Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: True Crime (page 1 of 3)

Eggshell Skull – Bri Lee

The title of Bri Lee’s debut memoir, Eggshell Skull, is taken from an old legal doctrine. It’s the principle that a defendant cannot use a victim’s unknown weakness as a defence in a criminal trial. If you punch a guy, you can’t use the fact that you had no way of knowing his skull was made of eggshell as an excuse for killing him. The phrase takes on new meaning over the course of Lee’s story, as the man who abused her has to reckon with her unknown strength.

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Eggshell Skull begins with Lee as a law graduate, commencing a highly-coveted position as a judge’s associate in the District Court of Queensland. She knows it’s going to be a tough gig, with overwhelming responsibility for keeping the cogs of justice turning. What she doesn’t know – but finds out very soon – is that the cases her judge will hear are almost exclusively those that involve sexual violence, harassment, and abuse of women and children.

Day after day, all around the state, Lee sits in court and listens to women and children testify about the horrific trauma they have experienced, and – most of the time – watches the (aLlEdGeD) perpetrator walk free. Of course it’s difficult for her, as it would be for anyone, but especially so because it evokes memories of the abuse that Lee herself experienced as a child.

If people didn’t believe these women, why would they believe me?

Eggshell Skull (page 29)

The details of the abuse are revealed gradually, as Lee herself comes to terms with the emotional impact of recovering feelings and memories she has long repressed. She’s faced with a barrage of others’ emotional trauma at work, and then her own demons at home. She’s “lucky”, as she herself acknowledges, as a victim in that she has a strong support system (in the form of her long-term boyfriend and her loving family) and the relative privilege of being white, educated, and articulate. That’s not enough to shield her, though, from the mental and emotional fall-out of both her work and her past (CW: suicidality, substance abuse, self-harm, disordered eating).

The crux of Eggshell Skull comes two years into Lee’s job, when she decides to bring forward her own case against Samuel, the family friend who abused her. That’s the point where the memoir truly shines, as Lee transitions from observer to warrior doing battle in the system herself. The retraumatisation of her experience seeking justice – even with her legal education and career, even with her father being a cop – is heart-wrenching and eye-opening.

Lee’s radical vulnerability in sharing her story is, I think, the reason it’s been so well received and widely acclaimed. She’s won multiple awards for Eggshell Skull (the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards, the Davitt Award, and the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime), in a just-barely post-MeToo society where we still turn away from many victim’s stories and feel uncomfortable shining light on awful truths.

I will say, though, that this is one of the rare times when the quality of the writing (very, very high) makes the book difficult to read. I had visceral, physical reactions to reading it. At various points, my stomach churned and my heart rate skyrocketed. In the final chapters of Eggshell Skull, I unwittingly gave myself a headache because I didn’t realise I’d been clenching my teeth.

It’s not just the abuse that Lee experienced, or that she saw on the job, that’s so distressing (though, of course, both are awful). It’s the frustration of the failure of our “justice” system to support and protect victims in the most intensely vulnerable moments of their lives.

The more I learned of the huge, ‘blind’ justice system, the more I learned that it was just as human and fallible as everything and everyone that created and preceded it.

Eggshell Skull (page 33)

So, Eggshell Skull falls into the category of an incredibly good book that it’s incredibly difficult to recommend to anyone – I’d certainly say to take great care reading it, even if you think that you’re unlikely to feel triggered. It will be a five-star read for anyone who enjoyed Roxane Gay’s Hunger. It will be a rude shock for anyone who’s ever asked why a victim would “wait so long” to come forward.

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane. Recognise their names? They’re all famous for the same thing: being murdered, in 1888. That’s basically all we know about them, because the values of Victorian England have clouded our view of them for the past 130 years. In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold sets out to correct (i.e., expand) the record. These five women are far more than simply victims of Jack The Ripper.

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In the introduction, Rubenhold gives broad context for the murders of these five women. A drought in 1887 had led to poor crop yields and high unemployment in Victorian London. This, in turn, had lead to a growing unhoused population and a movement that might effectively amount to Occupy Trafalgar Square. It sets the tone for The Five, which is a history book more so than a true crime one.

