by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
In regarding violence and criminality, it may be difficult to discern the boundary between earnest investigation and voyeurism. It is the common human instinct to look, to satisfy our urge for the darkness on the other side of decency. But are there moments when our own appetite to view criminality risks becoming an offense in itself? When is it more decent to turn away, rather than find our entertainment in rank suffering? This month, Booked and Printed examines stories of lawless violence, and authors that challenge readers’ search for escape in criminal acts.
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Few American institutions operate with more prestige than Harvard University. The school is an entity older than the United States government, with an endowment of over forty billion dollars—the most lucrative educational endowment in the world. Undergraduate Becky Cooper was well aware of Harvard’s power when she began her coursework there in the late 2000s. So strong is Harvard’s hold that when Cooper heard of the murder of a young Harvard woman in the 1960s, she was chilled, but not surprised, that a professor perpetrator is rumored to have gotten off scot-free with Harvard’s help.
The whisper of the murder sets off a years-long journey for Cooper to discover the truth long after her undergraduate years, culminating in We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence. At the heart of the story is Jane Britton, a twenty-three-year-old, upper-class, New England graduate student in anthropology at Harvard. In Cooper’s telling, Britton has an ambitious, spirited, hardworking nature, and she strains against the sexist mores of the times. In 1969, she is found murdered in her apartment, covered in blankets and dusted with traces of red ochre, a common find at archaeological digs. Was her killer part of her academic department?
Cooper can’t shake Jane Britton’s story. She finds herself possessed by the investigation. Her drive to discover the truth only deepens as she begins her professional life as a New Yorker fact checker. She audits classes with the supposed suspect, a bombastic, tenured professor in the field of anthropology. She offers deep biographies of other unofficial suspects. She flies to far-flung states to interview the still-living witnesses. She interviews Jane’s brother, and looks into his time as a Vietnam veteran. She delves into the archives of police reports, academic records, newspapers, and Jane Britton’s personal letters, completing all the duties of a tenacious reporter.
The book moves back and forth between the present and the sixties, with themes radiating out from the central, unsolved act of violence. Cooper brings us the pitiless world of academia, both in the 1960s and in the current climate, where feudal structures still fall hard on those unlucky departmental serfs—often women—targeted by cruel, tenured lords, usually men. Cooper also reflects on her own motives, wondering why she is so drawn in to the victim’s emotional world and academic context. The result is a far-reaching, layered, insightful work, generating meaning from cruelty, and resurrecting what’s left of Jane Britton’s presence. Though Cooper often questions her own interest in a single crime, her careful, years-long focus on a terrible murder brings readers important contexts and unexpected answers. Her work is an antidote to the more lurid aspects of the true-crime genre, the worst of which treat victims as incidental props rather than central to our understanding.
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Firmly in the canon of chilling Scandanavian crime novels, the Joona Linna thriller series is written by a spousal team under the pseudonum Lars Kepler. In its seventh installment, Lazarus, the Finnish investigator Linna finds himself dealing with the apparent reappearance of an archvillain he thought long dead. This time, the victims are vile criminals themselves, and they’re turning up brutally murdered all over Europe. Linna and his daughter go into hiding; his fellow investigators, skeptical of Linna’s certainty, find themselves and their own families targeted. The source of their terror is Jurek Walter, a master manipulator, torturer, and murderer—someone who drives his targets to self-destruction with industrial regularity.
The text is merciless, with terse lines of action motivating readers to keep with the story until its brutal resolution. Written in the third person, the book alternates its lens between frustrated investigators and complacent victims before their final moments. Notably, the narrative never enters the interior lives of its potent villains; their actions seem to take place for the sake of their own sadism.
The book is a gripping and quick read, to be sure. But the antagonist’s uninterrupted omnipotence does strain credulity. Some acts of coincidence made this reviewer laugh out loud. The villain is rescued from near death by a medical professional? Who just happens to have the same blood type for just the right number of transfusions? What ideal conditions for a serial killer! How to disarm the (oddly) sole officer in charge of witness protection? Use a well-timed, unannounced visit from her elderly mother! Ah, murder and kidnapping were never so easy.
Perhaps one must admire the authors’ willingness to be as pessimistic as possible, putting the series’ characters through grueling acts of psychological torture and eventual death. Perhaps doing so is cathartic, giving readers a glimpse of the harm they are fortunate enough—one hopes—to avoid themselves.
On another level, why? Why entertain audiences with graphic descriptions of maiming, crushing, self-harming, and burying alive? Why linger on the suffering and trauma of a vulnerable, special needs child? Why relish the final, inhumane moments of helpless victims?
One answer: the Joona Linna formula certainly sells books. Forty million of them and counting, as of this writing, have made their way around the world, in various translations. This installment introduces another, brutal new villain, one of Walter’s acolytes, so the Lars Kepler enterprise will likely stay dreadful, and lucrative.
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Daniil and Vanya is a slim novel with a simple, wholesome premise—at least at its start. Two upper-middle-class parents in Canada have survived a traumatic miscarriage. The mother cannot bear to risk pregnancy again, but she and her husband still want to become parents. They travel to Russia, visit a grim orphanage, and return with twin boys. There are challenges at first: a painful flight home, and the discovery that the boys are in alcohol withdrawal, likely having been drugged by their abusive caretakers.
Though safe now in a nurturing environment, Daniil and Vanya behave in quiet, unnerving, synchronous ways, seeming to relish their adoptive parents’ frustrations. As the boys age, there are hints at calamities that seem to follow them—a cat’s mysterious, mortal wound, a swimming teammate’s diving injury, a classmate gone missing during a field trip.
First written in French by Marie-Hélène Larochelle, an academic who researches violence in French literature, Daniil and Vanya hovers somewhere between horror, psychological thriller, and satire. The boys’ parents are obsessed with appearances to a fault: They own a design firm and a stylish home featured in a (disastrous but ultimately publishable) Dwell magazine shoot. The father bristles at any suggestion of psychological treatment for the boys, preferring to live in denial. Their mother visits hipster barbershops and adoptive parent groups, always worried about how she and the boys will present to others in their tony neighborhood. Daniil and Vanya receive no real treatment for their past trauma. In a tragic paragraph, we learn that they feel relief, toward the end of the novel, at being beaten. The violence is a familiar, bodily sensation to them, resonating with their preverbal memories.
Reminiscent of We Need to Talk About Kevin, another story that examines the behavior of a boy seemingly malevolent from birth, Daniil and Vanya indulges caretakers’ worst nightmares about attachment and childhood criminality. Readers may shudder and feel the need to cleanse themselves after following the book to its relentless, suffocating climax.
all points bulletin: Russell Atwood’s newest novel, Alive in Apartment Five, is out now from Fantastic Fiction. • Hilary Davidson’s Lily Moore series (see The Damage Done) is currently being reissued in e-book and paperback formats from Beast Books. • William Burton McCormick’s upcoming thriller KGB Banker has recently been acquired by Sunbury Press. • The Baker Street Irregulars will be holding their annual January festivities online. Visit www.bsiweekend.com for more information. • The Bouchercon 2020 anthology California Schemin’—edited by Art Taylor and published by Wildside Press via Kickstarter—features authors like Catriona McPherson, Walter Mosley, Anne Perry, R. J. Koreto, and Gabriel Valjan.