Stranger Than Fiction

December 2018

The Class of 2018

By Dean Jobb

The real-life abduction that inspired Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. A new biography of crime-fiction legend Agatha Christie. Gilbert King’s latest exposé of injustice in the Deep South. And the 1849 murder that scandalized Harvard University. It’s time to catch up on some of the best nonfiction crime books of 2018.

Had it not been for sibling rivalry, a young wartime nurse in the English Channel resort town of Torquay might never have imagined a fussy Belgian detective and his hardworking little gray cells. Agatha Miller grew up in the shadow of her older sister, Madge, who had some success as a writer and penned a play that ran in London’s West End. Agatha wrote, too, and when Madge scoffed at her suggestion she could write a detective story, the challenge was accepted. Agatha—newly married to an airman named Christie—wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920, with Belgian refugees in England inspiring Hercule Poirot and her work in a hospital dispensary supplying her knowledge of poisons.

AgathaChristie_Mysterious_LifeIn Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life (Pegasus Books), British author Laura Thompson digs deep into Christie’s papers and fictional works to illuminate the career and personal life of the world’s most beloved and best-selling crime writer. Thompson attributes her incredible success—four decades after her death, more than four million copies of her books are sold every year—to her keen observation of people and “the quality peculiar to almost everything that Agatha ever wrote: readability.”

Christie’s greatest mystery is one she lived rather than wrote—her disappearance for eleven days in 1926. Distraught over her husband’s affair and a looming divorce, she left her car teetering on the edge of a quarry—staged as an accident or failed suicide attempt—and holed up in a hotel in Yorkshire under an assumed name. Thousands of police officers and volunteers mounted a massive search, while newspapers offered rewards and published retouched photographs envisioning her possible disguises. Christie made no mention of the embarrassing incident in her autobiography, but Thompson does a stellar job of recreating what must have been going through her mind as she monitored the press coverage and waited to be found. The episode remains Christie’s best mystery story, Thompson writes, “because it cannot be solved.”

Thompson shows how Christie infused her stories with experiences and incidents drawn from her own life, including her disappearance. This ambitious, thorough biography will delight fans of the author and her iconic detective characters, Poirot and Miss Marple.

 

Blood_IvyA real-life mystery worthy of an Agatha Christie novel engulfed Boston in 1849, when one of the city’s richest men, Dr. George Parkman, vanished while running errands. His dismembered body was soon discovered in a laboratory at Harvard Medical College, leading to the arrest and prosecution of the university’s esteemed professor of chemistry, Dr. John White Webster. Paul Collins brings to life this sordid tale of murder and deceit among the upper classes in Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard (W.W. Norton).

This “shocking morality play,” as Collins terms it, shattered illusions that only the poor and illiterate were capable of such heinous crimes. If someone with Webster’s stature and “refined education” could kill, one newspaper opined, “how can we expect that the illiterate and benighted child of want will remain faithful?” Assumptions, before Webster’s arrest, that the city’s lower classes must somehow be responsible, almost sparked a riot.

Collins is a master of the dramatic build-up and the surprising reveal. The book is approaching the midpoint by the time the body is found, the murder is confirmed, and the assailant is taken into police custody. The frantic search for the truth and the missing man is interwoven with rich historical detail about daily life in 1840s Boston, the cloistered world of the Harvard campus, and the gruesome business of medicine in the Victoria era.

The author is not content to show and tell—Collins draws on his deep research into newspaper accounts and archival records to immerse readers in a past that feels vivid, immediate, and real. And he has a knack for inserting the perfect wry phrase at the right time. The case was a media sensation, he notes, generating an avalanche of newspaper copy “that threatened to run through all the exclamation marks in the type trays.” And when a team of doctors, all of them graduates of the medical college, is assembled to examine Parkman’s dismembered remains, Collins describes it as “possibly the worst Harvard reunion on record.”

