Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fallen Skies by Philippa Gregory

Captain Stephen Winters, the son of a wealthy family who sent, most unwillingly, to serve in World War I, returns home suffering from shell-shock  nightmares, and survivor’s guilt. The only one who understands is the mute Coventry, who served alongside him in the trenches as his batman, and now works as the family chauffeur.

When Stephen meets Lily Valance, a rising star in the music halls, he is instantly captivated. Lily is a sweet and pure blue-eyed blonde seventeen year old, who seems to have been utterly untouched by the war. She’s a modern girl, albeit an innocent one, a creature of the here and now, the Roaring Twenties, who doesn't want to even think about the past, least of all the war. Stephen believes she can heal him; with her he can forget all about the war and the terrible things he’s done and witnessed.

But the fairy tale quickly crumbles. Lily comes from the lower classes and is more open and free, while Stephen, and his mother, are from the rigidly traditional English upper class and believe in keeping a stiff upper lip, sticking to schedules, and doing everything in the properly prescribed manner. When Lily is pregnant and goes into labor her mother-in-law even chides her for coming downstairs without putting a robe on over her nightgown. She's also still in love with the musical director at the theater  Charlie, who continues giving her singing and piano lessons after her marriage. Charlie suffered a wound to the groin during the war that left him impotent; he loves Lily but because of his condition refuses to be anything more than just a friend to her. 

But Lily can’t save Stephen and, with the typical selfishness one might expect from a teenage girl, she doesn't have the patience to deal with his problems. For example, when he suffers nightmares, she tells him it's his own fault, he shouldn't eat cheese close to bedtime because everyone knows cheese causes nightmares. Or that he should see a doctor and get electroshock treatments.

Love—if it ever really was love—soon turns to hate, and the two people locked in this rather hopeless marriage both punish each other in different ways until the ultimately tragic end.

For those who like Philippa Gregory’s novels but would like a break from Tudor and Medieval England this is a welcome change, though the ending, which leaves the reader dangling, to make their own assumptions of what happens next, may not satisfy all.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Starvation Heights The True Story of an American Doctor and the Murder of a British Heiress by Gregg Olsen

In 1911 Dora and Claire Williamson, two spinster sisters, a pair of hypochondriac heiresses, in their mid thirties keen of nature foods and the latest health fads left their home in England and ventured to America in their quest for good health. They were particularly interested in the “Fasting Cure” as espoused by Dr. Linda Burfield Hazard. In her book, “Fasting For the Cure of Disease,”  Dr. Hazard asserted that every illness under the sun was caused by improper eating habits and all it took was giving the digestive system a rest long enough to let all impurities pass out of the system, helped along by a course of daily enemas, osteopathic massage, walking, and just enough vegetable broth to barely sustain life, to restore the sufferer to perfect health.

The Williamson sisters corresponded with, then met, Dr. Hazard and soon decided to entrust themselves to her care. They did not know that locals called her sanitarium, located in Olalla, Washington, near Seattle, “Starvation Heights” or that the woman they believed would restore them to the bloom of health was actually an evil, greedy, ambitious woman who would gain control of their fortune as she slowly starved them to death.

But one sister would survive, just barely, and after being nursed back to health by her devoted childhood nanny, the truth about Dr. Hazzard and Starvation Heights would be revealed in a sensational murder trial. This book tells the whole gruesome and enthralling story from start to finish. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Oblivion The Mystery of West Point Cadet Richard Cox by Harry J. Maihaifer

On Saturday, January 14, 1950, shortly after 6:00 p.m., popular, accomplished, and handsome 21 year-old cadet Richard Colvin Cox left West Point Military Academy to dine with an unidentified friend after telling his roommates that he would return early, most likely between 9:00 and 9:30, and was never seen again.

Cadet Cox seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. The newspapers and magazines gave the story of his disappearance extensive coverage, rivers were dredged, all 15,000 acres of West Point were exhaustively searched, leaving no stone unturned, all ponds, lakes, and the reservoir were either dragged or drained, a helicopter was even brought in for an aerial search. J. Edgar Hoover even took a personal interest in the case and assigned some of the FBI's best agents to investigate, but not a trace of Richard Colvin Cox was ever found though sightings of him continued to be reported for several years, some with an intriguing ring of truth about them. Every tip--and there were hundreds--was followed up, no matter how unlikely or ludicrous, by either civilian or military investigators. Details of every aspect of the young man's life were gone over with a fine-toothed comb, searching for a clue, either in his past or present, and thousands of people were interviewed, all to no avail. No one who knew Cox could shed any light on his disappearance, and he never contacted his family, fiancee, or best friend.

