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Book Review | Blood On Their Hands by Mandy Matney

From the publisher: The highly anticipated inside look at the collapse of the Murdaugh dynasty by the celebrated investigative journalist and creator of the #1 hit Murdaugh Murders Podcast, Mandy Matney.

I am not a podcast listener and so have not heard any of the Murdaugh Murders Podcast (MMP), an extremely popular podcast that has often been ranked #1 ranked on Apple Podcasts. I requested an advance reader copy of Blood on Their Hands expecting it to be true crime nonfiction about Alex Murdaugh. It’s not. It’s a memoir by a journalist who wants us all to know how hard she has worked to be successful and how many people got in her way.

Mandy Matney is a good writer with a major chip on her shoulder. She wants to be a good journalist fighting the good journalist fight and shining a light on crime and corruption. She has faced sexism in the workplace – welcome to being a working woman, Mandy – and feels she has been betrayed by a number of colleagues she trusted. As I read this book, I couldn’t stop thinking about Sally Field and her “I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!” speech when she won an Oscar.

I don’t question that Matney has put in the work to become a respected journalist, but to me, a reader unfamiliar with her and her work, she comes off as whiny and bitter in this book. Alex Murdaugh, his family, and the aura of invincibility around them needed to be investigated, and it seems like Matney and colleagues did good work. But, for example, Matney acknowledges that Will Folks gave her a job when she needed one, and the support and leads (and paycheck) she needed to investigate Murdaugh, but she also writes near the end of the book, “Looking back now, I can see that the relationship was a bad fit from the start. Will threw me a lifeline when I was desperate for a way out of The Packet,  but I think I gave him too much credit for ‘saving’ me. I excused the rumors about his unsavory reputation because of how much I wanted to believe he was a good guy. I ignored the times his judgment felt off because I was eager to grow with the company. But our early talks about my earning equity at FITS never panned out, and as MMP took off, I began to realize Will saw me more as a competitor than as a teammate. I see now that I never needed a man or an institution to lend my work credibility – I just needed more confidence in my abilities. I’ll always be grateful to FITS for being a stepping stone at a crucial time in my career, but I wish I could go back and tell my former self to get out as soon as things started to curdle.” (p. 251 of the ARC). Way to throw someone under the bus who by her own admission gave her a lot of information and contributed to her ability to write the podcast stories about the Murdaugh family. Matney didn’t do herself any favors with me as a reader with this section. She could have said it was time to move on and left it at that.

Please note that your reaction may vary. Readers who love Matney and her podcasts may love this book. If you are a fan of Murdaugh Murders Podcast, give it a shot. If you are not, this might not be the Murdaugh book for you. I read an advance reader copy of Blood on Their Hands. It is scheduled to be published on November 14, and the Galesburg Public Library will own it.

Book Review | This House of Grief by Helen Garner

From the publisher: On the evening of Father’s Day, 2005, separated husband Robert Farquharson was driving his three young sons back to their mom’s house when the car veered off the road and plunged into a dam. Farquharson survived the crash, but his boys drowned. Was this a tragic accident, or an act of revenge? The court case that followed became a national obsession.

A parent and their children go into a body of water in a vehicle; the parent survives but the children don’t. This unfortunately is a story we’ve heard before. Robert Farquharson claims he had a coughing fit and passed out. Once in the water, he was able to exit the car and swim to the surface, but his three sons were not. This book about his trial was published in 2014 in Australia; now a new edition has been published in the United States.

I can well imagine what a sensation this was in Australia. I remember the media fascination with Susan Smith in the 1990s after she left her sons to drown. I remember the Jaclyn Dowaliby case in the Chicago area in the 1980s. (That case didn’t involve drowning, but a child reported abducted from her home and found murdered a few days later, and a trial of the mother.)

This House of Grief feels like it was written much longer ago than 2014. It is a call back to classic works of true crime like In Cold Blood. It has a literary feel to it that most modern true crime that I’ve read does not. The author acts as a cool and objective narrator. She has no connection to the case other than reporting on it. She feels emotion – pity, grief – but not passion over whatever happened. Robert Farquharson himself remains a remote figure; I felt I got to know and understand his ex-wife’s parents better than I did Farquharson or his ex-wife.

On page 6, Garner writes, “When I said I wanted to write about the trial, people looked at me in silence, with an expression I could not read.” She is very thoughtful and philosophical as she observes and comments on the trial and all the people involved. The subtitle of the book is “The Story of a Murder Trial,” and the author writes her book as a story (a story with an ending that will not satisfy all her readers).

