Friday, September 27, 2013

The Socialite's Guide to Fascism

The Spy Wore Red: My Adventures As an Undercover Agent in World War II, by Aline, Countess de Romanones, was on my radar screen for eons, but somehow I didn't get around to reading it until this summer. It wasn't what I expected. I had an idea in my head that the Countess was born into European nobility and had used her position to spy on Nazis. Well, not exactly.

It turns out she was born Aline Griffith in Pearl River, in upstate New York. She was working as a model in New York City, but didn't drink or smoke, didn't go to clubs and wore saddle shoes and schoolgirl clothes when she took the bus to and from work.

Aline's younger brothers were serving in the armed forces during World War II and she complained that she wanted to be in the war, too, but hadn't been able to find her way in. At age 19, though, she complained to just the right person: the brother of a friend, who worked at the War Department. He told her she might receive a call and, after a couple of weeks, she did. She was soon receiving intensive training at the "Farm" (later used, famously, as CIA training grounds), and working with other agents, all of whom knew each other only by their agent names. Aline's was Tiger.

Aline on just another weekend
in the country
Aline had a decent level of conversational French and Spanish, and was chosen to travel to Madrid, where her cover was working at the US oil mission. But her real job was to get into Madrid society, a good many of whose members hobnobbed with Nazis in neutral Spain, and gain intelligence about the Third Reich's plans.

Aline's entrée was her contact, Eduardo, aka Top Hat, who was a foppish regular in society and the clubs around town––not to mention, a kleptomaniac. He had a large collection of jewelry and other gewgaws that he'd lifted from his society friends. Soon after her arrival in Madrid, Aline was spending evenings at society dinner parties, at nightclubs with one of the country's most popular bullfighters, and weekends at the country estate of Count von Fürstenberg, and his wife, the drop-dead gorgeous Gloria.

Aline, licensed to kill
Looking into the background of this book, I learned that quite a few people have questioned its veracity. I don't know for certain whether Aline's story is true to life, but I will admit that some bits of it seemed at least improbable. For example, Aline writes about incidents in which she was targeted for death by Nazi operatives, but she escaped, by chance or wit. These incidents sounded straight out of a B-movie screenplay, where the depths of the Nazi agents' evil are rivaled only by the profundity of their incompetence.

Aline reports that on her very first day in Europe, she's taken to a casino in Estoril, in Portugal, where she almost literally stumbles upon a man in full formal evening wear who has just been murdered with a stiletto. Quite an introduction to one's first spy assignment! And people were forever sneaking into Aline's room to tell her she was the only one they could contact with vital information to pass on to the American government. Seriously? A 20-year-old girl who was supposed to be a clerk at an office? Some of those confiding people ended up dead; some Aline claims to have unveiled as German spies.

Now, I take my World War II history very seriously, but this is one of those times I decided I just had to forget about my doubts and go with Aline's tale. Why? Because it's such a hoot, that's why.

I'm not sure what Aline's up to with all these sheep
Remember how Rick's Café Americain in Casablanca was full of the most colorful characters, from every walk of life, and all around them swirled questions about who was loyal to whom, and who might be a betrayer? Well, Aline's wartime Madrid is just like that, only on a larger scale. Here is Aline uncloaking a society spy for the Germans, who was only too ready to flip and become a double agent for the Americans; finding the corpse of a murdered field agent inside his own piano; going on a mole hunt within the OSS's Madrid station; careening down a mountain road in a car with no brakes, with three heavies in hot pursuit. These are just a few of the scenes, worthy of the most overheated Hollywood spy thriller, that you'll find in Aline's memoir. See what I mean about it being a hoot?

I'd be laughing, too, Aline, if I had those rocks
A little further research indicates that after the war, Aline married one of the grandest noblemen in Spain, Don Luis de Figueroa y Perez de Guzm'n el Bueno, Count of Quintanilla, who later inherited the title Count de Romanones. She became a fashion icon and continued to hobnob with high society, including international celebrities, like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jacqueline Kennedy, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn.

Now I have to go find Aline's follow-up books, The Spy Went Dancing: My Further Adventures As an Undercover Agent, and The Spy Wore Silk (with the same subtitle). Since Aline, born in 1923, is apparently still alive, who knows what other stories she may yet have to tell.

Aline was hardly the only woman whose memoirs describe using her position in the social world to observe the inner workings of Nazi operatives. And not the only improbable woman to be in that position, as a couple of other tales demonstrate.

