Kathy Reichs: Déjà Dead

Originally published 1997, German: Tote lügen nicht (2000)

Having occasionally caught, and enjoyed, episodes of “Bones” on TV, I was happy to come across “Déjà Dead”, the first novel of the Tempe Brennan seris, at a flea market the other day.

It was a brilliant read, and I´m definitely going to read more from this series.

The Tempe Brennan encountered in this book as the first person narrator is considerably different from the Tempe Brennan of “Bones” – according to Wikipedia, the TV version has more in common with the author, Kathy Reichs, than with her namesake. So this Tempe is a forensic anthropologist in her late 30s, living alone after a divorce some years ago, her daughter at college, far away. Tempe is also a former alcoholic.

Whereas in the TV series, Tempe is working in Washington, D.C., at least the first few novels in the series are set in Montreal, Quebec, Canada which does add a unique atmosphere to the setting. Tempe is set apart, and to some degree isolated, by her position as an American working in a foreign country, and while she is not the only woman at her institute, she is the only woman working with several male detectives in this particular case and has a hard time convincing them (especially one) to take her theory of a serial killer on the loose seriously.

When human remains are found on the grounds of an abandoned monastery, Tempe is called in to quickly confirm whether they are from an old grave, laid open by the elements, as everyone hopes, or a case for the police. All too quickly, it turns out they are indeed from a murder victim, brutally mutilated and dismembered.

Something about the find reminds Tempe of a former, unsolved case and she starts looking at that again. Soon after, more dead bodies turn up, all mutilated and dismembered, all of them female. Tempe is convinced that a serial killer is on the loose, but has a hard time convincing the policemen working on the case of her theory.

At the same time, her best friend, a fellow anthropologist who is doing a field study in the red light district about the subculture of prostitutes, is giving Tempe increasingly reason to worry – she acts strangely and unusually and at one point, confesses that in the course of her work, she has attracted the attention of a stalker.

Again and again, the notorious real life case of Jack the Ripper peeks out beneath the lines, starting with the combination of the motifs of a serial killer, mutilated victims, prostitution. The descriptions of the mutilations have some parallels to those committed on the real life victims of the Ripper, most obviously those of the woman murdered in her own home to those of Mary Jane Kelly – the Ripper victim murdered in her home. Did I mention that one of the suspects goes by the alias of “St Jacques”?

Talking about the suspects – there are many fictional treatments of the Ripper case; some are good reads, some are not. Each of them offers its own solution to the case, and sadly, so far I haven´t encountered one that might be even close to probability. Most of them either have the Ripper turn out to be a completely fictitious character, not based on anyone associated with the real life case (e.g. Michael Dibdin´s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story) or they pick a fictionalised version of the more sensationalist theories, having the Queen´s physician, a member of the Royal family, or a conspiracy of freemasons be behind the murders. Which is really only exciting the first time you read about it. By the n-th novelisation, graphic novel, movie, TV miniseries presenting this theory… yawn.

In a way, “Déjà Dead” can be considered another fictionalized treatment of the Ripper case, and while it is far removed from the real case in terms of temporal, geographical and thus cultural setting, in her line-up of suspects and characters Kathy Reichs does acknowledge some of the well-established Ripper theories that are generally considered more likely (…well, at least in comparison to the Royal Conspiracy) today. There is a teacher who behaves oddly – an obvious nod to Montague John Druitt – an even a madman who has exhibited violent behavior in the past and has at times been committed to an asylum, a wave at the David Cohen theory.

The David Cohen theory is, in my opinion, one of the more likely identifications of the Ripper, which makes it worthwhile elaborating on it. It originates from the 1894 Macnaghten memoranda,  which mention three major suspects, among them “a Polish Jew & resident in Whitechapel. This man became insane owing to many years indulgence in solitary vices. He had a great hatred of women, especially of the prostitute class, & had strong homicidal tendencies; he was removed to a lunatic asylum about March 1889. There were many circs connected with this man which made him a strong ‘suspect'”;  from information about the killer (and the police’s knowledge about his identity), revealed by Sir Robert Anderson (Assistant Commissioner CID at Scotland Yard) for the first time in an article in 1895, and later in his own book The Lighter Side of My Official Life (1910): “One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to discover that the criminal was a sexual maniac of a virulent type; that he was living in the immediate vicinity of the scenes of the murders; […] And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews […] I am almost tempted to disclose the identity of the murderer and of the pressman who wrote the letter above referred to. But no public benefit would result from such a course, and the traditions of my old department would suffer. I will merely add that the only person who had ever had a good view of the murderer unhesitatingly identified the suspect the instant he was confronted with him; but he refused to give evidence against him.” and, finally, from margin annotations in a copy of Anderson’s memoirs, mentioned above, beloning to the retired ex-Superintendent Donald S. Swanson. The annotations, in Swanson’s own hand-writing, are written at the bottom of the passage about the witness who refused to give evidence against the suspect: “because the suspect was also a Polish Jew and also because his evidence would convict the suspect, and witness would be the means of murderer being hanged which he did not wish to be left on his mind. […] And after this identification which suspect knew, no other murder of this kind took place in London. […] Continuing from page 138, after the suspect had been identified at the Seaside Home where he had been sent by us with difficulty in order to subject him to identification, and he knew he was identified. On suspect’s return to his brother’s house in Whitechapel he was watched by the police (City CID) by day & night. In a very short time the suspect with his hands tied behind his backs, he was sent to Stephney Workhouse and then to Colney Hatch and died shortly afterwards – Kosminski was the suspect – DSS

(Abdridged quotation from: http://www.casebook.org/suspects/davidcohen.html)

Unfortunately, there is still no “final evidence” that would solidify this theory as “the one” – there are good cases to be made for several other theories, which lack “final evidence” as well. So, after more than 110 years, we can still only be certain of one thing about the Ripper: We do not know who he was.

Returning to Kathy Reich´s novel: It would be going one step too far to assume that by identifying the killer in her novel, the author has also stated an opinion as to which suspect she considers the most likely to have been Jack the Ripper; but still, it is a relief not to see the usual conspiracy theories rehashed for the umpteenth time in this context.

Most importantly: The novel is not based on the Ripper case so strongly that you can´t enjoy it if you are not familiar with the historical case, or consider the work unimaginative if you are. All the parallels and nods mentioned are merely an added bonus for Ripperologists in a book that is a good crime novel in its own right.

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The Strange Case of Kyron Horman

I first took notice of the Kyron Horman case in Eyes for Lies´ blog, when she was commenting one June 11 about the first press conferences on this little boy´s disappearance and the odd behaviour and body-language of the step-mother, Terri Horman.

http://blog.eyesforlies.com/2010/06/kyron-hormans-parents-acting-odd.html

At this point, Kyron had been missing for a week. The 7 year old was last accounted on Friday morning for when Terri left him at his elementary school after having visited the school´s science fair. Later that day, his father, Kaine, Terri and little sister Kiara went to pick him up from the bus to go for an ice cream to celebrate/reward Kyron´s science fair project but he did not turn up. The family checked with the school, and it turned out that Kyron had left before classes started to take another look at “the cool electric project” and had not been seen since. They called Kyron´s biological mother, Desiree, with whom Kyron was supposed to spend the upcoming weekend. He was not with her, either.

