Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann (2016)

I am learning that “The New Yorker” journo, David Grann, is a consistently good writer which then makes a consistently good read. Honestly, Grann’s work is such sophisticated narrative nonfiction that you know you can trust the text for both impeccable grammar and accurate facts, all bundled up in a way that is just so enjoyable for me as the reader.

(Gushing words, right? Grann’s worth them. Unfortunately, he’s only published three NF books, so far (that I know about): this one, “The Lost City of Z,” and “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes,” and so I only have one more read to go. I hope Grann’s busy working on something else. 🙂 )

To this particular title: Grann has done several years of painstaking detective work and reporting to uncover the truth about the “Reign of Terror” that was inflicted on the Osage tribe in Oklahoma at least during the 1920s and 1930s. (It may have lasted longer than that, but due to suspiciously shoddy record-keeping, it’s hard to say.) 

The story itself sounds as though someone has just invented it for a high-dollar movie. There are so many twists and turns within it and such a large group of nefarious and powerful people involved, that it’s hard to believe that it happened. But that’s what money will do to some people. 

This is an in-depth look at the clash between the First People Osages and the surrounding white community when an enormous oil field is discovered under the Osage’s reservation land. It’s also the story of a baby FBI just starting out and of what people will do for love and money. (Mostly money, in this case.)

The Osage story is a familiar and sad one: impacted by the Trail of Tears’ forced migration, the Osage tribe was forced to hand over its ancestral land to the U.S. government. However, unlike a lot of other less fortunate tribes, this tribe was able to keep ownership of the mineral field under their land. 

Oil means money (and a lot of it), and the Osage people’s wise legal agreement meant that the tribe were then the richest people per capita in the world. Combine the land grab with the oil boom and things get rather dicey. Add into that combination the heady mix of power and money… 

Grann adds to this story the beginning of the FBI, and then he leads the reader through this winding journey of how Hoover and the agency he heads overlap with the strangely large numbers of Osage tribal members who kept dying under suspicious conditions on the reservation. Money could protect them from many things, but not from a network of high-powered businessmen determined to get even richer.

So, this is about 300 pages of, as Grann describes it, “a chilling conspiracy” that in many ways is not over for the tribe. More than twenty-four Osage tribe members (and friends) were murdered around this time on the reservation, but written records are so sloppy and spread out across the country, that it’s hard to know the final count — there may be many more that are unaccounted for. 

it’s so compelling that I actually read this whole book in two days which is a direct reflection of Grann’s storytelling abilities.  There are a LOT of moving pieces and variables, but Grann’s mastery of his material means that he doles these pieces out in a logical and manageable way for the reader, but I must admit, it’s not a book that you can really snooze your way through. (That’s also another reason why I blasted my way through the book really quickly.)

This title is so worth the interweb hype that’s bubbling through many book blogs, and I can only add that this book is one that lives up to its reputation. Stellar storytelling, thorough reportage and great writing make this one of the best books that I’ve read in a long while. 

P.S. Just found out that there is a movie in the making. Cool.

ETA: And then there’s this: Perusing Wiki for more info about this topic, I came across the little nugget of info that the Osage Tribe referred to (white) Europeans as I’n Shta-Heh (or Heavy Eyebrows) because of their facial hair. 🙂

I’ll Keep You Safe – Peter May (2018)

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I was just in the right mood for a mystery the other day so happened by the library (as one does), and picked up this Peter May mystery. I’m not that versed in mystery titles, but with the summer in full swing (hot), I was looking for a narrative set in a cold place.

This book, I’ll Keep You Safe, was set on the Island of Harris  in the Hebrides, so I was set for plenty of rain, wind and cooler weather. I’d vaguely heard of May as an author, but have seen his name in a wide variety of places, so checked this one out, title unknown. (It’s good to live on the edge now and then.)

This was a stand-alone mystery that features a young couple who have started their own independent tweed business, which after struggling for a while, suddenly takes off into the stratosphere when an (in)famous fashion designer picks their fabric for one of his fashion shows.

During one of these shows during Fashion Week in Paris, the husband of the couple goes to a business-related meeting, but gets killed when his car explodes from a bomb. Why is he killed? Who killed him? And what about his female passenger?

