Audiobook Review: STAY SEXY AND DON’T GET MURDERED

Stay Sexy and Don't Get MurderedI am not a regular listener of the My Favorite Murder podcast, but I’d heard such positive things about it, I wanted to read (or, in this case, listen to), Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered. Authors Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff are hilarious, open, and full of interesting stories in chapters with names like “If You’re In a Cult, Call Your Dad” and “Stay Out of the Forest.”⁣

The publishers call the book a “dual memoir,” and it is rich with details about their childhoods and early adult years, including struggles with depression, alcoholism, and substance abuse.⁣

There’s a horrifying story in which the inability to say no leads to a session of topless modeling. In a more positive vein, Hardstark describes her love of reading and meeting Ray Bradbury at an event.⁣

Throughout the book, the women emphasize self-awareness, vulnerability, and connection. What was missing was the true crime I expected. I liked the book anyway, but it’s not a traditional true crime volume.⁣

I loved listening to the audiobook and hearing the women interact. Paul Giamatti reads some sections. One of their fathers even jumps in for a cameo. Even better, I got the book through Libro.fm which works in partnership with independent bookstores.⁣

Libro.fm is an affiliate link – we’ll both get a free audiobook if you join!

Book Review: THE LAST STONE, Lloyd Welch speaks

The Last Stone
Mark Bowden

In April 1975, sisters Kate and Sheila went missing from Wheaton Plaza, a suburban shopping mall in Washington D.C. Despite significant publicity and major effort on the part of law enforcement, the girls were never located. Generations of cold case detectives returned to the files hoping new eyes and new technologies would uncover a lead and bring resolution to the family.

In 2013, after two years on the cold case squad, Lloyd Welch came to the attention of Sergeant Chris Homrock as a possible witness. But when lead interrogator Dave Davis questioned Lloyd, he presented more like a suspect than a bystander with information. That initial interview began a two year relationship in which the detectives, aided both by the FBI and law enforcement in Virginia, attempted to expose Welch’s many falsehoods while they also tried to uncover new evidence. In so doing, the detectives not only visited Lloyd nine times interrogating him hours at a stretch; they also dove into the Welch family history which was full of crime, abuse, and a history of secrecy.

I enjoy reading true crime and I think Mark Bowden, who was a junior reporter covering the Lyon sisters’ abduction, has a history of accessible, well-researched books. The Last Stone focused on the interviews with Lloyd who was the detectives’ “last stone” after all other leads ran dry. Bowden quotes extensively from them, and while I’m sure this isn’t true, it felt like they made up at least 80% of the book.

The book does illustrate how detectives might approach a suspect who has nothing to gain from talking but who is the only source of information. Lloyd Welch, though, was such an inveterate liar that there was no clear resolution, and after reading the book, I felt disgusted by this brush with evil in a way I usually don’t when reading true crime.

I also wished that Bowden had included more information about his approach to the material. He mentioned interviewing the detectives and family members and even recounted a visit with Welch himself, but I wanted to know how he got access to the police records and went about reviewing them.

Overall, I was a little disappointed in The Last Stone and felt like I needed a long, hot shower to wash off the ick of not just Lloyd but his entire creepy family. I would only recommend this to readers who are very interested in this particular case or in interview techniques.

Book Review: SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND

Keefe, Patrick Radden - Say NothingSay Nothing:
A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe

Shortly after beginning Say Nothing, I realized how little I knew of The Troubles. Although Keefe would be the first to admit his book isn’t a comprehensive history, I found it an intriguing segway into this difficult time in Northern Ireland’s history.

Say Nothing centers on four figures: Jean McConville, a thirty-eight year old mother of ten who was taken from her home by a group of intruders in December 1972 as her children hung from her limbs; Dolours Price, a young, glamorous IRA volunteer who lead the team that perpetrated the March 1973 London bombings and subsequently became infamous, with her sister Marian, for a prolonged hunger strike; Brendan Hughes, master IRA tactician, head of the D Company, the feared “Dirty Dozen”; and Gerry Adams, a leading figure in the peace talks and the Sinn Féin party who disavowed his IRA past.

