Starvation Heights–Gregg Olsen

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This is a true crime book but it’s not gory, so if you’re interested in true crime but are squeamish, this might be the ideal choice for you.

The case is actually a fairly famous one in true crime circles. It’s a historical case, turn of the last century, and it involves a quack of a doctor starving her patients to death.

But only the rich ones with minimal relatives. Let’s not get crazy about this. If you were poor or had relatives checking on you a lot, you were fairly likely to walk away without problem from the facility.

Basically, it went like this: a woman named Linda Hazzard, who attended no medical school of any type managed to get herself licensed by some grandfather clause for people who were practicing before 1909? But the upshot is she was a completely untrained person practicing as a doctor.

Her idea was that fasting would cure EVERYTHING. You have arthritis? Fasting. Cancer? Fasting. Migraines? FASTING. Oh and enemas. Super intense enemas.

Claire and Dora Williamson were rich sisters that were mostly alone in the world. They had extended family but no one really close to them. They had a lot of money and property and were always interested in alternative treatments. They didn’t really have a lot of issues, but Claire did have some digestive or uterine issues, but nothing serious, nothing that kept them from travel, which, again, travel in the freaking early 1900s was not easy or super comfortable, even for the rich.

They started by renting an apartment in Seattle, where they started the fast. All they had was vegetable broth and water, plus the enemas and “vigorous massages” every day. They got so thin, so fast that the neighbors were alarmed. By the time the facility in the woods was ready for them, they couldn’t walk alone because of the weakness and had to be carried down to the ferry.

When they got to the facility, they were put in the attic, separated by a curtain so they couldn’t see and barely speak to each other. Claire managed to get a note out to their childhood nurse in Australia before she died of starvation. By the time the nurse came, Claire was dead and Dora weighed less than 60 pounds. Somehow, Hazzard had managed to get herself appointed the guardian of Dora and it took quite some time for Dora to be extracted, and she made a full recovery.

Prosecution was a problem. The place where Claire died was in the woods, in a small county, not the bigger Seattle one. The county didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t want to prosecute. But Claire and Dora were actually British citizens and local British authority pushed and got them to prosecute her.

She was sentenced to a short prison sentence and reopened her business. It’s crazy.

This is a great good, well researched, beautifully written, very educational.

 

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The Last Victim–Jason Moss

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This book made me a little queasy.

John Wayne Gacy always does, but this was especially awful.

In this book, the author, Jason Moss, as a freshman in college, decides to do his independent project on serial killers, and so he starts writing letters to serial killers. He designs each one to appeal to each killer specifically and got some good responses.

He started with Gacy, but he also wrote to Manson, Ramirez (the night stalker) and Dahmer.

In the end, Gacy was taking up so much time he had to let the other ones languish for a bit. Gacy was sending him letters every day. He was calling him frequently. He was sending him money and presents.

Finally, Gacy invites Moss to come spend three days visiting him. You would think a serial killer on death row would have a very secure visiting situation but apparently not so much at that location and time. Gacy would bribe the guards for privacy. Moss was alone in the cell with Gacy, Gacy was touching him, exposing himself, threatening to rape and murder him, the entire gamut of awful things.

Moss made it two days out of the three.

He had nightmares for a long time afterwards, even (especially) after Gacy was executed.

In the book he talks extensively about wanting to work for the FBI, maybe as a profiler, and that this is part of his attempt to show them he’s good. Naturally, I wondered if he did make it to the FBI, so I googled him.

He did not. He became a defense attorney. And he killed himself at the age of 31. I can’t help but wonder how much Gacy factored into that. He set himself up like a victim to lure Gacy, but did he actually become the last victim of Gacy’s murderous insanity? I don’t know, but it’s distressing and disturbing regardless.

I don’t really want to recommend this book. It’s interesting but so sad. So creepy. If that’s your thing, maybe this is a good choice. Otherwise maybe not. I’m not squeamish–I read true crime, I listen to true crime podcasts, I watch true crime documentaries, I can even look at the crime scene photos without too much of an issue (mostly) but this, despite not being that graphic, was just so disturbing to me.

 

Turbo Twenty-Three–Janet Evanovich

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The new Evanovich!