Each woman is given her own section, a biographical sketch that Rubenhold pieces together from scraps of records (like marriage certificates and landlord ledgers), coroner’s inquests and journalism (always emphasising the unreliability of these accounts), historical accounts (written by other people about similar circumstances around the same time), and educated guesses (based on extensive research). It gives a fuller picture of the lives of the five women than we’ve ever had before.

The cards were staced against Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane from the day of their births. They began their lives in deficit… Their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.

The Five (Page 339)

Rubenhold also examines how these women came to be known and remembered as sex workers (though she uses the term “prostitutes”, as many observers and commentators have done). In reality, they led full and complex lives, and only two of them (Elizabeth and Mary Jane) ever formally exchanged sex for money. Her approach is compassionate, but unsentimental – angry at the injustice of the historical record, rather than wistful or tawdry.

There were many reasons why an impoverished working-class woman may have been outdoors during the hours of darkness, and not all of them were as obvious as street soliciting. Those without homes or families, those who drank heavily and those who were dispossessed did not lead lives that adhered to conventional rules. No one knew or cared what they did or where they went, and for this reason, rather than for a sexual motive, they would have appealed to a killer.

The Five (Page 344)

Rubenhold makes a fascinating point – though very briefly – that it is precarious/unstable housing that is the thread linking the five women together, not sex work. I wish she’d explored that more, because it felt like a lightbulb going off for me. Even though the five women never met and had little else linking them other than the man who murdered them, they all had unreliable access to safe shelter and all were asleep (rather than in the throes) when he encountered them.

You’ll notice that The Five contains very little information about how the women were murdered. Plenty has been written about that already, after all. This book is about their lives, and the unfortunate domino effects of poverty, inadequate contraception, alcoholism, and homelessness that led to their violent ends. “The larger [Jack The Ripper’s] profile grows,” Rubenhold writes, “the more those of his victims seems to fade,” (page 345).

So, zooming out for a second, The Five is a book about challenging long-held assumptions. Rubenhold encourages us to think critically about what we accept as historical fact. What we “know” about the past is inevitably shaped and coloured by the values of the time, and the hangover of those values on our perspective today.

It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents… by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. The victims of Jack the Ripper were never ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that, in itself, is enough.

The Five (page 348)

The Five is a fascinating and insightful read, one I really wish I’d got to sooner. If you’re on the fence about picking this one up, let me be the one to tip you over to the side of “yes”. True crime readers will likely find it dry and scant on grisly details, but hopefully will recognise the reason for that and understand its importance in the broader context.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Five:

  • “If this had been a lecture, I would have slept through it.” – michelle whitehead
  • “Imagine reading a very. Structured. College. Essay. About a topic that is so overwritten, with too many adjectives and adverbs. Imagine trying to describe what a world of life was like and then overwriting the heck out of it. And not well. I just didn’t care. And the author really really wants you to care.” – Kindle Customer
  • “This is why I’m becoming hesitant to read female historians, because they cannot remain objective when telling the story. It always has a feminist bent to it.” – William Lyons
  • “Very slow. Too detailed for me. Will be enjoyed by others with patience. Worth a try if you are patient.” – Cecilia Steel

Trace – Rachael Brown

Trace was originally one of my all-time favourite podcasts. I was obsessed by the unsolved case of Maria James, compulsively refreshing the feed for updates, and effusing about it to everyone I know. So, when the story was released in book form, my sister-in-law remembered my fascination and bought me a copy for Christmas. A+ gift giving, right there!

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Trace (the book) is billed as “the riveting inside story of a journalist’s cold-case investigation of a shocking murder”. It follows much the same trajectory as the podcast series did, with additional detail and insight into Brown’s experience and state-of-mind. If you listened in, like I did, you already know how it ends (or rather, how it doesn’t), but it’s still a cracking and compelling read.

In Part One (The Police Investigation), we get the lay of the land, the details of the crime that first captured Brown’s attention. It’s one that will get to the heart of any book-lover, and probably any parent, too. Maria James was an independent bookseller and single mother of two boys, Mark and Adam (the latter lives with cerebral palsy and Tourette’s syndrome). In June 1980, she was found dead, stabbed 68 times, in her flat behind the bookshop. To this day, no one has ever been charged with her murder.

For decades now (in fact, longer than Brown has been alive), Mark and Adam have lived in limbo, waiting for a breakthrough, to see their mother’s killer brought to justice.