At this point, as tragic as it is, it was basically just another disappearance.

Soon, observers noticed some odd behaviour especially in the case of Terri, who continued posting on her facebook account in a nonchalant way about “hitting the gym” as if nothing had happened. Eyes for Lied noted her unusual body language during the first press conference.

“As the interview progresses, look at the way that Terri buries her head into Desiree shoulder in the middle of Tony Young (the stepfather’s) speech. It’s as if she’s almost wanting to hide or recluse when Tony speaks. You know when little kids get embarrassed, they do this behavior. Why does Terri want to hide? It’s very notable.

When I look at Terri to discern her personality, I question if she is super shy, but I don’t get a feeling she is. We know for a fact that she helps out at Kyron’s school, which confirms she is not the reclusive type. Furthermore, when she walked out of the gym this week and avoided the media, her body language did not support she was a shy, reclusive run-away type of a woman. So what is causing her to want to recluse here? It’s intense. Terri appears very needy, too, as she keeps gravitating to everyone around her.

At one point, it even looks like Terri she can’t cope anymore. Her body language conveys the message of “I can’t take it anymore” (around 1:22). She lifts her hand towards her chest. Watch her react when Tony says, “…the community as a whole has shown how much impact one little boy’s smile can have on a community.”

Also at the very beginning of the tape when Tony starts speaking, Terri turns her head away from Tony sharply–as if to get away from what he is saying.

Watch how Terri looks up at Desiree while she has her arms around Desiree– right before Kaine speaks. Its very odd. It’s like she is hanging on Desiree for support and approval. Its like she is trying to comfort herself here instead of Desiree. Isn’t that odd? Notice how Desiree doesn’t reciprocate the embrace?

When Kaine starts speaking, watch Terri rub her arm –a gesture to comfort herself. She does this a couple of times. Terri also takes deep breaths and is doing all she can just to stand there. Her arms are pressed tight on her body in a very closed off manner.

Both Terri and Kaine are exceptionally nervous. Watch Kaine’s hands tremble as he holds the paper from which he reads. Why on earth would they be nervous? I could understand talking to the media will make anyone nervous, but the nervousness that both Terri and Kaine are feeling far exceeds what everyone else in this press conference are displaying. That is notable. Kaine may be picking up on Terri’s nerves. That is possible.

At this point, all signs are pointing that fact that Terri likely knows something, maybe even Kaine, that they are not sharing… They have definitely raised my eyebrows… I wish I could ask them direct questions. That would give me an immediate answer. I am highly suspicious of Terri right now, that is for sure.”

http://blog.eyesforlies.com/2010/06/kyron-hormans-father-speaks-out.html

A week later, while police were still adamant about Terri not being a suspect/POI, it was obvious that they were taking a close look at her. Flyers were handed out to every family who had a child at Kyron´s school asking whether the boy, his step-mom and her truck had been seen that day. It also transpired that Terri´s cell phone pings apparently did not match her accounts of where she had been after dropping Kyron off at school that morning.

Both Kyron´s parents and their spouses had taken a polygraph test soon after his disappearance, and it seems that Terri was the only one who had to take a second one (and, as it transpired later, had walked out on a third one). From the reports about this case, it seems that she had been evasise about certain questions about her “lifestyle”. Rumors and speculations were circulating about what that could mean and the Hormans – or Terri at least – were said to be connected with Portland´s swinger scene.

Around that time, it was briefly reported – but quickly taken down and disclaimed – that Kyron´s body had been found by divers on nearby Sauvie island (where  Terri´s cell phone was said to have been traced).

Until that time, everything seemed a regular missing person case. The parents and step-parents presented a united front, asking for help and cooperating with LE to get their boy back.

And then, things started getting crazy.

One June 17, Kaine Horman´s brother was sentenced and incarcerated for child molestation. As blinkoncrime.com reports, he had been arrested in January 2009, and although his trial was delayed due to several continuances, there appears to be multiple arrests on his record, some of which are unaccessible to the public.

Speaking of January, around this time, Terri Horman´s son from her first marriage – James – who had been living with the Hormans for the past 5 years, moved in with his grandparents and is now living with his biological father. It seems the teenager didn´t get along with Kaine any more.

And then, it was reported in the media on Monday, June 28, that Kaine Horman had taken the baby, Kiara, moved out of the mutual residence and not only filed for divorce but also asked for a restraining order preventing Terri to come close to him as well as the children involved. Terri, at that point, claimed this was merely a rumor and everything was fine. That same day, however, Kaine, his ex-wife Desiree and her husband, Tony, released and official statement in which they distanced themselves from Terri. The restraining order was sealed by the court (and later unsealed again) because it contained information pertaining to the ongoing investigation in Kyron´s disappearance.

Two days later, Terri Horman had retained a lawyer. Not a family lawyer, as could be expected in the face of the divorce and custody battle, but a criminal lawyer; a renowned defense attorney.

It transpired that some time the week before, Kaine Horman was informed by LE that his wife had not only hired a landscape gardener without his knowledge, and had either had or promised the man an affair with him – she had also tried to hire him to murder her husband.

On the Saturday that Kaine moved out, two 911 calls were made from the Horman residence. It seems that Kaine had been absent all day to allow LE to have the landscaper and an undercover LE agent confront Terri and try to get her to reveal something which would allow for an arrest. The sting failed, however, when Terri simply called 911 on the agents. Police was now forced to inform Terri that she is a suspect (which explains her hiring the defense attorney a few days later). The second 911 call, described as “custody matters, resolved over the phone” must have been when she realized that Kaine would not come back and had taken Kiara, and LE probably told her that he had done so on their advice.

By the end of that week, Kaine, Desiree and Tony had given a strange press conference excluding two major local papers. They confirmed their belief that Kyron is still alive, implored Terri to cooperate with LE and announced their intention to hold regular press conferences from now on.

http://blog.eyesforlies.com/2010/07/horman-press-conference-strange.html

At the same time, the website “Bring Kyron Home”  that had been made by friends of the Hormans was taken down – among those friends was one Michael Cook, who was a regular visitor to the Hormans house after Kyron´s disappearance, bringing them groceries and stuff while they were besieged by the media. He kept visiting even after Kaine had moved out.

The restraining order was unsealed after one of the two papers initially excluded from the press conference (but later readmitted) ran the story about the murder for hire plot, and soon after, it transpired what was behind the two 911 calls. Kaine and Desiree now openly accused Terri of being involved with Kyron´s disappearance, lying and not really working with LE.

Kaine asked Terri to move out of their mutual house so Kyron would have his familiar environment to come home to. Terri did not dispute this, or the divorce and custody papers.

Kaine also petitioned to have Terri held in contempt of court because she had not only shown the sealed restraining order to Michael Cook in spite of not being allowed to do so. She had also allowed Cook to take pictures of the document with his cell phone, including Kaine´s and Kiara´s current address, which he then checked out on Google Maps. He had also shared information from the sealed RO with at least two (as yet unnamed) people.

