Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: True Crime (page 1 of 2)

Say Nothing – Patrick Radden Keefe

I loved Empire Of Pain so much, I immediately ran out and picked up a copy of Patrick Radden Keefe’s previous best-seller, Say Nothing. It was published in 2018, and billed as a history of the Troubles told through a single cold case, “a true story of murder and memory in Northern Ireland”. I was sure it was going to be a five-star read.

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In 1972, Jean McConville, a 38-year-old widowed mother of ten(!), was abducted from her Belfast home and never seen alive again. No one has ever been officially brought to justice for her abduction and murder. Through this unsolved case, Keefe explores the sectarian violence that has divided Ireland, and specifically the culture of silence that underpins the social contract in all areas of Irish life as a result. The title, Say Nothing, is actually taken from a Seamus Heaney poem about the conflict called Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.

Although Say Nothing is broad in scope, a conflict this complex couldn’t be completely captured in a book twice the length. As Keefe says himself in his author’s note on sources:

“This is not a history book but a work of narrative non-fiction…. Because I have elected to tell this particular story, there are important aspects of the Troubles that are not addressed. The book hardly mentions loyalist terrorism, to take just one example. If you’re feeling whataboutish, I would direct you to one of the many excellent books cited in the notes that address the Troubles more broadly or your favoured subject in particular.”

Patrick Radden Keefe on say nothing

So, bearing that in mind, here’s a refresher of the essentials. Nearly 4,000 people were killed in the Troubles between the late 1960s and the late 1990s. For the most part, these deaths were attributable to violence between Catholic republicans – who sought to unify Northern Island with the Republic – and the Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British military, who sought to squash their revolution. This period was punctuated by frequent shootings, riots, and bombings. Many of those killed and injured were civilians.

Surprisingly, fewer than twenty people were “disappeared” during this period (as far as Keefe/we know). Jean McConville was one of them. She was far from the “perfect” victim, as far as the true crime genre goes; by Keefe’s report, she had PTSD (as I’d imagine most people living in Belfast at the time did), she was dependent on prescription tranquilizers, and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment at one point. Her life circumstances were tragic, and her disappearance took things from bad to worse for her whole (huge!) family.

So, given the complex nature of the crime and victimology at the heart of Say Nothing, why would Keefe spend a decent chunk of the first half describing the life and (mis)adventures of political activist and Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer Dolours Price? It wasn’t immediately clear what she had to do with the disappearance of Jean McConville, and in my view Keefe took a little too long to connect the dots.

It’s also worth noting that another decent chunk of Say Nothing is focused on unravelling the myth of Gerry Adams: the good, the bad, and the bitter. He’s famous for negotiating the Good Friday Agreement that saw a rapid de-escalation in violence, but as Keefe shows, his hands are covered in blood.

Around the end of Part Two and the start of Book Three, though, it really started to come together – and from then, I could barely tear my eyes away.

It turns out that Dolours Price, and her sister (also an activist/volunteer), were almost certainly involved in the abduction and murder of Jean McConville, on the orders of Gerry Adams – but proving it is a pipe dream. The only hope of testimony as to their involvement came in the form of the Belfast Project, an archive of oral histories of key players in the Troubles, recorded and stored in the high-security Treasure Room at Boston College in the U.S.

On the one hand, this sounds like a win (“heck yeah! break into the Treasure Room, get the transcripts, solve the cold case!”), but it’s actually a really sad and horrifying story of good intentions and good faith ruined by political zeal. The Belfast Project transcripts were supposed to be sealed, only to be opened after the death of the project participants, for the purposes of academic research. That courts would demand access to them to solve political crimes is, in retrospect, a foreseeable consequence of the project, but not one that the College or the coordinators properly planned for. I’ll leave it to Keefe to explain it in full (you’ll have to read Say Nothing to really “get it”), but suffice to say here, it’s a mess of grey areas and ethical quandaries.

