Tag Archives: criminology

Chain Gang

Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson (Picador; $20.00; 496 pages)

“Hardly light reading…  a slog through a muddy field.”

It’s doubtful that anyone would wish to take the position that modern American prisons serve as the perfect example of rehabilitative environments.   Yet Professor Robert Perkinson takes approximately 500 pages to argue the case that they are not the best representation of a “forgiving society.”   That’s fine but this reviewer wishes that at least half of this large tome had dealt with solutions rather than simple issue spotting.   Finding problems is the easy part, finding solutions – applying innovative social engineering – is the tough part and is missing from this quasi-legal brief.

Texas Tough is highly documented with source materials and yet academic knowledge is not the same as practical experience.   At one point in his Conclusion, for example, Parkinson disparages “high-tech uberprisons like Pelican Bay in California,” as not being very friendly (prisons like this are “regimented lockups” in his view).   I saw no indication in the Notes that Mr. Perkinson has ever visited Pelican Bay (as I have); this is an end-of-the-line facility for the most violent of hard-core offenders.   It is not meant to serve as either a Club Fed or a cozy community college.

What would Mr. Perkinson do as the administrator of such a facility?   (Asked but not answered.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book (and the first half is much harder reading than the second half due to some highly obtuse language) is the application of The Law of Unintended Consequences, popularized by the sociologist Robert K. Merton.   This principle is often referenced in law schools as litigation and legislation-based reforms may produce results that surprise their sponsors.   Due to court-ordered reforms in the state of Texas, for example, the author notes that inmates are now “as plagued by tedium as toil.”   Their death rates are also much lower.   These two points don’t seem to support his case very well.

The professor also spends a great portion of this work arguing that northern prisons have become more punitive (and “southern”), while southern prisons have become more “northern” and less harsh.   Perkinson ties this to race but it seems more than a bit tenuous.   Let’s just say that it may remain an interesting issue for further research for sociologists.  (Just a thought: Why didn’t Perkinson compare west coast prisons to east coast ones?)

If one has never read a book about the U. S. correctional system, then this might make for an interesting, if sometimes blatantly overdone, introduction to the subject.   It is hardly light reading.   In fact, it is sometimes a slog through a muddy field.

This reviewer is hopeful that someone follows up on this survey work with a constructive and solution-based approach to what Professor Perkinson somewhat dramatically labels as “America’s Prison Empire.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Henry Holt and Company.   Take Away:  Perkinson spends a lot of time (and reams of paper) making an argument that not a lot of people are going to disagree with.   The fault is that after pinpointing problems he fails to even suggest possible solutions.

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Midnight Rambler

Trail of Blood by Lisa Black (William Morrow; $24.99; 400 pages)

Who knew that Cleveland, Ohio could be so interesting?   Lisa Black, a member of the National Academy of Forensic Sciences, proves that there’s more to Cleveland than the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.   Her third Theresa MacLean book is not only set in this Midwestern city, it features some really gory murders that are based in fact.   Black’s main character is a forensic scientist who happens to belong to a family with a history of crime fighting all the way back to her grandfather.

When present day murders bear a striking similarity to Cleveland’s most horrific killing spree during the 1930s and 40s, the city police and coroner’s offices are summoned to cut short the present day nightmare.   Theresa and her cop cousin Frank are at the center of the action.   Yes, Theresa takes more than her share of risks; however, she also uses her instincts to get out of peril.   There are plenty of false leads and hints to keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the book.

There are several other mystery/thriller series written by expert authors that feature main characters with similar talents.   The most notable of these is the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell.   Black unfolds Trail of Blood as a more personal story with less ostentatious criminology and more good-old-fashioned shoe leather detecting than does Cornwell.   In addition, the story is actually told in two time frames, current day and 75 years ago.  

Black is excellent at keeping it real.   The mix of accurate historic details, a map up front in the beginning of the book and a detailed timeline of the original murders set this book apart from the rest of the pack.

Well recommended to fans of thriller novels that actually have more than gore to offer.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Bone Chilling

The Bone Thief: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (William Morrow, $24.99, 359 pages)

The authors of this true-to-life, crime scene investigation novel are a team:  Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson.   Together they write as Jefferson Bass, in the same fashion that Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child write as Preston Child.  

Bass and Jefferson have written several novels based on the work of Dr. Bass, who is a highly respected forensic anthropologist.   In these novels, unlike the CSI shows on television, there is no criminology practiced that relies on magic technological crime-fighting equipment dreamed up by a screenwriter.   The characters in The Bone Thief  must employ intellect, observation, and plain old footwork to solve a most perplexing series of body part thefts.

Dr. Bill Brockton, the chief protagonist, is a forensic anthropologist who works at the University of Tennessee managing the Body Farm, where the decomposition of human remains is studied.   He and his research assistant Miranda Lovelady (a name that’s a bit overly obvious) are drawn into a mystery involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation, while at the same time they’re on a quest to find a fresh set of hands for a colleague who received a massive dose of radiation while performing an autopsy.   The surgeon’s skillful hands are being destroyed by the radiation he encountered.

The story here is told in the first person by Dr. Brockton.   The underlying theme of the tale is Brockton’s introspection on choices he and others make, relationships and human frailty.   Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   It is said that there is a real-life Body Farm managed by Dr. Bass. 

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A Numbers Game

Think of a Number by John Verdon (Crown, July 2010, 432 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the processes of adjudication.   On the other, there was pain, murderous rage, death.”

John Verdon, a former advertising firm executive in Manhattan, has produced a brilliant debut novel that offers a cynical and skeptical look at the modern criminal justice system.   In Verdon’s words, “…the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind.”   If one read this novel with no knowledge of the writer’s background, one would guess that he is a retired policeman or prosecutor.   It is quite hard to believe that Verdon has no personal knowledge of the bleak and challenging world that he writes about so expertly in this work.

In Think of a Number, retired Detective David Gurney and his wife Madeleine live in the hills of Delaware County.   She is the smarter of the two, although he is considered to be the most brilliant crime solver who ever worked for the New York City Police Department.   Gurney is so legendary that his adult son says to him, “Mass murderers don’t have a chance against you.   You’re like Batman.”

But Gurney may have met his match when he’s asked by the county district attorney to serve as a special investigator on a serial killer case.   The killer seems to do the impossible.   First, he sends his intended victim a message asking him to think of a number, any number at all.   Once they think of the number they are instructed to open a sealed envelope; this envelope contains the very number they thought of written in ink.   As if this is not amazing and frightening enough, the killer subsequently calls his intended victim and asks him to whisper another number into the phone.   After he does so, he is instructed to go to his mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed onto a  page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s ably assisted by Madeleine who often sees things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his numbers tricks, or how to capture him.   In order to solve the puzzles, Gurney is going to have to consider making himself a target of the killer.   Gurney’s logic and research tells him that the serial killer is a control freak, one who kills victims in different states (like Ted Bundy) but operates according to a strict plan.

Gurney must come up with a theory as to what connects these male victims – who seem to have no apparent connection – in order to figure out why they were killed.   Once he does so, he begins to formulate a plan that will put him face to face with a madman genius.   (The reader, quite fortunately, will not come even close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style thriller.   It is easy to see this novel being made into a film.   At heart, it’s an old-fashioned morality play in which a retired white-hat wearing man must come out of retirement to battle with an all too clever mean-hearted outlaw.   Detective Gurney engages the enemy – a modern devil – while understanding that in the gritty field of criminal justice there are no final victories.

This is an impressively written and engaging story.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a number of hours on one’s schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin – as this reader has – to count the months until Mr. Verdon delivers his next very satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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