Book reviews by Jeffrey Stanley, originally published in the Brooklyn Rail.

September, 2010

Theater of Cruelty
Book Review by Jeffrey Stanley

Douglas Perry
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired 'Chicago'
(Viking, 2010)

Close on the heels of Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Penguin, 2010), comes Douglas Perry’s true crime history The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, which turned out to be a welcome companion piece.

The former is a dissection of New York City’s use and rapid improvement of nascent forensic medical techniques during the Prohibition era.  Murder after murder is lovingly recreated—especially those involving poisons—and then deconstructed by über CSI experts. The latter book takes us to Prohibition-era Chi-town, where the weapon of choice wasn’t poison but pistols, and the bad guys were bad gals.

Perry relies heavily on the purple prose and yellow journalism of the day to revisit the fact that nine times out of ten, if you were pretty and white, not only were you going to get away with murder at the hands of an all-male jury, you were going to become famous.  Newspapers, newsreels, and radio broadcasts from coast to coast would see to it. The 1920s were arguably the beginning of the age of celebrity, when being a murderer just might make you a multimedia superstar.  

One such cold-blooded, doe-eyed vixen was Beulah Annan, a bored housewife carrying on a moonshine-soaked affair with coworker Harry Kalstedt.  She shot him during a quarrel one afternoon and let him bleed out on her living room floor for three hours while she continued to polish off her bootleg liquor, crank up the jazz on her record player, and dance about while children played outside.  She became the inspiration for a 1926 Broadway hit, a biting little satire called Chicago.  The evergreen play became a silent film, then a talkie, and then in 1975 a Kander, Ebb & Fosse musical, which in 2002 became an Oscar-winning film.

The play’s author, Maurine Watkins, was a budding Indiana playwright who first tried her hand at the male-dominated journalism of gritty Chicago as a way to gain life experience and witness evil up close. She came to the right place, quickly becoming a star reporter for the Chicago Tribune, “a real hanging paper—out for conviction always,”covering the girls of Murderess’ Row, the women’s section of the Cook County Jail, in the same zinging style that she would later apply to the likes of fictional stage siren Roxie Hart.

The book is a wickedly fun read that often had me chuckling aloud, such as when Assistant State’s Attorney Roy Woods arrives at Kalstedt’s murder scene and introduces himself to the apparently traumatized Beulah, who asks him through her drunken tears if he can “frame it to look like an accident.”  (“You don’t ‘frame’ anything with me,” he replied coldly—oh, how wrong he was.)

Perry has written the book’s several murder yarns in a hardboiled staccato style that emulates the journalism of its time and place. We learn about hipster and murderess Wanda Stopa:  “That was why she went to law school, time and again the only girl in a classroom

full of boys. That was why Kenley Smith’s exhortations for the unconventional life, real life, resonated. That was why she went to bed with him. She never recovered.” 

With so much style, the book ought to be a thrill ride from cover to cover, but this same writing is part of the book’s undoing.  Perry often relies on newspaper articles for his source material while he simultaneously mocks them for their heavy slants, leaving us to question the veracity of Perry’s own sensationalist take on the events.   When the cops arrive at Beulah’s place, the disheveled killer’s cheeks are “splotchy from crying, her nose red, breasts like crashed dirigibles.”

When upper crust murderess-to-be Belva Gaertner comes in from a ride, “her thighs and buttocks glowed, radiating from the inside out like a clay pot right out of the fire—a beautiful soreness.”  Such lurid leaps to enhance tales raunchy enough on their own were a source of amusement, but for the wrong reason. We’re laughing at Perry instead of with him.

Despite the book’s overall fun salaciousness, its biggest failure is its whitewashing of the topic—it almost completely ignores the burgeoning black and immigrant populations of jazz-era Chicago. How on earth does one write a book about jazz while ignoring its roots in the African-American experience? The author seems satisfied highlighting the case of Italian murderess Sabella Nitti and her particularly unfair treatment by reporters, the Trib’s Genevieve Forbes describing her as a “gibbering…animal.” Nitti went on to become the first woman in Cook County to receive a death sentence (it was later commuted to life in prison after she took a cue from her American-born cellmates and started prettying herself up for reporters and judges). But when ugly black-white race riots intrude into the plot they are given short shrift and hurried past, without mention of the names of black leaders who spoke for or against the riots, or any of the mostly black murder victims, or even black criminals brought in on charges. However, much space is set aside for detailed descriptions of the white husbands, lovers, and lawyers of the book’s antiheroines. 

