The True Story of Velma Barfield's Life, Crimes and Execution
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
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.
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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
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
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
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
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.
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Girl in the Photograph
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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Losing Sight, Gaining Insight
Alfred A. Knopf
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,"
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.
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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
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