Richard Cox gave every appearance of being a devoted son to his widowed mother, strong-willed Christian Scientist Minnie Cox, and his letters showed that he was very much in love with his fiancee, Betty Timmons, whom he planned to marry after graduating from West Point. His grades were excellent, he was one of the top men in his class, and there was every indication that he had a bright future ahead of him; there was nothing to suggest he had any reason to just walk away from his life and disappear. His occasional expressions of discontent with West Point life in letters to his mother and girlfriend were typical cadet complaints and, though taken into account by investigators, were not deemed serious enough for him to pull a vanishing act and cause his family and others who cared about him so much distress.

Many felt the key to unlocking the mystery lay in the identity of his mysterious visitor, who had also visited Cadet Cox the weekend before his disappearance, a man who came to be known only as "George" based on a possible phone call he may have made to Cox prior to his visit. Cox himself, in the week before his disappearance, was reluctant to discuss this man and never divulged his name, referring to him only as "he," or "him," or "my friend," though his roommates felt the last was rather odd as he gave the distinct impression of disliking the man and even being uncomfortable with or even afraid of him. Everything Cox said seemed to indicate that his visit was an unwelcome one, and he reportedly described the mystery man as a braggart and a bad apple who boasted about killing a girl in Germany, where the two had served together in an army intelligence unit. Cox claimed this man was "capable of anything."

Despite intensive searching, "George" was never identified, and rumors swirled about murder, suicide, amnesia, revenge, abduction, homosexuality, cover-ups, the CIA, and Russian spies. One persistent rumor claimed that while serving in Germany Cox had testified at a court-martial against a fellow soldier, possibly the man known only as "George," who, upon release from prison, had come to West Point in pursuit of Cox to exact vengeance, but no records to substantiate this were ever discovered. The mystery was never solved and in 1957 Richard Colvin Cox was declared legally dead and the case was officially closed, though it continued to intrigue armchair detectives and readers of books about unsolved mysteries and mysterious disappearances in which it often shared space alongside chapters about Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, and Judge Crater.

Thirty-five years later Marshall Jacobs, a retired history teacher, decided to take on the mystery as a research project to help while-away his retirement. What followed was an eight year odyssey to find the truth and rescue Richard Cox from the oblivion of those lost without a trace. Jacobs obtained all available documents via the Freedom of Information Act and even tracked down and interviewed all the living witnesses he could find. And, despite a rather--to my mind at least--unsatisfying conclusion, where Mr. Jacobs seems content to take the word of one informant without any proof or facts to back up his assertions, "Oblivion" is a riveting tale from start to finish.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Fallen Angel The Tragic True Story of The Black Dahlia by Troy Taylor

More than half a century after her bloodless, marble-white nude bisected body was found lying spread-eagled in a vacant lot on January 15, 1947, the tragic ghost of beautiful Elizabeth Short, known as The Black Dahlia, still haunts the boulevards of broken dreams where she hoped to find love and fame. Her specter  clad in a clingy black dress, has been spotted several times by men in Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel, the site of the last confirmed sighting of her before her death.

Elizabeth, or Beth, Short was one of many hopeful young girls who migrated to Hollywood in the 1940s. But while she had the youth, beauty, and a gimmick, dressing in all black clothes to set off her porcelain white skin and jet black hair, earning her the moniker “The Black Dahlia,” inspired by a popular film noir of the day, The Blue Dahlia, she didn't have the drive. She’d rather sleep late than get up early to make casting calls. She became a beautiful drifter, wafting in and out of the hot Hollywood nightspots and shady dive bars, dating men, who bought her dinner and maybe made promises they never kept. She may have been manic depressive according to some reports, up one minute, down the next. One day she longed for movie stardom the next to marry one of the soldiers back from World War II and settle down. She spun fantasies, lies she may have told so many times even she began to believe them, about being engaged or even married to a major in the air force, who died, sometimes she said they had a baby which she also lost.  She wore real black silk stockings at a time when these were hard to come for yet melted candles to fill her decaying teeth in the absence of dental care. An aura of tragic aimlessness surrounds this young woman who is now more famous in death than she ever was in life.

