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July 23, 2014

Words, Words, Words: Another Take on the Ruth Snyder Case

A sash weight

Like many readers I know, I’m typically in the middle of approximately a jillion books. Actually, for me it tends to be a jillion times two – one jillion being books and manuscripts I’m reading with an eye to possible publication, and the second jillion being books I’m reading for pleasure. The latter category features a lot of non-fiction, but don’t get me wrong: I’m a novel-reader from way back. It’s just that after all the time I spend in fictional worlds, I start to need a break.

As I mentioned earlier, Martin Booth’s wonderful memoir, Goldenboy, is currently at the top of my pile. The No. 2 spot, though, goes to One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson; I’m about three-quarters of the way through. I am a shameless Bryson junkie. Every few years I reread both In a Sunburned Country and A Walk in the Woods (about, respectively, his trips to Australia and his experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail as a middle-aged fat guy), just for the pleasure of hanging out with such a funny, smart, dyspeptic fella, and every single time I find myself wheezing with laughter at the same scenes.

One Summer is neither as funny nor as peevish as some of his other books, and it features rather more about both aviation and baseball than I really want to wade through. (In fairness, by choosing 1927, Bryson bought himself a year that essentially starred Charles Lindbergh, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth: Aviation and baseball were pretty much a given.) There are, however, some fascinating supporting players, including Sacco and Vanzetti, the extremely odd Calvin Coolidge (he liked to dress up in a cowboy outfit at every possible opportunity), and – the reason for this post – Ruth Snyder, who with her lover was convicted of perpetrating what newspapers called the “Crime of the Century.”
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July 22, 2014

Book ‘em: A Review of Three Very Different Books

that-woman-cover

Whooo-EEE, talk about damage! I just finished reading That Woman, by Anne Sebba, a biography of Wallis Simpson, also known as the Duchess of Windsor. Total wack-job, and that’s the technical term.

I don’t really recommend the book, if only because it’s rather long on innuendo and short on actual facts. (Exactly what kind of sexual weirdness are we talking about here? I mean…did she have a penis? Also, did she or did she not learn certain fabulous Oriental Secrets of Love during her years in China, secrets that would later allow her to hold the Duke – known, apparently with good reason, as the “Little Man” – in more than just the palm of her hand?) But for someone like me who reads nonfiction the way other people read novels (I read novels for work), this was cheap thrills on steroids. MAN but these people were awful. The Duke – that’s the King of England as was, you understand – was so lacking in any moral sense, so entirely self-absorbed, that more than one senior official thought he was certifiably insane and should be in a locked ward. The two of them together made “profoundly stupid” into an art form; it was noted by a number of guests that neither of their houses in France contained a single book. And then there’s the famous photo of the two of them beaming happily at Hitler. It’s like “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” with better accents.
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Felonies of the Week: Damaged Goodies

Sleep and his Brother, by Peter Dickinson

I was thinking about last week’s post on damage, and how damaged characters tend to make for an interesting read. And it suddenly occurred to me that the emotionally maimed protagonist may be the most absolute dividing line…not between cozy mysteries and hard-boiled, but between cozies and everything else. That line is firmer than the Amateur Sleuth requirement, firmer even than the rule that cozies should involve a minimum of on-stage violence. I’m sure there are fancier-pants ways to describe it, but here’s mine: Nobody in a cozy mystery shall be seriously messed up.

I’m not talking wacky. Cozies are all about the wacky neighbor, the goofy best friend. I’m talking substance-abuse, flashbacks-to-Nam, history–of-psychotic-breaks mess-up. Jane Marple does not have a tortured relationship with vodka. Agatha Raisin is not a secret cutter. Jessica Fletcher does not cruise rough-trade bars and then embark on week-long spirals of self-loathing.

That kind of damage is not confined to the realm of the hard-boiled. Missing, for example, is by no means classic HB (where’s the nihilism? Where’s the professional sleuth?) but Sybilla – homeless by choice, haunted by her past – is certainly a gal with more than a few little problems. The sisters – all the sisters – in The Past and Other Lies provide a kind of walking paradigm of Messed-Up Through the Ages, but the book is a generational saga that encompasses most of the 20th century and involves a single crime that occurs on something like Page 347. Not exactly HB as it’s known and loved.
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