Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

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Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

In the early 1920s, members of the Osage tribe, made wealthy through oil reserves underneath their reservation, began to die. Some were shot, either in robberies or apparent suicides. Others were poisoned, tainted whiskey being a favorite vehicle. More than one tribal member simply “wasted away,” their deaths attributed to an unknown illness. One woman, Maggie Burkhart, watched as her sisters, mother, and even her daughter died, leaving her in sole possession of a significant fortune. it was almost inevitable that Maggie would begin to fall ill as well . . .

In Washington, J. Edgar Hoover is under a tremendous amount of pressure to prove the worth of his new Investigative Bureau. With local and state authorities unable or unwilling to investigate the Osage deaths, Hoover sends agents to start what would turn into a multi-year investigation, and would set Oklahoman society on edge.

This non-fiction book is written as a murder mystery in three parts. The first part introduces us to the major players, using primary sources from Maggie Burkhart, her family, and other Osage tribe members of the time. The second part is concerned with the FBI’s investigation and is drawn primarily from the memoirs of Agent Tom White, J. Edgar Hoover, and other investigators. The third portion of the book deals with the author’s own investigation into the murders.

The book itself is engagingly written, and the subject matter has been largely forgotten by history. The subject matter itself is compelling and infuriating; the pervasive and institutionalized racism that allowed these crimes to hide amid a thousand lesser forms of violence is nothing short of appalling. The Osage in the 1920s, while millionaires on paper, were treated more like indentured servants. The government would not allow the Osage to manage their own money, each was assigned to a white “guardian” who held complete control of their finances. The abuses such a system would invite are easy to imagine. In addition, the lack of investigation (for years), suggests a breathtaking lack of concern in the swath of deaths; so long as those dying were not white. Indeed, many at the time seemed to think that the “uppity Indians” had brought such violence upon themselves, solely by being richer than their white neighbors.

This is a fantastic example of narrative nonfiction. Grann has created an incredible narrative from this story. The horror the Osage lived with in the first decades of the twentieth century has been lost to history until now, but it is a story that needs to be told. Fans of Erik Larsen will enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe


The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe

This is a unique take on the true crime genre. In 1998 Kendal Francois confessed to the serial rape and murder of eight women. He had strangled them, then drowned them in his bathtub. To dispose of the bodies, he simply carried them up to the attic of the home he shared with his mother, father, and siblings. No one in the house noticed anything odd, even while living amidst eight rotting corpses.

But The Spider and the Fly isn’t about that, not really. This book hovers between a memoir and a nonfiction crime novel. Claudia Rowe was working as a freelance reporter with the New York Times when Francois confessed. She became obsessed not with the crimes themselves, but with the murderer. She began a correspondence with him that lasted for four years. During that time, Francois and Rowe would each constantly test each others boundaries, he looking for intimacy, she wanting to know exactly what made him tick. Their correspondence would also make her look into her own troubled past, and confront her own inner demons.

While this book is certainly not what I had expected from one billed as “true crime,” I did wind up enjoying the book. There are countless books, some more sensational than others, that detail the crimes of our more infamous killers, but the focus on this book, looking into the nature of the killer, and his relationship with Rowe, is a new spin, and, ultimately, refreshing. This book doesn’t linger on the gory details of Kendall Francois’ crimes, instead we see an awkward and overly large black man, raised in the overwhelmingly white town of Poughkeepsie, New York. We see his social and mental isolation, and the home life that helped shape him into the person he would become. At no point does Rowe excuse or try to mitigate the crimes Francois committed, but she does try to bring a picture to her reader of the damaged man who lived alongside the monster.

I would recommend this book for true crime readers who know what they are getting into. If you’re looking for blood, gore, and sensationalism, you won’t find it here. If you’re okay with a quieter kind of thriller, if you want a (sometimes frustrating) look inside the mind of a serial killer, this book is just the ticket.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Spider and the Fly will be available for purchase on January 24th, 2017.

Book Review: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

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Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi

Amazingly enough (especially considering my interest in the macabre), I had never before picked up this classic true crime account of the Manson Murders. I’m pleased to say that I have rectified that deficiency, and that I was not disappointed in the least.

Bugliosi (who was also the lead prosecutor of Manson and his co-defendants) begins the 600+ page book with the Tate murders themselves. We follow the housekeeper as she enters the property to begin her day, the trauma of the bodies being discovered, and the movements of the police who first entered the scene. We are next led along to the LaBianca murder scene (the murder of an elderly couple also committed by Manson’s “Family”). From these two bloodbaths, Bugliosi takes the reader along through the (occasionally horribly bungled) police investigation, letting us walk along with investigators as they try to make sense of such seemingly senseless killings.

As I said earlier, Bugliosi was the lead prosecutor of the case (and occasional investigator). This is certainly in evidence as Bugliosi approaches “Helter Skelter” like a trial in and of itself. Physical evidence, witness statements, and paper trails are carefully presented and thoroughly dissected for the reader. The sheer weight of evidence eventually brought together against Manson and his family is presented here in largely chronological order, and shows just how completely Bugliosi throws himself into his work. There is a good reason why Helter Skelter is considered one of the best true crime books written (easily up there with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood).

So, grab this book and read it. For such a hefty tome, it goes by very quickly. Bugliosi’s style is intense, but highly readable. Any one who is interested in true crime will obviously love this book, but even if that isn’t your usual genre, this is a compelling read about a charismatic madman and the incredible influence he had, not only on his followers, but on the country as a whole.