Terri also had begun a sexual relationship with Michael Cook only a few days after Kaine had moved out. They had exchanged hundreds of sexual text messages,  as well as several photographs of Terri Horman “in various stages of undress and graphic sexual activity.” Cook says they did not sleep together, though.

It was also said that Terri’s “sexual overtures to Mr. Cook resemble those made to the man she attempted to hire to murder Kaine,” which supports the landscaper´s story.

In addition, a clerk at a gym frequented by the Horman’s said Terri came there on about June 28, before the restraining order was delivered to her, and asked when Kaine was there working out, with baby Kiara in the gym´s daycare centre, and to let her know the next time he appeared. The clerk told the manager what happened and the manager then contacted police.

http://www.kgw.com/home/Court-doc-Kaine-Terri-Horman-kyron-horman-contempt-sexting-98270654.html

All the while, Terri has refused to speak to the media, but comments have been left under several aliases on the sites of various newspapers reporting about the case which are generally suspected – and, in at least one case, have actually been confirmed – to be hers.

From some of these comments, if they are indeed hers, it transpires that Terri blamed and resented Kaine for not getting along with her son, James, eventually causing him to move out, while she felt that she had made both an effort and personal sacrifices to raise and get along with his son, Kyron. She also accuses him of having an affair and ridicules both LE for not solving the case yet, and Desiree for playing the worried mom now after not having been there for Kyron (i.e. not having him live with her) before. Overall, it fits into the picture.

One new revelation after the other, apart from the one that would be most important: Where is Kyron, and what has happened to him?

Update June 15:

While Terri apparently did not refuse to move out of the house, she has asked Kaine for money to do so through her attorney. Kaine’s attorney, Laura Rackner, said her client is not willing to hand over money to Terri.
“He would like some cooperation from her first,” she said. “He would like to know where his son is.”
Kaine Horman at this point states that although Terri had suffered from post partum depression after the birth of Kiara, and the marriage became difficult at that time, he had though things were fine again and had not been aware that it was actually that bad.

Desiree, Tony and Kaine now openly accuse Terri of being in some way responsible for Kyron´s disappearance.Desiree in particular no longer minces words. She openly accuses Terri of having a history of lying (in little things), of having planned the disappearance and states that she immediately had a bad gut feeling about her when getting the call from school. But at the same time, there seems to be a rift developing between her/Tony and Kaine.

And as for Michael Cook – there´s more to him than just a friendly neighborhood guy who wanted to help a former schoolmate and got sucked in, too:  Unrelated to Kyron´s disappearance, his ex-wife Shannon, who is now professionally trying to help women get out of “toxic relationships”,  had told the story of her marriage on her website, mentioning that her ex-husband drank excessively, used drugs, engaged in “multiple sexual encounters with friends, colleagues, clients, and strangers, hiding large sums of cash from me, and compulsively lying about all of it on a daily basis. …  Though I still lived there, my husband began bringing his current mistress home, even when my son was there asleep.” (taken down now, but quoted in the comments on the case on blinkoncrime.com).

Another new information is the confirmation that the landscaper – whose name is now given as Rudy – indeed knew Kyron. Phew. What next?

Update July 27:

LE has searched the area again, including Skyline Elementary school, but nothing of the outcome of these searches is known.

Terri Horman has left the mutual house and moved in with her parents for the time being. Her son James, who (as it turned out) was still living with his grandparents, has now moved to his biological father who lives nearby. As an agreement was found between both parties´ attorneys, the court hearings were canceled – it seems Terri goes to some length to avoid appearing in court and on official court record for the time being. To this day, Terri has made no attempt to legally fight the divorce and restraining order that keeps her from seeing Kiara that we know of.

Kaine´s attorney has now put in a motion for disclosure just where the six figure sum needed to retain a renowned criminal defense attorney like Houze comes from, and if it comes from marital funds, Kaine wants half of it to pay his own attorney.

One of the persons suspected to be Terri on the internet has claimed that the murder plot was a lie fabricated by the landscaper in retribution for a 911 call made in March that involved him. It seems the 911 call from the Horman house has been confirmed. On the other hand, according to LE, the avances made towards Michael Cook are “of the same kind as those made towards the landscaper” which lends credibility to his story, too.

While on the 22nd, LE still said that Terri “has cooperated and agreed to all requests so far from investigators”, only a day later, they issued a statement that Terri “has been cooperative at times, but at other times, she hasn´t.”  

And then, new players entered the scene: It was reported that LE had taken a closer look at, and increased pressure on, a small circle of friends surrounding Terri Horman. Condos were searched, third parties interviewed. Only one of these friends has been named so far: DeDe Spicher, a workout buddy of Terri´s, who had been doing gardening work in  the vicinity the morning Kyron disappeared. Around 11 am, she got a call on her cell phone and then disappeared until ca. 1pm, not being able to be reached by phone. Kaine, Desiree and Tony issued a statement saying that DeDe “has been providing Terri with support and advice that is not in the best interests of our son. Additional information provided shows that she is refusing to cooperate with law enforcement, she is also going as far as to suggest to others that may have information regarding Kyron’s disappearance, not to cooperate as well.”

As of today, a grand jury is in session. It is still not known exactly what they are deliberating about, whether they are hearing evidence concerning Kyron´s disappearance or the murder for hire plot, but DeDe has been subpoenaed to testify. According to blinkoncrime.com, an indictment against at least one person is to be expected. A press conference has been announced for 2pm PST.

Update May 16,2011:

It is now almost a year and Kyron still has not been found, nor has it been discovered what happened to him. 

Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton said in September 2010  there had been “significant movements” in the 15-week investigation and there was a more defined scope, allowing them to not be as broad in their efforts. Investigators can now concentrate on their current course to support a theory of what happened to the boy. When asked if people would be shocked to find out what they know, Staton took a long silence.

“I know I’m taking a long pause on that, I have to think through that answer. I think there are things that come out of this investigation that will surprise you, that you’ll think about later on when it’s over. We have a knowledge of things we don’t want to know about … of things we wish we didn’t know,” he added.

But even though he said he had seen no evidence that indicated Kyron was not alive, search teams were obviously (but unsuccessfully) looking for a body in early January.

In November, Desiree Young announced that e-mails and text messages expressing hatred for Kyron suggest the boy’s stepmother “could have hurt him in the worst possible way”. Before police shared the messages with her on Friday, Desiree would only say that she believed her ex-husband’s wife, Terri Horman, was withholding information about the disappearance. But now she is convinced more than ever that Terri Horman was involved and holds the key to solving the mystery. “It’s very clear from Terri’s horrible words that she had a severe hatred for Kyron. …  She blamed a lot of the marital problems between Kaine and herself on Kyron; it was a huge point of contention in their marriage. She had expressed in great detail her hatred of Kyron.”

http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/40192620/ns/today-today_people/t/kyrons-biological-parents-have-harsh-words-stepmother/

I´ll keep this updated.

Joran van der Sloot confesses to murder

Wow.  I just checked Eyes for Lies´ blog again after a long absence and learned that Joran van der Sloot has made the news again.

