Sunday, 22 June 2014

My Dark Places (An LA Crime Memoir) by James Ellroy

Paperback:  On 21 June 1958, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy left her home in California.  She was found strangled the next day.  Her ten-year-old son James had been with her estranged husband all weekend and was informed of her death on his return.

Her murderer was never found, but her death had an enduring effect on her son - he spent his teens and early adult years as a wino, petty burglar and derelict.

A cheap Saturday night took you down. You died stupidly and harshly and without the means to hold your own life dear.  Your run to safety was a brief reprieve.  You brought me into hiding as your good-luck charm.  I failed you as a talisman - so I stand now as your witness.  Your death defines my life.  I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name.  I want to take your secrets public.  I want to burn down the distance between us.  I want to give you breath.

Only later, through his obsession with crime fiction, triggered by his mother's murder, did Ellroy begin to delve into his past.  Shortly after the publication of his groundbreaking novel White Jazz (1992), he determined to return to Los Angeles and with the help of veteran detective Bill Stoner, attempt to solve the 38-year-old killing.

The result is one of the few classics of crime non-fiction and autobiography to appear in the last few decades;  a hypnotic trip to America's underbelly and one man's tortured soul.

...I robbed your grave.  I revealed you.  I showed you in shameful moments.  I learned things about you.  Everything I learned made me love you more dearly...You're gone and I want more of you.

James Ellroy investigates his mother's murder in My Dark Places (1996).

About the author:  A master of noir crime fiction, James has up close and personal knowledge of the world of crime.  His life has been shadowed by a gruesome event:  the unsolved murder of his mother when he was a child.  In 1958, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy's body was dumped on a roadway in El Monte, California, a seedy L.A. exurb.  Her killer was never apprehended.  Her murder unleashed a force that has propelled Ellroy's work.  Ellroy channeled his anguish and transformed himself into an outsized public persona:  an audacious, uncompromising, and unapologetic chronicler of humanity's dark side.

James Ellroy is masterly at speaking, his own backstory as riveting as any in fiction.  Ellroy was born in 1948.  He consumed crime novels as a young reader and developed an obsessive fascination with homicide after his father bought him Jack Webb's The Badge (1958).  In the book he discovered the story of the ghastly murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short, known after her death as the Black Dahlia, whose murder and the subsequent investigation captivated the postwar imagination of the entire country.

As a young man haunted by his mother's death, Ellroy became a thief, an alcoholic, a drug abuser, and a peeping Tom.  He served time in jail.  Much of the first thirty years of his life was consumed by homelessness, alcoholism, drug abuse, petty crime, and a period of insanity.  Ellroy eventually found steady work caddying at Los Angeles country clubs and joined AA.  As he walked the golf courses while he worked, he harnessed his narrative passion to his fascination with crime and began to daydream a novel.  In 1985 he began The Black Dahlia (1987), an explicit attempt to marry his mother's murder to the famous case that had so obsessed him in his youth.  The novel appeared in 1987 and was dedicated to his mother.

As a novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and memoirist, James Ellroy is more closely identified with Los Angeles than any writer since Raymond Chandler.  Nearly all of his writing is set in Los Angeles, in the rough, racist, pre-Miranda Los Angeles of the decade following the Second World War.  Four of his novels  - The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential (an Academy Award winning-movie), and White Jazz - are collectively known as the L.A. Quartet.  They comprise a dark and obsessive 1950s anti-history of his hometown.  His novels American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood's A Rover (September 2009) form the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy, and American Tabloid and his memoir, My Dark Places, were both named as Time magazine's Best Book of the Year, respectively.

Curtis Hanson directed the blockbuster film adaptation of L.A. Confidential (1997) in which (as in the book), everything is suspect, everyone is for sale, and nothing is what it seems.  The Black Dahlia, directed by Brian De Palma, was released in 2006.  Ellroy himself has been the subject of seven documentary films, including Feast of Death, by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Vikram Jayanti.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Four Days In November: The Assassination Of President John F Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi

To the historical record, knowing that nothing in the present can exist without the paternity of history, and hence, the latter is sacred, and should never be tempered with or defiled by untruths.

