by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
The spectrum of criminality is vast, claiming us as participants in any number of ways. Many of us participate in crimes without our fully knowing. We contribute, through banal, routine choices, to the suffering of innocent strangers, while claiming our own innocence. Or, some of us revel in obliterating society’s written and unwritten rules, sneering at the upright citizens who refuse to offend with us. Booked and Printed examines two titles that delve into the attitudes of perpetrators, be they proud, self-centered rogues, or as everyday as us.
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Problem Child is the second installment from Victoria Helen Stone depicting the world of Jane Doe, a self-described, self-celebrating sociopath. At this stage, Jane is at a point of outward stability in life: She works at a law office and has a steady relationship with her boyfriend, Luke. Two complications mar the relative tranquility Jane has achieved: First, Luke asks her to move in with him, touching off her own horror and confusion. She cannot feel attachment with any psychological normalcy, we’re told, and so the transition to even more closeness disturbs her. Second, she receives a message that her niece Kayla, the teenage progeny of a felonious brother Jane despises, has gone missing. Jane sees something familiar in the photograph of Kayla—a cold calculation that mirrors her own. It piques Jane’s interest: for her, boredom, not danger, is the ultimate enemy. And so she returns to her hometown, the site of her neglectful, abusive parents and her miserable upbringing, to trace Kayla’s whereabouts.
Jane is thus an antiheroine for readers to cheer. Ours is an age of antiheroes, after all, in global politics and in fiction: calculating, antagonizing protagonists whose villainy we should decry, but who manage to triumph over both human decency and defeat. At the start of the book, it is satisfying to witness the extended scene in which Jane sabotages Rob—the puffed-up, lazy coworker who keeps taking credit for her work—through a flirtatious, boozy lunch she orchestrates.
But the world of Problem Child is marred by repetitive devices and overused musings. As signs of Jane’s sociopathy, we’re offered her eagerness to eat—rich appetizers, entrées, desserts, and fast food galore. The author takes for granted that such appetites are forbidden for women in today’s American assumptions. Readers are meant to be titillated by Jane’s sexual appetite too—that she would revel unapologetically in orgasms and nearly cheat on Luke by manipulating a married man in exchange for information are also, supposedly, signs of her power and freedom as a sociopath. Such scenes have the odd, stultifying effect of reinforcing stereotypes about women as self-deniers, rather than entertaining us with one antiheroine’s freedom.
We’re told more than once in the book that genetics and neglect made Jane a sociopath, and that her capacity for emotions is in a remote past, before she suffered from abuse as a child. “I hate remembering that I used to need these people,” she says of her family. “They disgust me now, and that weak little girl disgusts me too.” Such statements are little more than rehashes that tell us Jane has always fended for herself.
When she finally encounters Kayla, the book’s final twist isn’t much of one, with Jane taking on more danger than she anticipated. Revisited habits, and a predictable climax, make Problem Child an occasionally entertaining but middling sophomore entry.
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Weighing in at over four hundred pages, The Outlaw Ocean: Journey across the Last Untamed Frontier is nearly as immense as its subject. New York Times reporter Ian Urbina spent half a decade “in forty cities, on every continent, across all five oceans and twenty other seas,” examining lawlessness on international waters—behaviors that besiege individuals, elements, and species who try to survive in the oceans. It’s an all-encompassing setting, with an encyclopedic number of crimes that go beyond mere piracy.
Urbina’s journeys range from the comic to the grim. An opening chapter covers what must be one of the slowest, farthest-reaching chase scenes in recent history. The dedicated, vegan, environmental crusaders of the nonprofit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society pursue an unlawful fishing trawler, completing a capture other nations refuse to do.
There is the horrifying ordeal of Lang Long, a young man enslaved and fitted with a metal collar after traffickers sell him to a fishing boat. There are the underage boys working in deplorable conditions, losing fingers in fishing lines and sleeping above rats in hammocks on squalid vessels. There is the abusive, rapist captain who preys on mariners with impunity, and the evil of the child sex trade flourishing in one port town. There are the illegal waste disposals from cruise ships. There are the sea creatures killed in the nets of avaricious boats, then thrown back into the water—countless tons of death and waste. And there are countries around the world, most of them shrugging and throwing up their hands.
Perhaps the most affecting resonance of the book is its reminder to readers of our own unwitting participation in ocean criminality. Even the most landlocked of the world’s inhabitants, who might imagine themselves beyond the oceans’ reach, rely on their industries. Shipping, oil, tourism, food and more connect us across waters and continents. Even after heroic investigations by journalistic outlets, the supply chains for shrimp and fish remain nearly opaque, allowing for environmental and worker abuse to fester across waters. Readers might prepare to revisit their own need for fish and seafood after reading The Outlaw Ocean. Greed and neglect by the world’s appetites, Urbina finds, are powerful obstacles to justice on global waters; until consumers demand better from the companies selling to them, criminality is unlikely to change.
There are occasional moments in which Urbina details his own perspective as a journalist. Some scenes are compelling, as with his life-threatening encounter in Somalia, while other first-person details feel a bit out of place, as when he describes losing his Spotify playlists while bored at sea. But Urbina’s project is, overall, momentous, an important document at this anarchic stage in the global oceans’ histories.
Urbina’s final appendix is a clarion call to improve conditions on the seas: protect seaworkers, monitor the food supply, and create stronger regulations to investigate and punish offshore crimes. It’s a final coda that reminds us of the power of journalism. The first step to changing any villainy, however obscene or subtle, is having its truth revealed to us.
all points bulletin: The Boy Detective and the Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense by Art Taylor is due out this month (Crippen & Landru). • Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards is due out electronically and in the UK in April, and in paperback in the US in September 2020 from Poisoned Pen Press. • The latest novel from Stephen Mack Jones, Lives Laid Away, was published last month by Soho Press. • On December 7, 2019, at the annual Black Orchid Banquet, The Wolfe Pack presented Walter Mosley with the Nero Award in recognition of his novel Down the River Unto the Sea.