This is the toll of cold cases: they’re never that temperature for those affected. And this is just one. There are another 1,300 cold cases sitting in boxes around the country.

Trace (Page 67)

That’s where Brown approaches Trace differently than many other true crime journalists. She is genuinely driven by a desire to help Mark and Adam, to resolve the unanswered question that has shaped their lives since childhood. She very deliberately steers away from the “entertainment” aspect of the genre, and spends a lot of time interrogating the ethics of what she’s doing. Ultimately, she decides that Trace is the best – and maybe the only – way to generate public interest in the case, and with public interest comes jogged memories and heavy consciences that might just see the crime solved. It’s imperative to her that Mark and Adam support what she’s doing, and they do.

Mark sees it as his final shot for an answer. If the podcast doesn’t succeed, his mother’s murder will never be solved.

Trace (Page 83)

At first, as Brown begins researching Trace, every “lead” comes to a dead end. This is a decades-old cold case, after all, and she’s stymied at every turn by witnesses who are deceased, files she can’t access, and evidence that has been destroyed. But then, in Parts Two (The Church) and Three (The Podcast), the story takes a sharp turn away from a straightforward murder investigation into institutional sexual abuse. Then, it shifts up a gear, into violent cults and police conspiracies.

This isn’t overreach, or hyperbole. This is actually what Brown found in her Trace investigation.

Do not pick Trace up if you have any kind of heightened sensitivity to child sexual abuse (or, y’know, murder). It’s not salacious, but Brown is thorough in her descriptions, in the interest of giving victims their voice and uncovering the truth. She doesn’t exclude her own subjectivity from the story, either – she’s very frank about how her stomach turns hearing these stories, and then again in relaying them to us in Trace. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for her, spending literal months of her life transcribing interview after interview about the most traumatic experiences of people she’s come to care for deeply.

Although Brown is mostly glowing in her description of the cops she talks to and the work they’ve done, she doesn’t shy away from the monumental police fuck-up that could see the case remain unsolved forever: the wrong items stored as evidence in the Maria James case file. She’s also highly critical (and rightly so) of their failure to interview Adam until decades after the murder. Had they accommodated his disabilities at the time and asked him crucial questions, they would have learned about the sexual abuse he experienced and told his mother about – the much-needed lead on motive.

So, in the final section (The Wait), Trace comes to an infuriatingly vague conclusion. After two years of work, Brown tracked down suspects, identified new witnesses, revealed institutional cover-ups, and found new evidence – but the murder remains unsolved. Brown acknowledges that this is going to be frustrating for readers who like neat stories with clear conclusions, but that’s not the way real life works.

I’d love to be able to bring you that update. But this is not a show, folks. This is someone’s death. And I can’t invent an ending – it’s real-life nonfiction. I want to scream, ‘Imagine how the James boys feel!’.

Trace (page 265)

But even with the open ending, I loved reading Trace as much as I loved listening to the podcast initially. Sure, it broke my heart and turned my stomach at times, but see above – that’s real life. I live in hope that Brown’s investigation, which is ongoing, brings some answers and closure for the James boys, and everyone else impacted by this horrific crime(s).

(P.S. If you’re wondering, here’s the latest I can find on the case since the publication of Trace – still no answers, but always, always, a few steps closer.)

Bad Blood – John Carreyrou

John Carreyrou is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story behind Theranos, the Silicon Valley biotech startup he revealed to be a multi-billion dollar fraud. The story of Theranos, and its charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes, has reached mythic proportions in popular culture. Bad Blood is the riveting true story told in full, straight from the source, so if you’ve only heard it in snippets and memes, this is the book for you.

Bad Blood - John Carreyrou - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Bad Blood is a true crime book about corporate fraud – an particularly rich untapped vein in that genre, if you ask me. This story has got it all: the gold-rush mentality of Silicon Valley, a brilliant idea, secrets and lies, a house of cards, a cat-and-mouse game with reporters… it all unfolds like a high-octane thriller, but better, for being real.

Holmes started Theranos as a 19-year-old college drop-out. She had incredible vision and admirable goals – making health care accessible and affordable, effecting a shift in the power dynamic between doctors and patients. You know, information is power, and all of that. She imagined a device in people’s homes that would allow them to diagnose dozens – no hundreds – no thousands of diseases with a single finger prick, a far cry from long lines at the pathologist to have vials of blood drawn at a time.