Paperback:  Four Days in November (2007) is an extraordinarily exciting, precise, and definitive narrative of the assassination of President John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald.

It covers the shattering event in Dealey Plaza, the futile efforts to save the president's life, the apprehension and interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald, his subsequent murder by Jack Ruby, and the funerals of Kennedy and Oswald on the fourth day following the assassination.

It is broken down into two books, Book One being on what happened, the non-conspiracy part, and Book Two, on what did not happen, the conspiracy allegation part of this sweeping story.  There is also a section on Oswald's biography.

It is drawn from Reclaiming History:  The Assassination of President John F Kennedy, a monumental and historic account of the event that required twenty years to research and write, by Vincent Bugliosi, legendary prosecutor of Charles Manson and author of Helter Skelter.  That book goes beyond the fascinating narrative of events to confront and destroy every one of the conspiracy theories that have grown up since the assassination, exposing their selective use of evidence, flawed logic, and outright deceptions.  So thoroughly documented, so compellingly lucid in its conclusions, Reclaiming History is, in a sense, the investigation that completes the work of the Warren Commission.

Readers who enjoy Four Days in November or who have unanswered questions about conspiracy theories and the various investigations of the assassination, will want to consult Bugliosi's magnum opus, Reclaiming History, which has raised scholarship on the assassination to a new and final level, one that far surpasses all other books on the subject.

For general readers, the carefully documented account presented in Four Days in November is utterly persuasive:  Oswald did it and he acted alone.

About the author:  Vincent Bugliosi, American attorney and author, is a three-time winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the best true crime book of the year category for his No 1 New York Times bestsellers, Helter Skelter (1974) and Till Death Do Us Part (1978) and Reclaiming History:  The Assassination of President John F Kennedy (2007).  In his career at the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, he successfully prosecuted 105 out of 106 felony jury trials and his most famous trial was the Charles Manson case, which became the basis of his bestselling book Helter Skelter.  He lives with his wife in Los Angeles.

This Is A Book-Shop

(Photo:  Seen at Albion Beatnik Bookstore, 34 Walton Street, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX2 6AU, England.)

The Albion Beatnik is an independent and enthusiastic bookshop in Jericho, Oxford, with an eclectic collection of titles ranging from American pulp to Beatnik poetry. The relaxed cafe offers fine tea (brewed from tea leaves in a tea pot), coffee and cake. The shop hosts many events - particularly poetry and music, themed literary evenings and general talks and debates. It has a reading group which meets each month. It is an anti-wi-fi zone (we think you can have too much of a bad thing). We think the internet is great, but the written word is better; we abhor democracy and adore anarchy (in a sort of postmodern, dodecophonic sort of way); we think you should buy a book because you want to read it, not because it is cheap, although this doesn't give publishers or booksellers the license to overcharge (unless they can get away with it). The shop has a no petting, diving or bombing policy (unless with the owner). And if you are genuine and enthusiastic, you are always welcome.

Opening times:
Mon - Tue: 11am - 8pm
Wed - Sat: 11am - 11pm
Sun: 2pm - 5pm

Monday, 9 June 2014

Blood Will Out: The True Story of A Murder, A Mystery, and A Masquerade by Walter Kirn

Hardback:  In the summer of 1998, Walter Kirn - then an aspiring novelist struggling with impending fatherhood and a dissolving marriage - set out on a peculiar, fateful errand:  to personally deliver a crippled hunting dog from his home in Montana to the New York apartment of one Clark Rockefeller, a secretive young banker and art collector who had adopted the dog over the Internet.

Thus began a fifteen-year relationship that drew Kirn deep into the fun-house world of an outlandish, eccentric son of privilege who ultimately would be unmasked as a brazen serial impostor, child kidnapper, and brutal murderer.

Kirn's one-of-a-kind story of being duped by a real-life Mr Ripley takes us on a bizarre and haunting journey from the posh private clubrooms of Manhattan to the hard-boiled courtrooms and prisons of Los Angeles.

As Kirn uncovers the truth about his friend, a psychopath masquerading as a gentleman, he also confronts hard truths about himself.

