Shifting Sands

Posts tagged book reviews

Kitty  Genovese: A true account of a public murder and its private consequences

by Catherine Pelonero

I guess the big question after reading this book (and a lot of the reviews) is how many people needed to witness or hear Kitty Genovese being stabbed and then raped (over a 38 minute period) without contacting police for us to feel better about what happened. 38? 20? 15? How about 5?

Despite the claims of “revisionists” who are attempting to debunk the “bystander effect” theory resulting from this case, the fact remains Moseley had time to take a break during his attack so he could move his car (which was under a street light) and change his headgear to better hide his face from the people he knew were watching. This done, he was free to track a bleeding and gravely injured Kitty to where she was hiding in an apartment building lobby, where he raped her after stabbing her in the throat.

The whole episode is a disgrace and the neighbourhood deserves the condemnation they received. The killer himself, Winston Moseley, commented during his trial that he knew the man who told him to, “Leave that woman alone” would go back to bed and do nothing. That’s why he came back to finish the poor girl off. He knew no one would come to her aid or call the police. He had all the time in the world.

I’ve read the “revisionist” accounts of the Genovese murder. This book does not fall into the “revisionist” camp. I don’t understand why so many reviewers think it does. Despite the hemming and hawing of historical apologists, the fact remains Kitty may have survived if Moseley hadn’t been able to have a second crack at her. The excuse given by revisionists – that many witnesses thought they were seeing a “domestic dispute” is risible, given many witnesses later admitted seeing Moseley holding a knife.

This book was a well researched account of the crime. It left me feeling enraged and full of contempt for a society that accepts violence against women – because ultimately the devaluing of female lives is what created the “bystander effect”.

This true crime book by Stephen Williams examines the rapes and murders committed by Paul Bernardo with the assistance of his wife, Karla Homolka in the Canadian Niagara Falls towns of St. Catherine and Scarborough during the early 1990’s. Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French were abducted, held captive and raped by both Bernardo and Homolka before being murdered. Tammy Homolka, Karla’s sister, was drugged with halothane and raped by the couple in the Homolka family home. She died during the assault. Incredibly, the police and Coroner believed the couple’s story that the teenager had died after drinking too much alcohol and failed to properly investigate.

At one point while reading the explicit and horrendous account of the rape of Leslie Mahaffy I did wonder what kind of sicko would want to read this book. This didn’t stop me reading, which probably answered my question. This book is not recommended reading for under 18’s or anyone who will be traumatised by reading depictions of rape, torture, mutilation and murder. These scenes are particularly disturbing because we know they happened exactly as Williams has written them. Bernardo and Homolka video taped themselves raping their numerous victims, some of whom were released because they were too drugged to realise they had been raped. Williams was permitted to sit in the court room, despite not being a member of the press, after a legal challenge by Homolka’s defence team. He and the jury saw the tapes several times.

After feeling annoyed at Williams for including these scenes I later realised they are vital to examining this crime. Williams describes the girls’ ordeal with perfect empathy while not sparing us the horrendous manner in which they were violated and terrorised before being murdered. During these scenes, Williams brilliantly contrasts their bravery and dignity in the face of unimaginable cruelty with the callous selfishness and depravity of their attackers. He is documenting their ordeal in part because the tapes were secretly destroyed at the request of the victims’ families. While this may be an understandable reaction, it also means the best evidence against this murderous pair no longer exists, which may hamper future efforts to keep Bernardo in jail.

Williams meticulously details the incompetence of the Canadian police force and the stupidity of the authorities involved in the case. Bernardo was arrested on Homolka’s evidence after he beat her. The police had no evidence against Bernardo besides his wife’s testimony so they declared her a “battered woman” and arranged a plea deal that would see her serve a minimal sentence for her involvement in the abductions. Williams describes the manner in which Homolka was encouraged by the psychiatrists involved in her case to see herself as another of Bernardo’s victims and use this “fact” to cynically manipulate the police and judicial system in her favour.

