& Peter Straub
Stephen King and Peter Straub's massive new tome,
Black House, opens up as if it's going to be a fairly
standard crime thriller.
Seventy-five years and several states separate
two sets of serial killings, but the circumstances are chillingly
similar: each killer strangles his child victims, eats pieces
of their bodies, and sends identically worded letters to the
victims' families describing his acts. The new killer, who preys
on his victims in the western Wisconsin town of French Landing,
leaves his letters unsigned, but the press picks up on the similarities
in the cases and dubs him the Fisherman, after the first killer,
Albert Fish. French Landing's sheriff knows his job is in jeopardy
if he doesn't catch the killer soon, but he also knows he needs
some help. The FBI is working the case, but the sheriff wants
Jack Sawyer, a former L.A. homicide detective who retired to
French Landing four years ago, to join his team. After all, Sawyer's
the finest--no, the only--natural detective the sheriff
has ever met.
Standard if particularly grim thriller,
right? Sure, if King and Straub had stopped there on the weirdness
scale. But consider who we're talking about here. Would King
and Straub, the kings of horror, write a straightforward thriller?
Not a chance in hell.
As steadfast King and Straub fans will
readily realize, this is a sequel of sorts to their previous
joint effort, The Talisman, and as such it places Jack
Sawyer in position to save the world by slipping into alternative
universes where unimaginably good--and bad--things happen. The
Crimson King, The Tower, The Badlands, Gunslingers...now that
sounds like King and Straub.
The book's flaws are apparent. The opening
is too slow and suffers from overwriting, some of the characters
are too broad (a perennial problem for King), and the climax
is overladen with what feels, even on a page of ink, like expensive
but slightly unbelievable special effects. But the novel has
considerable strengths as well. While it has more than its fair
share of broad characters, it also has characters who are sincerely
compelling and worth rooting for (ironically, a perennial strength
for King; go figure). And as big as this book is, it's absolutely
addictive. King and Straub know their genre inside out, and Black
House, its flaws not withstanding, shows why they rule the
Back to Archived Short
Points of Departure: New
Stories from Mexico
City Lights Books
When I read anything by a "Latin" writer,
I look for the shock of the unfamiliar. The Colombian master
Gabriel Garcia Marquez gives me what I'm looking for--and more--in
the opening of his novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude,
with his protagonist who, "as he faced the firing squad...was
to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to
discover ice." It's an alien world to us refrigerated Northerners.
We tend to think of all the lands south of the border as a single
Monica Lavin, a journalist, editor and
fiction writer in Mexico City, cracks the ice of that stereotype
in the collection of short stories she has edited, Points
of Departure: New Stories From Mexico. The characters in
these stories are cosmopolitan people living out their lives
in places like Mexico City. They know all about ice and how it
goes best in a liquor glass. Why should this surprise us? These
stories could be set anywhere in the United States, and, Lavin
reminds us, that's the point.
In fact, Juvenal Acosta's "Ginsberg's
Tie" is set in Berkeley, California., with a dinner gathering
in a small apartment. It's reminiscent of Raymond Carver in the
way the plot turns upon a small detail. The attention of old
friends, talking and drinking, is diverted as the wife of one
goes to the bathroom to urinate, all too audibly: "at first
it was a timid, crystalline sound, that, as the now-long seconds
it took to empty her kidneys transpired, grew, and invaded the
living room in which no one spoke." The story pays tribute
to Carver in a frontispiece quotation. We are all North Americans.
Great storytelling skill is evident through
most of this collection. Josefina Estrada's "June Gave Him
the Voice" has an arresting opening: "Medardo approached
his wife's still-warm corpse. He pried an envelope from her fingers
that read: To be opened after my death." If you don't
want to read on, you're not a reader, or a lover of stories.
There is not much dialogue in this collection;
interior monologues dominate. People seem imprisoned by loneliness.
Juan Villoro's "Coyote" is about a man who has a bad
drug trip in the desert and gets lost. Alvaro Uribe's "The
Hostage" is about a Mexican in France who has been seized
by terrorists who apparently mistake him for a U.S. diplomat.
Bernardo Ruiz's "Queen of Shadows" tells of a female
prison inmate without a family. She reaches out by calling men
at random out of the phone book and asking them to come see her.
The story is set in motion when one man says yes. Her happiness
is complete, but, as he warns her, "Some day I'll disappear."
This distinguished collection carries not
the shock of the strange but the kinship of the familiar. One
lesson for those of us living north of the border is that in
the quest for good fiction, there's no border at all.
