Book Review: All That Remains

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The book cover suggests a factual, maybe even clinical assessment of what remains (of us) when we die. However, the book combines deeply personal reflections on death including the deaths of loved ones, with the cold, hard process of decomposition.

I reviewed this book on my website. However, I refrained there from personal information. But here, on my blog, it is more appropriate to discuss them. Truth: I was uncomfortable reading this book from the beginning.

Why?

Sue Black is a skilled writer and scientist who combined a journal, a memoir, with forensic knowledge into one book. I have never had problems reading about autopsy reports, remains, death, or decomposition but this time, it got to me.

I could not put my finger on it other than that Black describes deaths in her own family from a very personal point of view. We get to know the person who passed away, the relationship that she had with them, and how she processed their deaths.

Then in Chapter 10 about Kosovo, it became clear what was happening to me. On page 249, Black describes how one person in her team “had made the cardinal error of mentally transposing the face of his own young daughter on to the mutilated body of this little girl and he was finding it difficult to cope.”

And that’s what happened.

Throughout the book, all these personal reflections on loss and death made me relive deaths in my own family. The causes of death, the ways of burial, the deceased’s personality, in every one of her cases I had seen someone of my own family. And with that I relived my own memories and grief.

So, if you decide to pick up this book, and I do recommend it, make sure that you do not transfer any personal memories or mental pictures onto Black’s memories.

If you read the book, let me know what you think.

Book Review: What Just Happened

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Writing a book review is always a joy. It makes me relive the story, cherish the words, makes me curious about the author’s other works, or it irritates me enough to hold off on further books.

I know this author, Charles Finch, through his Charles Lenox series. So, reading a journal from this author was going to be a treat.

Finch writes about everything and anything in and around the pandemic. From being home to very personal insights into his health, his state of mind, and how his friends handle the pandemic. It starts in March 2020.

As I said before, when I write a review I relive the book. In this case, I went back into the pandemic. March 2020. We had returned from Europe to the USA in January, were already gearing up for covid19, when our university announced a second spring break week. That’s when we were sure that a lockdown would follow. And it did.

Finch takes you almost day to day through his life and it ends with the Inauguration Day of President Joseph Biden. Some things are described in a word, in one sentence, and some days are pages long. Some events that featured in the news are summarized in an almost clinical manner. Some are very personal. It is exactly what you would expect from a journal.

I read critique online that the book feels uneven, has no consistency, or that an editor’s red pen chopped into the book, and then Finch rewrote parts to unify it again. Maybe an editor alerted him to leave out details about people as it might violate their privacy. I can see that happen. However, if I were to read a journal, and I find myself facing a perfectly worded, always full sentence, balanced, logically evolving storyline, I don’t believe that I am reading a journal.

Take my own. On some pages, you would find a series of numbers without context. I was probably counting something over several days and didn’t wanted to lose track. There’s the occasional but always returning rant that a recipe is not a gospel but a guideline. Then there are pages long explanations why a Christmas tree in July makes no sense and a line or two about health issues. Throw in a cussword or two! The point is, there’s no balance as it is what pops up in my mind or, what I have to get off my chest at that moment. Sometimes that goes in one word, sometimes it is an eloquent, long read.

In short, when you read ‘What Just Happened’ let go of the beautifully tailored sentences and scenes that is the Lenox series. Forget about storylines, plots, and characters. Get ready for an honest review of a pandemic year by an author who stepped out of his comfort zone and allowed us into his life and mind.

Book Review: Estimated Time of Arrest (ETA)

The abbreviation ETA reflects the fate of one of the main characters,  Lorenzo Lartaun Izcoa. However, ETA of course, also stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna. The author, Delphine Pontvieux, gives us an overview of the Basque Nationalist and Separatist Organization in this book.

After he took part in a pro-separatist march that turned violent in January 1992, Lorenzo Lartaun Izcoa (21) is wrongfully charged with the fatal bombing of a police station in his home town, Irun. It is a small city located in the heart of Basque country between France and Spain. It struggles for independence. Lartaun is now on the Spanish Secret Service’s most wanted list labelled an active member of the Basque terrorist group ETA. He has no choice but to flee.

Delphine Pontvieux takes you on a breathtaking tour through Southern France and Spain. It is obvious that she knows the areas. The little details in clothes, culture, architecture, and especially rock climbing and rock formations show that she knows her trade.