The book, which reads like a novel, traces the history of these figures as they navigate life in a city divided by sectarian conflict, where bombs and shootings are commonplace. Although Dolours, Gerry, and Brendan chose to live as revolutionaries, Jean, a Protestant living in a Catholic stronghold, was caught up in forces beyond her control.

While intimately personal, the book also chronicles the persecution of Catholics in Northern Ireland, the uncompromising ideals of the IRA volunteers, and life in prison and internment camps. I had not fully understood the process or psychological consequences of force feeding prisoners on hunger strike until reading this book, and I’ll never see the process the same way again.

Attention is also paid to the British Army and its use of “touts” or informants, a practice Keefe attributes to Brigadier Frank Kitson who became a master of counterinsurgency techniques while stationed at sites of colonial uprisings and later assigned to Northern Ireland.

As Reefe unspools the trajectory of the IRA volunteers, he traces the painful lives of the McConville orphans who were put into state custody and institutionalized. Their family was irrevocably shattered when Jean was “disappeared.” In 1999, the IRA admitted responsibility, and in 2003, her body was uncovered.

Jean McConville and her family were only one of many who were uprooted by the Troubles. But a culture of silence permeates Northern Ireland. Part of this developed before the Troubles, but because the peace settlement did not include a truth and reconciliation process, anyone who talks about their activities risks arrest and prison. Keefe wonders who should be responsible for a shared history of violence. Only the truth can answer that question, and Say Nothing is a remarkable contribution to that history.

This is such a readable book, it will appeal to true crime aficionados, mystery lovers, and history buffs, not to mentions anyone wanting to know more about the history of Northern Ireland or the IRA. In fact, one of the few flaws is that the book is so readable, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the events depict real people and real pain that deserve empathy and witness. The book is also more thematic than chronological, which makes the flow more logical and the narrative more coherent. However, at times, I got a bit murky on the timeline and had to reorient myself. These very minor issues should not keep you from picking up this book; in fact, I encourage you to read it as soon as possible.

Thank you to NetGalley and Doubleday Books for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: The Real Lolita, on the true origins of Nabokov’s Lolita

Weinman, Sarah - The Real Lolita (3)The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
by Sarah Weinman

The Real Lolita tells three stories: that of the kidnapping of Sally Horner by Frank La Salle in 1948; the writing and publication process of Vladmir Nabokov’s literary classic Lolita; and how the story of Sally Horner and Lolita (Dolores “Dolly” Haze). Sarah Weinman extensively researched the topic, consulting primary sources, reading newspaper accounts from the time period, visiting Nabokov archives, and interviewing key individuals still alive.

After Horner, on a dare from the popular girls, stole a notebook from the five and dime, Frank La Salle grabbed her and told her he was an FBI agent. Weeks later, in June 1948, he found her and told her she had to come with him, posing as his daughter, always leveraging the threat of juvenile detention if she told anyone what was really going on. So began a nearly two-year ordeal as they crossed the country from Atlantic City to Baltimore to Dallas to San Jose. Finally, with the encouragement of a neighbor, Sally called home and was rescued while La Salle was condemned to jail.

Long before Sally’s kidnapping, Vladimir Nabokov was working on a book in which a man had unnatural affections for young girls, but he was not making progress, and, in fact, tried to destroy the manuscript at least twice. Nabokov knew of Sally’s case: Humbert Humbert asks himself in Lolita, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” But he and his wife, Vera, insisted that the novel was not inspired by the crime. As early as 1963, though, Peter Welding published an article in Nugget arguing that Lolita owned more to Sally Horner than the Nabokovs would admit.

The Real Lolita attempts to resolve definitively the debate over how much Nabokov drew on Sally Horner’s kidnapping in his novel. Weinman is best in my opinion when she recounts Sally’s harrowing nightmare, La Salle’s depravity, and the aftermath of the kidnapping. I hadn’t known anything about the case before, so it was all new to me. To flesh out the prosecutor handling La Salle’s trial, Weinman discusses other crimes in Camden, two in particular, both of which were very interesting. This is not so surprising since Weinman has a background writing true crime.

It’s been ages since I’ve read Lolita, and I probably should have reread it before tackling The Real Lolita. Even so, learning about the manuscript through its creation, release, film adaptation, and lasting impact was gratifying. Nabokov’s writing process, in which he wrote his research on index cards, and the road to publication were fascinating. I had not known Nabokov was so interested in butterflies (which explains their presence on the cover) or that he and his wife often took road trips across the country from their home base in Ithaca, NY.

