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No Place like Murder: True Crime in the Midwest

Janice Thornton. Quarry, $20 trade paper (270p) ISBN 978-0-25305-278-0

Drawing on newspaper records and government archives, Thornton (Too Good a Girl) brings to vivid life 20 grisly crimes that were committed between 1869 and 1950 in the Midwest. One of the more sensational crimes was the slaughter of the Agrue family on their Indiana farm in 1941. Virginius Carter had a strange relationship with the family, having been married to two of the daughters. Carter’s first wife hated him, but her sister, his second wife, was still in love with him when he was accused of the shotgun murder of their parents, two brothers, and an 11-year-old niece for no apparent reason. He confessed, but then denied he killed the family in court. He was convicted and died in the electric chair. Another killer was Don Snider, accused of poisoning his wife, daughter, and the family dog in 1876. He was tried three times and sent to prison for life, but served only 17 years before being pardoned. In 1920, Snider’s second wife died in a suspicious fire, and he himself died nine years later when he was hit by a train. Thornton expertly marshals all the salient lurid details in these and the 18 other cases she chronicles. True crime fans will be well satisfied. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Mass Murder in California’s Empty Quarter: A Tale of Tribal Treachery at the Cedarville Rancheria

Ray A. March. Bison, $27.95 (232p) ISBN 978-1-4962-1756-1

March (River in Ruin: The Story of the Carmel River) details in this searing account the case of Cherie Rhoades, the first woman tried for mass murder in the United States. Rhoades, who met the legal requirements to be considered a Native American but was not raised as one, was 24 in 1969 when she and some relatives took up the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ invitation to move to Cedarville Rancheria in Northern California, a reservation for the Northern Paiutes, whose traditions they knew nothing about. Rhoades, who received free housing and a quarterly payment from the tribe’s casino profits, soon gained a reputation as a bully. She joined the Northern Paiute executive committee, from which she was kicked off after being accused of embezzling tribal funds. The tribe voted to evict her from her home, but, at the hearing on Feb. 19, 2014, Rhoades showed up with two pistols and opened fire, killing four people, three of them relatives. In 2017, she was found guilty of murder and attempted murder, and sentenced to death. After a moratorium on executions in 2019, she sits on death row today. This portrait of a flawed woman driven to commit a heinous crime makes for fascinating reading. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Brotherhood Betrayed: The Man Behind the Rise and Fall of Murder, Inc.

Michael Cannell. Minotaur, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-20438-7

Cannell (Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling) provides the definitive account of hit man Abe Reles (1906–1941), who served as the “assassin-in-chief” for the Italian-Jewish mob collaboration known as Murder, Inc.. Reles started his life of crime as a teenager in New York City, as an enforcer for a local racketeer, before his violent nature escalated to homicide. Brooklyn district attorney William O’Dwyer cut a deal with him in 1940 in exchange for testimony against the leaders of Murder, Inc. That bargain provided the prosecutor with a valuable witness who revealed “another America hidden in shadow with its own banks and penal system, its own tax code and law enforcement.” But before Reles could testify, he fell to his death from a Brooklyn hotel window while in protective custody. O’Dwyer supported the theory that Reles fell accidentally during an escape attempt, and though that position was widely derided, no conclusive proof was ever found as to who pushed Reles out the window. Cannell dials in the the right level of detail in this grim story of violence, corruption, and the dogged efforts of law enforcement to break organized crime’s hold on New York City. Readers interested in a non-sensationalized treatment of a major chapter in American crime will be riveted. Agent: Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Kill Shot: A Shadow Industry, A Deadly Disease

Jason Dearen. Avery, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593085-78-3

