacy; to an examination of the trials of people accused of celebrating Lincoln's death (sentences of up to ten years' imprisonment were imposed; one soldier was sentenced to death by firing squad for saying, "Abraham Lincoln was a long-sided Yankee son of a bitch and ought to have been killed long ago." (His sentence was commuted, although what happened to him after that is not shown.)

Oddly, the most resonant part of the collection for me (aside from the stupid grief I feel for a man who would have been dead long before I was born anyway) are Elizabeth Leonard's quotes from Joseph Holt's writings. Holt became wrong, and I make no apologia for his conduct of the conspirators' trial, but before that, he wrote: We are all with our every earthly interest embarked in midocean, on the same common deck, the howl of the storm in our ears, and [...] while the noble ship pitches and rolls under the lashings of the waves, a cry is heard that she has sprung a leak at many points, and that the rushing waters are mounting rapidly in the hold. The man who in such an hour will not work at the pumps is either a maniac or a monster. (Joseph Holt, open letter published in the Louisville Journal and the New York Times, May 31, 1861, qtd. in Elizabeth Leonard, "Lincoln's Chief Avenger: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt," p. 123). The ship of state is certainly storm-tossed at the moment and (to bring this into a ring-composition), I wish I believed that the man at the helm was neither monster nor maniac.



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The Black Museum: New Scotland YardThe Black Museum: New Scotland Yard by Bill Waddell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I regret to report that this book is just not very good.

Waddell is a poor writer, showing little regard for his words: e.g., "euphoria" when (my guess is) he meant "hysteria" in discussing Rose Mylett, "another name added to the endless list of murdered women who were believed to be Ripper victims, when in fact there was very little to connect them with the Ripper's modus operandi. Such was the euphoria created by the press of the time" (79). He's preachy and prone to platitudes; his prose is clumsy; and he has lamentably zero flair for true crime narrative. I admit he has an uphill battle in trying to write a book about the Black Museum, but still.

He perpetuates several myths about Jack the Ripper (there were no farthings, polished or otherwise, found near Annie Chapman's body) while taking other writers severely to task for perpetuating myths, and I'm afraid I lost a great deal of respect for him when he started defending Sir Robert Anderson's "Mad Jew" story.

I bought this book because the odds of my ever having the chance to visit the Black Museum are very close to zero. And it does provide at least some of what I wanted. But as a book, it was disappointing.



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Capturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian LondonCapturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian London by Neil Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Bell is not a graceful writer, but he conveys his information clearly. He is a sane and responsible Ripperologist--meaning that he assesses evidence logically, refers generally to "the Whitechapel murders" to avoid questions about which women are "canonical" Jack-the-Ripper victims and which aren't, and regards all letters, chalked messages, pieces of kidney, and other communications alleged to be from Jack the Ripper with healthy skepticism--and has done a great deal of research into the lives of ordinary bobbies, specifically in H Division (Whitechapel), but more generally in the Metropolitan and City Police. Questions about uniforms, about training, about what a constable's "beat" actually consisted of, about the likely career path (you could rise up steadily through the ranks as long as you didn't trip yourself up by getting sacked for being drunk on duty--which happened a lot), the procedure for interviewing witnesses, communications between Scotland Yard and individual stations, what happened when someone was arrested for drunk and disorderly, where the chinks were for corruption to creep in. He goes into detail about Sir Charles Warren's rise and fall (including some incidents I had never read about before), and throughout he presents the Whitechapel murders as much as possible as they were experienced by the police of London.

Highly recommended for anyone researching--for whatever purpose--the police of late Victorian London.



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Poison: An Illustrated HistoryPoison: An Illustrated History by Joel Levy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a beautifully designed book which talks about poisons from arsenic and snake venom to ricin and sarin. It's not terribly in-depth on any of them, but it does offer a panoramic overview from Cleopatra and Socrates to Alan Turing and Georgi Markov. Levy is an engaging writer, mostly light and deft--he missteps kind of horribly when talking about the assassination of Sarkov by a KGB agent wielding a pellet-shooting air-gun concealed in an umbrella (ammunition: jeweler's ball-bearings that contained ricin). Describing the umbrella as a "slaughterous sunshade" is, I'm sorry, over the top (134)--and very good at explaining how poisons work in a way that's simple enough for a layperson to follow but detailed enough for that same layperson to feel like s/he actually has a good understanding of what's happening, chemically speaking.

The beauty of the design does occasionally get in the way. Some of the font choices are hard to read, and, the sidebar pages offering profiles of the various poisons being printed on colored paper, some of the colors are too dark to easily read the text against.

So: good, but not great.



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