This week, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, true crime that calls to mind "In Cold Blood," and a massive engineering mistake.
While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell (Putnam) - This retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” by debut novelist Blackwell is faithful to the original while offering a fresh interpretation. Though set amid the pomp and pestilence of a fictionalized medieval kingdom, the novel’s characters—a couple dogged by infertility, a young girl resisting overprotection, a family torn apart by jealousy—have a contemporary resonance. Its narrator, Elise Dalriss, is raised on a farm, but feels most at home in the royal castle. Rising quickly through the ranks there, she becomes handmaiden to the queen, but is eventually banished. The twists in this reimagining are both convincing and moving.
Runner by Patrick Lee (Minotaur) - A chance meeting on a California beach between Sam Dryden, a former Delta Ranger on a midnight jog, and Rachel, a 12-year-old fleeing heavily armed men, jump-starts this razor-sharp thriller from Lee. Sam, who spent five years doing off-the-books black ops with an elite team, instinctively tries to save this terrified girl, who can’t remember her background, or why these men are trying to kill her. Their escape takes them across the country while Rachel’s slow recovery of her memory points to a sinister secret government project.
Chance by Kem Nunn (Scribner) - Best known for his surfer noir classics like Tijuana Straits, Nunn switches gears with this brilliant and cerebral psychological thriller. The quiet, ordered life of Dr. Eldon Chance, a recently divorced Bay Area forensic neuropsychiatrist, begins to unravel when he makes a series of ill-fated decisions. First, he gets involved with Jaclyn Blackstone, a beautiful, emotionally fragile patient who can’t seem to escape from her abusive, manipulating husband, who is an Oakland homicide detective. Chance crosses another line by hiring D, a massive, enigmatic man who hangs out at an antique shop, to recreate a missing piece for a set of furniture he plans to sell as original. Chance soon finds himself in the unlikely role of student to D’s teacher in the realities of street justice.
Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero by Douglas Perry (Viking) - Though he’s now a revered as the lawman who helped bring down the Chicago Mob and Al Capone, Eliot Ness was all but forgotten by the time he died, virtually penniless, in 1957, at age 55. Ironically, a book touting his dramatic efforts would hit stores just six months later. With a shrewd mix of drama, insight, and objectivity, Perry artfully chronicles the life of the leader of the “Untouchables” squad and illuminates his subject’s complicated worldview, passions, and faults. An introverted misfit and perfectionist, Ness perpetually felt like an outsider until he found his way to the nascent Prohibition Bureau. Under constant threat of violence, particularly in the early days, Ness thrived, leading his department on daring raids in a tireless effort to take down Capone, something Ness would later characterize as an obsession.
The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder That Shook the Nation by Harold Schechter (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest) - In Manhattan’s once-fashionable Beekman Place, the story of a young photographer’s model, known for her startling beauty in a series of lurid seminude pinups, found dead in her bathtub, stuns the big city, mired in post-depression gloom, with sensational tabloid stories. Using archival research and confidential records, Schechter (The Serial Killer Files) reconstructs the grisly triple homicide of Veronica Gedeon, her mother Mary, and a boarder, on Easter Sunday 1937. The confessed killer, Robert (“The Mad Sculptor”) Irwin, was a sexually troubled lad with a penchant for nicking his penis with a razor blade as well as binding up his male parts tightly with a strong rubber band. Ambitious, bold, and evocative, Schechter’s storytelling grabs the reader in a similar manner to Capote’s searing In Cold Blood.
Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles into the Darkness by Neil Swidey (Crown) - Since the opening of Boston’s immense Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant in September 2000, the “giant, stinking cesspool” of Boston Harbor has cleared significantly in what has been widely hailed as an environmental engineering triumph. This gripping history focuses on construction of its business end: the world’s longest dead-end tunnel, which travels 9.5 miles though bedrock, ending in 55 vertical pipes that diffuse effluent far out to sea. In hindsight, disaster was inevitable, since the project’s contract stated that these pipes’ 55 safety plugs could be extracted only when the tunnel was complete—meaning all drainage, ventilation, transportation, and electrical systems were removed. Commercial divers tackled the job.
The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson (S&S) - Watson turns his estimable intellectual skills on the history of non-belief - which he calls "a major plank of modernity" –beginning with Friedrich Nietzsche's 1882 declaration that "God is dead." While this ground is well-trodden, Watson takes an intriguing course: he charts it by genre. Particularly fascinating are passages about non-belief's impact on the arts. Too many Americans, those of faith and no faith, are unaware that atheism is not an invention of the "New Atheists" Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (who all fall under Watson's scrutiny), but has a history of expression in literature (James Joyce, Samuel Beckett), art (Rene Magritte, Jackson Pollock), poetry (Seamus Heaney, Czesław Miłosz) and dance (Rudolf Laban, Isadora Duncan).
The Tastemaker: carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America by Edward White (FSG) - In his immensely entertaining and vivid first book, White tackles the life and times of Carl Van Vechten, one of the most influential figures in American culture in the early 20th century. Born in 1880 as the youngest child of a wealthy Iowa family, Van Vechten arrived in New York City at the turn of the century—an aesthete dropped into a vibrant metropolis on the cusp of transformation. Over the next decades, working first as a reporter and then as an essayist and novelist, Van Vechten promoted modernist art along with the African-American music and literature of the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance. A bon vivant, Van Vechten pursued affairs with women (he married twice) and men at a time when homosexuality was illegal. He was also a shameless attention-seeker who courted notoriety, and, after publishing a series of controversial bestselling novels, his home became a hub of cultural life in the 1920s.