Even in the book’s concluding pages, the author can only muster up the energy to tell us that Annan’s and Gaertner’s acquittals brought an end to the Chicago media’s fascination with Murderess’ Row.  After all, “two of the remaining murder suspects were black women...”  It might have been criminal for white editors and reporters, even our heroine Maurine Watkins, to ignore them at the time, but it’s unforgivable for Perry, with all of his homework, not to have at least taken the time to check their case records to tell us their names and, more importantly, their victims’ names, and the details of the charges against them. Even if they weren’t given much coverage by the white media, were their no black-owned newspapers in the South State Street area that might have covered such events and provided Perry with a few photos?

Overall, the book is a fun and informative read, and a poignant reminder, even now, to take what you read in the paper, or see on Nancy Grace, with a grain of salt.  If we’re lucky, half of it is probably true.

©2010 by The Brooklyn Rail. All rights reserved.

October, 2010
10th Anniversary Issue

Daddy, Who's Grover Cleveland?
Book Review by Jeffrey Stanley

Charles W. Calhoun
From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age
(Hill and Wang, 2010)

The phrase “Gilded Age” started as a satirical term co-coined by Mark Twain and co-opted from Shakespeare in 1873. It was an apt description of the post-Civil War United States. The increase in industry and modernization, the ostentatiousness of high profile wealth, and extremely high voter turnout made our culture look as good as gold on the outside even while it festered on the inside. Greed and rampant get-rich-quick schemes were the norms of the day. Political partisanship and sectionalism were at their egg-throwing worst. Bloody injustices were perpetrated almost daily against newly freed slaves in the South, and increasingly against striking factory workers in the North. Three presidents were assassinated.

For the serious student of U.S. history or political science, Charles W. Calhoun’s detailed From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age will likely make a compelling read. With its structure based on presidential administrations and its focus on the political minutiae of getting bills passed, this brief but dense survey would surely make a solid addition to any complement of books on the 19th century U.S.

During this rough and rowdy phase of the country’s adolescence, President Ulysses S. Grant, a Civil War hero, allied with the outspoken Frederick Douglass to push for civil rights for newly freed African-Americans in the South. Night riders and members of all white “rifle clubs” weren’t afraid to shoot first without questions, leaving hundreds of blacks dead and making life in places like Hamburg, S.C., a living nightmare. Despite Grant’s best efforts, including at times sending federal troops to the South in a precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the situation remained virtually unchanged. The region was kept in the tight grasp of resentful, unreconstructed Democrats for another century.

The parade of Gilded Age presidents after Grant—Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland (again), and McKinley—decided that racial equality was less crucial to the nation’s success than regional reconciliation among whites, currency reform, and expansionism. Before the era was over our military had succeeded in running the Spanish out of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

Unfortunately, such an intense time in U.S. history has been rendered dull by the author. His strenuous effort at encyclopedic objectivity is commendable but a little more three-dimensionality would have helped bring this exciting and often gut-wrenching age to life. The populace remains at best a faceless blob reduced to mere statistics. Even the strongest personalities, like the outspoken Douglass, the fiery Democrat orator William Jennings Bryan, Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt, are described only in terms of their stances on legislation. Notorious binge drinker and alleged anti-Semite Grant, one of our most colorful presidents, once got a speeding ticket for riding his horse and buggy too fast through D.C. Sadly none of that, whether fact or legend, is mentioned in this book. Instead, we get a whitewashed Grant—a sober, taciturn administrator who is either loathed or loved by those in his immediate circle strictly for his positions on matters like currency reform.

What did the black community really think of the Gilded Age presidents? How were they perceived by religious factions in the North and South? What did the populace think of them, and not just through poll numbers but events and anecdotes? Surely something as sexy-sounding as the Whiskey Ring, a Republican scandal, caused a stir in the citizenry outside the nation’s financial districts and nominating convention war rooms.