In the final chapter, Keefe switches to a more personal tone, and offers his own insights without his journalistic hat on. He provides some context as to his own Irish heritage, how he heard about Dolours Price and Jean McConville, and why he chose to pursue the story. He draws conclusions as to what “really” happened to McConville – as the true crime genre dictates he must – but he makes clear to the reader what can be “proven” and what is purely his own educated guesswork.

I guess I came to Say Nothing expecting a bit more true crime, and a little less history – which is a fault of my own, not Keefe’s incredible work. It’s less of a family saga than Empire Of Pain, and more a documentary-style investigation into the consequences of violence and silence. So, even though it wasn’t exactly what I expected, it was still pretty damn good, and I learned a whole heck of a lot.

(Trigger warning for a dog death – it’s glanced over, early on, but it was enough to make me teary, reading while hormonal and drinking wine. Also beware sectarian violence, mass murder, and abuses of many kinds.)

My favourite Amazon reviews of Say Nothing:

  • “this book is as exciting as reading the Dublin phone book.” – amazon customer
  • “Unless you’re a historian, this book is overpriced and simply boring” – Alain Blanchette

The Stranger Beside Me – Ann Rule

There are a few serial killers so notorious that their names have become synonymous with their crimes. Ask any stranger on the street to name a serial killer, and chances are Ted Bundy will be the name they give you. I normally shy away from the twisted fandom that grows around killers like Bundy; so much has been written, recorded, and filmed about him, it’s hard to escape him let alone choose one version as the “definitive” Ted Bundy story… but The Stranger Beside Me is such an enduring book of true crime, up there with In Cold Blood, that I felt I simply had to read it.

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The Stranger Beside Me is unique in that it is both biographical and autobiographical, existing in the weird gray area between journalism and memoir. See, Rule wasn’t just any crime writer who picked up the Bundy story: she was his friend, before his crimes came to light. She met Bundy in 1971, when he was a psychology student at the University of Washington, and they volunteered together manning the phones of a suicide crisis line.

To write a book about an anonymous murder suspect is one thing. To write such a book about someone you have known and cared for for ten years is quite another… Ted Bundy’s story must be told, and it must be told inn its entirety if any good can evolve from the terrible years: 1974-1980.

The Stranger Beside Me (Preface)

When they first got to know each other, Bundy seemed to Rule a “kind, solicitous, and empathetic” person. The incongruity of a serial killer working to save the lives of desperate callers to a suicide hotline is really difficult to deal with, for Rule and the reader. “Ted Bundy took lives [but] he also saved lives,” she says on page 28. “I know he did, because I was there when he did it.”

Even though you “know” the Bundy story, as I do, I’m quite sure The Stranger Beside Me will still have a few unexpected twists and turns for you. For instance, about a hundred pages in (in 1974, the early days of Bundy’s killing career, in the book’s timeline), Rule shares something I did NOT see coming: she recognised the description of her friend Ted in a witness statement, and reported the similarities to police. I actually wrote in my notes as I was reading: “HOLY FUCK! SHE TIPPED OFF THE COPS! IN 1974!”. Unfortunately, Rule’s tip was one of thousands, and Bundy’s name was buried beneath the hundreds of other “more likely” suspects.

And, in addition to the jaw-drop moments, there are heart-pounding ones, too: like when Rule meets Bundy for lunch after he is released on bail for an early kidnapping charge. She tries to ask him, diplomatically, whether there was any truth to the charges and rumours. Can you imagine sitting across the table from a close colleague and trying to ask them whether they’d abducted and killed a few women? It makes my knees knock just to think about it.

No one could accuse Rule of not openly admitting her potential bias in her friendship with Bundy, and interrogating it for and with the reader in The Stranger Beside Me. Constant doubt gnaws at Rule throughout the book, and she doesn’t shy away from sharing her personal feelings about both Bundy and his crimes, even when those feelings are contradictory and confusing. Thankfully, she was never in love with Bundy (as so many of the women who surrounded him were), so there’s no mushiness or lust-induced blind-spots in her telling. She even acknowledges the dark stroke of “luck” that saw her, a mid-career crime writer, befriending a man who turned out to be one of the most notorious killers of the 20th century. It seems, to me, a very ethical way of writing true crime – one I’d like to see more writers in the genre adopt.

