The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

Read: 5 July, 2017

In the summer of 1895, thirteen year old Robert Coombes murdered his mother.

I loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which used the murder of a three year old boy as a narrative structure to look at how police and detectives functioned in Victorian society (particularly where the process of investigation of upper class households by lower class detectives ruffled class sensibilities).

The Wicked Boy doesn’t have the same impact. At first, I thought it was looking at the scandal of ‘penny dreadfuls’, then it look at the criminal justice system, then it looks at the treatment of mental illness, and then it veers off entirely to go over Australia’s participation in World War I.

I enjoyed every part of The Wicked Boy, but it didn’t have the same satisfying impact without the broader point. It ended up just being about this one boy, with broader issues only mentioned as interesting asides.

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Blood Relative by Crocker Stephenson

Read: 23 August, 2016

On the fourth of July, 1987, Kenny Kuntz came home to find his mother, brother, uncle, and two aunts brutally murdered. In Blood Relative, Stephenson tracks the events of that night, along with the subsequent investigation and trial.

The murder itself is disturbing, as is the family’s history (though somewhat glossed over, there are strong hints at generations of abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness). As far as voyeuristic summer reading sensationalism goes, Blood Relative gets the job done.

Stephenson has, for the most part, arranged the book as collections of facts – snippets from autopsy reports, transcripts from interviews, etc. But every so often, the narrative voice interjects, providing imagery that could not possibly have been known by the author, and the words chosen are heavy with connotations (even if I didn’t perceive any particular strong bias). I didn’t get the sense that I was being intentionally misled, but the difference between the two styles was very jarring.

Because Stephenson apparently wanted to privilege “unabridged first sources,” there are times when context is really lacking. For example, someone might be quoted, but with no explanation of who they are, or an autopsy report quote might be presented with no explanation of the medical jargon. Given Stephenson’s narrative intrusions elsewhere, I was rather miffed by their lack in these areas.

Due to the nature of the True Crime genre, the ending is understandably unsatisfying. The mystery is presented and explained, but it isn’t resolved – it ends in the lead suspect’s acquittal. At least Stephenson is very upfront about this, warning readers that they will leave the book confused.

Still, it would have been nice to have seen some more follow-up. The book came out several years after the events described, but we have no more information about how Kenny Kuntz is doing, or whether Chris Jacobs III had been convicted of further crimes (and, in fact, he purportedly confessed to the murders two years before Blood Relative was published – information that should have been included!). That said, I do realise how difficult it would have been to negotiate the ethics of a “where are they now” section.

Which brings me to my final issue: The impression I got from the lack of statements from the surviving family members, plus the afterward “provided” by the sister, Germaine, suggest that the book was written and published without their consent or support. I’m glad to have had it to read, but that does make me quite uncomfortable. Besides which, it seems that it would have been a better book had Stephenson courted the remaining family members for their input.

Reading this soon-ish after watching Netflix’s Making of a Murderer documentary was an interesting experience. Both involve fairly similar families (socially isolated WIsconsin families with a lot of mental illness and suggestions of abuse), and it was easy to read the Avery family into the Kunzes.

Blood Relative is a quick read, and surprisingly light on the gruesome detail. It doesn’t have a satisfying wrap-up, but that does provide a lot of fuel for discussions on a long Wisconsin evening with others who have read the book. As ever, there are aspects of the True Crime genre that make me uncomfortable, and this book seems to take those issues to a bit of an extreme. It does feel exploitative, though I’m somewhat assuaged by the fact that the other doesn’t seem to be pointing any definitive fingers.

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A Fly for the Prosecution by M. Lee Goff

Read: 28 August, 2015

Goff’s Fly for the Prosecution is about forensic entomology. It’s a pretty thorough book, while still being suitable for a lay audience, covering the full range of the discipline: the history of forensic entomology, determining short post-mortem periods, determining long post-mortem periods, the effects of drugs, the effects of different environments, plus some specifics to the forensic process itself, including how to cope and giving testimony in court. There’s even an index at the back, so the book can be used as a reference.

I imagine the intended audience being people who are into entomology in general, and thinking of going into the field of forensic entomology. I also think the book will appeal to many of the fans of murder/detective stories, though it does get a bit technical and some might find it dull.