The police and other authorities were unaware the couple had video taped the rapes and the defence was in possession of the tapes – withholding evidence until Homolka’s plea deal was arranged. This all came out during the trial. Homolka was released after serving little more than 3 years, with no conditions, and has married and had children. Given she participated in the rape of her own younger sister and caused her death, I share William’s dismay at her lenient treatment in the hands of the Canadian justice system and was permitted to raise children with no plans put in place to monitor their welfare.

Despite numerous searches of the couple’s home, the police had failed to find the tapes which showed Homolka to be a willing participant in the rapes and possibly the killer of the two girls. Williams describes the outrage this provoked in Canada and the extent to which the authorities in Canada went to censor details of the crimes as shown on the tapes to ensure the accused received a “fair trail.” Williams leaves us with the impression the legal rights of the accused were more important to the authorities than the legal rights of the victims. Homolka’s plea deal was upheld despite the fact her evidence was no longer needed and she was demonstrated not to be a frightened “battered wife.” If police had been in possession of the tapes, she would have been charged with murder along with her husband and would still be in prison – like her former husband.

Bernardo had also been questioned a total of 17 times in connection with the Scarborough rapes and every time he managed to fool the police into letting him go. They failed to see the handsome, well spoken Bernardo with his young, beautiful wife could be a serial rapist, much less that she would be involved and a willing participant. The police did not make the link between the rapes and the murders of the teenagers throughout most of the investigation due to poor communication between different branches of the Canadian police. Williams describes this well and his frustration and incredulity pours onto the pages.

Williams also examines the dysfunctional nature of both the Bernardo and Homolka families and how this corrupt family environment may have contributed to the development of their pathological personalities. He also details the toxic social milieu in which the young killers operated and how Bernardo’s predilection for raping young women within his social circle is not taken seriously within the friendship group. He does an excellent job describing the mindset of both killers and the manner in which their psychopathic personalities made them impervious to police interrogation upon arrest and cross examination in the court room. According to Williams, they enjoyed the attention.

Overall Williams argues the “Ken and Barbie” killers got away with their crimes for a number of years largely due to the incompetence of the Canadian police, medical and judicial systems. The effects of family and peer values in normalising unacceptable behaviour are also unflinchingly examined.

I recommend with book with the reservation that it is not for young readers or people who are likely to be traumatised by explicit descriptions of rape and murder.

This book got good reviews, which is a mystery to me. This review may have some spoilers. Private Investigator Dan Lord is investigating the suspicious deaths on the same night of his nephew and sister in law. Of course the police won’t believe both were murdered and when they finally do Dan becomes the main suspect.

Every cliche of the hard boiled detective novel is present; the eccentric, reclusive computer expert who performs tasks at a cost, the old love interest, the whore with a heart, Russian spies, strip clubs, the attractive female sidekick with a dodgy past, renegade government spooks knocking off civilians, the honest detective, shady government/ corporate deals and so on.

This tired and predictable plot would be fine if the protagonist was worth our interest and admiration. Unfortunately the action unfolds and events happen largely as a result of Dan’s incompetence. He apparently does exhaustive background checks on everyone in his life but accepts the new “intern” at face value, without doing the most basic checks. He is wrong about the identity of people he does check up on, which makes all his high tech office security superfluous. Despite people being slaughtered with alarming regularity after talking to him about his nephew and sister in law’s death, it never occurs to Dan to warn people or provide for their protection – with predictable results. The body count mounts. He does other dumb stuff too but it seems unkind to keep labouring the point.

There’s lots of boring macho scenes where Lord gets to show us he can fight, including a 4 page description of a fight with a student in a dojo that was extraneous to the plot. This is 243 pages in! We know the Dick can fight! Maybe it’s just me, but I find fights boring to read and too many of them will see me skipping pages like a speed reader on acid. I also skimmed the pages of detail about tracking cell phone messages or signals or something equally dull.