The women in the presidents’ lives, even when they’re exerting direct influence, are most often nameless “wives” given little more than a polite tip of the hat from the author as he passes them by.  For the record, Grant’s wife was named Julia Boggs Dent and she was the daughter of a slave owner. Before the Civil War, Grant happily made use of his father-in-law’s slaves and even bought one of  them. The Grants were scheduled to attend Ford’s Theatre with the Lincolns on the night of President Lincoln’s assassination but canceled because Julia had gotten into a tiff with Lincoln’s wife, Mary Ann Todd. None of this is mentioned in the book. President Rutherford B. Hayes’s wife, Lucy Webb, the first First Lady with a college degree, was an ardent abolitionist who convinced her pro-slavery husband to accept her views and change his political position. None of this is mentioned in the book.

Overall, the work is a near miss. The central lesson seems to be simply that there’s nothing new in American politics.  If its purpose is to document presidential decision-making in the late 19th century, it’s a handy reference. If its intent is to bring the oft-forgotten Gilded Age to life for the average reader, it’s best left on the shelf.

©2010 by The Brooklyn Rail. All rights reserved.

November, 2010

Forget It, Santiago, It's Chinatown
Book Review by Jeffrey Stanley

Adam Dunn
Rivers of Gold
(Bloomsbury Press, 2010)

Not quite a detective story, Adam Dunn’s tech-noir novel lives up to its front-cover claim that it’s “a mile a minute” page-turner. Set in New York City in the year 2013, in which the five boroughs have been reduced to one giant South Bronx circa 1975, our chief docent is a hipster named Renny. An up-and-coming photographer, Renny uses his career to gain entrée to the city’s thriving underground nightclubs, or “speaks”—short for speakeasies—so he can deal Ecstasy to the city’s steadily dwindling number of affluent Beautiful People.

On the streets, violent crime is rampant, despite a pervasive surveillance culture propagated as much by NYPD’s street cams as by anyone with a cell phone. The safest refuges to distribute drugs are in the backseats of selected N.Y.C. taxicabs, whose drivers are part of specific drug kingpin’s distribution networks. Babe magnet Renny, who gets laid by exotic, statuesque models almost nightly, seeks to become middle management for Reza, a shadowy Russian mobster with designs on controlling all of the speaks in the city.

Across town we meet the NYPD’s Detective Santiago, a Dominican tough guy who is part of the new, secret Citywide Anticrime Bureau, or CAB. The acronym’s no coincidence, as the unit’s main cover for tackling street crimes is a fleet of taxicabs. Little do these fearless detectives know, they’re encroaching upon the turf of drug lord Reza’s main distribution channel. Santiago, who fights to remain strictly by-the-book despite the corruption all around him on the force, has just been assigned a creepy new partner named More, a silent, quick, heavily-armed human Terminator. Santiago correctly infers that More is a highly trained secret agent working undercover as a mere police officer, but why? Renny and Santiago, who don’t know each other from a hole in the sidewalk, are on a collision course toward an ugly meeting.

There’s a reason this genre is called tech noir. True to its roots in film noir, the novel’s climax even takes place in, you guessed it, Chinatown, conjuring up images of the Robert Towne-Roman Polanski homage to the genre. Like any good noir story, Dunn’s imagery creates a palpable sense of place, a narrative in which the eternally moist environment, with its high-contrast lighting and sharp cinematic angles, is as much a character as the cops, mobsters, dealers, cabbies, fops, and femmes fatales who inhabit it.

Arresting passages of the now-dilapidated Flatiron District put one in the mind of Theodore Dreiser’s depiction in Sister Carrie of the same area 110 years ago before its fall. Any New Yorker reading Dunn’s novel will at once feel nostalgia for a beautiful homeland lost. A queasiness sets in when learning that New York City has collapsed not because of a monstrous Hollywood meteor, but because of a freefall into financial ruin like the one we’re skirting right now.

