Monday, June 18, 2018

A Murder in Music City by Michael Bishop

On television, at any given time, I can find plenty of those whodunnit true crime stories. Last week, though, at the Author! Author! even at Brentwood Country Club, a benefit for the Adult Learning Center of Williamson County, I was introduced to Michael Bishop's book A Murder in Music City.  He joined the panel with Peggy O'Neal Peden and Joy Jordan-Lake. I'd met Joy earlier at Parnassus and loved her novel A Tangled Mercy, set in Charleston, and I'd heard of Peden's book because of her Lipscomb connections. I knew almost nothing about Bishop or his story, but I was intrigued.

When I had him sign the book, he offered a friendly warning: When you start reading, make sure you have time to read straight through. I attributed the comment to hyperbole or ego, but I'll confess that I read several chapters in the middle of the night sitting on the bathroom floor of the guest room where we were visiting.

Although Bishop had no law enforcement experience, legal expertise, or journalism background, he became interested in the story of the murder of Paula Herring in February of 1964 after hearing about a number of unsolved or questionable Nashville crimes.  Herring's murder was one of the first after Nashville and Davidson County merged to form the nation's first Metro government. Home from college during her freshman year at UT, she was babysitting her young brother while her mother was out on the town. The murder occurred in the Crieve Hall area (just a few blocks from my daughter and son-in-law's first home) during a time when other crimes were reported in the area. One of the most suspicious details was the young brother's presence in the house. He was not harmed, and he seemed not to have heard any gunshots.

John Randolph Clarke was arrested, charged, and convicted of the crime after a five-day trial in Jackson, Tennessee, where the case was moved because of the publicity in Nashville. Despite Clarke's reputation as a philanderer, his lawyer and his wife never believed he was guilty.

Bishop tells the story through his own search for evidence, research that took him about fifteen years. He repeatedly hit dead ends as neighbors, friends, and potential witnesses said they weren't interested in talking or reliving the crime. The timing of the murder and the research required Bishop to dig through archives and to search through old phone directories and records. Along the way, he learned a lot about the psychology of the interview and about body language.

Nashville residents, especially those who were in the city during the early years of Metro, will find the names and places mentioned familiar. Much of the action takes place around Vanderbilt, particularly the stretch of road between Rotier's and Elliston Soda Shop. At the luncheon, Bishop joked about having to watch his back.  The more I read, the more I understood the fear. He names names--high level government and law enforcement officials (some with streets named for them).

The details of the Jackson trial--and the party atmosphere at the hotel where defense, prosecution, jury and media stayed--would be hard to believe in a work of fiction. By the time Bishop brings the truth to life, most of the players and long dead. In fact, only Paula's brother Alan survives. The colorful characters on the good and bad sides of the story, some involved with other high profile crimes around the United States, make for a fascinating read. Yes, it's one that might keep you up at night reading through to the end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon

Today I'm full. My book club met at my house to discuss David Grann's nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. In this book club, we try to serve food to fit the book. (We decided no more books about prison because bread and water make for boring book club meals.) I tried to do my research, so we had bison patties, "three sisters" salad with beans, corn, and squash, wild rice and cranberries, and fry bread with wojapi (blueberry gravy). 

With this group of readers, though, the food (or the drink) isn't the main point. We have spirited discussions of the books each month. The big question we all addressed this time was "Why didn't we know about this?"  David Grann used journalistic research to tell the story of outright murder and suspicious deaths among members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s. At the time, members of the tribe had great wealth because of "head rights" for oil on their property. Many of them lived ostentatiously with big cars, fine houses, and other extravagance.  

Grann begins with the death of Anna Brown and follows the subsequent life of her sister Molly Burkhart, married to a white man. In addition to Brown's brutal murder and other similar cases, more and more members of the community were dying from what appeared to be poison. 

Tom White, one of the early agents of the FBI and a former Texas Ranger, is brought to the investigation after a great deal of bungling, handpicked evidently by J. Edgar Hoover. At this time, the bureau was relatively new. Americans had been resistant to anything that appeared to be a national police force, but some crimes had a federal nature requiring law enforcement with a larger jurisdiction. What White uncovers is an extensive network of greed and murder for gain. 

When the Osage came into the fortune, the powers that be didn't deem them capable of handling the financial responsibility and assigned guardians--white men in the community. While some acted in the best interest of their wards, the evidence is clear that far too many acted systematically to deprive them of their wealth and their lives. Since the perpetrators were highly placed members of the community, they were able to cover up the crime during the pretense of investigating. While some served time, many walked free.

In the last chapters of the book, Grann tells his own story of digging deeper into records decades after the crimes were laid to rest. He found the records of guardianships with a disproportionate number of wards listed as "dead."