Some of the writing is cluttered with cliches such as, “His nose had always been good. Always. His gut rarely failed….But Dan had a nose. a gut. He usually saw what was coming before it turned the corner. It was a watered down version of a sixth sense, the capability of looking at the pieces of a puzzle and fitting them together to see the bigger picture” Seven cliches in 2 sentences. I would like to think the author is doing it on purpose and giving us all a sly wink but I doubt it.

The resolution to the plot occurs largely because facts the protagonist knows or learns as events unfold are withheld from the reader, which means we have no real chance of solving the mystery ourselves. This breaks one of the cardinal rules of mystery writing, although by the time I speed read to the end I didn’t really care. I guessed the nephew’s mystery illness a few pages in. The reader is not told what the illness is until the end of the book, although Dan obviously knows the whole time. Sneaky bastard.

Withholding information from the reader (that the protagonist knows) is a lazy (but common) way to plot a mystery/action novel and tends to annoy people like me who read a lot of this genre. Good examples of mystery/action novels that allow the reader to make discoveries along with the protagonist (so we empathise with them) is the Jason Bourne Series by Robert Ludlum or the Sam Capra books by Jeff Abbott.

It is not enough to continually put the protagonist in suspenseful situations and have appalling things happen to them. To be effective this escapist genre requires the reader to feel we are going along with the protagonist for the wild, crazy ride. Great genre writers achieve this by allowing us to feel what the protagonist feels and share in the discoveries as they happen. Escapist literature of all types (romance, crime, thrillers etc) often have plots that strain credulity, but we read on because we are allowed to enter the inner world of the main characters and live vicariously through them. We can’t do that if the protagonist “withholds” information from us until the end of the book. We can end up feeling cheated or tricked, which would have been my feelings if I had invested more energy in reading this book.

I don’t usually do bad reviews. Most books have something of interest and a few good points. Mark Gilleo is a competent writer with the crisp style I prefer. In my assessment, he needs to keep faith with the reader and bring us along on the ride, not throw us out the bus at crucial points along the road.

The Girl Next DoorThe Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book and read it in one afternoon. It is not a conventional murder mystery because we know at the start of the novel who committed the crime and why. The action begins when a biscuit tin is found in the foundations of a house built post WWII. This tin contains a mummified pair of hands that appear to have been in the tin for 70 years.

Alan Norris, now in his 70’s, reads about the hands’ discovery in the newspaper and connects them to the location they were discovered to the qanats, or tunnels he and his friends used to play in during the war. He and his wife, Rosemary (who was a childhood friend) contact their former tunnel buddies and meet to discuss what they can remember about their time playing in the tunnels. They also contact the police officer in charge of the case, who shows little interest in their memories or in solving the 70 year old case.

After the old friends have been brought together, chaos ensues in their personal lives. Rendell skillfully takes the reader through the characters’ lives as they change irretrievably as the mystery of the hands is eventually solved by the police with the help of a few of the main characters.

Several aspects of this novel contributed to my enjoyment. First, Rendell’s main characters are all unapologetically elderly. This does not prevent them engaging in illicit love affairs, attempting murder or even adopting a puppy. Life goes on even if the future seems short. Second, Rendell does not create stereotyped characters. The very elderly “char woman” in her late ’80’s is as intelligent and sharp as the other characters who have more impressive careers. Third, the novel tackles difficult issues such as ageing, illness, grief, love and loss in a sensitive yet unsentimental manner. Rendell is never easy on her characters. They frequently have a torrid time. The good are not always rewarded and the bad often get away with little punishment. Her novels are never predictable.

The large cast of characters is sometimes difficult to follow and perhaps a few could have been eliminated. Apart from this, I liked the novel and would recommend it to anyone wanting an entertaining read.