I felt a chill. Not even a television script could make it believable that a crime writer could sign a contract to write a book about a killer, and then have the suspect turn out to be her close friend. It wouldn’t wash.

The Stranger Beside Me (Page 148)

I doubt you’d have even clicked on this review if you’re sensitive to sexualised violence against women, but the trigger warnings bear mentioning anyway. The Stranger Beside Me contains fairly graphic detail about Bundy’s crimes, but the descriptions aren’t gratuitous. Rule isn’t trying to titillate you, or make a spectacle of the violence; she only discloses as much as she needs to to impress upon you the horror that Bundy wrought, to tell the Bundy story in its entirety, as she set out to do. The lives of Bundy’s victims are described in detail, where possible, and the women are spoken of with great respect – they’re not just tally marks next to Bundy’s name.

Because Ted murdered so many, many women, he did more than rob them of their lives. He robbed them of their specialness, too. It is too easy, and expedient, to present them as a list of names; it is impossible to tell each victim’s story within the confines of one book. All those bright, pretty, beloved young women became, of necessity, ‘Bundy victims’. And only Ted stayed in the spotlight.

The Stranger Beside Me (page 507)

Rule highlights that, and many of the other ways that media coverage of serial killers and the public’s thirst to know are problematic – a particularly interesting position for a true crime writer to take. At several points throughout The Stranger Beside Me, newspaper reporting stymies the investigation, and Rule alludes to the possibility that media coverage spurs on killers with designs on infamy.

She tried to mitigate that ethical problem, however, by only publishing The Stranger Beside Me once Bundy had been tried and convicted, knowing he would never again be a free man and his reign of terror was over. The boook went on to become her first best-seller (and she had 34 more after). The thing is, the original text of The Stranger Beside Me ended before, well, The End. It wraps up when Bundy is sentenced to death a third time, for the murder of Kimberly Leach, but a death sentence is never really the end of a story like this one.

So, Rule has appended updates in subsequent editions, covering Bundy’s response to her book (first, he demanded money, then he froze her out, then he “forgave” her – what a guy), his endless appeals, the signing of his death warrant(s), the waxing and waning media attention, his surreptitious fathering of a child from Death Row, and his final confessions before his execution. Really, there’s just as much story in the afterwords as there is in the book proper.

At first, I really enjoyed The Stranger Beside Me as a chilling, spooky read… but as the end grew closer, and the true impact of Bundy’s crimes became more tangible, it was no longer spooky so much as desperately sad. It’s a mind-blowing excellent read, but it made me Feel A Lot Of Things (which is a testament, really, to its excellence, and Rule’s skill as a true crime writer). I scoured my notes looking for a criticism, and could only find this: there were quite a few odd typos and misprints, which seemed strange in a book that has circulated so widely and been re-published so many times. So, on the whole, it’s a great read, even if you’re sick to death of hearing about Ted Bundy.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Stranger Beside Me:

  • “I thought this book was boring and poorly written. I’m sorry the author is dead, but she really wasn’t very talented. I’ve yet to read an intriguing account of Ted Bundy.” – Lisa
  • “I’m not sure why this is so important to me but did anyone else notice she lies about her age? In the preface she says she was 35 in 1971 and claims a “10 year” age difference with Bundy. She actually turned 40 in 1971 and was almost exactly 15 years his senior. Was it just vanity?” – A Reader
  • “Couldn’t be happier! I purchased a signed copy of my favorite book, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. It arrived quickly and in the condition promised. Maybe a bit unconventional, but my fiancé and I are using it for part of the centerpiece at our sweetheart table on our upcoming wedding day, so needless to say I’m completely happy with the whole experience.” – Lindsay
  • “While reading this, I kept saying in my head, “Just die already”. Thank God that he was stupid enough to head to Florida where those types of evil monstrosities were simply not tolerated, unlike some other states that seriously messed up.” – Little Miss Fun

Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

I’ve had a copy of Murder In Mississippi on my shelves since I first heard John Safran talking about the process of writing it on the now-defunct Sunday Night Safran radio program (and it’s actually the second book I’ve reviewed on that basis, the first was Religion For Atheists). It was published in 2013, and later in the U.S. under the title God’ll Cut You Down (the Johnny Cash lyric, quoted in the book’s epigraph). I remember Safran saying on his show that the title changed because Murder In Mississippi sounds very exotic in Australia, but to a U.S. audience it sounds like “Murder In New South Wales” (I checked with an American friend, and she confirmed).

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The book’s subtitle is: “The true story of how I met a white supremacist, befriended his black killer and wrote this book”. So, even though it’s been gathering dust on my shelves for years, perhaps it’s a good thing I waited to read and review Murder In Mississippi – it’s only become more zeitgeist-y over time.

The author, John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. As he says himself, on page 2 of Murder In Mississippi: “I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie – like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race, not space.”

Murder In Mississippi starts when Safran – as a “bit” for a documentary – tried to join the Ku Klux Klan. Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t overlook his Jewishness, and declined his application. As part of that endeavour, he spent a day in Mississippi with notorious white supremacist Richard Barrett. Barrett didn’t take kindly to being the butt of one of Safran’s jokes, and made sufficient legal threats to stop the footage ever going to air. A year and a half later, Safran learned that Barrett had been killed (allegedly) by a young black man.

Safran was spooked, and intrigued. Drawing his inspiration from classic true crime books (In Cold Blood, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and “a couple of less famous ones”), he decided he had to investigate and write the story. Doing so meant picking up sticks and plonking himself down in the American South with nothing more than a hunch and a penchant for asking nosy questions (seriously, Safran didn’t even have an advance or any publishing support when he decided to do this). That’s where the similarities between Safran and his predecessors end, however; he’s certainly a lot more frank with the reader about his trickery and creative license than Capote ever was. “All those true crime books were written before the internet,” Safran says on page 29. “These days, you can’t get away with anything.”

Safran embarks on his investigation with all the preconceptions you’d expect upon hearing that a white supremacist might have been murdered by a black man. He charged in with a bit of a white saviour mentality, to be honest. He thought he’d EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort came to pass.

A brief overview of the crime at the center of Murder In Mississippi: on 22 April 2010, a neighbour called emergency services and reported seeing smoke rising from Barrett’s home. Firefighters found his corpse near the back door of the house, and an autopsy revealed thirty-five stab wounds, traumatic injuries to the head, and rib fractures.

The investigators pieced together a story and timeline that involved Vincent McGee – who was out on parole, after serving most of a sentence for assault and grand larceny – doing some yard work for Barrett in the afternoon, returning to the house that evening and stabbing Barrett, then returning again a third time to set fire to the property in an effort to conceal his crime. They proposed a number of motives for McGee’s alleged crime, mainly robbing Barrett (his wallet and gun were missing), and/or rejecting a sexual advance made by Barrett. Safran was the only one who started asking questions about race.

When Safran arrived in Mississippi, McGee was being held in remand pending trial. Safran was hoping to get the preliminary interviews out of the way and then get his court reporter on, figuring that the Truth Would Come Out as the prosecutor and defense did battle… only McGee entered a guilty plea, and was sentenced to 65 years in prison. That left Safran scratching his arse, wondering where the heck to go from there. It completely destroyed his preconceived narrative (because miscarriage-of-justice stories should really end with the wrongfully-imprisoned man going free, at least in a pre-Serial world).

