Jack’s Books: Finishing The Year in 3 Centuries

Looking at the last several books, while they’re all either history or mystery, they’re sure spread out…chronologically.

From 1866 to today, here are the latest hits:

Two really good recent histories:

“Normandy ’44: D-Day and The Epic 77-day Battle for France” by James Holland (2019) Operation Overlord is maybe the most chronicled chapter in the war, but its sheer breadth defies a single treatment—usually. Somehow, this author manages the “big picture” stuff on both Allied and Axis sides, with gritty details and gripping personal accounts of the action. Fascinating, inspiring and vivid.

“Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and The Secret History of the ’60s” by Tom O’Neil and Dan Piepenbring (2020) O’Neil was a magazine writer, assigned to do a straight piece on the impending 30th anniversary of the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders (in 1999). While protesting his reluctance to indulge in conspiracy theories, he then uncovers so many problems with the prosecution case against the Manson “family” that he misses his deadline by decades and the article becomes, of necessity, a book. In a rare approach, the author wrestles with himself in the pages of his own book—should he stop? Keep going? Is he crazy? Has be lost perspective on his material? He’s adamant: he hasn’t “solved” the crime, but he satisfied himself, and me, that the official facts don’t hold up under review. Questions like how Manson repeated and blatantly violated his parole, how his group’s many illegalities were widely known in the LA and federal law enforcement communities, plus O’Neil’s introduction (and maybe ours) to CIA and FBI programs (CHAOS, COINTELPRO, MKULTRA) designed to play radical groups against each other in a kind of staged second “civil war”.

All of which is to say this: you can read “Chaos” two ways. One, it’s a fascinating, well-researched history of a deeply troubled time, not unlike our present day, and the dissection of an infamous crime. Two, and this is what I found in the book, it’s a blueprint for how a Big Brother government could co-opt and infiltrate dangerous people and get them to do things that are strategic for controlling society. Present day?

Also this month:

“Waltz Into Darkness” by Cornell Woolrich (1947) An 1880s wealthy bachelor proposes to a woman in another city, having only corresponded  by letters.  The woman who arrives  in his city to marry him is clearly not the same woman whose photo he has seen, but has an explanation that I personally would never buy! But he does, and as is always the case with Woolrich’s tragic actors, this is the story of his falling into a trap, losing everything and groping for answers.

“Broadcast Blues” by R.G. Belsky (2024) Fresh off his interview on our 12/18/23 episode (ktsa.com/on-demand), Belsky brings back NYC investigative reporter Clare Carlson in a tale of murder, deceit and politics. R.G. only writes a twisty tale, but layers-on some “inside baseball” insights into journalism, the craft and the business. Always worthwhile!

“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevskiy (1866) A long, dense novel that I finally cracked, but here’s one of those “classics” deserving of the label, You will savor every page of this rich story of a young man who does something completely out of the realm of his “normal”, but rationalizes it (is his crime a “crime” or is it “justice”?) It was not always easy to follow him and the other colorful, unforgettable characters through this dystopian tsarist Russian landscape, But you’ll be glad of the journey.

“The Zebra-Striped Hearse” by Ross MacDonald (1962) Famously, and justifiably, crowned the best American mystery author by the New York Times, back when more people cared what the Times thought. MacDonald, not unlike Dostoyevskiy, really writes masterful characters and places,  and then sets down a mystery among them. Here, his indefatigable P.I., Lew Archer, goes in search of a young woman who’s fallen in with a dangerous rake, who seems, in fact, to be three very different men.

“Capturing Skunk Alpha” by Raul Herrera (2023) From our 12/19/23 episode (ktsa.com/on-demand), you should read Mr. Herrera both for the story of a young West Side San Antonio man’s coming of age and service to his country—and for the gripping account of the Swift Boat action he saw in the Vietnam War. Seldom will you read anything so brutally honest and straightforward, and you may feel (as I did) that it’s an honor to know this man, or at least share a city with him.

Please feel free to share your book choices, or impressions of the above, at [email protected]

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