Joran van der Sloot is a young Dutchman who lived in Aruba in 2005 when American student, Natalee Holloway vanished on a class trip. Joran was around 18 at the time, the son of a prominent lawyer and an art teacher.

Natalee Holloway had been scheduled to fly home later on May 30, but failed to appear for her flight] She was last seen by her classmates outside a Caribbean chain restaurant and nightclub in a car with locals Joran van der Sloot and brothers Deepak and Satish Kalpoe. When questioned, the three men said they dropped her off at her hotel and denied knowing what became of Holloway.  Upon further investigation by authorities, Van der Sloot was arrested twice on suspicion of involvement in her disappearance and the Kalpoes were each arrested three times. Due to lack of evidence the three men were released without charge after each arrest.

With the help of hundreds of volunteers, Aruban investigators conducted an extensive search for Holloway. In addition to the ground search, divers examined the ocean floor for evidence of Natalee’s body. The searches were unsuccessful, and according to Aruban authorities she is most likely dead. On December 18, 2007, Aruban prosecutors announced that the case would be closed without any charges sought against the former suspects.

On January 31, 2008, Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries claimed that he had solved the Holloway case and that he would tell all on a special television program on Dutch TV on February 3.  On February 1, the Aruba prosecutor’s office announced the reopening of the case, but eventually, nothing came of it.

The broadcast aired February 3, 2008, and included excerpts from footage recorded from hidden cameras and microphones in the vehicle of Patrick van der Eem, a Dutch businessman and ex-con, who had gained Van der Sloot’s confidence. Van der Sloot was seen smoking marijuana and stating that he was with Holloway when she began convulsively shaking, then became unresponsive. Van der Sloot stated that he attempted to revive her, without success. He said that he called a friend, who told Van der Sloot to go home and who disposed of the body.

An account of events that I consider rather likely to be true, or at least close to the thruth, though the “friend” might have been his father (who, according to one of the Kalpoe brothers, had advised that without a body, the police would have no case) and Joran probably slipped Natalee some date rape drug which caused her shaking and subsequent death.

An individual reputed to be this friend, identified in the broadcast as Daury, has subsequently denied Van der Sloot’s account. Also, Van der Sloot denied that what he said on the tape was true, stating that he was under the influence of marijuana at the time and was telling the guy what he believed he wanted to hear. Van der Sloot indicated that he still maintains that he left Holloway behind on the beach.

De Vries was heavily criticized for broadcasting the material, which made it harder to obtain a conviction;  had De Vries turned over the material to the authorities without broadcasting it, they would have held “all the trumps” in questioning Van der Sloot.

Van der Sloot made and retracted various different claims about the case later on. In 2008, he alleged that he sold Holloway into sexual slavery. On February 23, 2010, it was reported that Joran van der Sloot had stated in an interview (first offered to RTL Group in 2009) that he had disposed of Holloway’s body in a marsh on Aruba.

To this day, Natalee Holloway has not been found, nor is it really known what happened to her.  (Account of the case quoted, abridged, from Wikipedia).

Around March 29, 2010, Van der Sloot allegedly contacted the  legal representative of Holloway’s mother Beth Twitty, with an offer to reveal the location of her daughter’s body and the circumstances surrounding her death for an advance of US$25,000 against a total of $250,000. (Whether he was involved in Natalee´s disappearance/death or not, this pretty much constitues his total bastard status for me.) Twitty´s lawyer got the FBI involved, though, and pretended to pay Joran. In exchange, Van der Sloot told Kelly that his father buried Holloway’s remains in the foundation of a house. (That´s his … n-th version pf what happened, now?) Authorities determined that the information that he provided in return was false, because the house had not yet been built at the time of her disappearance. Van der Sloot was charged with extortion and wire fraud in the US.

On May 30, 2010, the fifth anniversary of Natalee Holloway’s disappearance, Stephany Flores Ramírez, 21, died at a Hotel in the Miraflores District of Lima, Peru. Her beaten body was found two days later by a hotel employee in room 309, which had been registered in Van der Sloot’s name. He had departed from the hotel without returning the room key and left the television blaring.

According to Peruvian investigators, Flores Ramírez suffered blunt force trauma to her head, causing a brain hemorrhage and breaking her neck. A tennis racquet, identified by the coroner as the likely homicide weapon, was recovered from the room. A hotel guest and an employee came forward to claim they saw Van der Sloot and the victim entering the hotel room together, and the police have video of the two playing cards at the same table the night before at a Casino.

Flores Ramírez´father said that police found date rape drugs in his daughter’s car, parked about 50 blocks from the hotel where she died. Her jewelry, money, ID and credit cards were missing.

Peruvian officials named Van der Sloot as the lone suspect in the homicide investigation.  Interpol issued an international arrest warrant. He was arrested near Curacaví by the Investigations Police of Chile on June 3. He was found with a laptop, foreign currency, a business card case, detailed charts of ocean currents around Lima, and bloody clothes.  He told Chilean police that unidentified robbers hid in the hotel room and killed Flores Ramírez. His Dutch attorney claimed that Van der Sloot was on his way to Santiago to turn himself in. He was subsequently handed over to Peruvian authorities. The stains on Van der Sloot’s clothes turned out to match the blood type of Flores Ramírez.

On June 7, 2010, Van der Sloot confessed to killing Flores Ramírez. His confession was remarkably complete and corroborated by evidence. Van der Sloot recounted that he briefly left the hotel to get some coffee and bread, and returned to find Flores Ramírez using his laptop computer without his permission. A police source stated that she may have found information linking him to the disappearance of Holloway. An altercation began and she attempted to escape. Van der Sloot stated, “I did not want to do it. The girl intruded into my private life . . . she didn’t have any right. I went to her and I hit her. She was scared, we argued and she tried to escape. I grabbed her by the neck and hit her.  Van der Sloot stated that he was intoxicated with marijuana at the time. A detective linked to the case said that Van der Sloot considered getting rid of the body in a suitcase,  but decided against it because he would have been stopped at the front desk. He then drank espresso and took amphetamines to counter fatigue before fleeing.

Criminal police chief Cesar Guardia said Van der Sloot “let slip that he knew the place” where Holloway’s body is buried. Guardia stated that the interrogation was limited to their case in Peru, which he considered “practically closed,” and that questions about Holloway’s disappearance were avoided. Guardia said that the motive for the crime was robbery. Later, Van der Sloot offered to disclose the location of Holloway’s body in exchange for transfer to an Aruban prison because he fears for his safety in Miguel Castro Castro prison. Peruvian president Alan García Pérez said that Van der Sloot would have to stand trial for the homicide before any extradition request would be considered. He also stated that Van der Sloot will serve his prison sentence in Peru. There is no treaty for the transfer of prisoners between Peru and the Netherlands. (Account quoted, abridged, from Wikipedia).

Dave Holloway, Natalee Holloway’s father, told ABC’s “Good Morning America”  that he hoped van der Sloot would reveal what happened to his daughter and said search teams were standing by to look for her body. “He’s confessed to this one,” Holloway said of Flores’ death, “and I’d like for him to tell everyone what happened.”

