Showing posts with label nonfiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nonfiction. Show all posts

15 March 2017

The Cop and the Codex

by Robert Lopresti

This is the fourth in my exceedingly occasional series of reviews of nonfiction books of interest to mystery readers and writers.  These two have nothing in common except excellence.

The Job by Steve Osborne.  Steve Osborne was a New York City cop for more than twenty years.  One day, after his retirement, he was invited to speak at a Moth event.  For those of you not in the know, The Moth is a radio show on NPR (also available as a podcast).  They record live events where people tell true stories, and pick the best ones for airplay.

Osborne had twenty-four hours to prepare his telling and was shocked to find hundreds of people in the audience.  ("I would rather have chased a guy with a gun down a dark alley than get up on that stage.")  But he did and it was a hit and he appeared many times more on the show.

Which resulted in The Job, a collection of essays about life as a cop.  It is full of crazy incidents and fascinating details.  Take this example, which happens to be from the very story that got him started on The Moth.

Normally most cops don't like hanging around where you work because if you're active, meaning you make a lot of arrests, guys get out of jail and don't necessarily have fond memories of you.  You don't want to have to deal with them when you're off duty, especially when you're with someone you care about, like a girlfriend.  It's not that you're scared of these guys, it's just that you have better things to do with your free time than getting into an off-duty confrontation.

This particular story is about a convict who does have fond memories of being arrested, much to Osborne's astonishment.

Another tale I liked was about the city's obsession with keeping squatters out of Tompkins Square Park which resulted in one cop car patrolling the inside of the locked park every night while a sergeant in another car circled the outside.

Osborne worked for some time in Anti-Crime which he described as the best or most-active cops in any precinct.

Our job is to go out and hunt.  And it is like hunting - very much so.  All night long we ride around searching for bad guys who are looking to commit a crime.  Our job is to find them before they commit the act, and be there when the crime happens.

The most powerful part of the book occurs when Osborne is on the Bronx Warrant Squad and goes, with his crew, to locate and arrest a gang member.  They find the fugitive's mother who tells them her son is dead.  What happens next is a tiny shred of shared humanity than any novelist would have been proud to dream up.

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman. A "codex" is simply a book-shaped book, as opposed to a book in the form  of a scroll.  In synagogues Bible texts are always read from scrolls, but the synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, was the home for hundreds of years to a codex, written by hand more than 1,100 years ago.  Known as the Crown of Aleppo it contained not only the books of the Hebrew Bible (more or less what Christians call the Old Testament),  but also annotations on how the vowel-less words were to be pronounced, and exactly how the text was to be written out.  It is the ur-text from which a millenium of scribes have reproduced the sacred books.  Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, had that very copy on his desk when he was writing his book on Jewish law.

The Aleppo synagogue was destroyed during the riots in 1947 after the UN vote that paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel.  The Codex - or most of it - survived the catastrophe and eventually made it to Israel.

All well and good, you might say, but what does this have to do with crime writing?  Never fear; I will offer you  tales from three different genres.

Spy thriller.  In order to protect it, the Jewish community of Aleppo spread the word that the Codex was destroyed in the fire.  Years later they arranged for a cheese merchant to smuggle it into Turkey, wrapped in cheese cloth, inside a washing machine.  An Israeli agent then got the merchant, his family, and the treasured text into Israel.

Courtroom drama. The cheese merchant gave the Codex to a government official, much to the shock of the Syrian Jews in Israel who felt it belonged to them.  Understand that I am wildly oversimplifying, but in those early days many Israeli officials, who were from the European side of the family, considered the Oriental (i.e. Middle Eastern) branch to be quaint and primitive.  The president of the state (a major player in the Codex story) referred to "the most backward Jewish tribes, whose cultural possessions have no responsible curator."

Naturally the Syrian Jews who had successfully curated the Codex for hundreds of years went to court to get it back.  Matti Friedman, the author of this book, uncovered the partial transcripts of the trial which, frankly, don't make the government officials look good.

Theft.  The official story is that most of the first five books of the Codex (The Torah or Pentateuch, the most vital part of the Bible to any Jew) were destroyed in the synagogue fire, but Friedman builds a solid piece-by-piece case that the majority of those pages were in tact when they arrived in the care of an Israeli institute.  A few years later they had vanished.

And things get messier.  Consider the death of a rare book dealer two years after he  allegedly offered to sell most of the missing pages to a collector for a million dollars:

The case was never solved.  Officially, in fact, there was no case, as the Hasid had died of a heart attack, in a hotel room that happened to have been rented by someone using an alias, who then disappeared without a trace.

Certainly convinces me.  Nothing to see here, folks.

Two fascinating books.

28 December 2011

The Ranger and the Sheriff's Wife

by Robert Lopresti

So, what does the title above make you think of?

a.  a romance novel

b. a naughty movie

c.  one of Leigh's reports on bizarre crimes in Florida.

The answer should be none of the above, because what I want to write about today are two excellent nonfiction books I read recently.  They are certainly prime material for some mystery writer but it doesn't seem to be me, so I thought I would spread the wealth.

