****The Cold Summer

Giovanni Falcone tree

Memorial tree for Giovanni Falcone; Dedda71, creative commons license

By Gianrico Carofiglio, translated by Howard Curtis – The Cold Summer is a fascinating police procedural involves the amputation of one small arm of the Mafia in Apulia, a region that constitutes the heel of Italy’s boot. Marshal Pietro Fenoglio is a carabinieri officer in the region’s capital, Bari, investigating the kidnapping and death of the young son of local mafia leader Nicola Grimaldi.

Speculation is that rivalries within the ranks of Grimaldi’s organization precipitated the kidnapping, as it’s one of a wave of occurrences linked to organized crime sweeping the area. “Probably the most respected and certainly the most intelligent” of Grimaldi’s lieutenants, Vito Lopez, has disappeared. His wife and son have disappeared, too,which suggests the family is in hiding and makes Lopez a prime suspect in the kidnapping. Certainly, the Grimaldi family believes Lopez is the culprit. The growing rift in the Grimaldi organization could be a way to bring the family down, if only Fenoglio can figure out how to do it.

The story is set in mid-1992, the “cold summer,” infamous in Italian law enforcement. First came the murders of prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three members of their police escort in a bomb blast outside Palermo. Less than two months later, prosecutor Paolo Borsellino and five members of his police escort also were murdered. These real-life events shake up not only Carofiglio’s fictional characters, but the Italian people as well, leading to a crackdown on the mafia and new, harsher penalties for convicted mafiosi. Carofiglio thus places his story in an era that was particularly dangerous and high-stakes for police, prosecutors, and criminals alike.

Carofiglio’s characters are believable, flawed, and interesting. The carabinieri, never free from the oppressive danger around them, move forward cautiously, but with purpose. Fenoglio is especially articulate in his musings about the “grey areas” in society in which many people, including his colleagues and even himself and his investigation, often operate.

To everyone’s surprise, Lopez turns himself in. He knows he’s a dead man without police protection and maybe even with it. The interviews of him by Assistant Prosecutor Gemma D’Angelo are presented as question-and-answer transcripts, devoid of editorial comment, gesture, or any emotion. This dry style is remarkably effective and makes Lopez’s confession even more powerful by its simplicity. Despite the many crimes he confesses to, he is adamant in denying involvement in the Grimaldi boy’s kidnapping. On that crime, Fenoglio and Pellecchia appear back to square one.

When reading a book that has been translated, you can never be certain how closely the style adheres to the original. In this case, Howard Curtis has produced an English-language text that reads exceedingly smoothly, yet manages to convey the aura of the original Italian. You never feel as if you are reading a translation, but the original.

Carofiglio is an award-winning novelist and a Bari native. He has long experience as a prosecutor specializing in organized crime, which informs this well-crafted novel beginning to end. It’s a pleasure to read and to spend a little time (safely) in Fenoglio’s perilous world.

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Don’t Miss! Detroit ’67

Detroit '67

photo: T. Charles Erickson

Just a few more performances of McCarter Theatre’s stunning production of Detroit ’67, directed by Jade King Carroll and on stage through October 28. The summer of 1967 is unforgettable for native Detroiters such as myself, and I’ve looked forward to seeing what light playwright Dominique Morisseau would shine on that bleak page in history. Morisseau is a 2018 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient and the third most-produced playwright in the country at the moment, so my expectations were high.
They were certainly met, with this powerful story and strong cast. In her story, sister and brother Chelle (played by Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey) have inherited the family home in Detroit, and Chelle is using her portion of their parents’ savings to send her son to the Tuskegee Institute. Lank and his best friend Sylvester (Will Cobbs) have other plans. They want to buy a bar. This would be a big step up from the low-budget blind pig (unlicensed drinking establishment) Lank and Chelle operate in their basement, which is the set for the play.
The Detroit Police Department is going through a repressive period, in which tactical squads of four police officers terrorize, intimidate, and assault residents. If the police discover the blind pig, Chelle and Lank are in deep trouble. Contraction in the auto industry and a significant population decline have decreased economic opportunities for the city’s residents, another reason Lank and Sly want to strike out on their own.
The unexpected presence of the white woman in the household gives the characters a chance to talk about the difference in choices available to them. Chelle is deeply, angrily disappointed that her brother has, in her view, “squandered” the family inheritance—an opinion manifesting in events when the city begins to burn.
Although these are heavy subjects, Morisseau lightens the mood with the humorous efforts of Sly to romance Chelle, and the observations of her best friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie).
It’s also a story about the power of dreams and the importance of having them, and although these insights are not new, the precarious situation of the protagonists makes them all the more pointed. The fact that half a century later the play’s issues regularly resurface in the daily news underscores their continuing importance and well worth seeing.
The theater has put together a rich set of background resources that includes—of course!—a Spotify playlist that leads off with The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Find it here!
McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