Murder In Mississippi therefore became a book about the process of researching and writing a true crime book, far more than a book about the crime itself. Searching my feelings about half-way through, as I scanned the obligatory glossy photo inserts, I realised I cared about whether Safran actually got onto McGee’s prison visitor list to interview the man in person, far more than I cared whether McGee actually committed a crime and/or what actually happened at Barrett’s house that night. Safran’s investigation, his frustrations and his doubts are the focus of the story.

“In Mississippi, the more layers of onion I peel, the more I’m standing in a mess of onion.”

Murder In Mississippi (Page 280)

There was actually something quite comforting about reading a fellow Australian’s efforts to wade into American race relations. Neither Safran nor I can pretend to truly understand the divide between white and black in the American South; all we can do is ask nosy questions and make inferences from what we understand of racism in our own backyards. Still, he has the gall to ask far nosier questions than I ever would, which meant I learned a lot.

Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award (True Crime) for his efforts, and enjoyed the process so much that he went on to write Depends What You Mean By Extremist (my review of that one to follow, soon, probably). All told, this was an interesting, compelling, and at-times hilarious read, one I highly recommend to true crime fans and Race Trekkies alike.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murder In Mississippi:

  • “Rambling and unimportant. However, I applaud the effort and wish Mr. Safran success.” – cWallin

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark – Michelle McNamara

When my dear friend Cathal handed me a copy of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, I literally squealed with delight. I’d been desperate to read it ever since I did my initial binge-listen to every episode of the My Favorite Murder podcast (reminder: I reviewed the hosts’ joint memoir Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, also a gift from Cathal, here). But I exercised some restraint, and held onto it until I felt I really… “needed” it. That’s the definition of adulthood, isn’t it? Delayed gratification? Okay, maybe it’s a bit whacky that my gratification comes from a gritty true crime novel, but whatever. I am what I am, and what I am is a true crime junkie. I’ve made my peace with it.

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The back-cover summary for I’ll Be Gone In The Dark promises “a masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book”. It also features glowing endorsements from Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, once again lending credence to the idea that the truth can be stranger (and better) than fiction.

The story of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark has received almost as much attention as the crimes it covers. It all began with McNamara’s blog (True Crime Diary, still online here), and an article she wrote for the LA Times in 2013. At that time, the series of rapes and murders attributed to the Golden State Killer were still a decades-old cold case, with files stretching across multiple jurisdictions and decades. McNamara sadly died, aged just 46, with the manuscript of this book only two-thirds done.

It was completed after her death by the lead researcher and a close colleague (Paule Haynes, and Billy Jensen), and her husband (Patton Oswalt) wrote a touching afterword in her honour. These contributors added footnotes to clarify or expand upon what McNamara had written before her death, rather than editorialising in an attempt to produce a “polished” story. They don’t ignore or gloss over McNamara’s passing, and they don’t falsely emulate her style or voice – it’s always clear to the reader what was McNamara’s work, and what was their logical continuation. On occasion, they cobbled together crucial sections from her notes and blog posts, making it clear to the reader that they had done so. I really liked this approach; it seemed more respectful, to both McNamara and the reader, than any alternative. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was ultimately published posthumously, in 2018, two years after McNamara’s death.

Even though the book is definitively true crime, it has a more literary bent than most offerings you’d find at airport bookshops. It crosses over into memoir at times, with McNamara offering up her own family history to explain how she came to have an interest in true crime and this particular case. It’s not schlocky, sensationalist true crime, but it’s still compulsively readable. It would seem that the one concession the publishers made to the tropes of the genre were the glossy photograph inserts: smiling photographs of the victims and their families, yearbook photos, neighbourhoods where crimes took place, evidence bags, and police sketches.

McNamara doesn’t shy away from her own role in bringing the case to worldwide public attention; she’s not braggy, but she doesn’t downplay it either. She wasn’t “just lucky”. She, and a group of like-minded armchair detectives, kept the case alive through hard work, persistence, and determination. In fact, it was McNamara who coined the “Golden State Killer” moniker. Prior to that, given that the culprit had undertaken three separate crime sprees with little to connect them, the press had given him three different nicknames (including the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker). The public, understandably, got the impression that these were different perpetrators, until McNamara came along and started connecting dots on their behalf.