If you like classic works of true crime, I recommend This House of Grief. If you like graphic descriptions, every criminal detail, and proper closure in your true crime, this may not be the book for you.

I read an advance reader copy of This House of Grief. It was published on October 10, and Galesburg Public Library’s copy will be added to the collection soon. 

Book Review | A Light in the Dark: Surviving More Than Ted Bundy by Kathy Kleiner Rubin and Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi

From the publisher: The first book by a confirmed survivor of Ted Bundy, and the only memoir to challenge the popular narrative of Bundy as a handsome killer who charmed his victims into trusting him.

I haven’t read that much true crime. I’ve read a lot about John Wayne Gacy because I was in high school in the Chicago area when his horrors were discovered, but I didn’t know much about Ted Bundy going into this memoir. I held the popular beliefs that he was charming and intelligent in addition to being a serial killer. Kathy Kleiner Rubin was one of the young women he attacked when she was sleeping in her sorority bedroom, and she has a lot to say about how Bundy is viewed in popular culture.

The author makes the case that what we believe about Bundy is wrong. He was not charming; most women he approached found him creepy. Most of his victims were not lured into his car by a sad tale that he spun but were attacked in their beds or from behind by Bundy. He was not intelligent or learned; he was a poor student who had no aptitude for the law or anything except killing.

I had no idea how many suspected victims Bundy had. I knew he was brutal but didn’t know his preferred technique was to bash his victims in the head first, before violating them. The author is only a few years older than me, and I found her passionate defense of Bundy’s victims very moving. The memoir very much gave me “there but for the grace of god go I” vibes.

Kathy Kleiner Rubin is very resilient and a true survivor. She has one son, Michael, and he didn’t find out until he was 37 years old that the attack she suffered in college was at the hands of the notorious Ted Bundy. When he found out, he called her in shock. Toward the end of her book, she writes, “Michael was a big part of my happiness in life. During that phone call, as he kept repeating ‘you were so normal’ he brought up the pool parties I hosted for his birthday and other things I did to make his life as ordinary as possible. To me, this was one of my great accomplishments in life. Bundy was on a sick and twisted journey and he dragged his victims down the path. After I survived the attack, I dug in my heels so that he could pull me no further.”

There is some information about the author and her husband surviving Katrina which felt like filler, but aside from that the narrative flowed. The author has a lot of encouraging words for others who are fighting battles. Her words and memories are very inspirational. Appendix A is a list of the women and girls who lost their lives to Bundy, which is very reverential and which I read with great care. As the author points out, none of them are to blame for being murdered by a monster. Appendix C has a helpful list of ways to replace his narrative with remembrances of his victims.

If you like memoirs of people who have overcome great obstacles, or if you’d like to know more about Ted Bundy’s victims, I recommend A Light in the Dark.

I read an advance reader copy of A Light in the Dark. It is scheduled to be published on October 3, and the Galesburg Public Library will own it.

Book Review | Waco Rising by Kevin Cook

From the publisher: A news-making account of the war between David Koresh’s Branch Davidians and the FBI, and how their standoff launched today’s militias.

I don’t know why two books are being published in January 2023 on the standoff that took place in Waco, Texas in 1993, but they are and I read them both.

I found Waco Rising by Kevin Cook to be the more engaging, and the more frightening, of the two. Waco by Jeff Guinn is good but not great. Waco seems exhaustively researched; it is very detailed and at times repetitive. Waco Rising, on the other hand, included information I’d never heard or read before. For example, Guinn talks about the Branch Davidian dogs that were shot by agents, but Cook talks about the eleven tiny puppies that were inside, not outside in a pen, the chickens, and the “hunger-mad goose” penned up with the dead dogs. Details like these really brought the setting to life.

Cook’s retelling of what happened in at the Branch Davidian compound in the spring of 1993 moves at a much brisker pace, and without as much repetition (although there is still repetition – a good editor could have tightened up both of these books). Cook’s book is much more critical of the decisions made by the ATF and especially the FBI. Cook draws a direct line between Waco to Oklahoma City to Alex Jones to January 6th. FBI negotiator Gary Noesner calls Waco “a self-inflicted wound for the FBI. It contributed to a broad antigovernment sentiment that’s out there today.” (p. 157 of the advance reader copy)

If you want to know more about the standoff between government agents and the Branch Davidians, and how the event is affecting the United States today, you may find either or both of these books worth reading.

I read advance reader copies of Waco and Waco Rising from Netgalley.

Waco and Waco Rising are available for checkout from the Galesburg Public Library.

