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.