The crimes (over one hundred burglaries, at least fifty sexual assaults, and at least thirteen murders) were all committed long before the DNA testing and lab analysis we have today. “By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be unrelated were the work of one man,” McNamara says on page 4, “more than a decade had passed since his last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority”. More than eight thousand suspects were investigated as part of the Golden State Killer case, but when McNamara started her blog, the police still had nothing.

It’s near impossible to wrap your head around the magnitude, severity, and sheer volume of crimes committed by the Golden State Killer, and McNamara doesn’t even attempt to lay out the facts of the case(s) in any linear fashion. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would have been to try to capture the scope and relate the details of all of these crimes, because there were just so many – and, being an unsolved case with no leads at the time of writing, it’s not like there were trial documents or police interviews to verify information against. McNamara and her publishers helpfully included, in the front of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark a timeline, a map, and – most importantly, in my view, a list of victims and investigators. That’s something I wish we saw more in true crime: front-and-center focus on victims, and the people who work to bring them justice.

That said, the title is drawn from a threat the killer made to one of his early victims:

“… a man in a leather hood entered the window of a house in Citrus Heights and sneaked up on a sixteen-year-old girl watching television alone in the den. He pointed a knife at her and issued a chilling warning: ‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark,’.”

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark (Page 60-61)

Still, because the killer hadn’t been identified at the time of writing, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by default avoids exploiting the victims or overtly revering the serial rapist and murderer (the way that true crime books about, say, Ted Bundy, tend to do).

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark topped the New York Times Best Seller List for non-fiction, and remained there for fifteen weeks. HBO subsequently purchased the film rights, and a six-part documentary series was released earlier this year. But, of course, the big clincher is this: since the time of publication, the Golden State Killer has been caught. His identification and arrest was controversial, as it occurred through the use of DNA evidence matched against samples provided to a genealogy website. What’s even more stunning is that McNamara foresaw this: in I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, her notes point to her intention to find a way of running the killer’s DNA through 23AndMe or Ancestry.com.

Obviously, there are all kinds of scary ethical questions raised by this type of investigation, but I won’t explore them here. All I’ll say is, just this once, I’m glad it worked. The culprit has been sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, after pleading guilty to multiple counts of murder and kidnapping (he cannot be charged on counts of rapes he committed in the 1970s, as the statute of limitations has passed – boo to that!).

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, though, concludes with a letter from McNamara to the then-unidentified killer. In it, she personally implores him to step into the light. It gave me literal goosebumps – and I still can’t help but wonder what went through his mind when he read it (as he undoubtedly has).

I’ve heard some readers complain that reading I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is less captivating now that the “case is solved”. I would argue that, if that’s the case, you’re reading it for different reasons than I am. I read this book to learn about a woman’s pursuit of justice, to understand the horrors wrought upon the women who were victimised by one terrible man, to get some insight into how fifty years can go by without an answer being found. I’m not here to gawp at a cold case (and if you are, no worries, there are plenty of other true crime books out there for you). But if you’re anything like me, if any of those motives sound more appealing to you than simple scares and shock factor, then I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is the book for you, as it was for me.

I don’t often include plugs at the end of my book reviews, but given the nature and content of this one, I feel it’s warranted. U.S. Keeper Upperers, I know there’s a lot of you – consider throwing some support towards End The Backlog, who aim to eliminate the atrocious backlog of untested rape kits across your country and prevent such a backlog from ever building up again. For Keeper Upperers elsewhere, look into your local or state-based sexual assault support services, I’m sure they could use your backing, too!

