Sherlock Holmes was Wrong, by Pierre Bayard

January 5, 2014 at 22:53 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Fiction, Literature, Mediocre Books, Mystery) (, , , )




Pierre Bayard needs three things to make this book a success: a compelling argument to back up his audacious title, a solid grounding in mystery literature in general and Arthur Conan Doyle in particular, and at least twenty five thousand words of really good stuff. Unfortunately for Bayard and for his readers, he has only the first two.

This book can be broadly divided into three sections. In the first, he explains why Holmes’ conclusions in The Hound of the Baskervilles are completely wrong. In the second, he offers an introduction to literary criticism and psychoanalysis, and explains why the prospect can even be considered. In the third, he suggests an alternate explanation.

“Faced with this patchwork narrative, only blind faith could impel a reader to accept without reservations…the account that has been imposed on us for more than a century…”

-Sherlock Holmes was Wrong

The first problem has its germ in this particular layout. Nowhere does the cover of this book suggest that it will be an academic text discussing the freudian reflexes of Doyle, or the ideas of characters and readers immigrating and emmigrating to and from the text. Bayard can be excused–grudgingly, of course–on the grounds that this second section is not interminably long, and that it is really quite interesting, and presented succinctly and with a certain style.

So much, then, for the first problem. The second problem lies in the fact that once this middle section is excluded, there remains only an essay of middling length to explain Holmes’ faults and the author’s theories. It might even be considered to Bayard’s credit that these theories so instantly hold water, and that it does not take pages of haranguing to prove the fictional detective’s mistakes. It does, however, mean that this book is really not very satisfying as a whole. It is a quick cover-to-cover read, and it is of course worth the small effort. Bayard might have done better to write a wider critique of Holmes as a character and a man: then the literary criticism would have formed a natural introduction, and the Baskerville episode could have formed one thrilling case study among several others.

The problem with that, of course, is that nobody would have read it. This book’s snappy title and salacious promises certainly do not leave one empty; but neither are they especially filling.

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News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez

July 27, 2013 at 14:58 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )




There are many peculiar things about this book. It is not like Márquez’s fiction. It is too straightforward, too politely arranged and linear. There are too many straight lines and sober summaries. But then, it is unlike so many nonfiction books, as well. Garcia Márquez has no need to trumpet his own particular style or voice over the events he describes (his style has plenty of outlets), and so the narrative is unnervingly raw, without the bluster of a newspaper or the bustling self-importance of a professional writer.

“Maruja and Beatriz stood motionless in front of the closed door, not knowing how to take up their lives again, until they heard the engines in the garage and then the sound fading away in the distance. Only then did they realize that the television and radio had been taken away to keep them from knowing how the night would end.”

-News of a Kidnapping

The author’s attraction towards the macabre and the tragic are one point of resonance in his choice of this particular story to tell. In a sense, this book demonstrates a single side of the magic realism genre that Márquez helped to create: the harrowing story of the kidnapping, with all of its unsavoury boors and capricious thugs, is told with a sense of reverent wonder at the majesty of the hallowed normal. There are no casual treatments of supernatural happenings, but in spite of the real setting there is a subtle and underlying sense that something quite extraordinary might be taking place.

Ultimately, the weakest part of this story is simply the fact that it is not the most interesting of events to read about. A decades-old kidnapping that dominated the headlines of a distant corner of the globe for a matter of months, before coming to a generally unremarkable end will struggle to find a place on a bookshelf crammed with mystical kingdoms and daring exploits. It will even struggle to find a place on a shelf containing only books by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. But there is an appeal in the honesty of the writing. It is a shame that more great writers do not follow this example, and humble themselves into writing stories that neither shake the earth nor shake the reader, but which are worth telling anyway.

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Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig

June 30, 2013 at 15:01 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Literature, Mediocre Books, Music, Philosophy, Science and Technology) (, , )




There is a sort of schizophrenic veering between Lessig’s historical contextualising of the evolution and development of copyright law, and his impassioned denouncement of so-called ‘Big Media’. His attempts to draw a straight line between the two are not always entirely successful, and hostile readers might well suspect him of permitting his motives to lead him on an unwarranted crusade. Where he is successful, he is often convincing and guileless, and speaks with a great deal of conviction. His forays into historical documentation are amateur sketches of dogeared case-studies that have held his own attention for years, but are nevertheless interesting with only a few exceptions. His contemporary hectoring tends to be a lot more vibrant, and the autobiographical sections detailing his own Supreme Court case manages to be at the same time exciting and frustrating, bearing the fault that it has been trimmed down to a bare summary of the facts.