*****Broken Ground

Scottish Highlands, thistle

usameredith, creative commons license

By Val McDermid—There’s a reason readers around the world look forward to a new book by the “queen of crime,” and her legions of fans will not be disappointed with this one! Val McDermid’s new police procedural is her fifth crime thriller featuring Edinburgh police cold case detective Karen Pirie, who’s not above putting her faith in the value of her work above the priorities of her superiors.

Pirie and her trusty ally, Detective Constable Jason Murray, and her untrustworthy new detective sergeant, “that utter shitehawk Gerry McCartney”—sent by the new Assistant Chief Constable Ann Markie to spy on Pirie, she’s sure—try to unravel three different cold cases.

They’re tackling the first, a series of brutal 30-year-old rapes, with recently obtained information about a vehicle that may have been involved. In the second, they’re flouting the rules to stay involved in a current-day situation: Pirie has overheard two women in a coffee shop planning to confront a hostile estranged husband. It’s a poor strategy with a strong potential for violence, and Pirie tells them so—advice not received as kindly as it was intended. It’s a testament to McDermid’s narrative skills that the pursuit of these two cases, subplots, really, are every bit as engaging as the team’s biggest and much more tangled investigation.

In an opening scene set in Wester Ross, Scotland, in 1944, two friends bury a pair of large crates in a peat bog. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of them returns to the Highlands to claim her inheritance. Using her grandfather’s map to the hiding place, she and her husband approach the local crofter, Hamish Mackenzie, a handsome fellow who might have swaggered out of the pages of Outlander. He agrees to help them dig.

The excavation proceeds smoothly. One crate up: in it, a pristine (I won’t say what; I’ll let you discover this treasure for yourself). They unearth the second crate, but it seems to have been disturbed, perhaps by the dead man lying on top of it. The body is remarkably well preserved, due to the peculiar characteristics of peat bogs. However it came there, it wasn’t recently, which means the investigation is in the remit of Pirie’s Historic Cases Unit.

McDermid is much-praised for her brilliant evocation of the places, mores, and culture of Scotland, as well as the procedures and rivalries within Police Scotland. As a result, the atmosphere she creates is believable down to the last wisp of mist. Introducing Hamish Mackenzie as a potential love interest for Pirie adds a bit of Celtic spice.

Although the cases Pirie works on are old, the investigation methods brought into play are fascinatingly up-to-the-minute. DNA analysis, deployed in the rape case, is only one of them. Rapid reconstruction of the bog corpse’s appearance is another. Analysis and enhancement of cell phone contents is yet a third. McDermid, who has a great interest in forensics, likes to get these technologies right, and she gives Pirie a pair of worthy confederates: her friends River Wilde, a forensic anthropologist, and Tamsin, head of a laboratory in Police Scotland’s Gartcosh Crime Centre. They, like she, believe families should not have to wait one day longer than necessary to learn the fate of their loved one.

Though Pirie occasionally missteps, mostly by treading on the toes of other police officials, and especially ACC Markie, McDermid never puts a foot wrong. Her prose is so clear and engaging, this is a book that will keep you turning pages. Like Pirie, you will be hungry for just that one more bit of evidence.