--Arthur Alexander Parker
Back to Archived Short
The Wrong Man:
The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case
Just before dawn on July 4, 1954, the pregnant wife
of a young, successful surgeon in the small town of Bay Village,
Ohio, was brutally murdered in their bedroom while the surgeon
slept on a daybed downstairs. Her death and the trial and conviction
of her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, became a nationwide sensation
whose longevity defied all other murder cases. Its basic storyline
showed up in the immensely popular "The Fugitive" TV
series in the 1960s, and decades later, it showed up again--quite
profitably--on the big screen with Harrison Ford starring as
the wrongly convicted doctor.
The notion that Dr. Sheppard was wrongly
convicted was slow in coming, though. In the initial stages of
the investigation, it was really just a sensational case that
seemed to lead, inevitably, to Sheppard's conviction.
Sex had a central role in driving the public's
interest, of course. As James Neff observes in his new account
of the Sheppard case, The Wrong Man, adultery is the obligatory
first theory for domestic murder, and as the police uncovered
evidence of Sheppard's serial adulteries, they seemed
to be building a straightforward case of domestic homicide. What
if, the investigators said, Sheppard's wife confronted him about
his adulteries and he reacted with unimaginable rage?
The public--particularly the local public--seemed
willing to believe the worst of the doctor, no matter how 'normal'
and desirable his home life seemed. Indeed, the fact that the
murder took place in a family that seemed picture-perfect in
the 1950s mode--hard-working husband, devoted stay-at-home wife,
beautiful lakefront house in the suburbs, etc.--surely made the
story more alluring to a wide audience. If the murder had been
committed in swinging Southern California (where Dr. Sheppard
attended medical school and first began his many adulteries),
the story would undoubtedly have been robbed of much of its shock
value. The suggestion that a perfect family--one to which the
audience themselves aspired--was in fact deeply disturbed and
aberrant was simply too juicy to ignore. The best horrors, it
seems, must always include the audience as a potential victim
or--more dangerously--as a potential aggressor.
Other, less sensational elements also drove
the investigation against Sheppard--like the fact that the county
coroner was jealous of the Sheppard family's success with their
'upstart,' publicity-mongering osteopathic hospital. (At the
time, osteopaths were in an intense battle with the American
Medical Association over whether they were, in fact, practicing
legitimate medicine.) And the rumors that the Sheppards readily
performed abortions further ostracized them from the 'accepted'
medical community and colored their initial impressions of Sheppard's
moral character. Nonetheless, while professional jealousies and
ethical disapproval might have driven some of the initial stages
in the case, it was the sex--pure and simple--that caught the
country's eye and turned Sheppard's murder case into the Trial
of the Century.
Given the investigators' highly questionable
approach to the crime scene and their steadfast unwillingness
to consider the crime a sexual homicide (despite the position
and condition of the body), the case against Sheppard was open-and-shut.
But no matter how straightforward the case seemed in court, the
jury's guilty verdict didn't stand. As many readers--if not most--will
already know, Sheppard's second-degree murder conviction was
overturned (by then-unknown F. Lee Bailey) after he'd been imprisoned
for more than a decade. But he was a broken man by then, and
an attempt to return to his medical career ended after two of
his patients died post-surgery (in both cases, he accidentally
cut arteries that led to internal bleeding). A stint at professional
wrestling under the stage name of 'Killer' Sheppard didn't help
him recover his former respectability. Overwhelmed by alcoholism
and drug abuse, he died a mere four years after his release,
at the age of forty-six. Nonetheless, the question of his involvement
in his wife's murder remained unsettled, and the issue got a
major boost years after his death when the murder case was re-opened
and the Sheppards' only son brought a civil suit against the
state of Ohio for wrongful imprisonment.
Perhaps inevitably, all but the most fervent
True Crime fans will wonder whether the world needs another book-length
study of the Sheppard case. After all, the general outline and
outcome of the case are well-known. But the lingering uncertainties
attract us in a way an open-and-shut case never could, and Neff
does splendid work drawing the narrative together with well-timed
flashbacks and extended character studies that flesh the story
out in an easily digested form. And most importantly, he brings
a plethora of new evidence to the case. The book's title leaves
little doubt about Neff's own position about Sheppard's guilt
or innocence, but his theory of who the real murderer might have
been is tantalizing, to say the least.
Fans of the genre won't be disappointed--and
even casual readers who don't normally find True Crime appealing
should find The Wrong Man surprisingly addictive.
