Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence
Becky Cooper

True crime for fancy folks. An investigation into the murder of a student at Harvard in the 1960s that turns into an investigation into the way power works. The way Harvard, men, and the state all use power against those who would attack it. Very well crafted and written. I flew through it. It’s rare a book is both this readable and thought provoking.


Review: Ratliff’s The Mastermind

The Mastermind: Drugs, Empire, Murder, Betrayal
Evan Ratliff

From crypto computer programmer to mastermind of an international drug and arms smuggling ring, the story of Paul Calder Le Roux is a hell of a ride. We got assassins in the Philippines, online pill mills run out Israel, private armies in Somalia, and more. It’s all almost too much to believe, but Ratliff backs it up with court documents and extensive interviews.

We never really get to the bottom of why Le Roux went from a low level fraudster kind of guy to a private army / having people killed sociopath, but it isn’t for Ratliff’s lack of trying. The reporting here is excellent from Le Roux’s humble beginnings to his final acts of deception and cunning I was captivated.

If the international house of crime sub-genre is your thing, you cannot go wrong with this one.

Recommended for the Enthusiast

Nelson’s The Red Parts

The Red Parts: A Memoir of a Trial
Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson wrote a book called Jane: A Murder about the brutal murder of her aunt allegedly by a serial killer who was targeting women in Michigan in the late seventies. As she was finalizing the book, and getting ready to go on a book tour to promote it her family received a call from the police. They had new information on Jane’s murder and they now believed the man long thought to have killed Jane hadn’t and instead another man, who’s DNA had been found on her body, was being arrested.

This is a book about the trail of this new suspect. Its about it means for a family to relive the grief of loss, and what it means to be a writer both documenting, and living through, the murder trial of a loved one.

This being Nelson, its about more than that, too. Its about modern policing, and the use and misuse of DNA evidence. Its about how you move on when someone you love is killed. Its about what it means to go home, or if you even can.

I read Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts back to back in the span of a weekend. If you’ve any interest in strong writing or crime, I suggest you do too.


Nelson’s Jane: A Murder

Jane: A Murder
Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is one of my favorite writers. Her book the Argonauts knocked me on my ass. Its still one of my go-to gift books. I’ve read almost everything she has written and honestly, you can’t go wrong. But if you want to start somewhere really excellent, I suggest the pairing of this book, Jane: A Murder and its pseudo-sequel, The Red Parts.

Nelson’s aunt, Jane, was a free spirit in a conservative town, who went on to college and then law school, only to be brutally murdered while on her way home to visit her family.

Nelson never knew Jane, she was born after Jane’s death, but the life that Jane could have had haunts Nelson’s family. As a means of making sense of it, Nelson goes on a search to understand who Jane was, what her death did to her family, and who killed her.

This book is deeply researched, whip smart, and so compelling I could hardly put it down. It’s the story of a woman who was brutally murdered. Who she was, and what she left behind, but its also a story about sexism and misogyny; ambition and trauma. I was blown away.


Maggie Nelson


Book Review: Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann

This is a story of a mass murder.

The murdered were members of the Osage tribe of Native Americans, who, for a host of complex reasons tied to U.S.’s horrific treatment of Native Americans, ended up inexplicably wealthy owners of extremely valuable land rights. Their murderers were members of the white community around them, people who befriend them, even married them, and then systematically went about killing them to gain their wealth and land titles.

This book is also about the early days of the FBI, when Hoover was trying to turn a little known group of law men into a feared national surveillance and enforcement unit. They solved at least some of the Osage murders, but for their own reasons.

It all makes for some dark, sociopathic, racist, stuff. Its also deeply compelling, extremely well researched, and written in a style that keeps the pace of the story high, without descending into sensationalism.

This one will be on a lot of best of the year lists and for good reason. It’s a compelling, heartbreaking story, long overlooked and its excellently told.


Mailer’s Executioners Song

Executioners Song
Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer’s best work.

Actually, the only work of his I’ve ever thought was worth the time. A painstakingly reported, and near perfectly executed, telling of the life of Gary Gilmore, the troubled drifter who was the first person to be executed in the United States after the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Also the book that brought my wife and I together.

But first, the book, then our story.

Executioners Song is broken into two parts, the story of Gilmore’s life leading up to and including the murders of two men in Utah. Mailer and his team interviewed scores of family members and friends of both Gilmore and the victims. The book gives as complete a picture of the man as I think it’s possible to give. Mailer tells of his childhood, his probable mental illness, and his repeated incarceration in a way that is both dispassionate and (I think because of its cold reporting style) deeply haunting. While Gilmore remains unknowable, you feel that Mailer did all he could to flesh out the man’s story.

The second half focuses on Gilmore’s trial. His decision to accept the death penalty (and request death by firing squad) and the lawyers and activists who tried to overturn his sentence anyway, despite Gilmore’s own wishes. I’m a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and I don’t believe Gilmore had a right to have the state kill him, but this section is fraught with ethical and moral concerns and just as well reported as the first half. When I read this in my mid-twenties, I remember staying up late to finish this section, knowing, of course, how it all turns out, but still unable to put the book down.

I’ve remained a bit obsessed with the book since then (as have many other, Matthew Barney relies on it in his Cremaster cycle). Years later, in 2006, when I went to law school and set up a Facebook account, I listed it as one of my favorite books… and so did a gorgeous redhead from New York City who sat near me in contracts class.  We had friends in common, and occasionally sat together for lunch, but one of the first real substantive conversation I remember having with E (over g-chat of course), was about this book. She’d written about it in undergrad, and we traded thoughts. She, being smarter than I, had grasped not just the socio-political aspects of the book (death penalty, ethics, mental illness, the nature of reporting) but also the way it functioned as literature, how it hung together technically, and why it worked so well.

I was impressed, and I remain so today, both of this excellent book, and the woman who I would go on to marry and raise two kids with. Norman Mailer was a son of a bitch who did a lot of damage in this world. And Gary Gilmore was a disturbed man, and a murder, who the state killed. The story here is a tragic one. But I’m grateful it gave E and me our first opportunity to connect. That’s something.