****The Skeleton Road

Having read the six books I took to Sicily, I raided my last hotel’s shelf of abandoned books and picked up this 2014 thriller by McDermid, which entangles Pirie and Murray in a case of long-ago war crimes, revenge, and distorted justice. The eight-hour airplane ride flew by!

 

Vacation Reading, Italian Style

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Seventeen days out of the country, two eight-plus hour air flights, how many books should I pack? Always the burning question. This time, it turns out, not enough. I packed six and had to raid the hotel guest discards shelf for the return flight. Picked a good one too.

Here are quick reviews of five of them:

****Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – The nearly 200 pages of this bi-monthly is like reading an entire book, one where you sometimes meet old literary friends, as in:

  • J.Rozan’s tale about the quick-wittedness of an elderly Chinese woman in “Chin Yong-Un Helps a Fool.” One of Chin’s previous escapades garnered Rozan a 2018 Edgar Award nomination.
  • Doug Allyn’s Dylan LaCrosse from Valhalla, Michigan, P.D. in another entertaining story steeped in the ethos of the Upper Peninsula.
  • Richard Helms’s Pat Gallagher, an unlicensed P.I. who roams New Orleans’s French Quarter, toting his cornet and stumbling into trouble. And
  • Lou Manfredo’s Sgt. Joe Rizzo, dealing with a “Brooklyn playboy murdered.”

**The Third Act, by John Wilson – This book which turned out to be YA, I hadn’t realized, blew an interesting premise. An Ohio drama program director writes a concluding act for an unfinished play by the program’s most illustrious graduate. The play is set in China at the time of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, and the scenes in China create the sense of reading a play—little scene description, a few gestures. But the modern-day framing story is weak, and its grim conclusion sends an unsuitable message for young audiences, in my opinion.

****Faithless Elector by James McCrone – This is a look at one of the ways the U.S. Electoral College might be manipulated to propel a losing candidate into the Oval Office—entertaining and bone-chilling at the same time. Well-written with a bit of a logic stretch here and there. Particularly unnerving (and plausible) is that the conspiracy was discovered only by a fluke.

*****Twice Buried by Steven F. Havill – I love these evocative Posadas County Mysteries, which are fine-grained police procedurals. In this one, Undersheriff Bill Gastner takes great care investigating the apparently accidental death of an unexceptional old woman whose death (and life) law enforcement might tend to write off, and that makes all the difference.

****Half a Chance by John Perrotta – A quick read, this book is steeped in the action and lore of the thoroughbred race track. Someone’s playing fast and loose with big wads of cash, and can he keep all his financial transactions afloat while he rides out of town with the greenbacks? Lots of fun, strong characters, some redemption, and a fine evocation of horse-racing’s arcane world.

***Animal Instinct: Human Zoo

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Simon Booker (this is an Audible Original, narrated by Imogen Church with a strong cast portraying the characters). PTSD has left former police detective Joe Cassidy (played by Brendan Coyle—Bates on Downton Abbey) with debilitating panic attacks. To get away from the world, he’s set himself up in a remote cottage on Dungeness Beach in Kent, but the world comes to him when he’s contacted by an old friend. Adam Pennyfeather (Joseph Marcell) inherited a wild animal park, and once saved Cassidy’s life when he was almost trampled by an elephant. Adam’s daughter Bella has gone missing, and he wants Cassidy to help find her. As a friend. As someone who owes him.

Cassidy is also on hiatus from his marriage to Katie (Lia Williams), herself a police detective, who’s handling the investigation of Bella’s disappearance. When Bella’s body is found in the elephant house, strung up like a side of meat, Katie is handed her first murder investigation. This creates inevitable tension between the couple, acting in their official and unofficial capacities.