Back to Archived Short
of a Restaurant Family
Alfred A. Knopf
Food and family--so often, what we remember of one
is bound up inextricably with the other, our shared identity
defined as much by pantry shelves and dinner tables as by blood.
When I was young, against the bland backdrop of my school friends'
middle-American kitchens packed with Wonder Bread and Spaghetti-O's
and cheese puffs, my family's eccentricities were on full display
in the dense whole-wheat bread my father baked, the homemade
yogurt he cooked up, liverwurst sandwiches, linguine and clams,
my grandfather's predilection for buttermilk mixed with V-8.
Patricia Volk grew up in a restaurant family
in New York, and in her new memoir, Stuffed, a cast of
uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, parents and one treasured
sister are brought on the stage like courses in an extended meal.
All but the first chapter are titled with food--"Chocolate
Pudding," "Chopped Liver," "Mallomars"--and
the first begins with a litany of edibles brought home by Volk's
father every Saturday afternoon from his restaurant, Morgen's
(called "the store" by the family):
Saturdays, Dad worked half a day. Late
in the afternoon he'd come home hoisting a corrugated carton
on his shoulder precision packed with two pounds of sliced turkey
breast, sliced ham, sliced Swiss, a side of bacon cut into rashers,
fat-marbled steaks..., a rack of lamb, round white cardboard
containers filled with number 20 shrimps..., almond crescents,
strawberry tarts..., whole smoked fish. Melons, string beans,
celery like trees, cauliflower as big as the moon, pigs' feet
in aspic, and a glass jar of pickled green tomatoes. A quart
of Russian dressing, a quart of Roquefort, a pint of cocktail
sauce. A brace of mahogany ducks with a quart container of Sauce
This for a family of four. "When you
opened our fridge, food fell on your feet," Volk writes,
adding "You weren't considered fed unless you were in pain."
Each chapter focuses on characters from
her extended family. They are no more quirky or colorful, perhaps,
than anyone's relatives; Volk's strength is in carving out wonderfully
descriptive morsels from their lives. There's Aunt Lil, who "went
through life thinking she got the small half," had a pillow
embroidered "I've never forgotten a rotten thing anyone
has done to me," and had a seven-year premarital relationship
with her future husband, who then tried to refuse to marry her
on the grounds that she wasn't a virgin. There's Aunt Ettie and
the Orchid Trick for reigning in a straying husband: send yourself
an orchid, leave it in the refrigerator, go out and stay out
late. When your husband comes home, sees the orchid, wonders
where you are, "He will not dare ask you where the orchid
came from or where you were. A guilty man never dares to ask.
Leave orchids in the icebox a few more times. Act happy. You
probably won't need to spend the night out again." There's
Aunt Ruthie, who favors expressions like "I'll be jiggered,"
and "As I live and breathe," and made the cover of
the New York Daily News in 1990, held hostage at gunpoint
for seven hours in her apartment and lecturing her captor, "When
you go to prison, take out some books. Learn a different profession.
It's important in life to get hold of yourself."
Then there's her sister Jo Ann, eighteen
months older, fiercest critic, dearest friend. As children, Volk
writes, "my sister and I fought daily. Knives were thrown.
Ribs were kicked. My right thumb was slammed off in a door."
As adults, lost on a walk, her sister promises, "If I die
first, you can eat me," and Volk writes, "I don't know
if I could live without my sister....I love her as much as I
love me." Volk lists forty-five different named diets they've
launched upon together, from the Grapefruit, the Watermelon,
and the Red Soup to the Nine-Egg-A-Day and the Chew Everything
Thirty Times, and nurses her sister through the grotesque immediate
aftermath of a major facelift: "If someone fell from the
top of the Empire State Building and landed on their nose, it
couldn't be worse."
Although it has a dash of recipes and a
full plate of feasts remembered, large and small, Stuffed
isn't quite a food memoir. It's more like that reminiscing you
can fall into when you get together with your family, remembering
the past by remembering the ones closest to you who peopled it.
It's about growing up shaped in the sometimes rough, sometimes
comforting embrace of an extended family, "four generations
in a six-block radius," in a Manhattan of Continental cuisine
and ladies in pearls. "Family is the world, your very own
living microcosm of humanity, with its heroes and victims and
martyrs and failures, beauties and gamblers, hawks and lovers,
cowards and fakes, dreamers and steamrollers, and the people
who quietly get the job done....Family is how you become who
you will be."
Back to Archived Short