Double Feature: Murder, Mystery and Madness

I seem to be flipping back and forth this summer between fiction and non-fiction, all of it dealing in some fashion with crime. I usually try to mix other types and genres of books into my reading diet, but the last couple of months have left me craving exclusively works that either imagine mysteries and malefactors, or revisit historical lawbreakers. Below are two of my favorite new books along those lines.

Lady of the Lake, by Laura Lippman (Morrow)

Edgar Award winner Lippman brings to life 1960s-era Baltimore, and all of the corrosive inequities of that time, in this richly crafted portrayal of Madeline Schwartz, a white, late-30s Jewish housewife who leaves her small family in search of individual identity, only to take up with an African-American cop and become involved in multiple murders. After parlaying her luck at finding the corpse of a missing schoolgirl into an editorial assistant’s job at the local afternoon newspaper, Maddie determines to win a reporter’s post there by investigating the largely ignored death of cocktail waitress Cleo Sherwood, whose body was dumped in a city park lake. Lippman alternates Maddie’s first-person self-discovery story with vivid chapters told from the viewpoints of others, including Cleo’s “ghost.” This is a sophisticated crime novel that’s as much about female ambition, racism, and newspaper culture as it is about criminality.

The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America, by Karen Abbott (Crown)

Avarice, lust, revenge, and courtroom theatrics all combine in Abbott’s spirited account of George Remus, a German immigrant who became one of the most successful—and eccentric—criminal celebrities during America’s Prohibition era of the 1920s. A pharmacist turned lawyer turned “King of the Bootleggers,” Remus (a lifelong teetotaler) exploited loopholes in the 1919 Volstead Act to purchase Midwestern distilleries and peddle illegal liquor widely, earning a fortune that he spent on bribes to politicians and Prohibition agents, a gaudy mansion in Cincinnati, and his second wife, Imogene. Remus was finally imprisoned, though, by Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. assistant attorney general aggressively prosecuting Volstead Act violations. While locked up, Remus learned that Imogene and Willebrandt’s ace investigator, Franklin Dodge, had begun an affair and were robbing him blind—betrayals that led Remus to later murder his spouse, and then defend himself in a high-profile court case questioning his own sanity. A deeply researched work, dramatically presented.

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