In this sobering debut, investigative journalist Dearen charts the 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak that killed 100 people across America. Barry Cadden was the corrupt president of the New England Compounding Center, a company that created drugs for individual patients per doctor prescriptions. By taking illegal shortcuts, putting fake names on fake prescriptions, and selling mass amounts to hospitals and pain clinics, he was able to take the company from $5 million in profits to $50 million in under a decade. In 2012, NECC shipped 17,675 vials of an infected steroid to 23 states. The steroid was mostly used for patients with back pain and injected into the spinal cord. There the fungus would grow and cause devastating symptoms and usually death. As the CDC raced to find the cause of the outbreak, Cadden lied to investigators and was later charged, along with the company’s chief pharmacist, with racketeering and murder by the U.S. Attorney’s office. They were convicted of racketeering but not murder, with Cadden getting a nine year sentence, and the chief pharmacist eight. Dearen lays out the facts in straightforward prose. This detailed account of how greed led to widespread suffering and death grips to the end. Agent: Danielle Svetcov, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The (Inter) National Basketball Association: How the NBA Ushered in a New Era of Basketball and Went Global

Joel Gunderson. Sports, $24.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-68358-348-6

Gunderson (Boise State of Mind: The Emergence of College Football’s Grittiest Underdog) dribbles out a superficial treatment of how international players became so prominent in the NBA. Gunderson opens in the 1980s, with efforts to bring Lithuanian superstar Arvydas Sabonis to the NBA, which he portrays as being derided by then commissioner David Stern, who feared a threat to his league’s brand as “America’s Game.” Sabonis eventually joined the Portland Trail Blazers, where his success paved the way for other European talents. Gradually, the notion that foreign players could more than hold their own became apparent, Gunderson writes, and Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, committed to making the NBA a global brand. Silver advanced initiatives aimed at increasing the league’s presence in China, India, and Africa, and promoted the notion of “basketball diplomacy.” Gunderson also reviews the recent history of the San Antonio Spurs, which has led the way in scouting, drafting, and utilizing international players such as Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker. Gunderson’s nonchronological organization leads to confusion, and his analysis is cited to secondary sources, with no interviews new to the book (and he leaves out the WNBA entirely). Gunderson shoots and misses. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball and the Making of an American Iconoclast

Marc J. Spears and Gary Washburn. Triumph, $28 (240p) ISBN 978-1-62937-776-6

This disappointing profile of troubled NBA star Spencer Haywood, who played for the league from 1970 to 1983, reads mostly like an as-told-to autobiography. Haywood was born in 1949 to a widowed sharecropper, and though his talent while in high school made him an NBA-ready wunderkind, a league rule prevented teams from drafting players directly out of high school. After joining the ABA in 1969, Haywood pursued a lawsuit that culminated in a 1971 Supreme Court decision overturning the NBA rule. Haywood’s own NBA career, which ran through 1983, was checkered: a cocaine addiction led to his suspension by the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1980 finals, and he abruptly quit the Washington Bullets (and the NBA) when the team didn’t support him taking time off to care for his wife, supermodel Iman, after she was injured in a car accident. Eventually, he served as chairman of the NBA’s Retired Players Association and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Haywood’s frank personality takes center stage, and he movingly talks about racism on and off court. But when the focus widens from Haywood to the bigger picture of the business and culture of the game, the authors’ analysis tends to be shallow. This attempt to put a complex career into context falls short. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

Heather Clark. Knopf, $40 (1152p) ISBN 978-0-307-96116-7

Clark (The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes) offers a page-turning, meticulously researched biography of Sylvia Plath. Informed by never-before-accessed documents, Clark builds a narrative that gathers full force starting with Plath’s ill-fated Mademoiselle internship at age 20, and continues through her career as an acclaimed poet, her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, and her suicide at age 30. Clarke highlights bestselling author Olive Higgins Prouty as a generous source of emotional and financial support throughout Plath’s life, while casting doubts on the helpfulness of Ruth Barnhouse, Plath’s close friend and her psychiatrist during the 1953 stay in a psychiatric ward that inspired her novel The Bell Jar. However, Clark places the greatest emphasis on the Hughes-Plath marriage, depicting it as a creatively charged and ultimately destructive partnership, in which Hughes’s moments of gentleness and supportiveness existed alongside rage and abuse. Finally, Clark provides a new and convincing theory that Plath’s suicide came about not impulsively, but in response to the possibility that she would again have to undergo the traumatic process of institutionalization. Clark’s in-depth scholarship and fine writing result in a superb work that will deliver fresh revelations to Plath’s many devoted fans. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dog’s Best Friend: A Brief History of an Unbreakable Bond

