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Black House
Stephen King
& Peter Straub

Random House
627 pp.


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, 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 roost.

--Charlie Onion

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Points of Departure: New Stories from Mexico
Monica Lavin (Editor)
City Lights Books
200 pp.


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 exotic place.

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

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The Wrong Man:
The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case

James Neff
Random House
415 pp.



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.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Stuffed: Adventures
of a Restaurant Family

Patricia Volk
Alfred A. Knopf
272 pp.



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 Montmorency.


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."

--Caroline Kettlewell

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