View all my reviews

Being Anti-SocialBeing Anti-Social by Leigh K. Cunningham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book over a few days while doing my daily 10km walk on the treadmill. I found the writing style to be quite formal and precise, which is unusual for this “chick lit” genre. The novel lacked the upbeat, humorous style suggested by the cover. I am neutral about this book -neither loving nor despising it. The plot centers around a two year period in the life of a woman on the brink of 40 in which she and members of her large family and friendship circle experience major life changes.

I found it difficult to visualize some of the characters or remember who they were-especially the men. Finally I realised this is because none of the character are adequately described in terms of appearance, dress, speech or mannerisms. We know the main character drinks and eats too much, has dyed auburn hair and is of medium height but not much else. Cunningham tells us Amber looks like “Elle Mc Pherson” but I find this manner of describing characters to be a little lazy and irrelevant to readers who do not follow the reference.

Cunningham’s narrator, Mace, takes the time to explain the meaning of the term “pun” and also re-tells the story of the rabbit and the tar baby. I am old enough to know what a pun is and also the story of the tar baby. This suggests Cunningham (or her editor) expects her readers may not understand her references so feels the need to explain them. Maybe Cunningham’s genre is more serious, literary novels rather than light hearted chick lit. She is a skilled writer and no doubt capable of writing a more literary novel. The crisp quality of her prose (which I enjoyed) was wasted on the prosaic and at times cliched subject matter. I felt the author had a lot more to say on the universal themes of love, loss and betrayal but was held back by the constraints of the genre. I will be interested to see what Ms Cunningham does next.

View all my reviews

The Price of SaltThe Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Patricia Highsmith has written a thought provoking love story between two women. The novel is written in Highsmith’s usual spare writing style and the plot takes a few chapters to unravel but I would advise readers to persist. It does become more engaging and it’s not a long book.

I found several aspects of this book interesting. First, It’s young Therese, barely out of her teens, who pursues the older, sophisticated woman despite Carol’s initial misgivings. Second, throughout the novel Therese is unwavering in her belief that her love for Carol is not “an abomination” or shameful. She is openly affectionate towards Carol in public until Carol warns her not to be. Therese cannot understand why they should care about how society views their love. She even asks her boyfriend if he has ever been in love with a man, which means he works out the nature of her relationship with Carol fairly quickly. Interestingly, he initially dismisses her infatuation as a “schoolgirl crush” that Therese will overcome.

Of course, Therese’s and Carol’s love affair will not go unpunished in 1950’s America. Carol’s estranged husband uses their affair to extract a devastating revenge. Some reviewers have commented that this story has a happy ending- which it does for Therese. Carol, as a mother, pays a much higher price for her “little bit of salt” than her younger partner.

This is a masterful book peopled with complex and imperfect characters who struggle to find happiness in an equally complex and imperfect world.

View all my reviews

What Alice ForgotWhat Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I enjoyed this book about a 39 year old Sydney woman who hit her head at the gym and lost ten years of her memory. The novel is written in Moriarty’s customary inner monologue style with a few other embellishments that seem to be increasingly popular with publishers and authors. Apart from Alice’s point of view we also learn about her sister Elizabeth and her issues with infertility through her “homework” diary set by her psychologist. Her “adopted Grandmother” Frannie also reveals her inner-most secrets through letters to her former fianc√©. These additions to Alice’s narrative are placed throughout the text without warning. Towards the end of the book fragments of a few lines of Elizabeth’s “homework” diary will appear in the middle of Alice ‘s narrative. I found this a little distracting even though the objective is to increase our suspense and sense of drama about what is happening to Elizabeth while also keeping our focus on Alice’s dramas. This technique does give the book a breathless, hysterical tone that is common in “chick lit” but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel. Some readers, however, may find it annoying.