You'd think it's never a bad time to be born a princess, but how about 1917 in St. Petersburg, Russia? That's when and where Marie Vassiltchikov came into the world. It's not surprising that she and her family left the country after the Bolshevik revolution. The family members wandered around Europe, and in 1940, Marie (usually called Missie) and her sister Tatiana moved to Berlin, where Missie's friends and her polyglot language skills got her a job at the German Foreign Ministry's Information Office, referred to in her memoir, Berlin Diaries 1940-1945, as the A.A., for its German short name, the Auswärtiges Amt.

Missie's timing in life sure is lousy, isn't it? She couldn't help when and where she was born, but you'd think she might at least have suspected that Berlin in 1940 wasn't the greatest choice. Still, her social life in Berlin was active and glittering, despite the war. Soirées and tea parties at various embassies and society friends' homes were a near-daily event, at least in the early part of the war. The amazing thing is to see all the nationalities of her friends: German, Russian, French, Hungarian, Bulgarian and several more, and the stunning array of titles.

Missie and Tatiana are no longer wealthy, so she does have to spend her days working. She's not crazy about some of the blowhards at the office, and wishes she could have taken the job at the American Embassy she was offered just days too late. She has access to lots of top-secret information and, one day, having been given by mistake a sheet of the special yellow-top paper reserved for particularly hot news, she decides to amuse herself with a made-up story that there had been riots in London, resulting in the king's being hanged at the gates of Buckingham Palace. She "passed it on to an idiotic girl who promptly translated it and included it in a news broadcast to South Africa." Oh, those girlish hijinks!

I shouldn't give the impression that Missie was just some ditzy dame with a useless title, though. While on the job, she met Adam von Trott zu Solz, an English-educated lawyer, with an American heritage (his grandmother was a descendant of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court). Trott was part of an active anti-Nazi group within the A.A., and he became Missie's boss. Missie's memoir doesn't reveal much about the group's activities, which resulted in the unsuccessful "July 20 Plot" to kill Hitler, but she clearly knew what was going on. She does describe her reactions and those of friends and family when many of the plotters were arrested by the Gestapo, including her visits to the Gestapo to plead on Trott's behalf until a sympathetic man there took her aside and warned her not to return. Soon afterward, Trott was hanged at just 35 years old, leaving a wife and two small children.

Probably the most riveting parts of Missie's memoir are her graphic descriptions of the air raids on Berlin, particularly the extremely destructive raids of November, 1943. She sees a young girl on top of a pile of rubble, picking up bricks, dusting them off and throwing them away. The girl's whole family is under the rubble. As Missie laboriously climbs over smoking ruins to get to work, she sees chalked messages on the walls of wrecked houses: family members leaving word in hopes they will lead to a reunion with their families and friends. When she is out with Tatiana, trying to locate friends, the streets are full of refugees, pushing their meager remaining belongings in baby carriages. Tatiana's favorite antique store is still burning, with the silks and brocades making for a "pink glow [that] looked very festive."

After Trott's execution, Missie thought it best to leave Berlin. She moved to Vienna and became a Red Cross nurse. While there, she met Peter Harnden, an American Army intelligence officer. Missie and Peter married in 1946, and the pair moved to Paris, where Peter became a successful architect. Missie was widowed in 1971 and moved to London, where she died of leukemia in 1978, leaving four children.

Alright, so we've got an American model as OSS agent and a White Russian aristocrat working in the German Foreign Ministry with anti-Hitler plotters. How about an even more unlikely inside observer of the Nazis and their allies? Bella Fromm, a Jew, was a society reporter who kept right on reporting on Berlin social life until she fled the country in 1938, several years after the Nazis came to power in Germany. How the heck did that happen?

Bella was a society columnist for the Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung. She became well-known in Berlin during the Weimar era, and was a regular at parties given in high society which, once the Nazis took over, became dominated by political figures. Her friendship with several politicians, and especially foreign members of the diplomatic corps, seems to have provided her with some protection. Still, she was savvy enough to send her daughter out of the country in 1934 and, while she continued to be invited to parties, her columns no longer appeared under her own name after the Nazis had been in power for about a year.

Fromm finally fled Germany for New York in 1938, where she published Blood and Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary in 1943. She begins with a description of her life in Germany before Hitler came to power, then with what she claims are her diaries for each year from 1930 to 1938, wrapping up with a epilogue of her last encounter with the Nazis.