The book’s law enforcement and taxi industry milieus feel meticulously researched, creating a sense that, even when situations push past credibility, they’re probably rooted in fact. Despite this strength, the novel falters under the weight of its own dogged research, as though the author is dying to show off his deep familiarity with the minutiae of how taxi companies are run, how airstrikes are called in, how military-grade weapons work, how trained snipers operate, and the model numbers of the latest automobiles. The narrative is so bogged down in real and fictional acronyms it starts to read like a run-on text message: Audi QX TDI, Heckler & Koch P2000SK, OCID, SL95 AMG, GHB, MDMA, ESU, SCAR, SERE, JADAM, LRRP, MARSOC, SO/AMF, SASR.

Do what with a what?

Thankfully, the author presents New York City as the multicultural, multinational city of immigrants it has always been, rather than subjecting readers to a couple of white leading men supported by second-string magical Negroes and pet gays. Unfortunately, he relegates those insulting stock roles to the novel’s women, 99.995 percent of whom are models who live to be screwed and to screw over men.

If the female characters are largely one-dimensional, the men just barely hit the two-dimensional mark. That the priapic Renny is heartbroken over a lost love, yet immediately decides he’s fallen for a new conquest simply because she’s great in bed and likes art museums, keeps the emotional range of this major character limited to junior-high puppy love. When More hops out of a moving car en route to a stakeout just for kicks and tumbles off into the darkness, he becomes a farcical stock character à la Dr. Strangelove’s General Buck Turgidson or M.A.S.H.’s masochistic military intelligence agent Colonel Flagg. When More goes in for the kill sporting an absurdly high-powered explodo-rifle that will not only take out his targets but vaporize them—all while wearing a ghillie suit and oxygen mask so he can hide in a pile of trash—one can only chuckle.

The plot is mortally wounded by poorly handled exposition, which is delivered in the clunkiest way imaginable: via monologues. These forced speeches are delivered primarily by minor characters who serve their expositional purpose and quickly exit the story. In addition, at one point the author stops the plot dead in its tracks to hand readers a top secret dossier on the shadowy More. Later, readers are treated to the full text of a detailed newspaper article used as a creaky device to tie up loose ends. These expositional brick walls pop up with increasing frequency the closer one gets to the end, slowing the plot to a crawl when it should be hurtling like a speeding bullet.

In short, Rivers of Gold is like a decent Ecstasy trip; it feels good going up, but the inevitable come down makes the whole thing feel like a bummer.

©2010 by The Brooklyn Rail. All rights reserved.

November, 2010

Holey Logic, Batman
Book Review by Jeffrey Stanley

Richard Poplak
The Sheik's Batmobile
(Soft Skull Press, 2010)

Richard Poplak’s quick-witted survey of U.S. pop culture throughout the core of the Muslim world functions as a meaty, detail-laden addendum to Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’s famed pop culture book. The latter claims to be a secret history of the 20th century, but nearly forgets that everyone has had a 20th century, not just a subculture of white people worshipping at the feet of Johnny Rotten and Malcolm McLaren. Punk rock is hard to take as anything other than really good rock-and-roll, and its so-called “philosophy of negation” is hard to take seriously when the music’s chief adherents are a bunch of white, middle-class kids shocked to discover that society is hypocritical. Really? It is?

The Sheikh’s Batmobile takes a step in the right direction, focusing on how U.S. pop culture, especially punk, heavy metal, and hip-hop, impacts upon and co-mingles with the cultures of the Middle East. The author is a Canada-based, white, South African journalist and director of music videos and commercials; he has a particularly keen eye and ear for the U.S.’s cultural influences, having been raised on a full diet of it himself.

During his two years of travels, Poplak dines with the Muslim world’s top TV moguls and their surgically-perfect wives one week, and slums it with Palestinian rappers in bombed-out apartment buildings the next. From the titular sheikh­­—who will spare no expense to three custom-built Batmobiles from the eras of Adam West, Michael Keaton, and Christian Bale—to self-mutilating, Indonesian punk rockers slam dancing in their Doc Martens, to screaming metaliens at an Egyptian death metal music festival, Poplak takes readers on a frenzied, colorful journey. He finds pretty much what he expected: that they love us, they really love us. Still, his anecdotes are alternately amusing and tragic.