The fault lines in the Pennyfeather family gradually reveal themselves. Adam’s wife is Isabel (Victoria Hamilton), and his younger daughter is Saffron (Rebekah Hinds). She and her husband, pizza entrepreneur Liam O’Mara (Harry Lloyd), tell Cassidy about Isabel’s lifelong loathing of her younger brother Felix, now Adam’s lawyer, and how Isabel preferred her daughters to her son Gabriel. His birth led to serious post-partum psychosis for which she was hospitalized. Fearing for the boy’s safety, Adam put him up for adoption many years before, and has since learned that Gabriel died in a motorcycle accident.

Trying to worm her way into Cassidy’s orbit is a relentless local journalist, an Australian woman named Chrissy McBride. Brigid Lohrey makes this character so annoying that, along with Cassidy, you’ll probably think, “Oh, no, not her again!”

Cassidy believes his wife is seeing someone, was seeing someone while they were married, at least early on, and that their son Luke is the other man’s child. Three DNA samples sent to a Cambridge lab will tell the tale, but is that information he really wants? Booker builds a nice bit of tension around the receipt of these laboratory results, and with Coyle’s solid portrayal, you can appreciate how torn Cassidy is.

The production includes sound effects of the type a foley artist would deploy in a radio play to indicate a closing door, footsteps, and the like. Possibly this is a matter of personal taste, but the sound effects feel redundant and jar me out of the story.

Animal Instinct is a nicely played, complex story and billed as the first book in a series featuring Joe Cassidy. TV writer Booker will find his listeners looking forward to more.

Listen Up! 3 Terrific Thrillers in Audio

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Catching up on highly regarded crime thrillers of the last year, I’ve turned to audio for these:

*****Prussian Blue
By the late Philip Kerr, narrated by John Lee. This was Kerr’s next-to-last historical crime novel featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther, and takes place in 1939 and 1956. Lee’s reading imbues Gunther with every sly hint and ironic twist in his attitude toward the Nazis. Some of his colleagues at the time were aware: “I don’t know how you’ve survived this long, Gunther, feeling as you do.” But survive he has, and 17 years later, he’s working in France when a former colleague—now head of the East German secret police, the Stasi—demands he murder a certain woman. Rather than comply, Gunther goes on the run. Scenes of his flight across France are interspersed with recollections of a 1939 murder case at Hitler’s famous mountaintop retreat in Obersalzberg, which he was brought in to solve and which put him right in the middle of a power struggle between two of Hitler’s top men. It would be a hard job to choose which tale is more nerve-wracking. Lee’s Gunther is just right, his Nazis odious, and his Stasi enemies no better. Nominated for a 2018 Edgar Award and five stars from CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Bluebird, Bluebird
By Attica Locke, narrated by J.D. Jackson. In northeast Texas, a black man’s body is found floating in the bayou behind the only black-owned business in the tiny fictional town of Lark. Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension, but decides to poke around. One of the few black Rangers, he’s worked before on race-connected deaths and believes this is one. When he arrives in the town, the sheriff’s men are fishing another body out of the water—this one a white woman. Surely the deaths are linked, but how? And can he prove it? As he tries, Jackson’s narration expertly conveys not just Matthews’s determination, but the sheriff’s weakness, the malevolence of local Aryan Brotherhood of Texas members, the shifting moods of the dead man’s elegant wife from Chicago, who is the sort of Bluebird (messenger) of the title, and, finally, the townspeople black and white who are protecting a decades-old wall of secrets, all of whom are intriguing if just a bit predictable. Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. TV series in the works.

*****The Marsh King’s Daughter
By Karen Dionne, narrated by Emily Rankin. Helena Pelletier is the protagonist in this thriller, set in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She’s trying to live a normal life with her husband and two daughters, while keeping her bizarre past a secret. Rankin’s reading makes it clear this isn’t easy, and it becomes impossible when her Native American father kills two guards and escapes from prison, “armed and dangerous.” Years before, he kidnapped a fourteen-year-old girl and took her into the remote marshlands as his wife. There they lived off the land and had a daughter—Helena. Rankin conveys how much the young Helena adored her father and what he taught her about hunting, fishing, and survival. Eventually, the girl and her mother were found, and her father ended up in prison, an outcome that has left Helena deeply conflicted. Now that he’s on the run, she’s has to see whether she can live up to his nickname for her, Bangii-Agawaateyaa, “Little Shadow,” and find him before he finds her and her daughters. An international bestseller, it was frequently named one of the best books of 2017. Movie in the works.