“I would just like to say that, you know, all the pain and suffering that we’ve gone through, hopefully justice is served this time,” he added, speaking to the show by telephone. “We’re hoping this is the end of the line for him.”

Holloway described the Flores murder as being like “deja vu.” (quoted from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37542848/ns/world_news-americas/)

Reading this, I felt I had a “deja vu” as well, only of a different kind. The case reminds me a bit of O.J. Simpson´s story – the man who walked free since he couldn´t be convicted for murder, apparently felt he could get away with anything after that and ended up committing another crime that got him into prison after all. Sometimes, karma is a bitch, eh?

Published in: on June 14, 2010 at 9:19 am  Leave a Comment  

How not to rob a bank

Two would-be robbers called a bank ahead and demanded that the cash be ready for them when they arrived, Connecticut officials said, giving police ample time to get to the scene.

 The pair called the People’s United Bank branch in Fairfield, Connecticut, threatening to create a “blood bath” if there was not a bag of money waiting for them when they arrived.

But they were intercepted by police, who were already waiting on the scene when the young men arrived.

Police arrested 27-year-old Albert Bailey and an unidentified 16-year-old boy on robbery charges on Tuesday afternoon.

Sgt James Perez said the two Bridgeport residents turned up at the bank about 10 minutes after making the call and were met by police in the bank’s car park.

Sgt Perez told the Connecticut Post that, in his opinion, the suspects were “not too bright”.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” he told the newspaper. “They literally called the bank and said to have the bag of money ready on the floor because they’re coming to rob the place.”

It is not clear whether Mr Bailey and the teen have lawyers.

– from today´s Telegraph (telegraph.co.uk)

Published in: on March 25, 2010 at 9:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Italian Murder Mystery

I heard about an intriguing murder case in Italy in the news last night. A bizarre discovery was made by firefighters in July 2007 who had been called to a blaze in waste ground, close to a cycle path, in the Magliana suburb of southern Rome. Police who were called to the scene found a skeleton and alongside it a wallet and keys belonging to pensioner Libero Ricci, 77, who lived nearby and who disappeared in November 2003. Initially police believed that he had been the victim of a mugging and that his body had then been burnt but the investigation took a surprise twist when Ricci’s relatives said clothes found near the body were not his. The remains were examined again by pathologists at Rome’s La Sapienza University who established that the bones were not the missing man. Forensic scientists established that the skeleton was not the remains of one person, but was made up from the bones of three women and two men, all aged between 25 and 55 years old, and who died over a 20 year period from the mid 1980s until 2006. DNA from the woman’s skull was compatible with someone related to Ricci. A closer examination of the woman’s skull showed she did not have good dental hygiene and had probably never been to a dentist. Injuries were found on the woman’s skull but because the skull was in such a poor condition it is not clear if they were caused by foul play, the fire or by an animal uncovering the remains.

Rizzi, of the murder section of the Rome Flying Squad, said:”The skull is the only item with an apparent injury but it’s not clear how it was caused. “The other bones do not have injuries but bear in mind we do not have the full body so we don’t know what happened – the skeleton is made up of five different people”. The bones were made up as follows: a woman aged 45-55, who died between 2002 and 2006, a woman aged 20-35, who died between 1992 and 1998 and a female aged 35-45 and who died between 1995 and 2000. The first man is aged 40-50 and died between 2002 and 2006 and the second is aged 25-40 and died between 1986 to 1989. ”It’s possible that the bones were gathered by a collector who killed the five people to make up the full skeleton but at this moment we just don’t know – the only fact we know for certain is that the bones are not that of Libero Ricci.”

(quoted from: http://uk.news.yahoo.com/5/20100212/twl-murder-hunt-after-five-body-skeleton-3fd0ae9.html and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1250262/Murder-riddle-perfect-skeleton-bones-FIVE-different-people.html#ixzz0fQGg2sUg)

Wow. Those five people died at different times, so whoever did this must either have had a long term plan, collecting parts (and, possibly, killing people) for two decades or must have gotten the parts from a graveyard. But then, why not take an entire skeleton? If I were police in this case, I´d check people working in hospitals where amputated limbs are incinerated, and in funeral parlours offering cremation. I suppose a clever perp would be able to sneak out a limb here and there from both places. As the police will be looking for missing people, they probably won´t check those that are not missing but are known to be long dead and buried (at least in parts). But why would someone “fake” a skeleton this way? Or was it all just a sick joke, as someone commented on the Daily Mail article: “This may not be about murder at all. These bones could have been stolen from a medical school or other bone collections. These collections are not well guarded and medical students routinely have unsupervised time with the bones.”

Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 1:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Hollywood Murders

George Baxt: The Marlene Dietrich Murder Case  (1993, dt.: Mordfall für Marlene Dietrich)

Hollywood in the early 1930s. At one of Marlene Dietrich´s lavish parties, a guest is poisoned: a Chinese astrologer and fortune teller, about to reveal a secret about “a great danger” connected with someone present. Police officer Herb Villon, who had come in the company of society reporter Hazel Dickson, immediately takes over the case – but he can´t keep curious Marlene and her friend, Anna Mae Wong, from meddling. The key to the murder lies in the victim´s past, which ties to her several suspects all of which were at Marlene´s party.

This was an entertaining read. Nothing too special, but a nice trip to Hollywood in its heyday, with a bit of humor and a great Marlene and Anna Mae. The story was conceived with a bit too much historic hindsight, however: Of course, the murder victim had to have been to Europe in her past, had to have met an ambitious young politician named Adolf Hitler there and had to have predicted a terrible future connected with him. This is then muddled with an international political conspiracy which involves Nazis, Russian bolshevists, an arms dealer, and more. The Second World War already overshadows the plot, as something planned at least 10 years before its actual outbreak, while other events of the 1920s and 1930s which would have been stronger on the contemporary minds, are hardly mentioned at all. It didn´t bother me too much until I read more books by the same author.

George Baxt: The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case  (1986, dt.: Mordfall für Alfred Hitchcock)

Munich, 1925. Alfred Hitchcock, still an unknown British director, is directing  his first feature film, “The Pleasure Garden”, when two members of his crew are murdered and another has a nervous breakdown and is first institutionalized, then vanishes. The case is not solved.

“11 years later, in London, an old Munich acquaintance, ill and distraught, begs Hitchcock to read a spy thriller script. The script-deliverer is murdered on Hitchcock’s doorstep. The script itself features the abduction of Alma Hitchcock and police pursuit of Hitch (as a suspected murderer), while he searches for a master spy in order to clear himself and rescue his wife. Alma is kidnapped, Hitch is almost framed for murder and he hares off, chased by Scotland Yard, in pursuit of a double-agent.” (Publishers Weekly). 

It is a really nice idea to have Alfred Hitchcock as the protagonist of a story that could be one of his own movies – including the obligatory cool blonde woman and, of course, a MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s famous red-herring device. The book is more of a spy thriller than a straightforward murder mystery, though.