The amounts of money that she was able to attract with this idea are astronomical. Most of the people involved aren’t household names (with the exception of Rupert Murdoch), but the brands that got on board – Walgreens, Safeway – sure are.

Unfortunately for them all, Holmes’s ambition was coupled with complete delusion about her capacity to achieve and deliver on what she promised. She had all the hallmarks of a cult leader: a charismatic recruiter with a peculiar talent for pitting people against each other while keeping them on her side.

For over a decade, as Carreyrou depicts in Bad Blood, Holmes systematically drove away dozens of people who could have actually helped her, tarring them as nay-sayers and small-minded critics. The extreme lengths that Holmes and her lawyers and devotees went to prevent their fraud being made public brings to mind Harvey Weinstein and the story that unfolded in She Said (Holmes and Weinstein even used the same lawyer).

Holmes channeled [the] fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, and she went to extreme lengths to hide the fakery.

Bad blood (page 296)

Carreyrou himself doesn’t appear in the story until Chapter 19. He conducted hundreds of interviews investigating the story of Theranos and preparing it for the public – first for the Wall Street Journal, and then for Bad Blood. He managed to track down no fewer than sixty former Theranos employees, convincing them to set aside their fears of retaliation and legal ramifications. Holmes herself declined to participate (hard to imagine why…).

It all allowed him to paint a completely convincing picture of what life inside Holmes’s web was like, but it also led to him becoming personally invested in the story and a target of Holmes’s wrath. He does come off as slightly defensive towards the very end of Bad Blood (did we really need to know about the ‘fuck you, Carreyrou’ chant the Theranos employees did at a gathering?), but I suppose it’s understandable, given what they put him through.

Bill Gates said that “Bad Blood tackles some serious ethical questions, but it is ultimately a thriller with a tragic ending. It’s a fun read full of bizarre details that will make you gasp out loud,”. It also serves as a testament to the power and importance of unbiased investigative journalism. Bad Blood had my jaw dropping and my tongue wagging for days, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a true crime read without blood.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bad Blood:

  • “Bought the book for several of my employees.” – buy amazon buy
  • “Bought Bad Blood while I was watching The Dropout on Hulu. Here’s the thing: my copy of Bad Blood is a total dropout in that the pages drop out and the binding is unbound! I’m trying to get through but seriously…My copy is like the subject of L’il Wayne’s “How to Love.” For a second the pages of my copy are over here. Now they are over there.” – Karen
  • “This book is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing more than a recount of an entitled brat, her evil spouse, and hundreds of people getting screwed over in the process. Honestly, I’m not sure why I listened as long as I did. With the rave reviews, I was expecting something better, but the book just seems so repetitive. The overarching theme of the book is 1) Make crappy product that doesn’t work. 2) Scam person into thinking it does. 3) Rinse and repeat” – Austin

We Keep The Dead Close – Becky Cooper

In 1969, Harvard was merging with its sister school Radcliffe, and the administration was trying desperately to curb student activism and the growing influence of counterculture. That same year, 23-year-old graduate student Jane Britton was killed in her apartment. Decades later, student Becky Cooper heard a garbled version of the story that had passed into Harvard folklore. She spent ten years chasing the truth of the story, and We Keep The Dead Close is the result.

We Keep The Dead Close - Becky Cooper - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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First off, I love the format of We Keep The Dead Close. There are no schlocky high-gloss photographs; it’s laid out like a literary fiction novel. There are transcripts of interviews, extracts from journals and letters, facsimiles of newspaper coverage, and extensive notes. It smacks of a classy, well-researched piece of journalism.

Vignette-like chapters alternate between the initial discovery and investigation of Jane’s murder, and Cooper’s own discovery and investigation of the crime. The story Cooper heard was sensationalised, as all rumour-mill murder stories tend to be: apparently, an archaeology student was murdered in the library with an ancient stone tool, by the married professor with whom she had an affair. Her body was sprinkled with red ochre, an ancient burial rite, and adorned with jewellery for her journey into the afterlife, a macabre ritual that pointed to the killer – but he got away with it, because the Harvard administration covered it up. Of course, the truth of Jane Britton’s murder was less sensational, but no less fascinating.

