Sunday, June 11, 2017

MURDER IN MATERA : A TRUE STORY OF PASSION, FAMILY, AND FORGIVENESS IN SOUTHERN ITALY
by Helene Stapinski 

There was a murder in the family. From the time when she was a young child to adulthood Helene Stapinski's mother told endless stories about this wild great-great-grandmother named Vita Gallitelli. That side of the family (the maternal) came from Matera, a province in Southern Italy. (The name actually means mother in Latin.)
Apparently the murder happened over a card game. Vita's husband, Francesco Vena, was also involved. Many years later, Vita decides to come to America without Francesco. It's 1892 and very unusual for a woman to travel without her husband alone with three children. They settled in Jersey City where the two brothers, Leonardo and Valente, worked as barbers. Vita did not live real long. On Mischief Night she was hit in the head with a sock full of rocks.Within a week she was dead at the age of sixty-four. Was this some kind of revenge for what happened in Matera?
Stapinski decides to go to Italy to find out what really occurred. At first she goes for a month with her mother and her two young children leaving her husband behind. It's not a productive trip. The people who are questioned don't know of Vita, never heard of any murder, and nothing gets resolved. It would take ten years and multiple trips before Stapinski discovered the secrets that have been hidden for decades.
Murder in Matera is not your average true crime book. The fact that there's very few clues, no photos of the perpetrators, a couple of street names, and birth and death certificates is not much to go on. But, author Helene Stapinski does some impressive research upon returning to Italy which opens up a whole flood of information. 
Stapinski is a terrific writer and is also very funny. She knows how to tell a good tale (probably inherited this from her mother) and keeps you riveted to the page. There's never a dull moment. I, for one, did not want it to end.
Very highly recommended. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

INCENDIARY : THE PSYCHIATRIST, THE MAD BOMBER, AND THE INVENTION OF CRIMINAL PROFILING
by Michael Cannell 

The bombings had begun in New York City in 1940. No place was actually safe as the homemade explosives were planted in the most populated areas: Radio City Music Hall, Penn Station, the Paramount, a library, subway stations, theaters, etc. The most formidable police force were dumbfounded and couldn't figure it out. In the beginning when the bombs were set off, nobody was hurt. That changed in 1956. The bomber began to send in letters to newspapers and they were signed as "F.P." His intent now was to kill. In desperation police Captain Finney contacted Dr. James A. Brussel, a psychiatrist who was experienced in the criminal mind.Dr. Brussel examined the evidence from crime scenes, plus the weird verbiage of F.P.'s letters. Within two hours he was able to compile a profile of the bomber even down to what kind of clothing he wore. So now the police and detectives had a vision of what this guy possibly looked like but it wasn't enough. Dr. Brussel suggested that a tabloid that everybody read called The Journal-American reach out to the public to let them know what was going on and if they knew of anybody that fit this description. It worked because not only did the information generate plenty of interest, the bomber himself wrote to the tabloid explaining his reason why he did it. F.P. was eventually discovered.
Incendiary is a terrific story. With this book you read about the minds of schizophrenics, the beginnings of forensic profiling, the amazing Dr. Brussel, what the police went through, and the aftermath when F.P. was captured Author Michael Cannell used meticulous means of research, which took him three years, to write a riveting tale.
If you enjoy reading true crime, you don't want to miss out on Incendiary. It will definitely keep you glued to the page.
Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