Nature Noir, by Jordan Fisher Smith 

Twenty-some years ago Jordan Fisher Smith was a top seasonal park ranger.  That meant that every summer he had his pick of jobs in many of the most beautiful parks in the country. But when he wanted the security of a permanent job he had to take what he could get and that turned out to be Auburn State Recreation Area in northern California.  And that turned out to be a pretty weird place.


You see, Auburn wasn't a park exactly.  It was land that had been condemned in order to build a damsite, but the dam was never built (and still hasn't been).  As Smith noted it was a "grand social science experiment....which answered the question: How do people behave in a condemned landscape?"

The answer turns out be: not great.  The American River runs through Auburn and there is enough gold there to make it worthwhile for certain people to drag in dredging equipment to go mining.  Of course, mining in parks is illegal, but it was hard to convince judges and prosecutors - not to mention the miners - why it should be a punishable offense to mine in a place that would eventually be underwater anyway.

Some of the people who visited Auburn or lived there (legally or not) were scary.  Think meth labs, frinstance.  The book begins with a ranger seeing an angry man throwing something through the open window of his girlfriend's car as she drives by.  It was a baby.  Fortunately, the child wasn't hurt, but holy cow.

Smith is as interested in the nature as the noir, so, for example, the chapter that describes the geological flaws that have held up the dam also includes the hunt for a police officer's wife, missing and presumed dead.

And the writing is good, very good.  Here is Smith responding to an emergency call from another ranger.

If the world exists in a perpetual state of uncertainty, if things are half-assed and watered-down and most things fall into a gray area, when you respond to a call like that you are bathed for a few minutes in superhuman certainty.  You put away whatever squabbles you and your partners have had, ready to wade into the fray, to sacrifice yourself for any one of them.  You hit the lights and siren and drive better than you normally do, think sharper than you normally do.  The people in other cars look at you as you pass them on a mountain road and at intersections the cars part for you like the Red Sea for Moses.  It is an ascceptable substitute for reality; it's fleeting but it keeps yo believing in what you do.

Nonfiction books don't usually have surprise endings, but there are twists here for both Auburn and Smith.  A real page-turner.

The Secret Life of the Lawman's Wife, by BJ Alderman


When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 Hillary told a reporter that the country would be getting a two-for-one deal: two great leaders for the election of one.  Americans didn't enthuse over the idea of an unelected female co-president, so she dropped that campaign approach.

But for hundreds of years there has been an assumption in certain occupations that when you hired a man you got his wife's services for free.  I think the only places where this is still assumed may be with clergymen and college presidents.

However, up until the seventies, especially in small towns, governments seemed to believe that the wives of sheriffs, police chiefs, and jailkeepers came as a package deal.  BJ Alderman found dozens of memoirs and news articles dating back as far as the seventeenth century, and interviewed wives and family members as well.  The result is a fascinating look at the lives of these unsung heroines of law enforcement.

I think the most common complaint can be summed up as an assumption by the town authorities that the wife ought to be able to feed all the prisoners who happened to be in the jail with the family table scraps, and not coming pestering them for provisions. Picture a couple of dozen hungry prisoners and you can see the problem.

Alderman points out that in TV and the movies there was usually a lawman sitting around the jail with nothing to do. but in the true reports it seems like when the action happens the lawman is always on patrol, and guess who's left dealing with the chaos?  Another problem for the sheriffing family was the insane; when someone became dangerous to themselves or others they might wind up in the jail for weeks or months until an opening appeared in an asylum.

Now  picture a teenage boy in Iowa who, one afternoon in 1956, got a phone call from his mother at the grocery store where he was working.  "Dolores asked him if there was anything in particular he wished to save from his room.  Upon inquiry, Larry learned that a juvenile prisoner had set fire to the cell between Larry's room and the bathroom in an attempt to get free.  Yes, Dolores was sure the entire bulding would go up soon so he'd better decide quick."

Or consider this adventure of Molly E. Lattie, whose husband was the sheriff of Des Moines county (also in Iowa, of course) in the 1870s.

A prisoner, intent on escape, fashioned a straw dummy and tucked it into his bunk.  He then hid "elsewhere to wait for an opportunity to get through the jail door.  Mrs. Latty, on duty alone that night thought something looked peculiar and went into the cell to investigate.  When she discovered the dummy, instead of calling for help, she began searching all of the cells, looking for the prisoner.  She discovered him under a bunk...  She reached in and pulled him out, and ordered him to quit 'fooling around; and return to his cell before she became angry.'"  He did just as he was told.

Many of these criminals seem less dangerous than the ones we are used to (like the ones who baby-sat for their jailors' infants!).  But consider Sophie Alberding, sheriff's wife in Lincoln County, New Mexico.  "there was one feature of the new home which I did not enjoy.  The back stairway, up and down which I had to travel many times during the day, was still stained with blood, a grim reminder of the day two years before when Billy the Kid had shot and killed his guard..."

A remarkable book about a remarkable collection of women.