On the morning of January 15, 1947 a housewife out doing errands with her little girl spotted what she first thought was a broken department store mannequin lying in the weeds of a vacant lot. A closer look revealed it was the corpse of a young woman who was soon identified as twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short, who had come from Medford, Massachusetts hoping to become one of the glittering stars of Tinseltown. Her mouth had been cut from ear to ear in a grotesque parody of an eternal smile. She had been battered repeatedly about the head with a blunt object. Rope marks on her wrists and ankles told a horrific tale—she had been tied up and tortured, possibly for several days, over a bathtub. Her body had been cut in half and drained of blood and some internal organs were missing. There were lacerations on her breasts, pubic area, and a patch of skin bearing a rose tattoo had been removed from her thigh. Her hair, which all those who knew or had noticed her, always described as jet black had been hennaed at least a week prior to her death, though the dark roots were already starting to show. Her eyebrows had also been lightened. Had Beth been hiding from someone and dyed her hair to try to disguise herself?

The murder became a media sensation. The papers were full of “The Black Dahlia,” the victim of a “werewolf fiend.” The police and press followed up every lead no matter how tenuous but the murder was never brought to justice.

Mr. Taylor’s book offers a thorough account of the victim’s life. He examines the evidence for and against the many suspects, including Red Manley; Orson Welles; nightclub proprietor Mark Hansen; actor Arthur Lake best known for his role as Dagwood in the Blondie movies; vicious mobster Bugsy Siegel; Maurice Clement a procurer for Hollywood madam Brenda Allen; Dr. Walter Bayley; the still unidentified serial killer known as “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run;” Dr. George Hodel whose son a retired LAPD detective believes his father was responsible for the murders of over thirty women as well as the Zodiac murders; folksinger Woody Guthrie; aspiring crime writer Leslie Dillon; George Knowlton whose mentally disturbed daughter, Janice, penned a memoir based on her recovered memories published in 1995 as Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer before her eventual suicide; Harry Hubert Hoffman an ex-convict who was managing a hotel in the vicinity at the time of the murder and whose ex-wife reported finding a bundle of bloody women’s clothing at the time; Norman Chandler heir to a politically powerful publishing dynasty; and petty thug Jack Anderson Wilson a.k.a. Arnold Smith. He also presents his own theory, which is not new, and features a cast of characters from the list above.

Despite a few distracting typos, which are a common occurrence in Mr. Taylor’s books, he has done a very good and thorough job of summing up all the known evidence about Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murder. He may go on a bit long about mob activity and police corruption for some tastes, but for those unfamiliar with the times it’s a good history lesson, although, given his personal theory about the crime it makes his book seem less unbiased.

The one real quibble I have with the book is that the author repeatedly refers to the “brutal murder” of actress Thelma Todd in 1935. The beloved blonde comedienne died under mysterious circumstances, she was found slumped across the front seat of her car in the closed garage of her cafe, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. There has been much speculation of mob involvement in her death, involving illegal gambling and gangster Lucky Luciano, which has inspired a best-selling true crime book, Hot Toddy by Andy Edmonds, as well as a made-for-television movie, White Hot, starring Loni Anderson, both of which are very interesting and intriguing, however, all this is hotly debated. Some historians believe this is all a fantasy, a juicy story spun out of a real life tragedy with more reliance on rumor than fact. Miss Todd’s death might also have been just a tragic accident, she had been out partying and drinking, and may have passed out behind the wheel of her parked, but still running, car, there is also some evidence that she suffered from some kind of heart ailment. Some have even opined that her death was a suicide. I am not expressing my personal opinion here; just that I think the author should have worded his references to Thelma Todd’s demise a little differently rather than repeatedly referring to her as a murder victim.