Well, new is relative. It’s the most recent Evanovich.

Here’s the thing. I used to really love these books. But they’ve become so formulaic it’s not fun anymore. It’s just…another one of these books. It’s like paint by numbers for mysteries, which is sad because this was such a unique concept when she first started them.

Checklist for a Stephanie Plum mystery:

  1. Find a dead guy in a weird and creepy way. Check, she found an ice cream factory guy in a stolen refrigerated truck, covered in chocolate and nuts like an ice cream bar.
  2. Still torn between Ranger and Morelli? Yep. Double dipping a little bit? Yep.
  3. Wacky side gig for Lula? Check, she and another recurring character are working on an audition tape for “Naked and Afraid” which involves a lot of random activities and hijinks.
  4. Grandma Mazur side plot? Yep. Involving dating? Yep.
  5. Stephanie has to take an undercover job she’s terrible at? Yep.
  6. Poorly executed attempts at capturing felons? Not so many as usual but still present.

I just want to see some progress. SOMETHING. Can we get a little movement on anything? Character growth? Circumstances changing somewhat? A DIFFERENT PLOT LINE, PLEASE I AM BEGGING YOU.

If you like to read the same book over and over, this is a great addition to the Plum series.

 

Who Killed These Girls–Beverly Lowry

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Things I learned this week about the criminal justice system that I find very disturbing:

  1. If you are being questioned by the police and someone hires you a lawyer, the police do not need to let you know that, or that the lawyer is there, or that you can talk to them. Only if you ask to contact a lawyer can you get access to one.
  2. Actual innocence is not a constitutional basis for overturning a conviction.
  3. Until this week, it was legal for police in Michigan to have sex with sex workers they were busting. I have no idea if it’s still legal in other places.

None of that seems right.

The first thing on that list I learned from this book and it is very messed up. This book is about the most famous unsolved murder in the history of Austin, Texas. In 1991 two high school girls were closing up a frozen yogurt shop. One of the girls had her little sister there with her, and her sister’s friend was also there, on a sleepover. The little ones were 13 and 14 and the older girls were 17.

They were found in the early hours of the morning, when the fire department came to put out the fire in the yogurt shop.

As it turns out, the girls had been raped, murdered and then the yogurt shop was set on fire to hide the evidence.

Years passed. Detectives worked on the case to the point of burnout. New police chiefs came and went. No arrests.

Finally, 8 years later, they get a report of a boy who had been talked to at the time of the murders. He’d been seen at the mall with a .22, the same kind of gun used in the murders. They had tested the gun at the time and it was not a match but they decided to talk to him again. They spoke to him, and to the other three guys who were with him that night.

The guy with the gun and one of the other boys refused to talk at all. The other two talked to the cops for hours, one without being informed of the lawyer his dad had hired. At some point one of the policemen held a gun to the back of one of their heads to “jog his memory.”

The two guys who talked eventually confessed. Their confessions contradicted each other and the evidence, but regardless, the cases are set for trial.

At trial, they did this weird thing. I’ve seen this before in true crime books, and it ALWAYS seems weird. They do this to allow confessions to be admissible even if they implicate co-defendants or co-conspirators. What they do is, they redact the confessions to only include references to the defendant himself. The problem with this is that it creates a very different impression of the confession from the original.

In this case, one of the confessions was 8 pages long and consisted of a lot of statements like, “And then he threatened me if I didn’t, so I shot the girl.” But the redacted version just read, “I shot the girl.” That’s just an example, but it’s like that. The redacted version was less than a page. They did this at both trials.

During the appeals process the Supreme Court decided that these redacted confessions are not legal, and the convictions were overturned.

ALSO during the appeals process, better DNA testing became available and they tested the DNA found in the girls. Two male DNA donors, neither of which matches anyone associated with the case. Completely unknown profiles.

Amazingly, this does not phase the prosecutors at all. They say, well, they must have had two other accomplices. Despite the fact that this is in direct contradiction with the confessions they have, which is the only basis for their arrest and trial. There is no physical evidence connecting them to the crime.

They’ve decided not to pursue another trial, but they also have not exonerated those boys.

And to this day, 25 years later, no one knows who killed the girls in the yogurt shop that night.