Why, as a writer of fiction, was he susceptible to the deception of a sinister fantasist whose crimes, Kirn learns, were based on books and movies?

What are the hidden psychological links between the artist and the con man?

To answer these and other questions, Kirn attends his old friend's murder trial and uses it as an occasion to reflect on both their tangled personal relationship and the surprising literary sources of Rockefeller's evil.

This investigation of the past climaxes in a tense jailhouse reunion with a man whom Kirn realizes he barely knew - a predatory, sophisticated genius whose life, in some respects, parallels his own and who may have intended to take another victim during his years as a fugitive from justice:  Kirn himself.

Combining confessional memoir, true crime reporting, and cultural speculation, Blood Will Out (2014) is a Dreiser-esque tale of self-invention, upward mobility, and intellectual arrogance.  It exposes the layers of longing and corruption, ambition and self-delusion beneath the Great American con.

About the author:  Walter Kirn is an American novelist, literary critic and essayist.  He is the author of eight books including Thumbsucker (1999) and Up in the Air (2001), both made into major films.  His work has appeared in GQ, New York, Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, where an excerpt of this work first appeared.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

If I Can't Have You: Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children (True Crime) by Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris

Hardback:  It was 9am on Monday, 7 December, 2009, in West Valley City, a suburb of Salt Lake City.  It was in the middle of a three-day winter storm.  Debbie Caldwell pulled up in her Ford Club Wagon in front of 6254 W Sarah Circle and observed how quiet her friend and neighbour Susan's house seemed.

She knocked on the front door several times.  No answer.  She had already called Susan on her cell phone.  When there was no answer, she tried Susan's work phone at Wells Fargo Investments and, finally, their home landline.  Again, no answer.

Susan, 28, and Josh, 33, usually dropped their children Braden, 2, and Charlie, 4, at Daydreams and Fun Things Child Care as early as 6am.  When they didn't appear that morning, Debbie started trying to reach the young parents.  Susan was always prompt and conscientious.  Josh was another story.

Debbie dialed Josh's employer, Aspen Distribution, a trucking and shipping firm where he did computer programming.  They said that Josh hadn't shown up for work.  When no one answered the front door of their house, she phoned the name listed as Josh and Susan's emergency contact, his sister, Jennifer Graves.

Jennifer and her mother, Terrica (Terry) Powell, went over to their house.  Finding it locked up tightly they tried both Josh's and Susan's cell phones, which went to voice mail.

Then Terri phoned the West Valley City police to report the family missing.

New York Times bestselling authors Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris investigate one of the twenty-first century's most puzzling disappearances and how it resulted in the murder of two children by their father.

Every once in a great while, a genuine murder mystery unfolds before the eyes of the American public.
The tragic story of Susan Powell and her murdered boys, Charlie and Braden, is the only case that rivals the JonBenét Ramsey saga in the annals of true crime.

When the pretty Utah mother went missing in December of 2009, the media was swept up in the story - with lenses and microphones trained on Susan's husband, Josh.

He said he had no idea what happened to his young wife, and that he and the boys had been camping in the middle of a snowstorm.

Over the next three years, bombshell by bombshell, the story would reveal more shocking secrets, Josh's father, Steve, who was sexually obsessed with Susan, would ultimately be convicted of unspeakable perversion.

And in 2012, in the most stunning event of them all, Josh Powell would murder his two little boys and kill himself with a brutality beyond belief, leaving a family destroyed and a nation in shock.  Josh's brother, Michael, would commit suicide in 2013.

On 21 May 2013, West Valley City police announced that they had closed the active investigation into Susan Powell's disappearance.  However, there may be future investigations and Susan Powell's family have not given up searching for her.

There is always hope, courage and love, no matter how dark things may seem.

About the authors:  A New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, Gregg Olsen has written nine nonfiction books, ten novels, and a novella, and has contributed a short story to a colleciton edited by Lee Child.

Rebecca Morris is the New York Times bestselling author of Bodies of Evidence (with Gregg Olsen) and Ted and Ann.  She is an award-winning reported and has worked as a journalist in New York City;  Portland, Oregon;  and Seattle, Washington.