THE RADIUM GIRLS : THE DARK STORY OF AMERICA'S SHINING WOMEN
by Kate Moore

Radium used to be considered "the greatest find in history." At the beginning of the nineteenth century, scientists had discovered that it could destroy tumors. So, because radium saved lives it was assumed that it would be beneficial to health. The medical establishment was enthralled with it. Radium was claimed to cure hay fever, gout, cancer, give vitality to the elderly, and pretty much anything else. The sky was the limit. Everyone who was able wanted to be involved in some aspect of the radium craze.
America entered the war in April 1917 and dial-painting factories became vital and were in demand. Hundreds of girls were hired to paint watch faces using radium powder. They used very fine camel-hair brushes that would become gritty. In order to remedy that situation, the girls would put the brushes in their mouths. It was called lip-pointing. They were told that they had nothing to worry about, that it was neither dangerous nor harmful. The girls wore no protective gear and the radium dust was everywhere. This luminous chemical covered their bodies from head to toe and in total darkness they glowed.
By 1919 the war was over but the factories were busy as ever. The girls were still employed working as hard and as fast as they could to produce what was needed. They all loved their job until they began to not feel so good. Some mysterious illness was affecting them and both the doctors and the dentists were puzzled. Soon enough they could no longer work as their bodies deteriorated. They complained to the companies but they turned a blind eye to them saying that it was their imagination and the radium was not causing their problems. They were lying. In 1925 and 1927 the company had their doctors conduct medical tests on the girls. The results were terrifying. The girls were radioactive and were never told. While several of the girls ended up dying the strong ones held on and filed a lawsuit. Their case made history and enthralled the world.
The Radium Girls is quite a story. The author is British and she discovered these women by googling "great plays for women." Kate Moore ended up directing a play called These Shining Lives in London and realized that she had to write a book to let others know about these women who suffered so much and yet had strength and courage to keep fighting. Her research took her to the cities where the factories were. She was able to visit the homes where the girls had lived and interviewed relatives. She was lucky to find their diaries, letters, and court testimonies, plus spent days poring through microfilmed records in libraries. Kate even went to their graves.
Many people might not want to read the horrifying aspects of what happened to each and every one of these girls. It's not a pretty picture. I could not put this book down. It's definitely a page-turner and even though it can be gruesome, it's an important-read. Kate Moore was the right person to tell this story and to bring it to the forefront.
Highly recommended.

Friday, May 5, 2017

THREE MINUTES TO DOOMSDAY : AN AGENT, A TRAITOR, AND THE WORST ESPIONAGE BREACH IN US HISTORY
by Joe Navarro

At the tender age of twenty-three, Joe Navarro was hired by the FBI back in 1988. He was truly one of their youngest agents. Most of his time was spent doing SWAT tasks, aerial surveillance, and counterintelligence, known as "CI." His real forte, though, was interpreting body language of whomever he interrogated.
Soon enough Navarro was given a routine assignment by the US Army Intelligence Security Command (INSCOM) to interview an American soldier by the name of Rod Ramsey who had been associated with Clyde Conrad, a fellow soldier. Conrad had just been arrested in Germany for espionage. As soon as Navarro meets up with and begins talking to Ramsay, he takes special notice of all of Ramsay's body movements, the most notable one being the hand trembling at the mention of Conrad's name, especially when Ramsey was told that Conrad had been arrested. It happened every time. For this reason alone, Navarro tells his bosses that an investigation must be done. He would spend two years digging information out of Ramsey in a game of wits. Ramsey had a brilliant mind with a photographic memory and was bored by people who couldn't match up to him intellectually. Navarro ended up plotting every move like in a chess game. It would take forty-two interviews before Ramsey finally broke and what he revealed was truly frightening.
Thank goodness for Joe Navarro who never gave up. He worked himself to exhaustion and almost died taking this case. It actually stalled for two years because the Washington Field Office (WFO) didn't think an investigation was necessary and they thought that Ramsey was making everything up. Eventually they were bypassed and things got rolling.
Three Minutes to Doomsday keeps you on the end of your seat. There's suspense, drama, and humor. (Navarro can be very funny.) The writing is in your face and so is Navarro's personality. This is one hell of an espionage story and a fantastic read.
Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