So the narrative builds from there, and plays with time, going into the past to show readers who the couple are, their history and up to the present. It’s not a really avant-garde approach to writing a story, but it does what it says on the tin (and this is a murder mystery after all).

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What was most curious to me (apart from the story which was great until the last couple of chapters – more on that later) was the fashion designer upon whom May must have based his character on. The fashion designer in the book is fashion’s bad boy – full of excess, abusive of both substances and his nearest and dearest. He is badly behaved and his contemporaries view him as the enfant terrible who produces amazing clothing shows that are full of theatrical and sartorial overload.

(The fact that there is a main character in this field also gives the author a reason to talk fashion lingo, of which there were quite a few words that I didn’t know. “Bumsters”, anyone? May does not wear his knowledge of fashion very lightly in places, as he kept making all his characters wear these bumsters. Can’t have been very warm in them there Hebrides!)

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Bumsters (low-rise jeans)

Doing some superficial on-line digging brought me to the realization that May must have based his fashion designer character on Alexander McQueen, an English designer in the 1990s and early 2000s. McQueen was known for excesses both on and off the stage, and, in fact, one of his own shows also featured tweed once Spring, so it was a match.

The designer in the story follows a similar career path as well, in that McQueen worked as chief designer from 1996-2001 at Givenchy, and then founded his own brand.

I wasn’t that familiar with Alexander McQueen, but he seems to have been a character, and his own tweed-based show seems to have met similar accolades from his contemporaries and the media. I am actually pretty curious as to how and why May based one of his main characters on this man.

I wonder what the trigger was for him (as the author) to pick McQueen? Looking at the author pic of May, he doesn’t look like a person who keeps up with high fashion but you never know…

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Peter May, the author.

So, the story rattles along at a fast pace, jumping between the small Hebrides island police and the Parisian police departments, both working hard to solve the car explosion. Was it a terrorist incident? Or was it personal?

As the tale starts to wind up, the clues narrow in and then, in the penultimate chapter (I think around there), May drops the hammer.

But when I learned who the murderer was, I was soooo cross as, to me, May had chosen a stereotypical and easy way out. I’m trying not to give you spoilers, but I was disappointed that the author had chosen this person as it just seemed to fall into a fairly typical male (sexual?) fantasy.

I honestly thought he could do better, specially considering that he has written and successfully published numerous books. Oh well. I enjoyed the rest of the book. 🙂

 

Lady Audley’s Secret – M. E. Braddon (1860)

This was a good fast-moving whodunit with particularly edgy female characters for that time that it was written. Braddon has written an entertaining novel that I would think was rather shocking at that time of Victorian England.

Why so shocking? Because it is what has been termed a “sensation novel” (cue Wilkie Collins and his ilk) and featured generally female characters who were anything but rule-followers – they were the rebels of the mid-nineteenth century and did not do what their fathers / husbands / brothers / uncles told them to do. There’s murder. Infidelity. Madness. Lies. Money. I can only imagine the illicit thrill Braddon’s work would have given to a well-bred young Victorian lady reading this subversive text in her father’s or husband’s drawing room.

So, with that said, this is a thrilling novel and one that I was completely sucked into. It may have all the pieces of a vaudevillian melodrama, but I did not find it overwrought or heavy-handed in any way. (And it’s not often that you get to link “thrilling” and “Victorian” in the same sentence!)

The plot revolves around Sir Michael Audley, a middle-aged wealthy widower who marries the unlikely choice of a neighbor’s beautiful governess. Everyone around Sir Michael can see that she is marrying for money, and when Sir Michael’s nephew, an idle London barrister, comes into the mix and spots what is happening, the plot really gears up.

However, this is not just a straightforward murder mystery as there are tons of unpredictable twists and happenings along the way. (And you know how I likes me some unpredictable in my plots.)

Forget Dickens. Forget boring. Forget what you had to read in school. Introduce your reading mind to Braddon (or any other sensation novelist) and enjoy a well-written and well-told story. These authors do not claim to be pronouncing judgment on society’s ill (a la Dickens et al.) – they just tell you a good story that sucks you in, and, when you reach the end, makes you sigh with satisfaction.

See also “East Lynne” by Ellen Woods (1861) or Wilkie Collins (“The Woman in White” or perhaps “The Moonstone”). I read these pre-blog, but there is loads of info and e-copies out there on the web for your further review.