It’s so sad.

We Have Your Daughter–Paula Woodward

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More true crime! I’m on a true crime kick. (True crime spree? Maybe.)

This is a book about the Jonbenet Ramsay case and let me tell you, I have FEELINGS about this case and about this book.

If (like my husband) you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know this case, here’s the brief summary:

Jonbenet was a 6 year old girl, the daughter of some super rich people in Boulder, Colorado.

She was (famously) a participant in child pageants.

The morning after Christmas she was missing from her bed and there was a 3 page ransom note in the kitchen.

The police come and don’t know what they’re doing because there aren’t murders in Boulder. Result: they don’t check the entire house. They let people in and out, contaminating the crime scene.

Finally, at 1pm the only cop left in the house (what? WHY??) sends her dad and his friend to go check the house, and the dad finds the body of Jonbenet in a small room in the basement.

No one was ever arrested for the crime.

Ok, that’s the summary.

Here’s my problem. Despite the overwhelming belief at the time by the police and the public that the parents were involved in some way, I don’t think that’s actually true.

And it kind of annoys me, to be honest.

This book is very pro-Ramsay and supportive of the parents, and even with that bias, it reads really clearly that despite what the author wants me to think, these are TERRIBLE human beings. They are awful. Here’s my justification for this:

  1. the girls name. This was dad’s second marriage and he named his first son after himself, but despite this, he made up a name for the girl which combined his first and middle names and her middle name is the mom’s first name. This is so much ME ME ME that it makes me crazy. How many kids named after yourself do you need? Why is it so important that this kid be a walking advertisement for you?
  2. the pageant stuff. The mom was a former Miss West Virginia so it’s not really a surprise that she put the girl in them but there is no question that those glitzy pageants sexualize little girls. I mean, you can argue that point with me if you want but you would be wrong and I’m pretty sure that the research backs me up.
  3. carelessness. The basement window the intruder used to get in was broken. And had been since June. Let’s just sit there for a minute and ponder the fact that a family that owns their own airplane can’t get it together to repair a window for SIX MONTHS.
  4. carelessness, 2: they gave out a bunch of keys to the house to people, friends, contractors, whatever, and didn’t keep track of them or get them back.
  5. carelessness, 3: they never set their security alarm.
  6. carelessness, 4: the week before the murder they’d opened their home to the public for some Christmas tour thing. If you’re going to do this, wouldn’t you then be extra vigilant about security after that? For robbery if nothing else. If I was rich and random people walked through my house for weeks, I would be setting the alarm and checking the windows and everything else.
  7. Dad–ok, this may be my personal bias, but I find it really icky when a man ditches his first wife (that he met in college) and marries a former pageant girl. Especially a rich man. You get rich, so you trade up your wife for someone younger and prettier? And after Jonbenet’s mom died of cancer, he remarried a third time, someone ALSO younger and very pretty. I do not like him. I think he’s gross. I think he’s an entitled rich asshole who keeps looking for trophies. The plane, the wife, the pretty daughter in pageants. It’s all the same thing and it is so gross to me. Even reading about him makes me want to take a hot shower and wash the ick off.

Ok.

But here’s the thing. There was some DNA on Jonbenet. In three places. There was very little, but it was enough to be tested and to go into the FBI’s database, and that DNA is not anyone in the family. It’s completely different, and it does not match any of the almost 200 people they’ve tested.

Also, I think the dad is super gross and if you told me he was abusive I’d be willing to listen to you, but I don’t think that’s how it would go if he decided to kill his daughter. She was molested with a paintbrush, strangled and then allowed to regain consciousness before being strangled again and her head was bashed in. That’s not the kind of thing most parents would do, but more importantly to me, I don’t think that’s how he would kill her even if he was the killer. She’s a trophy for him, and you don’t do that to trophies, you’d want to keep her pretty, right? Maybe I’m wrong, I’m not a killer.

Anyway. Maybe one day they’ll get a hit on the DNA and we will know what happened, but otherwise it probably won’t be solved. Which is a tragedy. Poor little Jonbenet. She deserved better than what happened to her.

 

How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law–Dorothy Cannell

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I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed any of the Dorothy Cannell books yet.