(And, okay, fine, some of the facts of the case are stranger than fiction. The red ochre bit was real. And a man who might have been able to provide crucial evidence was struck dead by lightning. True story.)

The New York Times, reviewing We Keep The Dead Close, gave it the headline: “New Book Returns To An Irresistible Theme: The Harvard Murder”. Indeed, the institution of Harvard plays a major role in the narrative, and Britton’s murder is – in effect – the harsh reality of the ‘dark academia’ aesthetic. Cooper lifts the veil on the cryptic world of elite tertiary education, the pot-holed track to tenure for professors and the politics of progression for students. But it’s not as simple as “there was a murder on campus and Harvard covered it up”.

You’ve heard of “leaving no stone unturned”? Cooper turns the stones, the pebbles, and digs up the dirt underneath them for good measure. In We Keep The Dead Close, she follows every lead and goes down every rabbit hole. It’s particularly admirable work in a genre that so often demands cohesive narratives be made out of the messy strands of a life. Cooper has no compunction about presenting inconclusive evidence. But that does mean, at times, the reader could easily get bogged down in the details. Cooper’s passion for her subject – and her tireless investigation and presentation of it – is enough to light the way, if the reader is willing to persist.

It takes until Part Four (about half-way through the text) for the story – and Cooper’s driving force – to really come together. But when it does… hoo boy! You won’t be able to put it down. I worry for the readers who might abandon it before they get to that point (see above: rabbit holes, boggy details). It’s not ideal structurally, but We Keep The Dead Close is one of those rare books that you really can’t form an opinion on until you’ve read it all the way through. It’s the Schitt’s Creek of contemporary true crime.

I am particularly impressed with the emphasis that Cooper places on the impact of the crime on those left behind, Jane Britton’s friends and family and co-workers. Clearly, much care and consideration went into her decisions about how to best portray the decades-long effects of violent crime, without betraying her subjects. I really hope that We Keep The Dead Close is representative of a new direction for true crime as a genre, in that regard.

By Part Seven (near the end), We Keep The Dead Close is about so much more than the crime, the investigation, or the victim. It’s about our collective histories, the stories we fit around the facts of our lives and the lives of others, how and why we construct these narratives (and whom they serve).

Vox highlighted this aspect in their review, saying that: “We Keep The Dead Close joins Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark… within a growing true crime movement. This movement aims to underscore just how deeply the act of reporting on a true crime story – especially one in the past – can alter and warp the story in ways that serve to destroy the truth, whatever that may be.”

As one of the interviewees says, it’s a Poirot mystery with a post-modern ending.

All told, We Keep The Dead Close isn’t a straightforward read, but it’s a worthy one. If you’re looking for a fast-paced linear whodunnit with a foreseeable conclusion, you’ll need to pick up a fictional detective mystery instead. But if you’re interested in how a real cold case gets solved, in the role institutions play in our lives, in the way our stories shape who we are and what we know about the world – you absolutely must put We Keep The Dead Close on the top of your to-be-read pile.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Keep The Dead Close:

  • “I pity this poor author. She poured her life into investigating a crime. She cast shade on a dozen different men, almost to the point of libel. And then, oops! it turns out the killer was just some random criminal. An honorable writer would have admitted that things did not work out for her and moved on. But, Cooper apparently decided to just write the book anyway.” – William Theodore Clemmons
  • “This is a grad students thesis gone wrong.” – Lisa Ray
  • “I like fictional mysteries and suspense novels, but I think I’m not going to be one of those white women millennials obsessed with true crime.” – Rachel Reads Ravenously
  • “Others have said it better than me, but my two cents is that this book is mostly pointless unless viewed as a memoir of a (wasted) decade of a young woman’s life. Even as such, it’s pretty thin. It’s kind of incredible that she could say all those unflattering things about all those people and not get sued—it’s not like any of that gossip ever led anywhere. So awkward.” – Esskay
  • “I suspect that if the author had been a mature woman–someone of the victim’s generation, say–rather than a photogenic young woman with a Harvard degree and a stint at The New Yorker, We Keep The Dead Close would never have found its way out of the slush pile.” – Priscilla S. Rhoades
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