Booked & Printed

by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo

bp_the-collectiveIn the taxonomy of the bereaved, the parents of murdered children occupy a particularly agonizing, lifelong level of grief. The protagonist of Alison Gaylin’s latest novel, The Collective, finds herself drowning in the horror of her only child’s violent death. Five years after her daughter died at the hands of a wealthy frat boy whose parents bought him the benefit of the doubt, time has healed none of Camille’s wounds.

The book opens on Camille drunk at a moneyed event in which her daughter’s perpetrator, Harrison, is in attendance. When Camille lunges for him, a smartphone video of her sloppy attempt at vengeance goes viral, adding humiliation to her suffering. There seems no recourse from her nightmare of mourning, and the remedies of those who have not experienced such a grievous loss—prayers, forgiveness, meditation—are paltry and insulting to her. Even Camille’s therapist eventually rejects Camille, before dying herself, tragically, from an accidental fall.

Gaylin, a winner of the Shamus and Edgar awards, brings journalistic realism to Camille’s plight and shows a canny understanding of the eddies and underworlds of social media when combined with the spectacles of public impunity. Camille is mocked by strangers surreptitiously filming her and leaving comments on her viral video. She finds herself on a Facebook group for the mothers of murdered children, a place where disembodied mourners let their rage take the shape of violent fantasies. Camille joins in, writing that she hopes Harrison freezes to death, brutalized like he did to her daughter. She wants, too, the added revelation of his sexually predatory character to the public that once thought him innocent.

Then Camille receives an unexpected invitation: a link to a chat server on the dark web.

Gaylin does not shy away from the more terrifying elements of Camille’s grief. Camille considers both murder and suicide: She thinks of running her car into a median and acquires a shotgun, before changing her mind and burying it. While her ex-husband has found stability in high life on a cannabis farm and marriage to someone half his age, Camille’s emotions are singularly bent on vengeance and oblivion.

By inhabiting Camille’s tortured psyche, readers can identify with her willingness to follow the bidding of someone anonymous on the dark web: someone who begins giving her tasks in the service of real-life, offscreen retribution. Relieved of peace-loving platitudes, freed from the pretense of “moving on,” Camille joins The Collective: a group of nameless women, each suffering from the violent death of a child. With them, Camille works at violent justice toward perpetrators walking free.

With each act of vengeance, accompanied by women who know the cruel reality of her pain, Camille feels relief. She encounters a serial human trafficker, a flirty hunter with a fatal assault from his past, and a plastic surgeon whose carelessness cost him. Along the way, she befriends women with the same single-minded need for relief through retribution. Gaylin’s portrayal of Camille’s journey has stark resonance for real-life violence that begins with online radicalization. Camille and the other women are guided by someone who goes only by 001: her chat handle on the dark web forum where they communicate.

But Camille’s relief in community and violence becomes overshadowed by her own doubts. Gradually, she comes to question, and then lightly disobey, 001’s dictates. In doing so, she discovers that the boundary between victim and perpetrator is more porous than she first believed.

With hard-bitten violence, deep emotion, and a sharp eye toward the dangers and possibilities of online engagement, The Collective is a thoroughly engrossing journey. Camille’s pain, needs, and imperfections make her a complicated, sympathetic protagonist, even as we might wince at where her path leads.

 

bp_Welcome-to-your-FantasyThroughout the seemingly endless pandemic, podcasts have continued to democratize the form of the audio mystery. In their more shallow iterations, crime podcasts cast a lurid and exploitative eye on tragic violence. In their stronger forms, crime and mystery podcasts offer a greater glimpse of the contexts from which criminality arises. Two recent podcasts offer the latter: a sweeping examination of an era, and a phenomenon, through the documentation of illegal acts.

In Welcome to Your Fantasy, historian Natalia Petrzela journeys back to the late 1970s, bringing us the origin story of Chippendales, that famous chain of clubs with scantily clad, muscular men dancing for screaming women. What might have been overlooked as a mere comedy becomes something much more: a story of near-mafia organized crime and business, with the founder, Somen “Steve” Banerjee, as Chippendales’s understated and ruthless founder.

Murder makes an appearance early on, as do acts of racist exclusion, intellectual and monetary theft, and behind-the-scenes, pitiless competition. But Petrzela and her staff bring listeners even more: an overview of that cultural moment in the United States. The disco anxiety of the 1970s gave way to the puritanical and economically ruthless 1980s, with the decade’s confused purity politics and remnants of sexual freedom; with empowered women still suffering from institutional sexism; and with beautiful men suffering from body image judgments of their own.

Steve Banerjee’s checkered journey as an immigrant businessman-turned-criminal forms the heart of the story. His decisions are riveting, by turns oddly sympathetic and horrifying. Petrzela’s narration is smart, conversational, and impassioned, welcoming listeners into the rise and fall of an entertaining, grim, and deeply American fantasy.

 

bp_In-God-We-LustThe podcast company Wondery brings a similarly conversational style to deeply investigated criminality. With In God We Lust, hosts Aricia Skidmore-Williams and Brook Siffrinn reveal the acts of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the scion of one of America’s most famous Christian evangelical families. When Falwell’s wife Rebecca meets a handsome young pool attendant in Miami, the Falwells touch off a cascade of allegedly suspect financial decisions, sexual wrongdoing, and substance abuse.

In the process, they sully the name of Liberty University, the premier evangelical institution founded by Jerry Falwell, Sr., and even bring trouble to the Trump campaign. And the Falwells leave the pool attendant, Giancarlo Granda, feeling misused and wrongly accused, leading to his eventual revelations of the couple’s alleged crimes.

With an appealingly gossipy tone overlaying careful reportage, Skidmore-Williams and Siffrinn reveal the power and seediness of one of America’s Christian oligarchies. The limited series contains only six episodes, but they are addicting; one couple’s tabloid behavior reveals power structures all too malleable, in the face of sinful decisions.

Featured Author Laurel Flores Fantauzzo

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo’s nonfiction mystery, The First Impulse, was a named a finalist for the 2018 Philippine National Book Award. She is an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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