I try to read every book that comes out about the Black Dahlia. Most of them seem to be written to push a particular suspect. This one, I believe, despite also pushing a theory, is still the best of the available books to start with for someone new to the case who wants a good overview of the murder, the victim, the world she lived in, and the possible suspects.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Z A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Zelda Sayre was a beautiful, devil may care Southern belle of seventeen when she first met ambitious budding novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1917. As his star rose with the publication of a series of popular, and sometimes shocking novels, like “This Side of Paradise,” and “The Great Gatsby” the now married couple became the darlings of the madcap Jazz Age, a world of bobbed hair and bathtub gin, speakeasies, hard drinking, dancing, and wild parties in New York, Paris, Hollywood, and on the Riviera, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, their wild doings chronicled in the scandal sheets to be lapped up by eager readers.

Zelda was often lost in the shadow of her more famous husband and the mental illness that affected her, her own accomplishments downplayed or denied, this novel gives Zelda back her voice, and shows her to be an intelligent and talented woman in her own right, a real person with hopes and dreams and feelings not just an idol of the decadent Roaring 20s or a woman who failed to measure up to her own, or others’ expectations.  We see her as a loving wife who soon grows weary of a life of nonstop partying and wants something more, something real, which her husband seems incapable of giving her. Illness, alcohol, jealousy, professional insecurity, and outside influences, including adultery, and Ernest Hemingway, would all combine to drive a wedge between the two.

I loved this novel from page one and before I was even finished I bought a biography of Zelda. I give any historical novel that makes me curious to know the facts behind the fiction, and to get to know the real people behind the novelist’s interpretations of them, high marks. This one is a definite keeper I know I will look forward to reading again.

Summit Avenue by Mary Sharratt

Having read, and greatly enjoyed Ms. Sharratt’s novels The Vanishing Point and Daughters of Witching Hill, I didn't hesitate when I happened across one of her earlier works. Summit Avenue begins with an intriguing question “How can you weave a life from fairy tales?”

Spanning the years 1911-1918, it tells the story of a young German immigrant, Kathrin Albrecht, who settles in Minnesota after her mother dies. While working by day sewing flour sacks for Pillsbury, she takes English classes at night, hoping to give herself a better life. Through a young admirer, who works at his uncle’s bookshop, she finds work translating fairy tales from her native German for a professor’s elegant and erudite widow.

Her employer, Violet Waverly, offers her a home in her mansion on Summit Avenue, and something more…friendship that the innocent Kathrin is too blind to see ripening into something deeper and, by the society of the time, forbidden. When Violet tells her young friend of a romantic disappointment accompanied by disgrace in her distant youthful past that led her to leave school and marry a much older man, Kathrin naturally assumes that it involved a young man and possibly a pregnancy and abortion.

During her residence at Summit Avenue, Kathrin blossoms, not only does she enjoy Violet’s friendship, but she enjoys her work, learns to type, and begins to dress better. She also acquires an ardent suitor-John, the young man from the bookstore. But Violet doesn't approve of John; she wants Kathrin all for herself and wants her to continue her program of self-improvement by going to college.

One night, after a bath, when Kathrin innocently tries on Violet’s red kimono, Violet is so taken by the sight of her that she makes love to her. Kathrin is too astonished and overwhelmed to react, she simply submits.  Afterwards, filled with shame, she waits until Violet goes out the next day, then packs her bags and disappears. She goes to John’s room, sleeps with him in the hope of erasing what she did with Violet, then tries to get on with her life, hoping her secret will never come to light. John forges a reference for her, and she takes work in an office building, and they plan to save their money and marry in two years. But an unexpected pregnancy changes their plans.

As the old saying goes “marry in haste, repent at leisure,” and that just about sums up John and Kathrin’s marriage. But Kathrin can never forget Violet and secrets have a way of coming out.

Although I didn't enjoy this quite as much as I did the other novels I have read by Ms. Sharratt, I liked the way she wove the old Russian and German fairy tales into the story and captured the time period, morals, and ideals. It’s a very leisurely read, slow-paced, but then the characters aren't exactly living fast lives. I’ve always liked that Ms. Sharratt, in the works I've read by her, does not restrict herself to one period or place, I've come to expect something different from her each time I open one of her books and this one is true to form. If you've read and liked The Vanishing Point and/or Daughters of Witching Hill, you might want to give Summit Avenue a try, but if you’re new to this author I recommend starting with one of the others first unless you are just partial to slow-paced books.