The main reason I liked the novel is that it contains some essential “truths” about relationships. For example, Alice’s husband suggests that divorce is “catching” and couples need to be careful when befriending other couples lest they absorb the other couple’s relationship problems. The author tackles thorny issues such as the desirability or not of children and family life, the importance of adequate sleep to a marital relationship (very important!) , sibling relationships, grief and knowing when (or not) to give up on lifelong dreams. All the characters, regardless of age, must make choices about letting go of the past (or not) and how the rest of their life will proceed. This is another reason I like the novel-everyone gets a chance to start again, not just the young folk.

Some reviewers have classed this book as “chick lit” and it does fit in this genre in a few respects. The ideas within the novel, however, are important ones that we all deal with throughout life. Furthermore, Moriarty has been careful to include several different types of women in the book- mothers, career women, “infertiles”, older women who have a family and a woman who chose not to marry or have children. In doing so, the author shows respect for the different life paths that women may choose or end up with through circumstances beyond their control.

View all my reviews

The Duchess Of Windsor: The Uncommon Life of

Greg King is open in his desire to write a sympathetic treatment of the life of Wallis Simpson, the American socialite for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the British crown. King argues the standard portrayal of Simpson is that of an immoral “adventuress” who pursued the King and was responsible for his decision to give up the throne. This narrative belongs firmly within the moral codes that existed in Britain during the 1930’s. With the divorced Prince of Wales due to rein after Queen Elizabeth II, the legal and theological arguments that kept Simpson off the throne ( as a twice divorced woman) seem flimsy in the light of subsequent events. Simpson was judged according to a hypocritical moral standard. The Parliament had no objections to her being the Kings mistress. It was his attempt to make an honest woman out of her that caused all the trouble. King explores these issues brilliantly and successfully re-creates the moral tone of Britain in the 1930’s. It is impossible to understand the abdication crisis without this historical context.

The Duchess was obviously a complex, intelligent and talented woman. However, in attempting to “correct the record” King often goes to ludicrous lengths to exonerate Simpson from every criticism. In one passage he describes the dismay felt by a houseguest watching the former King on his hands and knees looking for

a misplaced piece of Wallis’ jewelry while the lady herself is warmly tucked up in bed. King is anxious to assure us that although it may look as though the ex-King is firmly under the thumb, Simpson didn’t ask him to look for the missing broach- he wanted to do it. The author is not fooling anyone. The Duchess was exactly the type of woman to encourage this combination of fear and devotion in those closest to her. Why negate this interesting aspect of her character with risible excuses?

The Duchess’s use of racial epithets and racist behavior is excused as a part of her American heritage. Besides, Greg King argues, other members of the Royal Family are known to be racist and thus far Prince Charles is the only member of the Royal family to hire a black staff member. This may well be true (or not) but it’s irrelevant to our understanding of the Duchess. These constant attempts by King to sanitize The couple’s less attractive personality attributes are unnecessary and distracting. Attempts to explain away the Duke and Duchesses support for the Nazi Party that culminated in their notorious tour of Germany in 1937 with a blithe statement that the Duke “Was probably not aware of Hitlers racial policies” stretches credulity. The Duke stated publicly that “racial policy” in Germany was a “domestic issue” and other nations did not have the right to interfere. He certainly was aware of Nuremberg Laws. of 1935. They were enacted while he was still the Monarch and being kept abreast of foreign developments. I find it difficult to believe King did not come across this evidence in his research, as many other historians have done, including myself.

The Duchess is continually portrayed as a victim of the Palace’s slander machine -misquoted, misunderstood and grossly maligned. The fact remains, however, that the Duke and Duchess spent their lives after the war living as socialites and enjoying themselves. The Duchess is generally remembered for her lavish homes and domination of the world’s Best Dressed Lists- a standard of sartorial excellence she maintained for decades. After reading this book, I felt that both the Duke and Duchess had failed to live up to their potential as individuals and as a couple.

Despite some of my criticisms of King’s approach to this topic, I recommend this book. King has a lively, gossipy style that makes the pages race by.

No one is ever as bad or as good as they seem – especially “that woman”, Wallis Simpson.

View all my reviews