My only complaint about the book – and it’s a very small one – is that the author comes off as a little full of himself. This is particularly the case toward the end, where he contrasts the poor practices of other forensic entomologists against his own, good, practices. I feel like he could have found a different way of covering that material, either by depersonalizing it entirely or, at least, by letting some of his colleagues serve as the good examples every so often.

But other than that, his writing style was quite good and, given the material, fairly entertaining. He’s no Mary Roach, certainly, but he did manage to make descriptions of various fly species seem interesting.

The material, being forensic, is by nature quite gross. But I’m generally okay with corpse stuff. I get that icky feeling, but it’s well within what interest can compensate for. The only chapter I really struggled with was the one where he talked about doing forensic entomology on the living (all children or senior abuse victims). That really tried the hardiness of my stomach, even as I appreciate the value of the work.

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African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou

Read: 29 January, 2013

Gregoire Nakobomayo is an aspiring serial killer. He idolizes Angoualima, a particularly brutal serial killer who had been on the prowl in Gregoire’s youth, and he has promised to Angoualima that he will be a good disciple, that he will kill.

The story is set in a first person rambling style, allowing Gregoire to take us through his life (a “pick-up child,” he was abandoned at birth and raised in a series of foster homes), his “petty” criminal activities, and, ultimately, his plans to murder Germaine – a prostitute he has convinced to live with him.

The book reads like a really long joke, with a macabre (but hilarious – though I’m rather ashamed to admit it, given the subject matter) punch line at the end. It reminds me of a lot of 19th century horror/gothic short stories with their twist endings in which everyone gets their comeuppance.

I found the narrative voice to be very compelling. Gregoire bounces back and forth between feelings of inadequacy and narcissism, impotence and power, and a very misplaced sense of purpose. I found his thought-processes to be both uncomfortably familiar and distinctly Other.

It’s an easy read and, at only 145pages, a quick one as well. The translation wasn’t too bad and, while I did feel that I was missing a lot of the local-specific jokes and references, it’s still reasonably accessible to an international audience.

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #3: The Merchant’s Mark by Pat McIntosh

Read: 10 December, 2010

Gil Cunningham is eagerly awaiting a shipment of books. But when the barrel that was supposed to contain literature turns out to have a human head floating in brine instead, he and his companions become enmeshed in yet another mystery.

Another great addition to the series!

There’s a bit more supernatural stuff (a ghost this time), but it’s still manageable in quantity.

I like that Gil’s station changes between the books. Each book is an isolated mystery, of course, but the character development is continuous throughout the series. I’ve really enjoyed watching Gil’s relationship with Alys grow and change – which it does in a delightfully realistic and sensible way – as well as their accumulation of companions – first a baby, then a dog. I look forward to reading the next books in the series!

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #2: The Nicholas Feast by Pat McIntosh

Read: 3 December, 2010

Soon after the events in Harper’s Quine, Gil Cunningham participates in his old university’s Nicholas Feast. But during the day, a young student is found dead. Because of his success in catching the killer in Harper’s Quine, Gil is asked to solve this murder as well. Joined by his love, Alys, and her father, he immerses himself in politics and espionage to find justice for a student no one seems to have liked.

I bought this book, along with the next two in the series, as soon as I had finished the first one, but I didn’t read it for quite a while. In my silliness, I loved Harper’s Quine so much that I was afraid of burning through the series too fast!

This was an excellent addition to the series! Once again, the mystery was interesting, and I love the relationship between Gil and Alys (not to mention Alys’s father). I’m not a fan of the supernatural element (the titular Quine from the last novel seems to be psychic – although like most psychics, his pronouncements are vague enough to be of absolutely no use), but it’s low-key enough that it can be easily ignored. Besides, the rest of the story more than makes up for it.

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Maigret et le marchand de vin [Maigret and the Wine Merchant] by Georges Simenon

Read: 21 July, 2009

According to my dear ol’ mum, bless her French book-reading heart, there’s an entire series of Maigret detective novels. For my own part, I’ve only encountered this one, so I’ll have to take her word for it. In this episode, the owner of a wine distribution company has been murdered and Jules Maigret is called in to investigate.

Le marchand de vin is rather different from many of the detective novels I usually read. For one thing, it’s an actual detective novel – in that the person doing the investigating is a detective in the police force. This introduces a rather different dynamic than I’m accustomed to. My detectives are usually sucked in to a mystery, often reluctantly, and half the story is trying find some way to convince the authorities to serve justice. But here, Maigret has the benefit of the authorities being on his side, but he’s also constrained by this. There are rules to follow, and tactics that are simply off-limits.

