“The paranoia was fulfilled” – that’s how Joan Didion described the murders carried out in 1969 by Charles Manson and his band of devoted followers known as “The Family.” Translation? The late sixties were already a time of intense political change and civil unrest. Throw in sensationalized murders and an equally dramatic trial, and this period was officially the craziest and most unsettling in American history, no matter one’s political or ideological leanings. In Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Jeff Guinn traces the hardscrabble origins of the boy who grew up to become the infamous cult leader and murderer. Although Manson did have a somewhat unstable home life, he exaggerated or fabricated childhood tales of woe to win sympathy and devotion from his followers. In the true fashion of an “opportunistic sociopath,” as Guinn describes him, Manson used skills obtained in prison, like Dale Carnegie’s popular How to Win Friends and Influence People program, to manipulate followers and bring them under his control. His teachings that “Helter Skelter”, the end of an orderly American society, was close at hand led to the “Tate murders,” where pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally killed. Additionally, his followers murdered several other people before and after this most infamous crime.
Guinn does an excellent job alternating national and world history with Manson’s development, meticulously chronicling his childhood and adolescence in and out of reform schools, his young adulthood as a petty repeat criminal, and his time in Haight-Ashbury, the neighborhood that was the epicenter for the darker side of the hippie movement where Manson did much of his initial recruiting. Those who enjoyed Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders will appreciate this in-depth account of these suspenseful and chilling crimes. As James Lee Burke writes in his cover review: “Hang on, reader. This is a rip-roaring ride you won’t forget.”
A cozy New England hamlet definitely needs some mystery and dark secrets to make life interesting, and Karen Brown delivers with The Longings of Wayward Girls. In the summer of 1979, Sadie is a 12-year-old girl with a big imagination, a flair for the dramatic and just enough boredom to lead her into trouble. She also physically resembles another neighborhood girl who disappeared five years prior, a coincidence that will continue to haunt her into adulthood. Sadie and her best friend play a trick on Francie, a younger neighbor, leaving her a series of letters supposedly written by a boy from an earlier era. Francie’s letters back to the imaginary person become darker and more telling of trouble at home, but Sadie and her friend are not mature enough to understand this. Soon after, Francie becomes the second girl in the neighborhood to disappear, and Sadie and her friend harbor guilt over her disappearance. Twenty-four years later, Sadie is living the quintessential stay-at-home mother existence in her hometown. Yet she remains haunted by her dysfunctional family history, a recent stillbirth and her own lack of professional accomplishments, not to mention the long-ago unsolved disappearances of the two girls.
In some ways, this is a typical suburban drama about families with underlying issues: Sadie’s alcoholic, suicidal mother; Francie’s abusive father; another neighbor’s odd obsession with Christmas displays. Yet Brown fine tunes the characters and brings enough details about suburban living into the writing to authenticate the scenes. The characters are not always likeable, but their past traumas and upbringings do provide a modicum of explanation for their current actions and personalities. Those who enjoy authors like Jennifer McMahon or Heather Gudenkauf will become intrigued with this community brimming with past and present secrets.
In the eyes of society, five young women were lost even before they went physically missing and found dead. In Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, Robert Kolker vividly details not only a modern-day true crime case but also the stories of these women who slipped through the cracks of American society. Melissa Barthelemy. Maureen Brainard-Barnes. Shannan Gilbert. Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello. Megan Waterman. None of these became household names like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway did when they were reported missing. In fact, for several of them, their relatives had trouble being taken seriously by law enforcement. Yet all five women had personal histories, albeit with many common threads. They all grew up in towns without a lot of economic opportunities, they all had troubled family backgrounds, and several had children of their own they struggled to support. They all turned to prostitution as a way to make ends meet. And all of their bodies were discovered in the Oak Beach, NY area, a sparsely populated strip of land off the coast of Long Island.
Kolker masterfully interweaves the histories of these five women with suspenseful and frustrating elements of the crime investigation, including questionable detective work and an uncooperative beach town with secrets of its own. Ultimately, this is still a cold case, with speculation about whether all five died at the hands of the same person(s). Kolker also traces the evolution of prostitution, with women now being able to find clients through sites like Craigslist. This Internet business model belies the dangers that still exist in this line of work and has made it all the easier for those in desperate situations to sell themselves. For true crime fans, this is a book to read not only for the unsolved murders but for what it reveals about overlooked pockets of American life today.
The murder of a child is always shocking, and child killers even more so. In The Wicked Girls, Alex Marwood debuts with a gritty, psychological crime story about two British women trying to outrun their past. For Kirsty Lindsay and Amber Gordon, two girls from the same neighborhood but different worlds, their lives changed permanently one fateful afternoon when they were 11 and committed a horrendous crime against a child. After serving their time, they were given new identities and a chance to forge a new life. Amber, who drew a rougher lot as far as juvenile detention facilities go, eventually becomes a cleaning supervisor at a faded beach town amusement park. Kirsty is a successful journalist with a comfortable home and family, although recently the recession has put a strain on her career and finances. When a string of murders suddenly happens in the town where Amber lives, the two women are unexpectedly brought face-to-face, their shared past threatening to overwhelm them in new ways.