My favourite Amazon reviews of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark:

  • “This book legit gave me nightmares. 10/10 would recommend.” – Justin Marshal Kirkpatrick
  • “I don’t understand the reviews for this book. I found it to be dull and boring. My favorite true crime books read like a novel. This book is stale and full of percentages.” – siansays

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean made international headlines, and won herself a legion of new fans, earlier this year when she posted a series of unabashedly drunken tweets lamenting the state of the world. She’s well deserving of the recognition, of course, but there are plenty of us who were well enamored with her long before she had one too many wines at her neighbour’s house. I’ve been crazy about her ever since I picked up The Library Book earlier this year, her account of the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library Fire.

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Never heard of it? Neither had Orlean, until she moved to Los Angeles and took a tour of the Central Library building. Her tour guide pulled a book from a shelf and smelled it (slightly odd, but not beyond the pale for book lovers). Then he said he could “still smell the smoke”, and that’s what piqued Orlean’s interest. She thought, at first, that he meant the remnants of a time when patrons were allowed to smoke cigarettes in libraries. But, no: he was talking about the suspected act of arson that set light to the library on the morning of 29 April 1986, the fire that burned for several hours, the same one that destroyed over 400,000 books and damaged several hundred thousand more. No one was killed, but fifty firefighters were injured.

‘Hang on,’ Orlean thought (as I’m sure you are right now), ‘if the fire was that big, why hasn’t anyone heard about it?’. Check the date: it was drowned out of the news almost immediately by the Chernobyl disaster. And thus, the biggest library fire in the history of the United States was all but forgotten – and the suspected crime remains unsolved.

That’s not to say there were no suspects. Orlean begins The Library Book with a profile of Harry Peak, the man who led police on a wild goose chase throughout their investigation. He is described as being “very blonde” by his lawyer, and “the biggest bullshitter in the world” by his sister – make of that what you will. Orlean reads reports, transcripts, interviews friends and relatives, to find out everything she can about Harry Peak… but even then (spoiler alert), she can’t definitively answer – nor can anyone else – the question of why, or even whether, he would set fire to the Los Angeles Central Library.

The Library Book is, at its bones, a true crime story, interrogating who could have possibly started such a fire, and why. That said, it’s a long way from the feigned objectivity or omniscience of a book like The Arsonist. Orlean’s writing is memoir-esque, interweaving her own recollections of childhood library visits, and also incorporating extensive local history, including the socioeconomic and political complexities of the city of angels.

Now, I’m going to put a very important warning right here: do not read The Library Book if your friends and family will not take kindly to being bombarded with “fun facts” for at least a month. I made a grave error in choosing this book to accompany me when I was a passenger on a road trip. By the time we reached our destination, my fellow travellers were ready to set me on fire. Every few minutes, I’d say “Oh, wow! Did you know…” They were interested, at first, but after a while it wore thin, and soon my gasps of fascination were met with exhausted groans. So, there you go. You’ve been warned.

Orlean leaves no stone unturned, which is what makes The Library Book such a trove of delight and wonder for book-lovers and library patrons. She turns up everything from the history of libraries, the growth of Hollywood, the bust of the Depression, the psychology of arsonists, the physics of book burning (she even burned a copy of Fahrenheit 451 herself, for research!), the lives of the librarians who worked in the building (right down to their preferred brands of cigarettes)… she spent six and a half years researching this book, and it shows. And yet, she doesn’t simply dump it all in your lap; she delivers it, seamlessly, in a page-turning book that offers a kaleidoscopic view of a library and the terrible crime that occurred there (probably).

I’m sure you’ve deduced as much by now, but I’ll say it for the record: The Library Book is a highly Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a must for any library-goer or book-worm. And, in a year when libraries have been beaten and bruised by pandemic restrictions coupled with the increased demand of the disadvantaged communities they serve, there is surely no better time to read a love letter the public library system.

Do you use your local library? Either way, you might want to check this out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Library Book:

  • “lots of facts about libraries” – kcp
  • “Dreadful book – throw out” – Polly
  • “This book is tedious, overwritten and disjointed. Just like the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER is impossible to eat, this book is impossible to read.” – ruth evans

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