Questions have been raised as to whether Fromm's memoir reflects actual contemporary diary entries or have been amplified with the benefit of hindsight. Either way, it's still fascinating––in the way watching a snake can be––to read about the cast of goons suddenly elevated to the heights of Berlin society. This reaches an absurd level in Fromm's description of a 1933 party during which the new Führer kisses her hand and makes small talk with her; of course, having no idea that she is Jewish.

Books like these remind me that memoirs can be so much better than history books, or even novels, if you want to get that feeling of being a spy on history.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dead Men's Bones

In my own field of endeavor, when you want to use an article from the 1980s as a reference—or even quote from one only 20 years old—you can read a certain disbelief in some faces as they twirl their fingers by their temples in the "she's loco" sign. But not everyone thinks you can't learn from the past.

Take a lesson from Gino Fornaciari at the University of Pisa who, at 70 years old, is a leading light in a new discipline: the rapidly growing field of paleopathology. Fornaciari is no ordinary medical examiner; his cases are centuries—even millennia—old.  Over the past 50 years, using tools of forensics and medical science—along with clues from history, art and anthropology—Fornaciari and his colleagues have become detectives of the distant past. They are exhuming historic human remains from different areas in Italy and determining the causes of death. Fornaciari himself has examined such nobles as the Medici and the Aragonese. He hopes some day to get a gander at the remains of Galileo.

The August 2013 Smithsonian magazine has an excellent article about his current case detailing work on Cangrande della Scala, a warlord of Verona, who was praised by Boccaccio and Dante himself in Paradiso. His body was removed from a high, dry marble sarcophagus in the medieval church of Santa Maria Antica in Verona. Dr. Fornaciari determined that historic rumors were true; he was poisoned by foxglove. Cangrande was murdered!

Aside from correcting the history books, is there any reason to disturb the dead? Certainly the body of knowledge that Fornaciari has accumulated has helped the world of science and that of mystery writers.

When it comes to dead bodies, forensic anthropologists are like the Munchkin coroner of Oz, who said he preferred his corpses "not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead." The older the better may the case for some bone readers. If a decade is a safe bet, a few centuries is better still. There are many popular fictional bone detectives whose antics I follow.

One of the best-known forensic anthropologists in this country is purely fictional: Kathy Reichs's Dr. Temperance Brennan (Tempe for short), who abandoned a rickety marriage and bad memories in her move from North Carolina to the Canadian province of Quebec, where she is director of forensic anthropology. Tempe is a fortyish recovering alcoholic and mother of a college-age daughter. She's troubled, but very good at what she does.

You can take your pick between the above print version or the screen version of Temperance Brennan: a thirtyish woman, socially inept, who grew up as a foster child, but who has acquired three doctoral degrees. She goes by the nickname "Bones." Bones works for a branch of the Smithsonian and contracts out to the FBI. What she has in common with the print version is her skill at her work. Bones's advantage over Tempe is Agent Seeley Booth.

Kathy Reichs
Of Kathy Reichs's debut novel, Déjà Dead, first I must say that it's another to add to the extensive list of books about serial killers of women, but this is written by a woman who is a forensic anthropologist herself for the office of the Chief Medical Examiner for North Carolina and for the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciares et de Médecine Légale for Quebec. And more. She really knows what she is talking about. I have begun to listen to her books on my iPod because the narrator of the first is the fabulous Barbara Rosenblatt of the Amelia Peabody books' fame, so I am restarting the series with Déjà Dead.

Another very interesting character whom I have enjoyed reading about is Elly Griffiths's forensic antropologist, Ruth Galloway. Ruth makes her home on a lonely spit of land surrounded by marsh grass and the sounds of birds and wind. Her friends can't understand how she tolerates the isolation and the loneliness. But this was land that was sacred to inhabitants at least as far back as the Iron Age, a place not quite earth, not quite sea. It suits her.

Ruth is in her late thirties and is the head of forensic archeology at the University of North Norfolk. She doesn't spend much time on her personal appearance; she usually wears loose and shapeless clothes. In the recent past, she was involved in a police case in which she had to identify some bones, and, before it was over, she became pregnant. She has not told anyone, not even the father of the baby.

In The Janus Stone, second in the series, Ruth is called out to a construction site where the headless body of a child has been found buried under a wall. Both the Celts and the Romans offered foundation sacrifices to the gods Janus and Terminus, and Ruth must determine if these bones are new or centuries old. More bones are found at what was once the site of a children's home. Again, Ruth's job is to determine the age of the bones and how the person, most likely a child, died.