Marwood has constructed a gripping plot with shifting characters and twists like the maze of fun house mirrors in Amber’s amusement park. The backgrounds and dark secrets of the characters are balanced with the crime itself, making this a good choice for readers who like well-developed characters and relationships as well as crime drama. Ambiguous and not at all reassuring, this novel examines social structures and the criminal justice system and questions whether someone should be forever indebted to society for a past mistake. Until the last pages, readers are left wondering if the girls’ crime was accidental or the work of cold-blooded killers. Fans of Rosamund Lupton or Gillian Flynn will appreciate this murky, suspenseful story of flawed characters desperately grasping for normalcy.
Something very wrong was happening to patients at various hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Mysterious deaths and a higher than usual number of unexplained incidents followed nurse Charlie Cullen as he hopscotched from one hospital to the next. In The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, Charles Graeber relays a chilling, true crime account of a board-certified nurse who killed an unknown number of the hospitals’ most vulnerable patients over the span of 16 years. More disturbing was the hospitals’ handling of it. Although Cullen had been dismissed or summarily fired from jobs, he never seemed to have problems finding another position. Fearful of appearing incompetent or risking internal investigation, hospitals did not report missing drugs or unusual deaths. Cullen was often allowed to resign with the promise that incidents would not show up on his record. Even when police investigators became involved in 2003, one of the hospitals blatantly lied about their ability to access data showing which drugs were requested by which nurses.
The Good Nurse is the result of six years of research by Graeber, including interviews with a now- imprisoned Cullen. Through these interviews, plus police records and court documents, Graeber reconstructs Cullen’s violent family history and the convoluted methods he used to manipulate the hospitals’ drug-dispensing systems in order to kill patients with overdoses. He gives readers insight into a complex man who could just as easily build rapport with co-workers and woo women as he could mercilessly kill the sick and infirm. The total number of victims will never be known, although Graeber describes him as “perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history,” with estimates as high as 300 deaths. True crime and medical thriller readers shouldn’t miss this story of a “good nurse” with deadly intentions, and the detectives who were in a race against time to arrest him before he killed again.
When you’re set to marry a high-powered New Yorker who’s being groomed for mayor, have a satisfying law career and a comfortable life in the city, what more could life hold? Ellen Branford is about to find out when she travels to tiny Beacon, Maine to deliver a letter from her just-passed grandmother to one of her grandmother’s old flames. In The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café, Mary Simses serves up a delicious dish of chance meetings, small town living and discoveries of long-past. When Ellen’s grandmother passes away unexpectedly, she leaves instructions for Ellen to give a letter to a Chet Cummings, its contents full of apologies and requests for forgiveness. For what? Ellen doesn’t know. But her quick in-and-out trip to Beacon is delayed when at first she nearly drowns and is rescued by a handsome construction worker, and then discovers that there is more to her grandmother’s past than she or anyone in her family knew. Will the magic of this unique place pull Ellen away from a life she’s worked so hard to build? Although the answer is fairly predictable, the plot twists – especially the arrival of Ellen’s fiancé and mother – create an engaging story of love dilemmas and family drama.
Simses’ first novel, she keeps the writing light and humorous with poignant family relationships mixed in for substance. Cozy rural living springs to life through the descriptions of food, homes and one-of-a-kind quirky characters. True to its title, see if you can make it through the book without wanting to bake or eat something with blueberries. Fans of cozy mysteries, romances and anything chick lit will devour this sweet treat of a tale.
She was the quintessential southern belle who married a reckless young writer, took New York by storm and became the embodiment of the Roaring Twenties’ flapper. In Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler envisions the dramatic, heartfelt life of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, working through the entanglement of images, rumors and speculations which have been tied to this intriguing woman since her introduction into New York’s and Europe’s artisan circles over 90 years ago. What emerges is a portrait of a young woman full of life, an Alabama transplant with quick wit and plenty of sass.
Through the modern-day lens Fowler applies to her writing, Zelda’s challenges, including her battle with mental illness and her supposed unhealthy obsession with ballet, are reexamined. Fowler also highlights what is often overlooked — Zelda herself was an accomplished writer, even penning a review of her husband F. Scott’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, but much of her writing was overshadowed or published jointly with his name, so as to make it more acceptable with editors of the time.
Zelda and F. Scott have remained intriguing, due in large part to their fast rise to fame, nomadic existence and self-destructive downfall. Readers will appreciate this insightful reconstruction of their lives during the heyday of the 1920s. Fans of Fitzgerald’s novels will also see bits of the couple’s lives and conversation which were later incorporated into his stories. Z is the latest in a string of historical fiction about wives of famous men, including The Aviator’s Wife and The Paris Wife, and this lively tale would make an excellent travel companion or book club pick.