She gives you insight in a family ripped apart by violence and forced to take a stand. The book explains how people became part of ETA, how people grew up powerless to stop the violence and one day, when the opportunity presented itself… 

The book makes no excuses for violence but explains the characters and the motivations from the people behind the campaigns. We see a human side in all of them. They care for family and friends and we see their strength when their loyalty is tested with torture.

We meet a variety of people who all stand for, protest, and strive for a better tomorrow. Each has their own way, their own method, definition, and through forces beyond themselves, they collide. Again, not condoning violence but describing the book. 

The book is well written, keeps a good pace, and has in-depth characters. The one moment where the author lost my attention was near the end. The book’s ending would have been stronger by simply displaying the note and then have Faustine call Haizea. Read it and let me know what you think. 

Book Review: Curtain

After I read Poirot by Mark Aldridge, I mentioned a few Christie books that I needed to either read again or buy. Curtain was one that I had never read so, I bought it, read it, and am now disappointed. Disappointed by Christi, not Aldridge, just to be clear.

Aldridge explained in his book that Curtain was going to be the final word on Poirot so that he would not live on indefinitely like James Bond.

And, Curtain confirms one last time that Poirot indeed used to be with the Belgium Police, something that is kept uncertain in the ABC murders series from Amazon.

We are back at Styles where Hercule Poirot is trying to strengthen. He had been to Egypt in hopes that his health would improve but alas.

Captain Arthur Hastings describes that Poirot is now wheelchair-bound, crippled by arthritis, has lost a lot of weight, hints that his heart is failing, but that his eyes are as sharp as ever.

Poirot is not accompanied by his trusted valet George. We are told that George left to care for his family as his father fell ill. Curtiss, we never learn his full name, is now caring for Poirot. A big, tall, strong man as he is described to carry Poirot in his arms around Styles.

Poirot quickly tells Hastings to not let his medical condition taint anything as there is work to be done. As he himself cannot move at will, Hastings will have to do all the legwork and then report back. Poirot gives his old friend a case file with clippings about five old criminal cases.

  1. Leonard Etherington, drugs and drink were his life, arsenic poisoning, his wife acquitted. Depressed by the stigma, she took her own life two years later.
  2. Miss Sharples, single, disabled, morphine overdose. Her niece Freda Clay cared for her, admitted an accidental overdose to stop the suffering. Insufficient evidence to prosecute.
  3. Edward Riggs, suspected his wife and lodger of having an affair. The pair was found murdered. Riggs turned himself in but he claimed to have no recollections. He was sentenced to death but it was commuted to life imprisonment.
  4. Derek Bradley, had an affair, his wife threatened to kill him. Bradley died drinking a potassium cyanide-laced beer. Mrs. Bradley was sentenced to death and hung.
  5. Matthew Litchfield, a tyrant father to four daughters, was attacked, suffered blunt force trauma to the head. The oldest daughter Margaret, confessed as she wished for her three younger sisters to be free. She was found insane and committed to Broadmore where she died shortly after being admitted.

In all cases, there was no doubt about who was responsible for the crime. That it could not always go to trial, is another matter. However, there was never an investigation for an alternative suspect in either of these five cases.

Poirot then blows Hastings’ socks off by stating that a person he calls X is responsible in all these five cases. The hunt for a serial killer begins as he/she is about to strike again, right here, at Styles. If Poirot is right, Hastings has a few things to hold on to:

  • the killer can be either male or female
  • in the above-mentioned five cases, the method to kill is not novel meaning that the killer can be from any social and educational background and age, widening the pool of suspects to basically everyone in or near Styles
  • as the killer is experienced, time is of the essence to search for patterns, inconsistencies, etc.
  • the killer’s exact motive is unclear as it ranges from revenge for betrayal to being an angel of death, and most importantly,
  • in the above-mentioned cases five people were held responsible. So, how does X connect to them or the victims? There has to be a common demeanor as to place, person, incident, etc. that attracts the serial killer’s attention. Which bring us to the last point
  • how did X communicate with all the five people who were held responsible for the previously mentioned five crimes and how could that communication have gone undetected?

The premise of the book is fantastic. My issues lies with the execution and the characters.