Carbon dating proves that the bones predate the children's home and come from when the home was privately owned. It is an interesting coincidence that the people developing the land are the same ones who once owned it. Is the killer still alive? Ruth begins to receive terrifying messages threatening to kill her daughter. The book is hard to put down.

This series is terrific, and the next in line is The House at Sea's End.

As a longtime fan of Aaron Elkins's Gideon Oliver, the "Skeleton Detective," it was fun to read the sixteenth series book, Skull Duggery, a foray into southwestern Mexico in the Oaxaca area. Gideon and his wife Julie are headed to the Hacienda Encantada, a small resort owned and run by Julie's friends and family. They are planning to help out there while some of the regular management takes some needed R&R.

Gideon would have been metaphorically twiddling his thumbs within hours if not for the recent discovery in the area of some choice bony tidbits: the possible skeletal remains of a young girl and a desiccated mummy found at the base of a hill in an arroyo. The local medical examiner tells the police that the man who died in the desert was shot, and the bullet must have fallen out the same hole made by the bullet entry. There is nothing that Gideon likes better than a puzzle.

Flaviano Sandoval has been the village police chief for just short of a year, and he lives by the motto drummed into him by his stern father: "Expect the worse, and you will get what you expect. Only it will be worse." While Sandoval knows he is not cut out to be an officer of the law for the long term, he is eager for any help Gideon can give. What Gideon finds is that, despite the enchanted name, the hacienda has survived for four score years and more of turmoil and has gone through good times and bad. The family living at the hacienda and running it has secrets that go back decades. But Gideon's forte is looking to the past, and he is in his element.

Elkinss' most recent Gideon Oliver mystery is Dying on the Vine, which is on my wish list.

My interest in forensic anthropology began in the '80s, with a series written by Sharyn McCrumb and featuring Elizabeth MacPherson, a forensic anthropologist just out of college. I need to bone up on these a bit, but my best recollection is one entitled If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him. I believe the title is taken from the overheard phrase by a battered woman that ends, "I'd be out of jail by now."

In this eighth series book, Elizabeth is working as a PI for her brother Bill's law firm, and she becomes involved in two seemingly similar cases of women who killed their husbands. One woman was the perfect lawyer's wife who would almost rather go to jail for murder than admit she was abused, and the other was the wife of a hypocritical bigamist who proudly admits what she did. But was this just a way of saving face because she was a scorned woman?

Like some other homicides in this series, murder in this book is committed by someone trying to protect an important southern image or culture, more important sometimes than greed or revenge. These books are a satire of a mannered society where appearances and social position count. Nonetheless there is always a humerus content. (See what I did there?)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Review of John Lawton's Then We Take Berlin

Then We Take Berlin, by John Lawton
(Atlantic Monthly Press; September 3, 2013)

John Lawton is on my top-five list of contemporary authors, so I was excited when I heard he had created a new protagonist, John Wilfrid Holderness. That sounds like a posh name, but he's known by most people as Joe Wilderness––a much better fit to this character.

Joe is a London East End wide boy, a chancer who lives on his wits and guile. That's all the more true when his mother is killed in the Blitz, found dead, ensconced on a barstool with her gin still sitting in front of her. Joe's grandfather, Abner, moves Joe into an attic room at his place in Whitechapel, where Abner lives with his longtime girlfriend (and sometime prostitute), Merle. (Not that her name really is Merle, but that's a good Hollywood-sounding sobriquet for when she's on the game.)

Abner teaches Joe everything he knows about burglary and safe-cracking. Joe is a quick study, not just about crime, but about books, and observing people. Smart and lucky are two different things, though. Just when all the soldiers and sailors are returning home from World War II, Joe is drafted. He's about to be tossed into the punishment cells for insubordination (that's a mild name for it) during his basic training, when he's plucked out by Lieutenant Colonel Burne-Jones, who's seen Joe's IQ score. Burne-Jones sends Joe to Cambridge to learn Russian and German, and to London for individual tutoring in languages, politics and history.