While this story has unique characteristics, it's far too similar to other wrongdoing that has occurred throughout history--and still occurs--when one group is able to see another as inferior, even less than human. 

Grann writes that "history is a merciless judge"; in the telling of this story, he helps citizens to be more aware. And as G. I. Joe always said, "Knowing is half the battle."


Monday, June 11, 2018

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

I am thankful for the highlighting function on iBooks.  I'm a reader who marks in her books. While I keep some books relatively pristine (Is that modifier possible?), I do tend to make notes as I read. I am more hindered in reading by the lack of a pencil or pen than by the inability to locate any of the dozen pair of readers I keep lying around.

Most recently, I had Rachel Kadish's novel The Weight of Ink loaded on my iPad for a road trip. I had started the first chapter earlier and then had been distracted, moving to another book (probably one assigned by a book club). When I started again, though, I couldn't stop reading.

The book opens around 2000 in Richmond (outside of London), where Helen Watt, a history professor has been summoned by a former student she barely remembers. He and his wife are remodeling or restoring a home she inherited from an aunt or grandmother when an electrician discovers what he thinks are Arabic writings under the stairs, stopping construction. Closer inspection indicates these papers are written in Hebrew and date back to the seventeenth century.  Watt is on the brink of retirement and experiencing some serious health problems she keeps private. Her department chair recommends Aaron Levy, a brash American student stalled in his dissertation work, to help her. When her university purchases the treasure trove of letters and documents, she and Aaron must the clock, under the watch of the library's "two Patricias," as other scholars are allowed access as well.

The second thread of the story follows Ester Velasquez, a young girl sent to London after her parents' death by fire. She ends up in the home of a rabbi blinded for his faith during the Inquisition in Portugal. During the time of novel, Jews have just been permitted in England again the during Restoration Period when Charles II regains the throne. While the rabbi has a few reluctant male pupils, Ester shows a unique ability and interest, becoming his scribe, going again, at the very least, convention.

Kadish's narrative in the seventeenth century covers conflicts and divisions within the Jewish community and between the Jews and Gentiles in London, the plague, and the Great Fire of London. In the 21st century sections, the author also weaves back stories of romance for Helen and for Aaron. All the characters wrestle with faith, scripture, identity, loyalty, and person values.

My initial reading also convinced me how rich a close study of the book would be: Kadish weaves symbolism of ink and ash with martyrdom and the Masada. While her major characters are fictional, her afterword assures readers that she carefully researched the periods in question. She even reveals a couple of instances in which she took minor poetic license to shift facts.

The book presents three particularly strong female characters and a number of men and women of integrity conscious of their own flaws in search of truth. When I go back to my notes and bookmarks, I'm due a some searching of my own.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: Yes, Indeed She Is.

I love to be surprised by a book. It happened with Fredrick Backman's  A Man Called Ove; one of my favorite librarians told me, "I've put this book on hold for you." When I first started it, as I was introduced to the old curmudgeon, I was baffled. But he grew on me.

I picked up Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout on a hunch with no information about it at all. Over the course of the interwoven short stories, I learned to love Olive.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was on my list of books to read--but for the life of me I can't remember how it got there. Sure enough, dear odd Eleanor was not easy to like at first. She was socially awkward and she lacked a filter, so she quickly spoke her mind, alienating her from her co-workers. But over the course of the story, Eleanor seemed to get to know herself better as I learned more about her.

As Honeyman reveals, Eleanor has good reasons for her awkwardness and mistrust of others, revealed gradually in the story. When the new IT guy, Raymond, initiates a friendship with nothing but good intentions, he also helps her good side to emerge.  Early in the novel, Eleanor reveals that she's found the man of her dreams, a local pop singer she's heard once and never met.  she begins a self-improvement course.  Meanwhile, her interaction with Raymond leaves the two of them as partners in heroism when they witness a man having a heart attack. Raymond invites Eleanor to visit Sammy in hospital, leading to other invitations from his family to cookouts and birthday celebrations.

Most poignant, readers realize that Eleanor bears burn scars from an incident in her childhood to which she only vaguely refers. She also has to deal with her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, a particularly cruel woman with a hold over Eleanor.

As Eleanor faces depression, disappointment, and self-doubt, readers can't help cheering her on all the way. The real hero of the story, though, is the unkempt, lovable Raymond. We'd all be better off with a Raymond in our lives, someone who ignores the worst in us, expects the best, and follows through on his good intentions. In fact, more of us should be Raymond to others around us. Gail Honeyman manages to craft a lovely story about the least likely of protagonists without the least bit of sermonizing. I just wish I knew whom to thank for the recommendation.