I didn’t warm up to or bond with any of the characters. I found them all superficial. Poirot was condescending, arrogant, and aloof. Hastings was the only one whose thoughts and feelings were well described.

As this was the last book with Poirot, in which he actually dies, I had expected a more well-rounded character portrayal with glimpses of him as a younger detective and maybe a reflection here and there about his life, his train of thought, his regrets, and maybe even some humanity with doubts and wishes for what his life could be like had he not been weakened and in failing health.

The plot is convoluted with too many small clues that nobody picks up on. This causes the reader to place their trust completely in Hastings as he is Poirot’s extension. As he tries to figure out X’s identity, he also has to deal with family issues regarding his daughter, who is also at Styles. It muddies the pool.

Hasting’s butterfly brain finds no rest in the book, not even at the end. There is no rest at the end for the reader either. For in the end, we only have Poirot’s high-and-mighty word for what really happened.

If you read Curtain, let me know what you think about it and especially about the postscript.

Book Review: Murder at the Farm

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Murder at the Farm; who killed Carl Bridgewater? is a phenomenal book by journalist Paul Foot. We may never know what happened but after reading Foot‘s excellent analysis of the police interrogations, I am sure that none of the Bridgewater Four were involved.

Even though the case dates back to 1978, I consider this book to be a classic to study how cases can go wrong fast. It reminded me of the Guildford Four and of course, the long hours of interrogation without a lawyer or help reminded me of the case of Richard Lapointe.

Foot painstakingly details how the case developed in tunnel vision instead of though a multi-pronged approach. His writing style appeals to me. He immediately shows where the case went wrong. He doesn’t flip back and forth between what happened and then indicate mistakes.

From the BBC: “Police have launched a massive manhunt for the killers of a young paperboy. Carl Bridgewater, 13, was shot in the head at close range yesterday afternoon at an isolated farmhouse near Stourbridge in Staffordshire. The farmhouse was one of the last calls on the paper-round the 13-year-old had done for only two months. The owners of Yew Tree Farm – cousins Mary Poole and Fred Jones – were disabled so Carl used to let himself into the house through the back door and leave their newspaper on a chair. It was then he disturbed the burglars who dragged him into the sitting room and shot him.”

Carl did not just interrupt the burglars or burglar, he knew them. The position in which the body was found indicates to me that someone asked or made Carl sit down. Then, he approached the boy and shot him at close range.

Also very disturbing in this case, is to read how clues were not acted on promptly and how some were disregarded. In this story, you can read how a bouquet of flowers confirmed an alibi and how a cardboard note did not reach the proper people.

If you love to dig into unsolved homicides this book is for you. Of course, it is dated but what happened to these four men involved, still happens to this day.

Book Review: The Killer of Little Shepherds

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The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr is not just for readers interested in serial killers but foremost for those who love to read about forensic sciences.

It is a book about the evolution of society, how good trusting people changed into cautious people filled with distrust for strangers.

This is a book that signals how prejudice started to influence a community and how one person could incite a riot.

Of course, prominently featured are Cesare Lombroso and Alexandre Lacassagne. These two pillars and their schools of thought shaped forensic sciences.

The main story in the book is the case of Joseph Vacher, a man who was a schizophrenic psychopath. The psychopath in him killed many people. The schizophrenic in him made people believe that he was mentally disturbed. He claimed this had its source in his failed relationships.

This book describes in detail how autopsies were done in the late 1890s so get ready to read about autopsies without gloves, little sanitation, no refrigeration, and yes, Starr describes the scraping of the bones to measure their exact sizes.

This book held my interest from the start and not just because it hints at a serial killer at work. The case of Vacher is fascinating but the early days of CSI are a real treat for criminologists.

We learn about the work of Alexandre Lacassagne and Cesare Lombroso and how they tried to prove each other wrong. Lacassagne’s detailed descriptions of the circumstances under which the victims died is so meticulous that you can actually see the autopsy in your head.

Last but not least, we read about Vacher’s trial and how both sides tried to argue their cases. After he was arrested, Vacher claimed to be innocent by reason of insanity. He had once been bitten by a dog, so rabies might have made him do all these bad things, and the medicines he received to get better had lasting side-effects.

Vacher also tried to prove his insanity by proclaiming that God sent him to earth and when that didn’t work he tried to compare himself to Joan of Arc. Th experts found him sane and fit to stand trial.

