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 January Short Takes

Death Sentence:
The True Story of Velma Barfield's Life, Crimes and Execution
Jerry Bledsoe
419 pp.


In 1974, a new county prosecutor set out to take Robeson County, North Carolina, off the record books as having one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country. Two years later, he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's deadliest prosecutor for winning twenty-two death sentences and never losing a case. He wasn't popular with everyone, of course, but his most controversial case was his successful prosecution of a murder case against Velma Barfield, who would become the first woman to be executed by lethal injection in U.S. history.

Initially, the forty-five-year-old grandmother was being investigated for the arsenic poisoning of her fiancée--a crime she vehemently denied. Then, after breaking down and confessing to her son ("I only wanted to make him sick"), he drove her to the police station, where she confessed--without a lawyer present--to killing three other people as well, including her own mother. Only after she had begun confessing did her son realize who would be prosecuting the case--and how severe the charges would be.

It wasn't her first run-in with the law, as Jerry Bledsoe reveals in his new, well-researched and ultimately moving book. She was addicted to a variety of prescription pills and had been convicted of theft of a doctor's prescription form and forgery as well as writing bad checks. Nor was she known by her family to take even the smallest adversities well: when her son graduated from high school and took his first job-his first step toward independence--his bedroom mysteriously caught fire, insuring that he would stay home, trying to help his mother cope. (In fact, the family house caught fire two other times; the first fire killed Velma's first husband.)

In hindsight, with her tumultuous life so completely uncovered by Bledsoe, Velma's four murders might seem inevitable to the jaded reader. At the time, though, her confession shocked everyone who knew her. And as Bledsoe observes, the public reaction to her apparent religious conversion in prison made her subsequent execution an international debate.

Bledsoe is a master of the true-crime genre, and he has produced an exemplary book here by examining Velma's life at such clear, level-headed length. Rather than sensationalizing a grisly case for its shock value, he lifts the case to an ethical debate about the efficacy of the death penalty versus the moral goodness of redemption. No matter which side of the debate the reader ultimately takes up, Bledsoe has provided enough information to make it an informed decision.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Southern Cross
Patricia Cornwell
382 pp.


For the second installment in her non-Scarpetta series, Patricia Cornwell has shifted the setting from Charlotte, North Carolina, to the more familiar Cornwell territory of Richmond, Virginia. But aside from a single reference to Richmond's medical examiner being a woman, nothing is made of her non-Scarpetta cast being so near to Cornwell's world-famous medical examiner. It might have been fun to throw the supremely confident Kay Scarpetta into Southern Cross's mix (along with a werewolf or two), but it's probably just as well she doesn't show up. What, after all, would she have to do? Southern Cross is more a comedy than anything else, and Scarpetta's not known for her ability to laugh.

Cornwell's comedic talents haven't been the basis of her own reputation, either. Excruciatingly detailed crime scenes and autopsies, soap-opera-level shouting matches among her central characters, political infighting--this is familiar Cornwell territory. Surprisingly, though, Southern Cross is an entertaining read.

A word of warning, though: we're not talking Oscar Wilde comedy, here. Cornwell's characters are broadly drawn stereotypes (yes, that's redundant, but necessary in the context), and even as stereotypes, they sometimes strain credulity. Too often, they seem (and sound) dumber than one would believe possible--unless they're house pets. Yes, that's right: in Southern Cross, cats and dogs understand English and human psychology better than some of the human characters, and they can dial phone numbers correctly, too.

Think of a relatively clean Jim Carrey comedy (complete with brilliant house pets), and you're getting close to Cornwell's brand of broad, satiric comedy. The plot--which occasionally seems of little consequence (and whose potential for entertainment would be destroyed if described here)--is driven by misunderstandings, mistaken identities and crosscutting coincidences (the staples of light, broad comedy since Plautus, right?). When everything is finally set up (like a long, snaking line of dominoes) and Cornwell sets the plot moving toward the inevitable conclusion, it's actually quite funny. Of course, Elmore Leonard does this sort of thing with better rhythm and speed, and he has a better, more accurate ear for street lingo--but then, he's the king of the genre.

Faithful Cornwell readers looking for a first paragraph that opens with a gruesome corpse will be sadly disappointed, this time out. But writers are entitled to break out of their well-traveled ruts from time to time, and (precociously intelligent pets aside) Cornwell doesn't embarrass herself as an aspiring comedian.

--Daphne Frostchild

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The Girl in the Photograph
Gabrielle Donnelly
288 pp.


Southerners like to think of Southern families as brawling, turbulent fountainheads of good stories--and they are, from Faulkner's Sartoris tales on down. But surely Catholic Irish families, whatever side of the Atlantic they are reared on, run a close second. No matter what region or culture they rise from, the steel bonds of family and religion form the architecture for fine fiction.

An Irish-American family is the core of Gabrielle Donnelly's The Girl in the Photograph. Allegra O'Riordan, the protagonist, is a standup comic who returns to Chicago to attend her father's funeral. Among his personal effects, she finds a photograph of her long-dead mother. She is in a bathing suit, posing seductively. The photo was taken just before she married her father, yet a note on the back seems to be a love note to another man. Who is this man? Who was her mother? No one will tell her, not even her mother's brother, and a priest who knew her mother will only tell her that she was a terrible sinner. Allegra's search for identity--hers, her mother's and the people her mother loved--pushes the book's plot.

