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Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009

Sam Spade returns

In 1956, five years before he died following decades of bad health-fostered by even more decades of heavy drinking-Dashiell Hammett told an interviewer, "I stopped writing because I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style." Taking his view, the beginning of the end must have occurred 22 years earlier, when he published his fifth and last crime novel, The Thin Man...
Monday, Dec. 22, 2008

Anthology provides fascinating stories of true crime

To quote Mark Twain: If truth is stranger than fiction, it is only because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth is not. True Crime: An American Anthology (Library of America), edited by Harold Schechter, is an outstanding collection of ghastly American crimes ranging from Puritan times to our own day. The anthology is evidence of the gruesome possibilities that truth can reach when it comes to one human being dispatching another-or, usually, many others. Truth can also be as readable as fiction. To trot out another cliché, I could not stop at just one selection. By the end of three days, I had exhausted...
Monday, Nov. 17, 2008

Sex sells the new medium

Sex sells, they say. Selling sex also sells, according to Anthony Rudel's entertaining and informative Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio (Harcourt). Three or four people stand out among the scores who were prominent in the growth of radio from a hobby and fad in the second decade of the 20th century to a big business by the mid-1930s, but none more so than "Dr." John Romulus Brinkley. Brinkley's exotic, lucrative career plays a major role in Rudel's book...
Monday, Oct. 13, 2008

Illicit highs in mountain country

Those who made the illicit liquor called it white mule, white lightning, popskull, mountain licka, mountain dew, stump whiskey and-at the low end of the illegal-spirits chain-rotgut, but never moonshine, and they called themselves blockaders, not bootleggers. Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World (Scribner) offers many curious facts in the course of delivering an immensely interesting story.
Monday, Sept. 8, 2008

Murder, corruption and lies

Today's neocons would love it: Terrorists disturbing the peace and security of the United States are hunted down, not at taxpayer expense, but by a private agency for personal gain. The free market rules! Well, sort of. It was attempted a century ago, when enterprise was not so much private as it was wild and woolly, and concern for such minor legal details as individual rights was even less than it has become in our day. Eventually, of course, the government had to step in to arrest the bad guys and put them on trial-and when it did, the attendant early-20th-century corruption sounds as modern as in a John Grisham novel . . .
Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008

Mr. Gatling’s weapon

When it comes to the Gatling gun, perhaps Confederate soldiers put it best: "The Yankees have a gun you load on Monday and shoot all the rest of the week." And that statement stemmed from limited observation, as the gun, despite its deadly effectiveness, was little used in the Civil War. The , patented in November 1862 by Richard Jordan Gatling, was "the world's first machine gun that actually worked," Julia Keller writes in Mr. Gatling's Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It (Viking). Though the man behind it has become obscure, "Gatling gun" is still heard as a metaphor for swift, unchecked activity; "gat," the slightly outdated slang for a handgun, derives from it . . .
Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008

Extraordinary debut by Wisconsin novelist

Some books are written in such exquisite detail that even if you somehow don't care for the overall story, you can't help but enjoy reading them. Robert Coover provided a perfect example with The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., in which the title character, a disappointed accountant, spends his solitary nights immersed in his own world, manipulating a kind of fantasy baseball league of his own creation wherein every action is determined by throws of the dice. Even if the book wasn't your cup of tea, you would still be fascinated by the complexities of the baseball league and the lives of its players.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Forsaken Americans swallowed by cruel Soviet system

To fall into the clutches of the Soviet Union’s system of arrest, imprisonment and torture was infamously easy for Americans who entered the nation from the 1930s to the 1950s. To get out was well-nigh impossible—short of death—and little help was to be found from U.S. authorities. In The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia (Penguin Press), Tim Tzouliadis, a documentary filmmaker born in Greece but educated and living in Britain, has written a book to raise the ire of decent people everywhere. The outrages and horrors recounted in the book, buttressed by bristling documentation, overcome any shortcomings of its workmanlike writing style . . .
Monday, June 2, 2008

Furst delivers next chapter of international intrigue

Alan Furst is closing in on Upton Sinclair. Between 1940 and 1953, Sinclair, acclaimed author of The Jungle, created a series of 11 “World’s End” novels that captured much of the Western world’s political history in the first half of the 20th century. For 20 years now, Furst has been turning out his own series of novels filled with international intrigue. Furst’s books are set in Europe before and during World War II, and his latest effort, The Spies of Warsaw (Random House), is the 10th novel in the series. Like its predecessors, Spies of Warsaw is highly enjoyable, particularly in the author’s remarkable ability to evoke a vanished era.
Monday, May 5, 2008

Finding the new world

It’s not true that Christopher Columbus defied the conventional wisdom of his time in thinking that the world was round. All the wise people of his time already knew that; Columbus, in fact, thought the world had the shape of a pear, complete with a stalk “like a woman’s nipple,” which was the site of the Garden of Eden. That notion came to the famed “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” one night when it seemed like he was sailing uphill; hence, the impression of a pear’s slope. The rest of the imagery perhaps is attributable to the overactive imagination of a sailor too long at sea.

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