Among this month’s standouts: true-crime sagas from old New York, and another installment in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series.
True crime is not generally within this column’s scope, but two exceptionally absorbing books are … well, exceptions.
Michael Cannell’s “Incendiary” (Minotaur, 304 pp., $26.99) concerns a terrifying period in New York City’s history and its ramifications for future law enforcement.
Beginning in the 1940s, dozens of bombs exploded in crowded venues like Grand Central Station. The culprit — dubbed the Mad Bomber — wanted to publicize his grudge against energy giant Con Edison. (The bombings sparked widespread fear and injured 15 people, but no one was killed.)
Cannell, a longtime journalist, details the courageous work of the city’s bomb squad (which used tools and techniques that are positively quaint by today’s standards). He also profiles James Brussel, a psychiatrist hired to create a detailed profile of the bomber.
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As Cannel persuasively argues, Brussel’s work kick-started the development of the modern forensic technique called profiling.
Brussel is a fascinating figure: eccentric, controlling, probably obsessive-compulsive — and brilliant. In fact, he emerges as more compelling than the Mad Bomber, who turned out to be a former Con Ed employee angered over the company’s actions following an accident.
“The Black Hand” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp., $28), by another seasoned journalist, Stephan Talty. is a gripping story about the early days of organized crime in America. (Think: The Godfather Part II, only for real.)
At the start of the 20th century, the Black Hand, a Sicilian-born organization specializing in kidnappings, extortion, protection rackets and murder, terrified New York’s Italian immigrants.
City authorities mostly ignored these outrageous crimes. It was just Italians versus Italians, after all — hardly worth the bother. Only when the Black Hand moved outside the Italian community did government take notice — and the calls for deporting or banning Italians began.
Enter police detective Joseph Petrosino. Against the odds, Petrosino convinced his bosses to create an “Italian Squad” of bilingual detectives. The results were spectacular: With only five men and little support, the number of mob-related crimes fell by half within a year.
Petrosino was another memorable figure — incorruptible, fearless and deeply respected within the Italian community. In the end, he literally gave his life to the cause, murdered in 1909 while on the job.
Both books are expertly told, using remarkable individuals as lenses through which to examine their eras. And both concern hot-button issues — the fear of terrorism and of immigrants — that have obvious parallels today.
Donna Leon’s novels about Venetian detective Guido Brunetti never disappoint, and “Earthly Remains” (Atlantic, 304 pp., $25) is no exception.
This gentle, elegiac tale is a departure for Leon. Most of it takes place not in Venice but on a small island called Sant’Erasmo. Furthermore, Brunetti is almost completely on his own, with family and colleagues making only brief appearances.
Brunetti is sequestered because his doctor has ordered rest for his stressed-out patient. The cop befriends a local, Davide Casati, who is grieving both his dead wife and the mysterious collapse of his precious bee colonies.
When Casati dies at sea during a storm, Brunetti investigates. Was it suicide? If so, was it related to the deep mystery Casati could not reveal even to Brunetti’s sympathetic ear?
The subtext to a Brunetti book typically addresses some social, political or environmental issue, and here the theme is the damage done to nature — specifically, bee colonies — in the name of human progress.
In local news: Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, husband-and-wife Seattleites who write as Renee Patrick, are back with “Dangerous to Know” (Forge, 336 pp., $24.99). Jaunty and delightful, it follows their earlier “Design for Dying.”
It’s 1938 in Golden-Age Hollywood, and big questions are floating around. Who is a Nazi sympathizer? Who will be caught up in a high-toned smuggling racket? And who, oh who, will play Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind”?
Cue our narrator, Lillian Frost, a (fictional) young smarty-pants, and her friend Edith Head, the (real-life) legendary costume designer.
The authors are cheerfully shameless name-droppers, beginning with Marlene Dietrich, who asks Lillian to help her find a missing friend — a simple request that soon turns deadly. Other celebs dropping in, all deftly portrayed, include Jack Benny, Dorothy Parker, Errol Flynn and George Burns (sans Gracie, alas).
Crime, espionage fashion and the movies — what’s not to like?