I enjoyed how dependent this novel was on conversation. The focus was very little on the discovery of clues, but rather on the interactions between Maigret and his various witnesses and suspects. The whole book reads more like a play than anything else. As a result, character development is emphasized, but also somewhat more subtle. We’re rarely told what characters are feeling, but are left to guess based on their verbal responses. This is fairly common in French literature, but I read so little of it that it made for a refreshing change.

As far as the mystery itself goes, it’s fairly run-of-the-mill. It’s written from a local’s perspective, so it doesn’t have the charm of otherness that Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now had, for example. Maigret is not especially “quirky” like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. In other words, there’s no gimmick to the story. It’s just a plain detective story, albeit of a higher calibre than most. It’s well worth the read for fans of the genre, if only for exposure to how good an ordinary detective without some extraordinary selling feature can be.

Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #1: The Harper’s Quine by Pat McIntosh

Read: 11 September, 2010

I think that anyone who pays some attention to my reviews here would easily be able to guess that I love mysteries and I love historical fiction. So when I came across Harper’s Quine as a book that offers both, I had to buy it. But, as is so often the case, it sat on my shelf next to a whole lot of other unread books as I tried mightily to catch my reading rate up to my shopping rate.

Finally, finally, it was time to give Harper’s Quine a turn, and I immediately regretted that I had waited so long!

Gil Cunningham is expected to enter the priesthood. But when he becomes mixed in with a murder investigation, he is led to meet the lovely Alys, his future becomes rather less than certain.

I really enjoyed this books for quite a few reasons. The biggest is that the mystery is solvable by the reader – pay attention while Gil gathers clues, and it’s possible to figure out the murder rather early on. It’s a little frustrating to see Gil continue to stumble about in ignorance, but it’s immensely satisfying to be proven correct at the end. These are my favourite sort of mysteries!

Another aspect I really enjoyed was the relationship with Alys. Alys is an active participant in the mystery solving. She’s smart, capable, and contributes a lot to the detective work. But at the same time, this doesn’t feel anachronistic. Unlike Rowland’s Uechi Reiko, Alys is not a modern feminist trapped in the past. She’s a strong woman, but she’s still plausible. And, as a woman, she has many responsibilities. While her father and lover are out having great adventures, she must remain mindful of her household and its need to be continuously managed.And she can’t just “do it all” – there are times when she can’t get to a particular task that’s relevant to the mystery because she is occupied with being the lady of the house.

If I had to look for a flaw, it would be with the fate of the baddie. I’ve complained about this before, I know, but I find it rather distasteful when the baddie(s) meets with a gruesome end. I understand that it’s supposed to be cathartic, or some such nonsense, but it just strikes me as barbaric. A simple hanging, while only slightly less brutal, would at least have the benefit of being that age’s expression of justice.

But leaving that aside, this was a truly remarkable book, a rare gem. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who is a fan of mysteries and/or historical fiction!

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #3: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Read: 4 October, 2009

When Gaius Petreius Ruso receives a strange letter from his brother, he has no choice but to return to Gaul. Once there, however, he discovers that he has been tricked and he’s about to find out just how dangerous “civilization” can be.

We’ve seen quite a bit of Roman-occupied Britain, but now we get a glimpse of Ruso in his own environment; and this presents its own whole set of dangers. Once again, Downie is able to stay faithful to everything I love about the series without making it seem like just another replica.

I was a bit concerned when Christianity was introduced to the story, as Tilla spends time with Christian slaves. Books with Christian subplots so often devolve into apologetics either for or against the religion. I was practically holding my breath through the whole novel! But Downie manages to handle it with great finesse, simply including it as she does other historical details, and remains blessedly non-partisan.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #4: A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

Read: 24 June, 2010

Adelia Aguilar has been enjoying a simple life with her daughter and friends, but King Henry II has come for her again. This time, he needs her to accompany his sister, Joanna, to Sicily. To ensure that Adelia returns when the task is completed, he keeps her daughter in England as a hostage. As the procession makes its way, strange things start to happen and Adelia is suspected of witchcraft.

There isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t been said for the last three books. If you’ve enjoyed the last three, you’ll enjoy this one too.

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