Of course, Burne-Jones is training Joe to work in military intelligence, but you already figured that out. Off Joe goes to Berlin in 1946, where his job is to assess German citizens looking to get jobs in the de-Nazified country. To qualify, Germans had to fill out a form the Germans nicknamed Fragebogen, the Questions. Intelligence officers like Joe quizzed candidates over their answers to determine whether they would qualify for the prized Entlastungsschein––which the Germans called Persilschein, after Persil laundry detergent––the whiter-than-white document that proved that you're not considered an enemy or a threat.

Aside from that dull desk job, though, what an amazing time and place for a wide boy. "It was love at first sight. He and Berlin were made for each other. He took to it like a rat to a sewer." In between intelligence jobs for Burne-Jones, Joe can't resist becoming a black market seller, then increasing the stakes in his black market game, which means making ever larger and more dangerous deals; deals that involve bent Russians and dangerous crossings to the Russian sector.

But for Joe, it's not all about sussing out former Nazi bigwigs and scientists by day, and smuggling by night. At one of Berlin's nightclubs––famous in the Weimar era for using tabletop telephones and pneumatic tubes so that strangers could propose assignations––Joe meets Christina Helene von Raeder Burckhardt, known by the Brits and Yanks as Nell Breakheart. Not because she actually breaks hearts, but because she's so beautiful, inside and out, that they're lining up in hopes of getting their hearts broken. And wouldn't you know, she chooses Joe.

Yes, Joe's quip is about Hitler, who was a
Corporal in the First World War
I can't blame Nell. Joe's got that bad-boy fascination and I wanted to hang around with him for the snappy patter alone. In one of my favorite scenes, he is introduced to Nell's old friend Werner, who's no fan of the occupying forces. Werner sneers, "I do not care to sit down with the Allies, Herr Corporal." Joe answers: "Now don't you go bashin' corporals. We may be a bunch of numskulls but some of us go on to run empires that last a thousand years."

Trümmerfrauen clearing rubble
In language so vivid the scenes unreel like a half-remembered film, Lawton recreates postwar Berlin, with its ruined buildings, squalid living quarters created in cellars or apartments with shorn-off walls, crews of women who earn rations by clearing rubble in bucket lines, dirty kids harassing occupation forces servicemen for candy bars, the stink of open sewers, fear and despair, and the sweeter scents of money, graft and opportunity. I read a ton of World War II historical novels and I can't think of another one that does it with more verve.

JFK in Berlin
But the novel isn't all postwar Berlin. The bombed-out Berlin tale is bookended by the stories of Joe and Nell in the summer of 1963. You know, the summer JFK made his famous visit to Berlin. If there is some of the 1963 plot that is not quite up to snuff (and, admittedly, there is), that takes up a very small proportion of what is a dazzlingly inventive and layered story, packed with fully dimensional characters–––several of whom Lawton fans will recognize from Lawton's series of Frederick Troy novels.

I've often wondered why John Lawton hasn't gained the recognition I firmly believe he deserves. I've come to think it might be because of the book world's compulsion to categorize books and authors into easy genres and sub-genres. Lawton's books are most often classified as mystery and espionage, but neither is accurate. As Lawton once commented, they are "historical, political thrillers with a big splash of romance, wrapped up in a coat of noir." The noir comes in because, as you might have suspected, reading about Joe Wilderness, John Lawton likes to write about people on the edge, living in a world of shadowy morality. Lawton says, "I don't think there are unequivocal good guys. If there are, then they're teetering on the edge, and it's the edge, the ambivalence, that I like about espionage and spooks." Me too.

If you enjoy authors like Ian McEwan, Philip Kerr, Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd, give this book a try, along with his other novels, especially his haunting 2011 title, A Lily of the Field.

Note: I received a free review e-galley of Then We Take Berlin from NetGalley––but I loved it so much I ordered the hardcover as soon as I finished reading the galley. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Damaged Minds

When things in my own head get too "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable," I sometimes try to take a vacation in other heads. In the past week, I have tried to wrap my head around stories featuring three different psychological disorders. It was a pretty intense experience which has led to some very strange dreams.

Bonnie Rozanski's debut novel, Banana Kiss, is narrated by Robin Farber, a schizophrenic young woman who hears voices, including that of her long-dead father, and imagines that she is an all-powerful god. She is quite intelligent, and has internalized a bit of quantum theory to determine that the world outside of herself does not exist unless she wills it. When things does not go as she intended, she reminds herself wryly that she has, after all, allowed for a certain amount of free will in her creations. She often fakes taking her medicine, and both loathes and stonewalls her psychiatrist, whom she calls "Whitecoat," denying him even a name.