“The hard question is therefore not whether a culture is free. All cultures are free to some degree. The hard question instead is “How free is this culture?” How much, and how broadly, is the culture free for others to take and build upon? Is that freedom limited to party members? To members of the royal family? …To artists generally, whether affiliated with the Met or not? To musicians generally, whether white or not? To filmmakers generally, whether affiliated with a studio or not?”

-Free Culture

Lessig has the flaw of being needlessly paternalistic and pedagogical, particularly when describing the absolute worst-case scenarios that he anticipates. In spite of his flaws he is deeply passionate about his subject, and although it is this passion which often leads him astray it also breaks up the monotony of his drier material and lays his biases and motives fairly plainly out for all to see.

This is neither great literature nor a particularly cunning or sophisticated piece of work, but it is the work of a true believer with a strong argument to make. Doubtless there are more informative texts on the battle for copyright protection; also doubtless there are books written by men and women whose expertise on copyright history is a little more solidly defined. This is therefore a difficult book to recommend. It is a good book, but not a great book. It is a good entry-level text, but has faults that might deter further inquiry into the subject. It is easy to read, but it might have been both easier to read and less repetitive, with a more comprehensive exposition.

Read it, enjoy it, but don’t expect it to be the best or most scholarly piece of work available.

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AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, by Larry Kahaner

August 4, 2012 at 17:09 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , )


It is tempting to mentally remove the title emblazoned across the cover of this book and replace it with the legend, “This is a book about guns!!!” If books are to be judged by their covers, then this one is a little embarrassing, a little bombastic, and not the sort of book one would feel comfortable reading on a train. Thankfully the interior is markedly less cartoonish than the jacket, although it is not a deep or penetrating historical work.

Kahaner has faced a great deal of undeserved criticism for his apparent aloofness and harsh verdict on what is unambiguously a weapon of the proxy war and of the criminal. He does not set out to write a technical manual, and he does a capable job in surveying both the history of the gun’s inception, the history of comparable weapons, and several case studies of the AK-47’s use, availablity and changing role. Incidentally, all of his case studies are soberly written and entirely germane to his topic.

“The army was enamoured of the complexity and promise of these smart weapons. ‘Despite all the sophisticated weapons we or the Soviets come up with, you still have to get that one lone infantryman, with his rifle, off his piece of land. It’s the damn hardest thing in the world to do.'”


While several of his conclusions are certainly up for debate, and are clearly written as opinions and not as facts, this book is neither an essay on the evils of guns, nor a statistics sheet for gun enthusiasts. It is a very general overview supported by some carefully chosen examples and a brief survey of one weapon’s use in selected twentieth century contexts. Considering that the author was compelled to summarise some sixty years of the history of declared wars, terrorism, criminal subcultures across four continents, and the legal and illegal traffic of firearms in general, it ought to be clear that he has successfully and skilfully distilled an immense amount of information in a very clear and professional manner.

Readers looking for a Tom Clancy sourcebook should look elsewhere; readers looking for a biography of Kalashnikov should read a biography of Kalashnikov; readers looking for a comprehensive and multifaceted study of every conflict and event Kahaner surveys have at least a dozen other books they ought to read. But for what it is, this is an excellent book.

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Murder in Tombstone, by Steven Lubet

November 23, 2011 at 19:45 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century) (, , , , , , , )


This was a wonderfully gripping history. Accusations of plagiarism and grandstanding aside, all history books should be written with the same passion and clarity that Lubet manages in his study. While he can come across as suspicious or stodgy at times (or, on the other hand, tenacious and deeply moral), Lubet also appears to rigidly adhere to the facts. His disinterest in a lot of the historical accusations, jibes and brouhahaing allows him to take a forensic look at the evidence and the laws in place, rather than stepping into the brawl himself. It is an irony, then, that his dryness and unwillingness to delve into pettiness is precisely what makes this book so compelling. As a history, this work has become contentious, based largely on the implications of Earp’s gunfight on modern day gun rights. There is no reason why this ought to be the case: and mercifully Steven Lubet has the good sense and professionalism to stay very well away from drawing any connections between the past and the present.