****The Greek Wall

razor wire fenceWritten by Nicolas Verdan, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson –The European refugee crisis has been front-and-center in the news media for so long it’s become easy to tune it out. In award-winning Swiss author Nicolas Verdan’s literary crime thriller, all the horrifying consequences of what happens when groups of people are ripe for exploitation are on display. And he doesn’t stop there, underscoring how wide its ripples have spread in European society.

It’s 2010, and Agent Evangelos of the Greek National Intelligence Service is sent to investigate a severed head found outside the northern city of Orestiada on the border separating Greece and non-EU Turkey border. Is it the head of a Westerner? That’s what Evangelos’s superiors want to know, and they want the answer to be ‘yes.’ Something else to blame on the refugees.

Finnish members of the European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) found the head near the bank of the Evros River. This strip of land is not only Greece’s border but that of the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area—in a sense, all of Europe. It’s the main crossing point for refugees into the European Union. Greek politicians want to build a Trump-like border wall there, and they want the EU to pay for it. Greece certainly can’t. (In real life, a 10-mile wall—actually a razor-wire fence—was eventually built.)

Verdan’s novel – his first available in English – is part political thriller, part police procedural, part mystery. A brief prologue offers hints regarding who has lost his head, but the circumstances are murky.

Much of this literary, sensitively written novel adopts the close-up point of view of Agent Evangelos, who takes the constant reversals of policy in stride simply by ignoring them. His focus is on solving the crime, and he moves doggedly forward, even when he’s told not to push his inquiry too hard. Novels based on current events risk becoming outdated, but the essential humanity of Verdan’s characters make this story timeless. An extra star here for humanity.

A Trio of Notable Crime Novels

photo: Stew Dean, creative commons license

Exciting plots, award-winning authors, worthy protagonists. Three crime thrillers for spring!

****Slow Horses

By Mick Herron – In Britain’s MI5, the slow horses are the agents whose incompetence, outrageous errors, or general unlikeability cause them to slip off the fast track. They’re stabled at the aptly-named Slough House, far from Regent’s Park, the energized center of important decisions and brisk walking. With luck, sheer boredom will move them to seek some different pasture.

The slow horses work under the benign supervision of Jackson Lamb, who may be more wolf than lamb, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating that the luckless occupants of Slough House are not without tradecraft tools and the wit to use them.

When a young man is abducted by people threatening to behead him live on the Internet, the political complexities of the situation quickly escalate. Slough House has reason to be involved, but HQ won’t hear of it. Worse, a violent attack on one of them suggests any means possible will be used to prevent their sticking their noses in. Slow horses or no, the race is on. Against the kidnappers and against their own superiors.

Herron has written a page-turner of a novel, with many laugh-out-loud moments. This first in an award-winning series was thoroughly enjoyable.

***Night Life

By David C. Taylor, narrated by Keith Szarabajka – In 1954 New York City, police detective Michael Cassidy—who could have inspired Sinatra’s “My Way”—becomes embroiled in a mystery that will require all his detecting skills and a great deal of political savvy to unravel. A young gay man is found tortured to death. The killer was apparently looking for something. Cassidy must look for it too.

He’s not sure what he’ll find when he starts turning over rocks in these early Cold War days, with paranoia about Communism and Communists on the rise, with the hearings of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in the news, with the CIA and the FBI competing for scraps of information. Cassidy is a straight-up cop, but he’s unaware of his own vulnerabilities. He’s about to discover them, and they will put the people he cares about most at risk.

Screenwriter Taylor creates a powerful noir atmosphere that evokes not only the streets of New York some sixty years ago but also the psychic atmosphere, with its fear-mongering about the Red Menace and its rampant homophobia. In this novel, both of these caused people to kill and be killed. Nice narration from Keith Szarabajka.