Despite the ever-present danger of embracing all things American, Dewa frontman Ahmad Dhani, “Indonesia’s Bono,” is such a devout worshipper of U.S. culture that he waxes downright eschatological: “[W]hat you call pop culture, this will save us. It’s very easy to make this place more Western. We need more good Hollywood movies. Otherwise we are finished. We are lucky here. We have malls, movies, music. It is a start. It will be hard to topple that. I often thank God for these things.”

To his great credit, Poplak does his damnedest not to seem condescending, or to paint his host countries as quaint or backward. In Indonesia, where the punk scene is apparently the number-one youth subculture, “Western pop has...been ransacked for what worked... It’s tempting to call the Indonesian way imitative but that wouldn’t be quite right, because it’s absorbative—Indonesian punk is Indonesian an art form as it is an American or British one.”

The reader can also take comfort in feeling that the writer knows his stuff, and didn’t stop his prep work at back issues of Rolling Stone or the often incomplete “[My] iPod was no stranger to rap made by Muslim artists. The subgenre took shape in France’s riot-ridden banlieues where young immigrants found corollaries between their situation and that of blacks in urban

North America. From there it spread to Lebanon...Hip-hop had also made it to North Africa where Moroccan rappers like Salah Edin (who raps furiously in the Moroccan dialect of Darija) built a hardcore local fan base.”

In another instance, Poplak doesn’t just tell you that Tupac is popular in Palestine; he looks under the hood to tell you what makes the engine purr. “Tupac’s legend runs deep: his mother was one of twenty-one Black Panthers arrested in 1969 under suspicion of planning terrorist activities. She had links to the Nation of Islam, her adopted last name is a derivative of the Arabic shukran meaning ‘thank you,’ or in this case, ‘thanks to God.’ In prison, she wrote a rather uncompromising epistle to her captors promising ‘a war—a true revolutionary war—a bloody war. And we will win.’”

However, the author’s historical leaps to depict a world in which everyone can trace their musical roots to Islam would make Evel Knievel envious. “Hip-hop traces back definitively to the rhythm of Qur’an recitation,” he tells us without a blink. “Its poetic cadences, when properly rendered, are both sharp-edged and liquid...It flows...The Qur’an means, literally, ‘recitation’: it is meant to be performed, called from the ramparts.” That means it can be claimed as hip-hop’s grandma? The much older poetry of the Vedas and Upanishads was also meant to be spoken and sung. Does this mean one can claim that punk rock traces back definitively to Hinduism? Unlikely.

It is also disappointing that music other than punk, heavy metal, and hip-hop is ignored. Poplak’s smugness in differentiating these musical subcultures from what he apparently considers inconsequential is embarrassing at times. Visiting the Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, he tells us with an eye roll that “a stage had been set up for a French/Syrian jazz concert promoting ‘dialogue’—a quaint, officially sanctioned piece of cultural back and forth far removed from the trenches.” Jazz music isn’t pop culture, despite its roots in the African-American experience, alongside hip-hop? Aside from a mocking examination of superstar Lionel Richie’s popularity in Libya and a fleeting allusion to the legendary Johnny Cash, the international popularity of mainstream American pop music feels oddly cast aside.

Poplak eventually leaves music behind and introduces the reader to controversial and wildly-popular talk show host Zaven Kouyoumdjian, Lebanon’s father of reality TV who once had a deaf guest host speak in sign language with deaf guests before an all-deaf studio audience, a huge hit with viewers. Explains Zaven, “So once a year you don’t understand the TV. Big deal.” But, the author infers that “[i]n deliberately staging a show that is incomprehensible to most of his audience, Zaven was posing a punk-like query: we are talking, but are we saying anything that counts?” Here Poplak makes the same mistake as Greil Marcus, seeing only a world in which all roads lead to and from punk. Has he never heard of Theatre of the Absurd?

A glaring omission throughout the book is the influence of the East on North America’s own pop culture, which is then fed back to them, and back again to us. The book feels stuck in a monologue rather than a dialogue. We may not have our antidote to all the biased books on U.S. pop culture until an Eastern-born Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, or Hindu writes a book in Arabic, Hindi, or Farsi about how fascinating and quaint and “absorbative” we North Americans are in our appropriation of Eastern mores.

©2010 by The Brooklyn Rail. All rights reserved.