“When Tom threatened to ‘make a fight,’ Wyatt obliged him: ‘I slapped him in the face with my left hand and drew my pistol with my right…and I hit him on the head with my six-shooter and walked away.'”

-Murder in Tombstone

Lubet makes judicious use of plenty of period sources, including the local newspapers and the diary of the garrulous George Parsons, but at no point does he commit the schoolboy error that so many historians plunge gleefully into, and try and end up struggling with an unlikely and badly-drawn account of “what it must have been like”. He is not trying to take his readers on a field trip into the Old West: he is trying to open a court case and a potentially criminal act for study. In some very compelling summaries, the author echoes the reports of Judge Spicer, declaring Wyatt Earp innocent and rehabilitated to history…but not necessarily a wise, honest or good man. His own speculative additions are brief enough to be humble and subtle enough to be thought provoking, and this book certainly succeeds in its scope and stated aims. An excellent effort.

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Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business, by Joseph D. Pistone

November 10, 2011 at 00:05 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , , )


As a follow-up to his bestselling and deeply interesting Donnie Brasco, this exposé of the fallout of that affair is a timely release. Thankfully it is also based on enough material to legitimately justify a sequel. The book picks up more or less where the other ended, and for the most part sticks to a straightforward and logical storyline, detailing the Pizza Connection Trial, the Mafia Commission Trial and the lives and times of some of the particularly colourful characters Pistone introduced in his earlier book. One of the interesting choices is his decision to discuss the details of his book’s publication and adaptation to film, and how the telling of the story affected the story itself. This becomes considerably more important later on, when he describes the fallout of other book deals (signed by the mobsters and their supporters), and the significant impact this had on later trials. It also sheds a great deal of light upon Pistone’s motivations and concerns in writing this book.

There are a few constructional problems in the way the book is laid out. Towards the final third of the book, Pistone is forced to jump decades backwards and forwards, and the cast of characters he describes is obviously enormous. This is difficult, but not really the fault of the author.

“‘I want you fired. I’ll have your job. You undercovers aren’t really agents.’
‘I’m a better agent than you are, ever were, or ever will be. It’s bad enough when you question my integrity. Don’t you ever question my ability as an agent. I’ll throw you out this window.'”

-Unfinished Business

Another interesting choice that paid off was the decision to describe Pistone’s miscellaneous adventures since the Donnie Brasco days, involving Triads, Russian gangsters and internecine politicking within the FBI. A dull life he has certainly not led. These stories are placed naturally in the chronology, and are not distracting to the general flow of the book.

It must also be acknowledged that Charles Brandt, Pistone’s acknowledged ghostwriter (his name is even on the cover!) does a sterling job. The voice of the streetwise yet businesslike FBI agent comes through clearly without reducing itself to a horrid cliche; the expletives season the work only enough to punctuate his most salient points, and the New York Italianisms are limited. It feels authentic, but does not feel as if the authors are trying too hard for their own good. Donnie Brasco was not noticeable for especially bad writing, but this book is noticeable for rather good writing. Anyone who has read or enjoyed Donnie Brascowill certainly find much to appreciate here, and this book even sets itself up as a good and informative starting point for histories of the modern American Mafia.

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The Sixteenth Round, by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

May 17, 2011 at 14:06 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )


It is surprising how an admitted semi-literate boxer from the slums can write so coherently and expressively. What might be interesting on its autobiographical and historical merits alone turns out to be a thrillingly written and skilfully told story, and Rubin Carter pulls no punches in indicting the New Jersey judicial system that hounded him from childhood. Small wonder that this powerful book was so significant in the subsequent drama of his release from prison.

“…because to this critically injured man teetering there on the brink of death, all black people would look the same, especially those the cops had brought in.”

-The Sixteenth Round

The most unfortunate feature in the book is the language. It might be supposed that someone told Carter that to make the reader feel how authentic it was, he should rub their noses in the language of the streets, or the cells, or whatever it might be. At times his fluid descriptions and excellent rhetoric are outright quashed by impressive but unwelcome streams of frothing abuse. Some readers might be glad of this passionate outpouring, but Carter’s fury frequently and destructively gets in the way of the story he is telling. He is an innocent man, but he is still a violent and frightening man, and making his reader fear him is probably the most counter-productive part of this otherwise splendid prison autobiography.