George Baxt: The Greta Garbo Murder Case  (1992, dt.: Mordfall für Greta Garbo)

Hollywood, 1941. Greta Garbo has just lost her studio contract and lets her neighbour Peter Lorre talk her into accepting the starring role in a lavish independent production on Joan of Arc. But something is decidedly odd about the whole venture, and the production has the attention of the FBI and the local police under Herb Villon, long before a body is found in an abandoned house that belongs to the millionaire producer…

This was the most recent book by Baxt that I read – and the weakest one, perhaps because I could not read the book on its own but always had the comparison to the other two in the back of my mind. The characterisation of Greta Garbo was just too similar to that of Marlene Dietrich (main difference being, Marlene loved cooking and Greta was melancholy), including the attitude that of course she can play along with the suspect to draw him out – after all, she played a spy once. Both books even have a German representative make a generous offer to the movie star to get her to come back to Germany and work for Hitler and the Reich. (Which, of course, both divas decline). The witty quotations, present in all Baxt´s books so far, felt somewhat contrived by now, as if he had had a “Famous Quotes” dictionary by his side when writing and just forced them in wherever he could. The actual murder happens rather late in the book and the focus is – again! – less on the investigation and the murder mystery aspect of the story (which is what I´d expect from a book with So-and-so Murder Case in its title) than on the conspiracy/spy story aspect. And even though with this book set in 1941, the underground Nazi conspirator element is perhaps fitting better than in the other two, GEEZ!  Mr.Baxt, are there no other solutions you can offer to your readers? Were there no other criminals in Hollywood´s heyday?

These novels are listed as part the “Jacob Singer mystery” series which is puzzling because none of them have even a supporting character of that name. In the two of them that are set in Hollywood, the cop in charge is Herb Villon.

Nevertheless, here´s an overview of Baxt´s Hollywood-related murder novels:

1. The Dorothy Parker Murder Case (1984)
2. The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case (1986)
3. The Tallulah Bankhead Murder Case (1987)
4. The Talking Pictures Murder Case (1990)
5. The Greta Garbo Murder Case (1992)
6. The Noel Coward Murder Case (1992)
7. The Mae West Murder Case (1993)
8. The Marlene Dietrich Murder Case (1993)
9. The Bette Davis Murder Case (1994)
10. The Humphrey Bogart Murder Case (1995)
11. The William Powell and Myrna Loy Murder Case (1996)
12. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Murder Case (1997)
13. The Clark Gable and Carole Lombard Murder Case (1997)

I´m reading the Dorothy Parker one next. If that has Nazi spies in it, too, I´m going to scream.

How not to fake a suicide

In the news today.

A woman killed her husband and tried to pass it off as a suicide.  It didn´t work – probably because it´s a bit difficult for you to shoot yourself in the back and then set your body on fire.

The scary thing is that the first police on the scene actually fell for it.

Published in: on December 17, 2009 at 11:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Hinterkaifeck

The 1922 murders of Hinterkaifeck are one of Germany´s most mysterious unsolved murder cases.

Hinterkaifeck was the name of a small farmstead outside Groebern, between the Bavarian towns of Ingolstadt and Schrobenhausen (approximately 70 km north of Munich). Here, farmer Andreas Gruber (63) lived with his wife Cäzilia (72) and their widowed daughter Viktoria Gabriel (35) – the official owner of the farm – and her two children Cäzilia (7) and Josef (2). 

The family was rather well-off and well-regarded, though not exactly well-liked. They are said to have kept mostly to themselves. Gruber in particular is described as a brutish, sullen loner. He is said to have beaten and mistreated his children, of whom only Viktoria survived.

His daughter Viktoria was a popular member of the church choir, known for her beautiful voice. It was common knowledge that Gruber had an incestuous relationship with his daughter (something which, while illegal, was not infrequent in rural areas at the time), and actively prevented her from marrying again. His wife apparently suffered from the knowledge, but did little to stop things. A schoolmate of young Cäzilia´s reported in 1984 that Cäzilia was reproached for falling asleep in school on the 31st and related that the night before, there had been a severe argument in the family and her grandmother had stormed out of the house wanting to kill herself. They had searched for her for hours. (Earlier, in 1951, the same witness had stated that it had been Viktoria who they had searched for).

Even though a neighboring farmer, Lorenz S., had officially admitted to being the father of little Josef, it was rumored that the boy was in fact the fruit of the incestuous relationship between his mother and grandfather. Schlittenbauer was not the only local lad who claimed to have been with Viktoria.

The murders

A few days prior to the crime, Andreas Gruber told neighbours about discovering footsteps in the snow leading from the edge of the forest to the farm; however, there were none leading back. He also talked about hearing footsteps in the attic and finding an unfamiliar newspaper on the farm. Furthermore, one of the two existing house keys went missing several days before the murders, but none of this was reported to the police.

Six months earlier, the previous maid had left the farm, claiming that it was haunted; the new maid, Maria Baumgartner, arrived on the farm on 31 March 1922, only a few hours before her death.

Some weeks before the fatal night, Viktoria had withdrawn all her money from her bank account and borrowed some from her half-sister (Gruber was Cäzilia´s second husband), to invest in the farm. A donation of 700 goldmark was left in the confessional of the church. The priest traced it to Viktoria, and she told him it was “for missionary work”.

Exactly what happened on that Friday evening cannot be said for certain.

It is believed that the older couple, as well as their daughter Viktoria and her daughter Cäzilia, were somehow all lured into the barn one by one where they were slaughtered brutally. The perpetrator(s) then went into the house where they killed two-year-old Josef who was sleeping in his cot in his mother’s bedroom, as well as the maid, Maria Baumgartner, in her bed-chamber.

On the following Tuesday, the 4th of April, some neighbours went to the farmstead because none of the inhabitants had been seen for several days, which was rather unusual. The postman had noticed that the mail from the previous Saturday was still where he had left it. Furthermore, young Cäzilia had not turned up for school on Monday, nor had she been there on Saturday. The family also had been absent from church on Sunday, which was unusual, given Viktoria´s position in the choir.

Inspector Georg Reingruber and his colleagues from the Munich Police Department made immense efforts investigating the killings. More than 100 suspects have been questioned through the years, but to no avail. The most recent questioning took place in 1986, but even that was fruitless.  In 2007 the students of the Polizeifachhochschule (Police Academy) in Fürstenfeldbruck got the task to investigate the case once more with modern techniques of criminal investigation. Their final report is kept secret. To this day, many hobby investigators continue to investigate the case.

The day after the discovery, on the 5th of April, court physician Dr. Johann Baptist Aumüller performed the autopsies in the barn. It was established that a pickaxe was the most likely murder weapon. The corpses were beheaded, and the skulls sent to Munich, where  clairvoyants examined them without result. The autopsy also showed that the younger Cäzilia had been alive for several hours after the assault. Lying in the straw, next to the bodies of her grandparents and her mother, she had torn her hair out in tufts. The skulls were never actually returned to the bodies and the entire family has been buried without heads. The traces of the skulls have been lost in history. They very likely were destroyed when the forensic department in Nuremberg burned down during WWII.