THE DEVIL'S MERCEDES : THE BIZARRE AND DISTURBING ADVENTURES OF HITLER'S LIMOUSINE IN AMERICA
by Robert Klara 

When it came to automobiles they had to be 100% German. For Hitler it was a given that whatever car he had would be a Mercedes. He was devoted to them. Luckily for him two huge German automakers would merge in 1926 and become Daimler-Benz AG. As for the name Mercedes, it was attributed to the daughter of one of Daimler's wealthiest patrons, who was Jewish. How ironic that Hitler being so obsessed with race never knew nor investigated where the name came from.
Daimler-Benz hand-built a car called the Grosser Mercedes W07 ("Great or Super Mercedes") in 1930 that was marketed to heads of state and the elite. Because it was large, the Grosser had a menacing appearance. How perfect for Hitler and the Nazi Party.
By 1938 Mercedes-Benz thought the car was outdated and told their engineers to expand the entire thing. The Grosser 770K (7.7-liter engine) Model 150 Offener Tourenwagon was now twenty feet long, seven feet wide, and weighed five tons. It could speed over 100 miles per hour. It was quite a beast. Inside the car was quite luxurious with leather seats that could easily hold eight passengers. There were hidden compartments for pistols. These limousines would be used primarily as Nazi propaganda. Hitler would ride standing in the front seat, unsmiling, while adoring crowds would cheer in ecstasy. These automobiles would come to symbolize wealth, power, and also death since they looked like hearses. By the time World War II was over many of these cars were destroyed. Two of them came to the United States separately and covertly. One was supposed to be Hitler's car and the other to be Hermann Goering's. Through the years different people would own and exhibit them. None of these owners had any paperwork on who exactly these cars belonged to. It didn't seem to matter until one of these cars ended up in the Canadian War Museum in 1970. Ludwig Kosche (the librarian) took it upon himself to find out whose car the museum actually had and to uncover the truth.
Author Robert Klara is a terrific writer. Previously I had read his The Hidden White House (reviewed in this blog) and while I thought that book was good, The Devil's Mercedes is even better. Who would have thought that a five-ton Mercedes-Benz could be so interesting? In lesser hands it would have been boring. Klara really knows how to tell a story. The amount of research that was done is mind-boggling. Just look at the Endnotes when you are finished reading the book. They consist of ninety-nine pages. These could easily be another book and are quite informative. If you're a history nut, a car buff, and would like to know how Americans felt when these two cars showed up on our shores, you must read The Devil's Mercedes.
Very highly recommended. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

BLITZED : DRUGS IN THE THIRD REICH
by Norman Ohler 

After the end of World War I, the people of Germany were depressed. They could not believe that they had been defeated. How could they get themselves out of this funk? They really needed something to get through life. Would National Socialism heal them? The Nazis thought for sure that their ideology would intoxicate the people. Nope. Drugs would become the magic elixir for the population.
In the 1920s the pharmaceutical industry came to the forefront in Germany. All of these companies started to produce and many chemical factories joined together to become IG Farben, which would become one of the most powerful companies in the world. Opiates, morphine, heroin, and cocaine (Merck's was considered the best) became quite lucrative.
By the time World War II rolled around, methamphetamine (soon to be known as the Volksdroge, the "people's drug") reared its ugly head. Its trademark name was Pervitin and was available in every pharmacy all over the country. Everyone took it: firemen, doctors, barbers, businessmen, housewives. Meth was guaranteed to last for at least twelve hours. Energy was elevated, stress abated, tasks were done faster. To fight the battles against the Allies, soldiers were given the drug in pill form.
Drugs went all the way up the line of command from the Party members, the SS, and to Hitler himself. He went from being a complete teetotaler to a drug addict. How ironic that the Nazi propaganda espoused purity and abhorrence of chemical stimulants when they themselves were doped up. What would have happened if Germany had never acquired such drugs? Would they have been so invincible in their victories? 
Blitzed is a stunner.  Author Norman Ohler spent five years doing research for it in both German and American state archives. In the Bibliography he lists unpublished documents that became main sources for this book and after reading them, they are much more interesting than the published ones. There have been endless volumes about the Third Reich and many of them have been tremendous but none of them compare to this one. It's quite an eye-opener and truly outstanding.
Very highly recommended. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

NEVER CAUGHT : THE WASHINGTONS' RELENTLESS PURSUIT OF THEIR RUNAWAY SLAVE, ONA JUDGE
by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

In 1796 Ona Judge was living in Philadelphia as a young, black, slave woman owned by President George Washington and his wife, Martha. The Washingtons had moved from their home in Mount Vernon, in Virginia, to Philadelphia as it had become the nation's capital. They took nine slaves with them. Ona was the personal attendant to Martha. The North was quite different from the South when it came to slavery. In Philadelphia it was looked down upon and there was a large community of free blacks. For Ona, freedom was foremost in her mind and when she found out that the Washingtons would eventually be moving back to Virginia, Ona knew that she would not be returning with them. Once she made that decision, Ona slipped out of the house in Philadelphia and escaped.
George Washington was not willing to emancipate Ona and he was determined to find her and bring her back no matter what.
After reading Never Caught, my views about George Washington have changed somewhat. The man who I always thought so highly of as our first president of the United States has left a bad taste in my mouth, along with Martha. It's very disturbing to see how the two of them wanted to keep their slaves in bondage and used whatever means was necessary to pursue Ona Judge. She was their property and according to them, Ona had no right to leave.
The book is extremely well-written and quite detailed about the life of enslavement. Ona was one very brave, determined, and courageous woman. 
Highly recommended.