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Fake: Lies, Forgery & eBay, by Kenneth Walton

April 7, 2011 at 14:06 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )


It is not really natural to expect a third-rate con artist to be a terrific writer, but Kenneth Walton managed to put down a concise and thoroughly gripping account of his five years of dodgy dealing. When reading about famous cons, it is also taken rather for granted that there should be car chases, nefarious meetings in darkened alleys and safehouses sprinkled liberally throughout trackless wastes. To be an infamous fraudster on eBay is, let’s face it, not very cool or inspiring stuff. Nevertheless, Walton is able to make his criminal underworld of drab attic bedsits and failed law practice the stuff of legend, with even the daily ritual of watching the seconds tick past in virtual auctions causing the reader’s palms to grow just a little bit sticky.

It is not entirely clear whether his intention was to vindicate himself or draw on sympathy – the book contained more than enough confessions of contrition and shame to seem like the common-or-garden prison novel, but was written in such a reasonable and friendly way that one half suspects that in the midst of Walton’s tearstained confessions he is winking at the reader and sharing the joke that he didn’t really deserve all this. Certainly the reader is to be left in no doubt that the real villains are the greedy suckers bidding on worthless art – or worse, those heartless busybody vigilantes whose policing of eBay’s trust system led to his downfall. The FBI and prosecutors are passed over as a cruel and implacable faceless foe, while eBay’s own fraud unit are simply painted (excuse the pun) as being merely inept, and perhaps hatefully vindictive.

A thoroughly enjoyable book, and if Walton is heartlessly manipulative towards his readers, then, like the saps who bought his dollar-store paintings, if they believe everything he says then they probably deserve it.

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Inside the Brotherhood, by Martin Short

March 25, 2011 at 20:59 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )


Any book that brands itself as an expose is hardly going to treat its subject in a fair way, and Martin Short is largely hostile from the outset. This book is laid out not like a neutral investigation, but like a serious and very earnest prosecution. Note that it is a prosecution, not a persecution. Short does his level best to write from properly accredited sources, and he provides limited biographies for most of the men and women he interviews. He blatantly borrows much of his strongest materials from Stephen Knight, and acknowledges his debt to Knight repeatedly, almost turning the other researcher as a kind of martyr in the battle against Freemasonry.

And it is a battle; make no mistake on that count. Whereas many investigative authors begin from a carefully nuanced viewpoint and work towards exoneration or accusation, Short begins at accusation and grows steadily more vitriolic. His arguments are convincing and eloquent at the beginning of the book: his assertion, for instance, that Freemasonry and Christianity (or any other religion) are incompatible is all the stronger for his own ambivalence towards various faiths. His delvings into the sordid dealings of various political figures are almost always linked strongly with their transgressions as Freemasons, and their corruptions based on their prior loyalties to Freemasonry, rather than simply hunting down evil men who happen to be Freemasons on the side.

This book falls apart a little about two-thirds of the way through, when Short seems to run out of material. He abandons his careful and scholarly approach, but keeps his level of vim and vinegar high, and consequently many of his later arguments bear the impression of a grudge without facts to support it, or of angry rumourmongering. While this later lapse is disappointing, it in no way lessens the impact of his very successful denouncement of a dangerous and frightening cult.

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Arrest-Proof Yourself, by Dale Carson

March 15, 2011 at 20:59 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


A useful book, and rather humourously written. The reader will realise he is not reading a blog or a list of tips when the humour begins to flag and the author starts to become repetitive, stern and lecturing. Most of what he has to say is bleak, pessimistic, sensible, paranoid, amoral, revelatory and useful. He is not on a crusade to change the world, but seems to vacillate between his outrage at the cruelty of an unfair and unyielding system, and a genuine desire to educate offenders who should not (in his view) end up in jail. Or prison.

Because of the author’s credentials it is difficult to attach the epithet of paranoia to him, but at times he does veer into hyperbolic rantings that seem to paint a picture of flatfoots behind every tree, and The Sweeney resting a knowing hand on his gun while watching innocent citizens with cold, gimlet eyes, and waiting for them to make that one mistake that will doom them. His audience is clearly those with something to hide, or else the likewise-paranoid who will identify with this sort of dystopic vision. Perhaps not a book whose every jot and tittle ought to be heeded, but one containing information that everyone certainly ought to know

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