Robin is a resident of Berkshire, a private sanitarium. Her mother and stepfather visit weekly; her sister, whose theft of her boyfriend precipitated or aggravated Robin's symptoms, rarely visits. She has made a few friends here: her roommate Beverly, Roz, and Derek, a manic-depressive whose moods swing widely and frequently between deep despair and wild abandon. Derek falls madly in love with Robin and makes ambitious plans for their future together.

Robin is very clear about the reason for her non-compliance with her medications: they make her depressed and less than the self she wants to be and believes herself to be; a veil drawn over her existence so that she can no longer relish living. I have heard this complaint from other patients on psychiatric mood-altering drugs. Robin's illness seems to me to be a matter of degree. Who among us has not imagined things to be other than what they later proved to be, or listened to voices in our heads?

Her story reminded me of a rather bad line from an early poem by Yeats:
"That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, whose furrows that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme."
He and Robin apparently grasped the principles of quantum physics better than most. This book is not a mystery story, but a look both harrowing and hilarious at life and tragedy through the eyes of a vibrant young woman whose coping mechanisms have somehow gone wildly awry. It is a remarkable debut novel, and I look forward to more from the author.

I had read Elizabeth Haynes's Human Remains: A Novel, and thought that it lacked suspense. The author more than made up for that in her Into the Darkest Corner.

Catherine Bailey was an attractive, fun-loving girl when she met gorgeous Lee Brightman at a club one night. Her friends are envious when she and Lee move in together. Only very gradually do Lee's possessiveness and violent temper emerge.

The book opens at his trial after he had brutally beaten Catherine. Despite his plausible defense, he is sentenced to a three-year prison term. Catherine, after some inadequate counseling, moves to London with her nascent obsessive-compulsive disorder barely under control.

The story hops around, fueled by Catherine's flashbacks to her relationship with Lee. While it seemed to drag a bit in the middle, Catherine's endless counting and checking and rechecking everything gave me a very good sense of just how exhausting it must be to live with this disorder unchecked. When Stuart, her new neighbor in the upstairs flat, rescues her from the advances of a drunken coworker in the street after one of her few evening outings, things begin to open up a little for her. Stuart is a clinical psychologist, and while his specialty is depression, he teaches her various relaxation techniques that enable her to better control her panic attacks. But when the police call to notify her that Lee is being released, things get worse quickly. He had promised that he would find her when he got out, and while she has moved, she hasn't changed her name.

This book was a compulsive read; I couldn't put it down, even when I thought I knew what was coming. The author ratchets the tension up gradually, and sometimes the terror appears to be only in Catherine's head. Chain saws and excessive gore leave me cold, but this story of a young woman valiantly struggling to rebuild a normal life against terrible odds will stay with me for some time.

In Gary Gusick's The Alzheimer's Patient Who Couldn't Forget: A Southern Murder Mystery, Sam Coombs was an immigrant who had fled the pogroms in Europe with his family and settled in Mississippi, where he opened a shoe store before the Second World War. His wife, Ethel and two children have all died, so a nephew from France settled him in a private nursing home when he began to develop Alzheimer's. He has had no visitors, but is periodically terrified by images and events from his past, making him a difficult patient for the staff to handle. He raves in what they think is German, and no one can understand him.

Lou Ann Jenkins, working towards her doctoral thesis in psychology, finds Sam a fascinating subject. She thinks the terrors he experiences at sunset are unresolved conflicts from his earlier life and wants to help him achieve peace with them.

With the help of Kenyon Williams, a night orderly at the nursing home, she attempts to draw out Sam's story from his fractured mind. Sam likes Kenyon, whom he affectionately calls "Schwartz." Sam seems terrified of Lou Ann, and calls her "Chicksaw" and "Ligner." When they learn from another resident that Sam is Jewish and call in a rabbi, the strange language that he resorts to under stress is revealed as Yiddish. Rabbi David Pearlstein is intrigued; Sam seems fearful of Lou Ann, but fearful for Kenyon. When and how did a Gentile girl who was also a liar cause Sam such grief and terror? Lou Ann is determined to find out. Her doctoral thesis as well as Sam's comfort require it.

But others, members of the powerful Good Ol' Boy political network, much prefer that Sam never recover those lost memories.

Lou Ann's research leads her to the maximum security state penitentiary where Lemuel Nixon, one-time assistant to Sam, is serving a life sentence for the murder of a white schoolmate committed in 1970, during the early days of desegregation in Mississippi.