Book Review | The Forever Witness — Edward Humes

From the publisher: A relentless detective and an amateur genealogist solve a haunting cold case — and launch a crime-fighting revolution that tests the fragile line between justice and privacy. Genetic genealogy, long the province of family tree hobbyists and adoptees seeking their birth families, has made headlines as a cold case solution machine, capable of exposing the darkest secrets of seemingly upstanding citizens. But as this crime-fighting technique spreads, its sheer power has sparked a national debate: Can we use DNA to catch the murderers among us, yet still protect our last shred of privacy in the digital age—the right to the very blueprint of who we are?

I’ve been reading a lot of true crime, and The Forever Witness is a great example written by an experienced and talented writer. Edward Humes is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who pays extreme attention to detail and can really turn a phrase. This book weaves together multiple cold case murders with fascinating information on how far genetic genealogy has come. It challenges us to think about the ramifications of using genetic genealogy to uncover criminals using the DNA of innocent relatives.

The story focuses on the murders of two young Canadians, Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook, who travelled to the US in November 1987 to pick up a furnace for his father’s service and repair business. Their bodies were found in two separate remote locations a few days after they disappeared, and they had been killed in very different ways. Thirty years later, the crime still had not been solved; then came new developments in genetic genealogy.

The author does a great job helping us get to know the young couple by presenting little details about their lives. He sympathetically presents the anguish of their friends and relatives. As fascinated as he is by the science used to uncover the truth, he is sensitive to the fact that he is writing about real people.

The segue into discussion about genetic genealogy was technical but also fascinating. I learned a lot. In 2016, a company called Parabon NanoLabs introduced cutting-edge DNA technology called Snapshot that can generate a composite sketch of a suspect from DNA trace evidence. A couple of examples are included in the book, of Snapshots and the actual killers, and the similarities are striking.

In the end, a true crime novel that reveals a killer is both sad for the victims and satisfying when justice is done.

I read an advance reader copy of The Forever Witness from Netgalley.

The Forever Witness adds a riveting layer of science to the true crime template. If you enjoy true crime works that also cover science and discuss pressing social issues, you may enjoy The Forever Witness. The Galesburg Public Library will own it once it is released in late November.

Book Review | Inside the Mind of John Wayne Gacy by Brad Hunter

From the publisher: Brad Hunter has spent over thirty years writing about some of America’s most horrific crimes. In this new book he enters the mind of John Wayne Gacy, the real-life Killer Clown, often said to be the inspiration for Stephen King’s evil Pennywise in It. Drawing on his many years’ experience investigating and interviewing perpetrators of terrible crimes, Hunter seeks to understand what drove Gacy to unleash a reign of terror in suburban Chicago.

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Book Review | Slenderman by Kathleen Hale

From the publisher: On May 31, 2014, in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, two twelve-year-old girls attempted to stab their classmate to death. Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier’s violence was extreme, but what seemed even more frightening was that they committed their crime under the influence of a figure born by the internet: the so-called “Slenderman.” Yet the even more urgent aspect of the story, that the children involved suffered from undiagnosed mental illnesses, often went overlooked in coverage of the case. Slenderman tells that full story for the first time in deeply researched detail, using court transcripts, police reports, individual reporting, and exclusive interviews.

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Book Review | Trailed by Kathryn Miles

From the publisher: In May 1996, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans were brutally murdered while backpacking in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, adjacent to the world-famous Appalachian Trail. The young women were skilled backcountry leaders and they had met—and fallen in love—the previous summer, while working at a world-renowned outdoor program for women. But despite an extensive joint investigation by the FBI, the Virginia police, and National Park Service experts, the case remained unsolved for years. Trailed is a riveting, eye-opening, and heartbreaking work, offering a braided narrative about two remarkable women who were murdered doing what they most loved, the forensics of this cold case, and the surprising pervasiveness and long shadows cast by violence against women in the backcountry.

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Book Review | Bone Deep: Untangling the Betsy Faria Murder Case by Charles Bosworth Jr. and Joel J. Schwartz

From the publisher: The explosive, first-ever insider’s account of a case that continues to fascinate the public—the shocking wrongful conviction of Russell Faria for his wife’s murder—a gripping read told by New York Times bestselling true crime expert Charles Bosworth Jr. and Joel J. Schwartz, the defense attorney who battled for justice, and ultimately prevailed.

I am not much of a True Crime reader, but something about being in a pandemic has me reading more True Crime than usual. Despite how all facts are already known about the case covered in Bone Deep, I was riveted by the narrative. I personally knew nothing about the case before picking up Bone Deep, although there has apparently been extensive media…

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