Simon Garfield. Morrow, $26.99 ISBN )978-0-06-305224-6

Journalist Garfield (In Miniature), the loving owner of “elderly gentleman” Labrador retriever Ludo, delivers a charming look at the human-canine relationship. In attempting to uncover how humans went from “hunting with the Eurasian wolf... to buying an electrically heated day-bed for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel,” Garfield examines how dogs have figured into art, literature, and politics throughout history, and their significance as subjects in genetic research today. Garfield has a knack for entertaining asides; the look at dogs in art detours into an anecdote on David Hockney, a dachshund devotee, though he admits his own were “tricky sitters” and “not hugely interested in art.” For literature, Garfield discusses dog-loving authors such as Virginian Woolf (“Was there anything [she] didn’t know about dogs?”) and P.G. Wodehouse, who favored Pekingese and concluded that “dogs say things which the human ear can’t hear.” Elsewhere, readers will accompany Garfield to Crufts, a British dog show—and the world’s largest. Garfield’s affectionate and amusing “celebration of dogs in all their intelligence, curiosity, beauty and loyalty” will be a hit with dog-loving readers. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Decoding the World: A Road Map for the Questioner

Po Bronson and Arvind Gupta. Twelve, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5387-3431-5

Biotech entrepreneurs Bronson and Gupta take a largely unrewarding look at big questions in science and tech, from how artificial intelligence will impact jobs, to how genetic engineering will reshape demographics. The disorganized format wanders from one topic to another, with little or no connection between them, as when a section on China’s role in developing new urban infrastructure ends with the authors declaring they need to “do a chapter about plants,” because people love them. Though the authors claim readers will see, over the course of the book, a “classic Hollywood role reversal” in which “Arvind learns to think slower to build bigger” and Bronson “to act faster to see further,” little such development is evident. Instead, the book is dominated by a jokey and sophomoric tone, as when one author spends pages imagining a conversation with Marvel’s Tony Stark character. Their conclusions are unsatisfying (they determine, for instance, that Americans who try to stand up for human rights in China will only harm themselves economically) and sometimes unsourced (they decide that there will not be any designer babies in the future because no parents will want them.) Readers interested in a thoughtful guide to serious questions can give this a pass. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Liberty from All Masters: The New American Autocracy vs. the Will of the People

Barry C. Lynn. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-24062-0

Open Markets Institute director Lynn (Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction) contends in this forceful and well-documented account that shifts in regulating monopolies that began in the 1980s and ’90s have led to today’s economic and political woes. For the bulk of American history, Lynn writes, so-called “common carrier” laws ensured “that any corporation that controlled access to a vital service treated every person who depended on that monopoly the same.” But when “neoliberal reactionaries” in the Reagan and Clinton administrations rolled back these and other regulations, the road was paved for Amazon, Facebook, and Google to amass unprecedented power “by deliver[ing] to each of us different information, different prices, different services.” Drawing on the personal information consumers provide, these companies and other “platform monopolists” now have the ability, Lynn argues, to “manipulate” Americans “to a degree that no previous private power, in any nation, has ever come close to achieving.” He dives deep into antitrust law, trade policy, electoral politics, economic theory, and legislative history to make his case, but doesn’t provide much in the way of a practical path forward. Still, this is an eye-opening and persuasive defense of robust antitrust enforcement as essential to the core principles of American democracy. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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