This book won the 2016 Nero Wolfe Award for Best American Mystery, and was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award nominee.

***Shutter Man

By Richard Montanari, narrated by Scott Brick – Another good cop story, this one intergenerational. It’s set in Philadelphia, and the early scenes take place in 1976 in an Irish neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket. Back then, a group of teenage friends from the Pocket were involved somehow in the death of a mentally disabled young man who was a member of the powerful Irish crime family, the Farrens.

Today, one of those young men is police detective Kevin Byrne, another is DA candidate Jimmy Doyle, and the Farrens are still operating outside the law. Byrne and his friend, Assistant DA Jessica Balzano (teamed up in several of Montanari’s books) are working on a set of bizarre killings that seem to be linked, but how? And do they reach all the way back to those Devil’s Pocket days?

Montanari’s characters are interesting and well-rounded and he creates considerable narrative tension. While Scott Brick provided a fine narration, the multitude of characters and the switching between time periods make this a better candidate for enjoying in print.

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Crime Novels of 2016.

***A Darker State

car headlights

photo: Lothar Massmann, creative commons license

By David YoungLife in East Germany in the mid-1970s is the true subject of David Young’s intriguing series of police procedurals-cum-political-thrillers, and dark it is.

Oberleutnant Karin Müller in East Berlin’s Kriminalpolizei—considered by some overpromoted to that post—has been inexplicably promoted again while on maternity leave. Now a major, she’s being put in charge of a team that will oversee investigations of high-profile murders anywhere in the country, murders that might “prove embarrassing to the Republic.” In other words, investigations that inevitably will put her on a collision course with the Ministry for State Security, the dreaded East German Secret Police. The Stasi.

Müller isn’t eager to cut short her maternity leave. But, as inducement, her boss reveals that a spacious apartment will be hers if she accepts the new job assignment—a giant step up from the tiny quarters where she’s living with her infant twins, their father, and her grandmother. And there’s the not inconsiderable inducement that she’d be working again with Werner Tilsner who also has been promoted. Müller accepts. Thank goodness. Now we can move on with the story and leave behind awkward references to the series’ earlier books.

Their first case arises when Tilsner is summoned to where a young man’s body has been found. The body has the marks of restraints and, it turns out, an abnormally high amount of testosterone in his blood. He’s only the first. The roadblocks that Müller and Tilsner encounter as their investigation proceeds have the machinations of the Stasi written all over them.

Meanwhile, Jonas Schmidt, the pedantic Kriminaltechniker who aids Müller and Tilsner with the forensic aspects of their investigations is in an increasingly sour mood. Trouble at home. Schmidt’s teenage son Markus has taken up with friends his parents deem unsuitable. Markus’s new friends are homosexual, and you suspect he’s being set up for something dangerous, even if he doesn’t see it. While East Germany legalized homosexuality in 1968, changing the law has not changed prejudices.

As in his first book, Stasi Child, Young tells part of the story from a victim’s first-person point of view, in this case Markus’s, starting a few months before Müller and Tilsner begin their new assignment. It’s a clever way to introduce backstory, since all crimes have some sort of history.

While the time shifts were mostly easy to follow, what would add to my understanding of the narrative would be a map showing the places the story takes place. Frequently, Müller is torn by late-night calls to go off somewhere, leaving the twins with her grandmother once again. I had no sense of whether these places are a few miles or a few hundred miles distant.

In an afterword, Young writes that he became interested in East Germany when he arranged a tour for a band he was in. “German venues loved booking UK bands.” Luckily for us (and for Young and his fellow musicians), they did not meet the same fate as the British band Pearl Harbor in the Belgian thriller Back Up, reviewed here recently, in which all the band members are murdered in the first eighty pages!

A longer version of this review appeared on crimefictionlover.com.

Murder in a Nutshell

Nutshell 1

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Nutshell 2

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, and the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, has been reprinted. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.