"Run, Schwartz, run! They're coming for you with dogs and guns" the anguished Sam screams at night. There is a nightmarish passage in which Sam escapes from the institution, his mind ranging back and forth in time as his feet wander, all the while being hunted by real contemporary men with guns and bloodhounds and very good reasons to fear his recovering memories. This book ties together an ugly period of racial strife in American history with the Nazi holocaust; the inhumanity and horror of both tangled forever in Sam's failing memory, with a decent mystery.

My head feels like it has been both stirred and shaken by these powerful tales, so I'll go home now in my mind and read a nice mellow, classic mystery or two. Or some poetry, or a cookbook.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review of John Lescroart's A Plague of Secrets

A Plague of Secrets by John Lescroart

You've got a tower of books at home, and yet there's nothing you want to read. That was my predicament this weekend. I took a look at and then I was off to the library for a book I'd missed in the Dismas Hardy/Abe Glitsky legal thrillers series by John Lescroart (pronounced "less-kwah").

Lescroart isn't a lawyer. He graduated with a degree in English from Cal Berkeley and worked as a musician in the San Francisco Bay Area. His professional writing career began when he gave a manuscript, Sunburn, to his old high school English teacher. The guy didn't like it but his wife did, and she submitted it to a competition for California writers, where it won first place. Lescroart published a few books while working a variety of day jobs until 1989, when he went surfing, contracted spinal meningitis and lay in a hospital bed for 11 days. After that, he quit his day job and wrote full time. Dead Irish, published in 1989, and 1990's The Vig feature San Francisco lawyer Dismas Hardy. The third book, Hard Evidence, pairs Hardy with his friend, a black Jewish homicide cop named Abe Glitsky. The Ophelia Cut, seventeenth in the series, was published in May.

Dennis Quaid =
Dismas Hardy
Delroy Lindo =
Abe Glitsky
Hardy and Glitsky became friends while they were both young cops. Hardy, whom Lescroart sees as actor Dennis Quaid, left the force for the law. His first marriage ended after the death of his young son, and Hardy lost a decade drinking and tending bar before he sobered up. He and his wife of 23 years, Frannie, have two kids away at college. After working as an assistant district attorney, Hardy switched sides and is the managing partner of a criminal defense law firm. His friend and sometimes foe, Glitsky, is the savvy head of San Francisco's homicide department. He has an "intimidating facial arsenal" of scarred lips, eyes that glow like coals and a prominent hatchet of a nose. He and wife Treya, secretary to the district attorney, have two young children.

Current and former personal and professional relationships of these two men are an integral part of these books and so is the setting of San Francisco, the city that writer Herb Caen called "Baghdad by the Bay." The well-drawn characters live believable lives and readers experience San Francisco's "fruits and nuts," "laissez-faire reality," restaurants and food (for some of Hardy's "black frying pan meals" see Lescroart's recipes here), buildings, neighborhoods, politics and social issues. The fifteenth series book, A Plague of Secrets, is almost like a family reunion for Lescroart fans because it includes characters from previous books, and another series featuring private investigator Wyatt Hunt.

When A Plague of Secrets begins, the Glitskys' three-year-old son Zack has had a bicycle accident and is in an induced coma. His dad blames himself, and his funk goes a long way toward explaining why his homicide underlings, Darrel Bracco and his partner Debra Schiff, aren't as well supervised as usual when they investigate the murder of Dylan Vogler, manager of the popular coffee shop, Bay Beans West. Vogler 's dead body, clasping a backpack full of baggies containing weed, was found at the shop's back door. That, his computerized client list of many well-known San Franciscans, his outrageously high salary and the disrespectful way he treated the woman who owns BBW, Maya Townshend, make Bracco and Schiff suspicious. Townshend is the wife of a prominent real estate developer, sister of a Board of Supervisors member and the niece of the mayor, and the ambitious US attorney smells a career-making case. It's a good thing she hires Dismas Hardy to defend her against civil and criminal charges.

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco
Lescroart's issue-driven legal thrillers are intricately plotted and suspenseful. This one is as much a satisfying whodunit as a courtroom drama. The characters' dialog and relationships are both entertaining and realistic. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say how realistic the courtroom scenes are (Lescroart has several lawyer friends read his manuscripts), but I don't really care. These books are a lot of fun and you don't need to wait for when you can't figure out what else to read.