A professor of literature at Oregon’s Portland State University, Collins has tackled true crime before—a lurid 1890s slaying that transfixed New York (The Murder of the Century) and the murder case that made lawyers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr allies not long before their deadly duel in 1804 (Duel with the Devil). The supporting cast of Blood & Ivy includes such literary luminaries as Charles Dickens, Longfellow—who knew both victim and murderer—and the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, the medical school’s dean at the time. It’s a riveting tour de force of historical true crime.

 

Beneath-a-Ruthless_SunDevil_in_the_GroveCelebrated New York author Gilbert King offers a searing indictment of racism and injustice in 1950s Florida in Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found (Riverhead Books). It’s the deeply disturbing, must-read story of how corrupt, racist police officers framed a mentally challenged teenager for the 1957 rape of the wife of a prominent citrus grower. Jesse Daniels was locked up in an asylum, without trial, for more than a decade before he was exonerated and released.

King won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, another sordid tale of bigotry and police corruption—four black men were rounded up in 1949 on allegations of raping a white woman, and two died while fleeing arrest or in police custody. There’s a link between the two cases—Sheriff Willis McCall of Lake County, who killed one of the Groveland suspects and, years later, railroaded Daniels.

In a bizarre twist, Daniels was white and accused of a sexual assault police knew had been committed, as King demonstrates beyond any doubt, by a black man. The motive was to spare the socially prominent victim the stigma of being labelled the victim of an interracial rape—and perhaps to protect her husband, who may have paid the real rapist to kill her.

Perhaps the most compelling character in Beneath a Ruthless Sun is Mabel Norris Reese, the journalist who was instrumental in unravelling the conspiracy to falsely accuse Jesse Daniels. Her relentless, courageous reporting—in the face of McCall’s threats and bullying—is a timely reminder of the essential role the news media plays in exposing corruption and injustice.

 

The_Real_LolitaA young girl’s attempt to shoplift a five-cent notebook as a lark—an incident almost as mundane as the sibling rivalry that launched Agatha Christie’s career—set the stage for one of the world’s most renowned and controversial novels. But as Brooklyn-based writer and crime anthologist Sarah Weinman shows in The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World (Ecco), Vladimir Nabokov refused to acknowledge that the abduction of an eleven-year-old New Jersey girl in 1948 was an inspiration for Lolita.

A man caught Sally Horner red-handed and the terrified girl believed his claim that, as an FBI agent, he could spare her the embarrassment of being charged with theft. Frank La Salle, it turned out, was a convicted pedophile who kidnapped, raped, and abused her for almost two years.

Weinman, a prolific commentator on the crime genre and a columnist for CrimeReads, set out to put Horner—rather than Nabokov, the novel, or its fictional abuser-narrator, Humbert Humbert—at the center of the story. “The abuse that Sally Horner, and other girls like her, endured,” she writes, “should not be subsumed by dazzling prose, no matter how brilliant.”

The Real Lolita is a triumph of research, reporting, and sheer hard work. Weinman, who became “an accidental forensic genealogical detective,” spent years chasing down court files, public records, and descendants as she pieced together the fragments of Horner’s short life and her twenty-one-month ordeal. La Salle took her to Baltimore, Dallas, and finally to San Jose, passing her off as his daughter, before he was finally arrested.

Weinman invites the reader to tag along on her journey of discovery and draws on the memoirs and experiences of other child abductees to show how La Salle controlled Horner and why it took so long for her to summon the courage to seek help. The author’s honesty inspires confidence whenever a dearth of facts forces her to speculate. “I would like to tell you everything that happened to Sally Horner after Frank La Salle spirited her away,” she confesses at one point. “The trouble is, I didn’t find out all that much.”

She’s a literary detective as well, tracing Nabokov’s career and scouring his papers and the text of Lolita for clues. The evidence is circumstantial, but Weinman makes a convincing case that Horner’s ordeal gave Nabokov the framework he had long sought to tell the story of an older man’s twisted obsession with a young girl. Her remarkable, engagingly written book leaves no doubt that a tragic true story lies at the heart of a great work of literature.

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Dean Jobb teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada will publish his next book, which recreates the crimes of a Victorian-era serial killer who claimed at least ten victims in London, Chicago and Canada.

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