My least favorite aspect of the book was Weinman’s attempt to “prove” Nabokov was inspired by Sally Horner’s case. In some ways, she is convincing. The manuscript was floundering, but when Nabokov learned of Sally’s kidnapping (as evidenced by an index card referencing it), he seemed to be catalyzed into finishing the book. Aside from the direct mention of Sally Horner and Frank La Salle, Weinman shows aspects of the true crime Nabokov seemed to incorporate. One character was named Fogg, one of La Salle’s aliases. Humbert Humbert is sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, the same as La Salle. The fictional Humbert marries Dolores’s mother to gain access; La Salle pretends to be Sally’s father. At the same time, some of her ideas are speculative. For example, she was unable to find any material mentioning Sally Horner in the Nabokov archives, even though the Nabokovs had kept voluminous amounts of clippings related to Lolita. She implies that they were deliberately omitted to keep researchers from linking the real crime to that depicted in the novel.

In the same vein, Weinman speculates more than I would like about Sally’s state of mind and daily life. Since Sally is not available, speculation is the only alternative, and Weinman does base her ideas on narratives written by young women kidnapped and held for long periods of time. However, the fact is, we can never really know what Sally was thinking.

Weinman’s ultimate argument is that the Nabokovs would deny any connection to real life inspiration to preserve the image of Vladmir as a literary genius. In so doing, they re-victimize Sally by depriving her of acknowledgement. In The Real Lolita, Weinman effectively lobbies for the reinstatement of Sally’s voice through documenting her story.

Author’s Website

BOOK REVIEW:: Monster City: Murder, Music, and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age

Arntfield, Michael - Monster City SMMonster City: Murder, Music, and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age
by Michael Arntfield

Nashville. Music City. A place where hopefuls come in search of country music stardom. A place where monsters come to murder. Since the early 1970s, Nashville has been the killing ground of a disproportionate number of violent predators. It’s also home to Detective Pat Postiglione, now retired, who lead the elite M Squad and later the city’s first cold case unit, putting many of those monsters behind bars. Notable cases each include the Tanning Bed Murders, the Rest Stop Murders, the Motel Murders, and the Vandyland Murders, and these are each given a section in the book, though the Janet March and Carl Williams murders as well as others are also discussed.

In Monster City, Michael Arntfield collects the stories of these murders, many committed by serial killers, and tracks the investigative process, highlighting how techniques have changed over time. As an academic and former police officer, Arntfield combines practical knowledge with theoretical insights into types of killers, meanings of weapons, interview techniques, and what the state of the body says about the perpetrator. He also references other infamous killers when relevant and sprinkles the text with allusions to popular culture like True Detective and the Making of a Murderer. Though detailed, the book isn’t sensational.

When my parents were first married, they lived in Nashville, and my father attended Vanderbilt Divinity School, so I had a personal interest in the subject. I’m a true crime aficionado as well, watching Investigation Discovery frequently, and while I had heard of some of the killers (particularly Janet March, who had an episode of 48 Hours devoted to her disappearance), this was the first time I’d been introduced to some of the cases. I also did enjoy how Arnfield included the latest forensic developments.

That said, the book was more complicated to read than it should have been. Information was presented in a strange order, as were phrases within sentences. I found myself often confused and rereading for clarification. At times, too, the prose was overwritten, and I was surprised by the overuse of the word “inevitable.” Arnfield attempted to link the murders through Postiglione, but the reality is that they were distinct crimes, so the linkages felt like a stretch. Also, it was at times implied that the killers were playing a deliberate cat-and-mouse came with Postiglione during the investigation, which doesn’t seem to be the case–though Postiglione was a target after the fact.

Unfortunately for Arntfield, at the time he wrote the book, one of the cold cases seemed resolved, with a man indicted for the murders. But this past summer, charges were dropped. That section now rings hollow since much of it tracked the movements of the now-exonerated suspect.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity, though, was an exploration of why Nashville attracted so many serial killers and violent murderers. Given the focus on the city itself, this seemed a glaring omission.

I received a free copy of Monster City through a Goodreads giveaway. Thank you Goodreads and Little A.