Donnelly is a graceful writer who runs against the grain of much modern fiction because she delivers sensitive character development rather than sensational shocks. Sometimes, though, I wish she'd turn up the voltage a little. She conveys a lot of information to the reader through lengthy interior monologues rather than action. And Allegra, her protagonist, seems a bit grave and humorless for someone who is a standup comic by profession. Comics have their dark side just like the rest of us, of course (you wouldn't want to cross Mark Twain in a bad mood!). But I, for one, would have welcomed a dash of irony or sharp wit to cut this book's Guinness-thick gloom.

Still, even in its slow moments, The Girl in the Photograph has charm and grace to savor.

--Arthur Alexander Parker

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Twilight: Losing Sight, Gaining Insight
Henry Grunwald

Alfred A. Knopf
144 pp.


Most of us rarely think about the enormous volumes of information our eyes absorb every day--from newsstand headlines caught at a glance to the familiar sight of a friend's face. Seeing, like breathing, is unconscious, automatic. Even when we are intently studying the page of a book or the departures board at the airport, our eyes are taking in countless peripheral details.

Henry Grunwald, former editor in chief of Time, Inc., was no different for most of his life. He lived in a world of language, travel, experience. Then, a few years ago, he noticed something slightly amiss with his vision. New glasses, he presumed, would do the trick. Instead, a trip to the eye doctor led in short time to a devastating diagnosis: age-related macular degeneration. No cure exists. The prognosis is uncertain. His vision might remain diminished, he was told. It could possibly improve. Yet he might also find himself, sooner or later, completely blind.

Twilight, Grunwald's memoir of attempting to come to terms with vision loss, is a brief yet far-ranging account of the meaning of sight, of what it is both literally and figuratively, and of what it is like to feel it slip away. "Living with macular degeneration means living in a half-veiled world," he writes.

Throughout his book he recounts the endless frustrations, the losses great and small, wrought by his failing eyesight. He does not recognize friends. His own face is a blurred uncertainty in the mirror. He cannot read street signs or restaurant menus. The world becomes an endless series of obstacles--street curbs, stairways, a wrinkled carpet--threatening to trip him. Worst of all, he notes, are the books and magazines and newspapers that he, a man whose life was spent in careful consideration of the written word, can read now only with the greatest difficulty, if at all. "I now feel the visual equivalent of struggling for breath," he notes.

At once both an informative accounting of macular degeneration and a meditation on vision, Twilight forces you to think about seeing. "I miss the hard edges," Grunwald writes, and when you finish the book it is nearly impossible not to look about with a simple gratitude for those edges.

--Caroline Kettlewell

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Trouble in Paradise
Robert Parker
304 pp.


Jimmy Macklin, the deliciously confident bad guy in Robert B. Parker's Trouble in Paradise, has dreamed up a stunningly bold scheme: he wants to take over an entire island off the coast of Massachusetts and rob it blind. Not just the island's bank. Not just the boutiques and the island's one restaurant. He wants to go door to door and rob every one of the fifty houses in Stiles Island's gated community. He's certainly bound to find money--the cheapest house on the island sells for $875,000, and the CEOs who live there aren't known for poverty.

He's got a couple problems, though. First, Macklin hates to plan his jobs. As his devoted girlfriend (and partner in crime) realizes while watching him brainstorm the heist, "He loved to think of himself as a kind of master strategist, coolly going into battle with exactly the right troops, with every detail meticulously covered, with the enemy outwitted. But she knew better. Jimmy managed to get the feeling without actually doing it." As Faye knows, improvising an island-sized hold-up is a risky, maybe even foolhardy gesture. But Macklin won't listen.

His second problem's even worse--and for once, Macklin knows it. The sheriff of Paradise, the coast town across from the island, is Jesse Stone, a thirty-five-year-old ex-baseball player with ten years of L.A. Homicide under his belt. As Macklin realizes the moment he meets him, Stone's not your garden-variety sheriff. He's street-smart, tight-lipped and unrelentingly tough in an unassuming way. But he's also got a drinking problem--and an ex-wife he can't forget. He's not perfect, and he's not guaranteed to win, whether he's going up against bad guys or local politicians who want to get him fired. So Macklin ignores his girlfriend's wise admonition ("Don't make this you against the cop to see who's better. Just steal the money and we'll go"), and rubs his hands together in anticipation. After all, the sheriff's just going to make the heist more exciting, right?

Trouble in Paradise is Parker's second novel to star Jesse Stone, and--as usual with Parker's novels, no matter who's the detective--it's damn near perfect. The plot is strong, and his characters have enough endearing traits to make their jeopardies matter. Those are certainly points in Parker's favor, of course. But it's his skill as a stylist, pacing his text and teasing his readers along with short, crosscutting chapters and knowing precisely what balance to strike between compression and expanding detail, that lifts his novels so far above practically every other writer in the detective genre.

Whether you make a habit of reading detective fiction or not, read Trouble in Paradise for the sheer joy of experiencing great, brilliantly controlled prose. Parker is a master of the form.

--Woody Arbunkle

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