The motive

The police first suspected the motive to be robbery, and interrogated several inhabitants from the surrounding villages, as well as travelling craftsmen and vagrants. The robbery theory was, however, abandoned when a large amount of money was found in the house.  Only the paper money was gone, while considerable amounts of gold coins and valuables had been left.

It is believed that the perpetrator(s) remained at the farm for several days – someone had fed the cattle, and eaten food in the kitchen: the neighbours had also seen smoke from the chimney during the weekend – and anyone looking for money would have found it.  But why, if they were not looking for money, would the perpetrators stay there for so long and keep up the appearance that someone was alive?

Whoever did this obviously had some farmers knowledge, and also a farmers´ mind: They did not harm any of the animals, not even the dog (until the very last day) though it must have been a hazard.

The use of the pickaxe as the murder weapon also points towards this: The victims had been hit with precision and a lot of hatred, their heads had been split but their bodies had apparently not been hit. Whoever did this must have been familiar enough with using a pickaxe to do so without thinking.

Whoever did this also must have been known on the farm, as the Grubers´ dog – a Pomeranian, said to be a keen watchdog – was first heard inside the house, but and later seen tied up and healthy, barking like crazy outside the barn by a mechanic who came to the farm on Monday. The dog was found inside the barn, hurt and frightened, by the men who discovered the dead on Tuesday. So the killer was familiar enough to the dog to be able to handle it during the three days he stayed on the farm after the murders.

All of the corpses had been covered. Viktoria, her daughter and her parents had been placed on top of each other in the barn and covered with a door, which in turn was covered with some hay. The maid had been covered with her own bedcloth and little Josef was covered with one of Viktoria´s skirts. This points towards the fact that the killer(s) had some emotional connection to the victims. By covering them up, they tried to hide what they had done, so they did not have to face it.

At some point, the death of Karl Gabriel, Viktoria’s husband who had been reported killed in the French trenches in 1914, was called into question. His body had never been found and two people claimed to have encountered a German-speaking Russian officer after WWII,  who claimed to be “the Hinterkaifeck killer”. A former friend of Karl´s also claimed to have met him in the 1920s. These accounts have been proven wrong and the death of Karl Gabriel seems ascertained enough to discount this theory. Apart from that, Karl Gabriel had planned to leave Viktoria even before going to the war, in 1914. He might have faked his death to be free of her, although this would have been very difficult for a young farmers´ boy in 1914 to accomplish, but why would he return 7 years later and kill the whole family, including young Cäzilia, his own daughter?

From the position of the bodies and their condition, Viktoria was probably the first to die. She was strangled as well as slain, and she was still dressed, as was her mother, whereas Andreas Gruber and little Cäzilia were already in night garb. It is thought that Viktoria was the first to encounter her killer, probably let him in. Maybe an argument erupted (what went on in the barn couldn´t be heard from the living quarters so it wouldn´t have alarmed the others all at once), the first murder happened and led to a killing spree – out of resentment, but also to do away anyone who might know he was there?

Many of those who study this case consider little Josef the key to it all. Why kill him, too? Maybe because he knew and recognized the killer? At two years, he would have been able to say something like “uncle xxx was here”, even if he might not have understood everything else that went on.

When little Josef was born, Viktoria claimed for Lorenz S. to be the father. He denied it and reported Viktoria and her father to the police for incest. On Viktoria´s request, probably garnished with the hint of a chance to marry the wealthy widow, S. withdrew his report later and confirmed to be the father. He had to pay an alimony of several thousand marks to the Grubers, which Viktoria gave him. With this down payment, it was agreed that he was free of any responsibility and Andreas Gruber was made the child´s guardian. In fact, this kind of deal was illegal even then, and a recent TV documentary on the case revealed that apparentlyshortly before she was killed, Viktoria planned to sue Schlittenbauer for alimony payments. 

According to one source, Andreas Gruber was said to have been waiting for an important letter, though we do not know what that letter was supposed to contain, nor who it was from, or even if this was indeed the case. If the killer was waiting for a letter to arrive (and, presumably, destroy) it would at least explain why he stayed on the farm for days after the murder. But if the letter was in connection with Viktoria´s alimony suit, wouldn´t the lawyer have come forth? After all, the murders made the headlines all over the country.

Lorenz S. had remarried at that point. His first child with his new wife had died and been buried only a few days before the murder. Did the notion of having to pay for a child that he couldn´t be sure was his while his own child had not lived trigger something terrible…?

S. was obviously familiar with the Grubers´ farmstead. He was one of the men who went to investigate after the family had not been seen for days and discovered the corpses in the barn.  He had apparently no problem handling them, pulling those lying on top of each other apart. The other two told him not to disturb anything but he said he had to make sure where “his boy” was. 

According to one of the other two men, S. “disturbed everything there was to disturb” and displayed a surprising familiarity with the farm: He went into the house from the barn (both buildings were interconnected) and unlocked the front door from the inside. (Was the key in the lock or was he in possession of the key that had been missed days before?)  He knew that the door to the maid´s room had to be opened in an unusal way, by lifting the handle instead of pressing it down. But if he had been the perpetrator, he would have spent the previous days on the farm and would have had enough time to cover his tracks. He would have had no need to mess with the crime site.

S. stayed on the farm until the police arrived, feeding the cattle. He even had a meal there himself. Just like the unknown perpetrator, he was apparently not disturbed by the presence of the corpses. Even though people were a bit more familiar with death and dead people back then, the other two men were  rather shaky seeing the slain victims.  On the other hand, he might have acted “on auto-pilot” in a state of emergency/shock, like someone who is witness to a severe accident and calmly does everything that needs to be done, shock not setting in until much later.

In spite of his apparent worry about “his boy”, he does not seem to have minded the decease of the family a lot: Years later, he said during an interrogation that the Lord had his hand in the right place when this happened, these were bad people. He did not exclude the two children.

The dog behaved in an unusual way towards S. when they found the corpses. He stayed in his vicinity and barked at him. S. claimed this was because he had gotten blood from the corpses on his shoes.

S. had no alibi for the night of the murders. According to his family, he spent the night at their barn to watch out for burglars after having heard of Gruber´s findings. But  S. was suffering from asthma, so how likely is it for him to have slept in the barn? On the other hand, how likely is it for him to slay six people in a very short time?

S. lived only 350 metres away from Hinterkaifeck, so he could have easily gone over there  and back without his absence being noticed. And years later, when the murders were discussed in the local pub, S. repeatedly talked in the first person when speculating about how the killer may have gone about and referred to him as “I”.

While some of S.´s behaviour makes him look suspicious, a lot of open questions remain. And S. is by no means the only suspect. To this day, a lot has been speculated  about, but no killer has been identified for certain, nothing has been proven.

And so the Hinterkaifeck murders leave us with many questions.

More

More information, pictures and documents:

www.hinterkaifeck.net, www.hinterkaifeck-mord.de (German)

Peter Leuschner wrote a book on the case which has had three (two revised) editions by now (1987, 2007, 2009).

Kurt Hieber made two TV documentaries (1991, 2009).