The first book in this series is called “The Thin Woman” and is, in my opinion, a classic in the cozy mystery genre.

This is a later book.

These books are centered on Ellie Haskell, a young wife and mother. Her life is filled with absurdity. The books are clever and witty and charming.

In this book, she has the idea to invite her in-laws for a formal dinner. Her mother-in-law is a devout Catholic. Her father-in-law is a devout Jew, and so she thinks it would be nice to celebrate their anniversary. She cooks a reasonable good dinner (although I always wonder why she cooks at all, since her husband is a professional chef) except for the chocolate pudding, which she inadvertently made with chocolate flavored laxatives.

But the biggest issue is that she invited a local woman who had been a friend of her in-laws when they were young and that they haven’t spoken to in forty years. As it happens, they had stopped talking because the mother-in-law thought her friend Tricks was trying to seduce her husband.

There’s a terrible fight and the husband takes Tricks home, only to be returned by the cops because they decided to skinny dip in the ocean and lost their clothes. At that point, the Magdalene (the mother-in-law) kicks him out.

As it happens, there’s a rash of problematic mothers-in-law in town. Trick’s daughter-in-law suffers from her mom’s cavalier attitude towards life. The local member of the aristocracy, Lady Kitty, dominates and tortures her husband and daughter-in-law. The local vicar’s mother-in-law smokes in the house and is cheeky to the bishop.

They all complain and try to find a way to solve their problem, but when Lady Kitty is killed when the brake lines on her bike are cut, they start to suspect each other. And then Tricks is poisoned.

They have to find out who is bumping off the mothers-in-law before they are all killed and ideally also get the women out of their houses before they lose their minds.

 

Too Late to Say Goodbye–Ann Rule

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True crime!

This is the story of Bart and Jenn Corbin.

Bart Corbin was a dentist who married his girlfriend Jenn when she became pregnant with their first son. That marriage did not stand in the way of his long-standing affair with the married dental hygienist at his office, though. Because he is a TERRIBLE PERSON.

They eventually had another son and he was incredibly possessive and controlling, and very demanding of Jenn and her time and attention.

She eventually decided to leave him, in part because of an online romance with someone who turned out to be catfishing her, although that term was not in use at the time of her death. But even after she found out that her online paramour was not who she thought he was, she was still ready to leave Bart because by then she realized he was not a good person or a good husband and that she would be better off without him, no matter how hard it was for them to survive.

But he’s not really the kind of person to let things go.

He preemptively filed for divorce, then went around talking about how much he wanted to make his marriage work.

And then she was found dead in her bed one morning, by their son. She had been shot in the head. The initial reports suggested suicide but the forensic evidence suggested murder.

He was, obviously, the first suspect. He didn’t come to the house when he was told, never asked to see or speak to his children, and made an appointment that weekend for a haircut, saying he needed a new look because he was a widower.

None of that is what you expect from a man who just lost his wife to suicide.

And then the family discovered that his dental school girlfriend was also found dead, of a gunshot to the head. The same kind of gun that was used to kill Jenn was used in her death. It was ruled a suicide but her family and friends never believed that.

Investigators reopened the case of Dolly Hearn (the dental school girlfriend) and found that after she broke up with him, Bart had been stalking her like a crazy person, kidnapping her cat, replacing her contact solution with hairspray, putting sugar in her gas tank and so on, but that she had tried to keep him more or less happy because he was about to graduate and she just wanted him to go away.

The weekend of his graduation, she was found dead. She had been defrosting food for dinner and was working on a project, neither of which is consistent with someone about to kill themselves.

Modern forensics confirmed what investigators at the time could not, which was that she was also murdered.

He was charged with both murders, and prosecutors got ready to try him in two different counties.

All the while, they were hunting down the source of the gun used to kill Jenn. When they found it, they had enough to ensure a conviction and he took the plea deal they offered.

It’s amazing to me how many women are killed by their husbands and partners. My first marriage was dangerous, and I’m fortunate his sense of self-preservation was greater than his self-confidence or I might have died when I left him, too. There’s not enough attention or legislation protecting women from their partners, especially when you consider how frequently women are hurt and killed by their partners.