Vacher was tried and convicted by the Cour d’Assises of Ain. Two victims were from Ain. He was sentenced to death on October 28, 1898. The method of execution at that time was the guillotine. The execution took place at dawn on December 31, 1898. Vacher refused to walk to the scaffold on his own and had to be dragged by his executioners.

The book has a table of contents, author’s notes, 8 pages with black and white photography, an epilogue, notes per chapter with sources, a bibliography, a cross-referenced index, a list of illustrations with credits.

Highly recommended reading. 

Book Review: A Killer by Design

Full title: A Killer by Design, Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind by Ann Wolbert Burgess and Steven Matthew Constantine.

Her research with victims began when she co-founded, with Boston College sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, one of the first hospital-based crisis counseling programs at Boston City Hospital.

She then worked with FBI Academy special agents to study serial offenders, and the links between child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and subsequent perpetration.”

In Killer by Design, Ann Wolbert Burgess gives you an overview about the birth of criminal profiling. She describes how her work in the assessment and treatment of victims of trauma and abuse got her on the FBI Academy’s radar to help develop criminal profiling in the Behavior Science Unit.

The Academy had to prove that profiling was science, not a lucky guess, and worth the investment of time and funding.

Burgess describes how Special Agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas wished to interview convicted killers to learn all about their motives and thinking patterns. In doing so, they hoped to gain insight that could be used to solve other crimes. That’s where Burgess came in as they needed someone with a background in psychology.

We learn how with Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, she had launched an interdisciplinary research project to focus on the victims’ responses to rape. “The goal of our research was to better understand the emotional and traumatic effects of sexual violence, which often far outlast the physical effects of the act itself.” The notions of control and power caught the FBI’s interest.

We learn why people kill, how they perceive violence, and how their use/thoughts about violence evolve over time. Burgess helped streamline interview guidelines and questionnaires to document childhood, incidents of violence in and around families, traumatic incidents, real or perceived danger, how power struggles were played out, and much more.

She kept the focus on retelling the crime but with the subtle change to gradually switch from fantasizing about a crime, taking steps to make it more real, preparing for reality, plotting, the first attempt in real life, the absorption/reflecting on that attempt, and the steps made after that towards successful criminal acts, and reliving crimes.

While reading Chapter 2, the book started to become familiar to me. Yes, having studied criminology I have read my fair share of books about (serial) killers but it was something different. Bellevue, Nebraska, 1983. Bells started to ring as I read the words ‘newspaper route.’ It was the case of Danny Joe Eberle (13) and I knew where I read about the struggle to get this case solved.

Retired-FBI Agent Pete Klismet detailed in his book ‘FBI Diary, Profiles of Evil‘ exactly this case but from another perspective. Klismet worked on the case with local law enforcement agencies until Robert Ressler flew in to assist. It starts in chapter 24 in Klismets’ book.

As a result, I got to read about a few cases that puzzled local law enforcement and what they needed to solve these crimes. And then, with this book, I saw what the FBI had to offer and how together, they solved some of the most gruesome cases. Wonderful experience!

Even if you have read similar books on serial killers and profiling, this one gives a clear overview into profiling and the methodology to make questionnaires, to conduct interviews, and most importantly, it has almost verbatim content of the interviews conducted so you experience the answers along with the interviewers, and then read about their assessments.

If there is one thing that you should take away from this book, it is the struggle to update law enforcement, to streamline processes (locally and nationally), and the prejudices regarding other professions. But most of all, the reluctance to embrace help from others especially from non-law enforcement officers.

This book comes out in December 7, 2021. The pace is good and the chapters are well proportioned. As I read an advance reading copy, it only had a few footnotes, no cross-referenced index, no bibliography, and no recommended reading listings. I assume that the ultimate version of the book will have those resources.

Highly recommended reading!

Three last notes:

Cowriter Steven Matthew Constantine is the assistant director of marketing and communications at the Boston College Connell School of Nursing. He lives in Boston, MA.

Burgess and Constantine describe gruesome crimes in detail. What exactly happened is part of the profiling. That means that this book can be upsetting as it includes cases of sexual assault and crimes against children.

Last, I received an advance reading copy of this book from Ashley Kiedrowski from Hachette Books in exchange for an honest review.