Movies:

Kaifeck Murder (Hinter Kaifeck), D 2009 > a mystery-horror movie based on the case

Tannoed, D 2009 > movie adaptation of the novel of the same name

Novels:

Andrea Maria Schenkel, The Murder Farm (dt.: Tannoed, 2007).   Transfers the case into the 1950s.

 

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 7:09 pm  Comments (4)  

Leonie Swann: Three Bags Full

  • Original German title: Glennkill: Ein Schafskrimi, 2005

George Glenn´s flock of sheep has a wonderful life. Their shepherd loves them, has  named them, he breeds them for their wool, not to be slaughtered. He even reads to them.  But one day, this peaceful existence comes to and end when the sheep find George dead on their pasture, a shovel stuck in his breast.

Even for sheep, it is obvious that he did not die of natural causes. And so, the flock decides to find out what happens. Fortunately, George has read them half a whodunnit once and they know how to go about. Sir Richfield, the lead ram, has the best eyesight, Maude has the best sense of smell. Mopple the Whale has not only the largest appetite but also the best memory. Othello knows humans. And it´s up to Miss Maple, the most intelligent sheep in Glennkill, to piece everything together and work out who the human wolf in sheep´s clothing is.

The sheep quickly find out that a lot of humans are not quite what they seem. Everyone in the small community of Glennkill has secrets – including George. The picturesque village hides the knowledge of a murder in the past which turns out to be a key to the murder in the present (though not quite in the way the mystery-savvy reader expects).

This novel is thoroughly enjoyable – a gripping mystery that keeps you turning the pages, written with a keen sense of humour, as well as knowledge about sheep and their behavior.  By the end of the book, you´ll find yourself sorry to leave the flock.

 

Southern Comfort

Martha Grimes:  Emma Graham Mysteries

  • Hotel Paradise (German: Das Hotel am See), 1996
  • Cold Flat Junction (German: Still ruht der See), 2001
  • Belle Ruin (German: Die Ruine am See), 2005

While these three novels are closely connected – each volume picks up right where the previous one left off – they can also be read on their own. Loosely related to the trilogy is

  • The End of the Pier (German: Was am See geschah), 1996

which is also set around Spirit Lake and features Emma´s grown-up friends Maud Chadwick and Sheriff Sam DeGheyn.

Hotel Paradise

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12-year-old Emma lives – and has to work part-time as a table waitress – at her family´s rundown hotel in a lakeside resort that has seen better days as well. Without any peers in her vicinity, Emma becomes fascinated by the story of another isolated 12-year-old from the past: Mary-Evelyn Deverau, found drowned in Spirit Lake 40 years ago. Apparently, Mary-Evelyn, who couldn´t swim, rowed out on the lake in the middle of the night wearing a party dress and fell off the boat.

Emma finds this (understandably)  strange and begins to investigate, using every spare minute to roam around and ask anyone who might possibly remember anything about the girl, her family, and her death. Then, another murder occurs, right in the very present, and the victim – Fern Queen – turns out to be related to the Deverau family…

Cold Flat Junction

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Emma continues to investigate the story of the Deverau family, which contains yet another murder in the past. Rose Deverau – the youngest of the four sisters Mary-Evelyn lived with – had married Ben Queen against her spinster sisters´ will. Their daughter, Fern, was just recently found murdered. And twenty years ago, Rose had been viciously stabbed to death. Public opinion suspects Ben Queen, who had never denied being his wife´s killer and whose return from prison coincides with his daughter´s death. But Emma – who has actually met Ben – has her doubts. By now firmly convinced that Mary-Evelyn has been murdered, her investigation into Rose´s death also leads her to a deeper understanding why the little girl had to die.

 Belle Ruin

n146946Emma becomes fascinated by yet another mystery of the past. This time, it´s a baby that was stolen twenty years ago from a hotel room while the parents were attending a ball in the same building. The child was never heard of again; investigation seems to have been closed quickly and things were hushed up, due to the wealth and influence of the family – who  turns out to be connected to the Deveraus once again.

 

These are not straightforward mystery novels. The reader has to puzzle the story of the Deverau family together just as Emma does, and even after three volumes, much remains unsaid.

The considerable charm of these novels is in the Southern Gothic setting and shrewd characters.

Emma roams the small and sleepy towns around the former lakeside resort that seem strangely depopulated. Most residents are elderly adults – the few children that Emma encounters are distant and even a little eerie. There´s the diner in which the same people sit on the same chairs every day, with so little variation that even a passing 12-year-old becomes exciting news.  There are houses, hidden in the woods, that  have been abandoned for years, but remain fully furnished – as if their occupants had just gone out (or vanished) minutes ago. Vanishing, or fading away, is a recurring motif that comes up again and again; as personified by the mysterious, ghost-like girl Emma keeps seeing again and again who eerily looks like one of the murder victims in her youth.  

Another recurring motif is isolation. Emma herself is isolated by having no friends her own age around; she does not belong to the few children that appear in the novel and is not yet an adult, either. In fact, when, in the second book, her mother goes on a holiday trip with the hotel manager and her daughter and even Emma´s brother Will has been asked to come, though he declines, while Emma is left back, she hardly even seems to belong to her own family. And Emma is just one of the many characters in these stories that are alone even when surrounded by others.

The characters are a delight to encounter (at least within the pages of a book). There´s Emma´s shrewd great-aunt Aurora, who lives in one of the upper floors of the hotel, surrounded by mementoes of her past like a cocktail-slurping Miss Haversham. There´s the Sheriff and Maud, best friends constantly bickering. The speech-impaired brothers, Ulub and Ubub. Faulkner-quoting master mechanic and poacher, Dwayne and spoilt teenage brat Ree-Jane.

The Emma Graham series has a lot in common with Harper Lee´s “To Kill A Mockingbird” without being quite as political. The novels also remind me of the flashback parts of “Now and then” (movie), “Divine secrets of the Ya-Ya sisterhood” (novel and movie adaptation) with a little “Stand by me” (movie, after a short story by Stephen King) thrown into the mix, as it´s Emma´s last summer before becoming a teenager, growing up, and her experiences and encounters make her realize a lot about life, human nature, and her own personality.

 And this is some of what Martha Grimes had to say about her Emma Graham series:

“The novels evolved out of my wanting to write a “trilogy,” the first being THE END OF THE PIER. This story actually happens some time after the other two, although it was written first. Given the content of THE END OF THE PIER it couldn’t have happened before Emma’s story or she certainly would have made much of it. When I finished HOTEL PARADISE I knew that although the story didn’t have to be “tied up” — given that none of these three books is a mystery — still there were questions I, myself, wanted to answer, so that’s how COLD FLAT JUNCTION came about. Now, I guess there’ll be another one because there are still questions that nag me. Who is this Girl that Emma keeps seeing? … It’s not Emma’s curiosity that keeps her on this case. It’s her unconscious knowledge that if this awful death could happen to Mary-Evelyn Devereau, it could happen to her, too. She’s also 12; she also lives with people who appear to be indifferent to her. Emma is scared, although that might come off as her “nebbiness.” (I love that word.) … many of the characters are based on real people and were just as I’ve described them. … Yes, there was even a Miss Bertha.”

http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-grimes-martha.asp