Monthly Archives: August 2011

A forensic field day in Lisa Black’s Cleveland

“Trail of Blood,” by Lisa Black. William Morrow. 432 pages. $24.99 hardback; $7.99 mass market paperback.

Cape Coral writer Lisa Black has designed a rousing story with two timelines. One story tells of a serial killer operating in Depression-era Cleveland. The killer’s trademark? Beheading the corpse and (sometimes) removing other body parts from the victim’s torso. In today’s Cleveland, two corpses show up. One is a decayed body that turns up in an abandoned building about to be demolished. It seems to be the work of the infamous Torso Killer of the mid-1930s. What’s especially intriguing is that the torso proves to be the remains of a Cleveland policeman. The other body, newly deceased, looks like the work of a copycat – a Torso Killer wannabe.

The narration begins with the present-day perspective, though moving back and forth between forensic scientist Theresa MacLean’s investigations of both crimes. Once the investigations are well underway, the second time line opens up, following policeman James Miller as he investigates a crime at 4950 Pullman – the very place where he is found dead over 75 years later. From this point, Lisa Black develops the timelines in alternating chapters, bringing them closer together while doubling the novel’s suspense and interest.

In this way, the reader discovers two versions of Cleveland, two states of forensic science, and two stages of the railroad industry (an important element in the setting and plot). Ms. Black’s interest in fictional speculation about an actual series of crimes has brought her the challenge of creating, for part of her novel, an effective period piece. She has proven to be more than up to the task.

The killer (killers, actually) had done a fantastic job of covering his tracks. In spite of the title (which ultimately takes on an unexpected meaning), the blood trail is almost nonexistent. One great pleasure of this book, the third in Ms. Black’s Theresa MacLean series, is the detailed yet gripping presentation of the forensic investigation. The author, an experienced forensic professional, knows exactly what is possible and probable in such matters and shuns the spectacular and improbable overreach of those popular forensic-based television shows.

A primary question that Theresa has to solve: how does the killer move his victims from the crime scenes to the locations where they are discovered without being seen? Without leaving a clue? Related questions: What is the meaning of the dismemberments? How, in an act of extreme bravado, does he pull off yet another murder at a scene swarming with police officers who expect it?

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the August 10, 2011 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 11 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Lisa Black (2). For pdf files, click here Black pdf – 1 and here Black pdf – 2.

For additional reviews of Lisa Black’s work, including her earlier books as Elizabeth Becka, click on the following links:

Ft.Myers magazine – Lisa Black

Florida Weekly – Lisa Black

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

When This Man Prays

When this man prays in private

          Leaving a space for silence and

                   Solitary whispers

We learn that we, too,

          Can own a space in the holy dialogue

                   Between God and his people

A one-on-one – alive, immediate, almost breathless.

And when this man sings his prayer,

          Full-voiced, impassioned,

                   With urgency and gentleness

We can feel our own voices

          Lift to the dance of language

                   Our throats and lips, our tongues,

Soaring in sorrow or celebration.

When this man’s body sways in prayer,

          Each bend and gesture a sign of love

                   Or reverential doubt

We can feel the tug on our own muscles:

          Bone and blood accepting the mitzvah

                   Of the dance . . .

And in unembarrassed wholeness

          Our bodies yield their stiffness

                   Our voices are suddenly beautiful

Our private murmurings flow free from the prison of self.

          Heart and voice and limbs

                   Ascending the ladder of longing,

We are Israel, hearing, in all our ways of being,

          Hearing at last.

published in Sources of Jewish Poetry: A Thirty-Year Shirim Retrospective. Vol. 30/2 and 31/1, 2012-13.

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Poems

Frieda (from “Bookbinders”)


[Originally published in WordWrights, Fall/Winter 1997.]

Every family needs someone like Aunt Frieda, someone who is cursed from the outset and whose misfortunes, while they strain the patience and resources of others, allow those others to measure their luck. Aunt Frieda was always vibrating. Her whole body was in minor agitation, but these tremors were only distant registers of the Bells Palsy that primarily affected her right arm.

Aunt Frieda usually held that arm against her side, so as to steady it as much as possible. Very often she would use it to carry something, a dishtowel perhaps, by pressing it against herself. When she put it and her right hand to use – for buttoning shirts or working in the kitchen – disaster loomed. At best, simple tasks took a long time. She learned to stay within her limits, and at a slow, deliberate pace, she could handle at a rudimentary level the tasks of wife and mother. Along with the psychical slowness was a slowness of another kind. Aunt Frieda had some degree of mental retardation. On top of this, her speech was a little slurred.

Frieda, who was the middle child of the five siblings, aged quickly. Everything she tried to do required enormous effort, and then maybe it wouldn’t come out right. Because she worked overtime, she was always worn out. I think the palsy interfered with her sleep, and that drugs were required to curb the worst effects of her disease. These drugs no doubt robbed her of whatever vividness her low IQ allowed.

When I was a kid, her freakiness scared me. I shunned her vibrating hugs, just as I shunned Grandpa Jake’s whiskey breath. (Indeed, sometimes he had the shakes too, but they were of a different kind.)

And it wasn’t just me. As the family misfit, she collected stares, patronizing remarks, and hostility. Frieda was a family mark of shame. Try as they might to treat her with sympathy and respect, her sisters would grow impatient and angry; they would lapse into abusive expressions. She wasn’t someone to introduce to their friends.

Frieda occasionally reacted with vehement resentment to her family’s sometimes heartless behavior (her brother Sam was the exception), but usually she just endured it. There wasn’t much she could do.

Like each of her sisters, Frieda married and raised two children. This was a miracle in itself. But her household was not a pretty sight. Mel, her husband, was an enormously overweight fellow who drove delivery trucks for a major New York newspaper. His work took place during the night and early morning hours, getting the next day’s papers to the news stands and other points of sale. He’d return home around breakfast time, relax for a while, and go to sleep. Slovenliness went with his girth, and Frieda’s handicaps could not overcome the added burden of Mel’s habits.

Frieda needed household help, and Mel worked too hard and slept at the wrong times to be of much use, though he tried. He made enough money for them to get by, and he was in a strong union that provided a good health plan. Between this and the workers’ compensation that kicked in after his many work-related injuries, they survived. But it was a bare and ugly survival.

Their children, Eddie and Mimi, did not get off to a good start. The genetic load was one factor, the environmental one another. Each has survived and made a place in the world, but when we were all kids Eddie was a wild monster and Mimi a withdrawn, sacrificial lamb. They were handsome children, though.

I’ve been told that my mother, at some point, arranged to have Frieda “fixed” so that she couldn’t have more kids.

Because Frieda’s family was so hard to take, with marginal social skills and outrageously obvious dysfunctions, we did not get together very often. When we did, it was all anxiety and tumult. As I try to remember them, one scene blends shakily into another, and no moments stand out for me now with distinctive narrative hooks. They seem to exist in space, filling it up quite boisterously, rather than in time: a sad tableau of noise, dirty dishes, unmade beds, and wrinkled clothes.

But just the other day, going through old family albums to jog my memory, I found two pictures of Aunt Frieda that I hadn’t paid attention to before. In them, she must be about thirty. One is a portrait of her alone. In the other, she is standing behind me, a small boy, her good hand resting on my shoulder. We are both smiling. The camera has stopped the action, the endless motion, the blur of agitation. In these frozen moments, there is no palsy. Nothing is falling to the floor; nothing has to be done over or with tedious slowness. The face is not contorted by severe concentration or rage or frustration or embarrassment. Aunt Frieda is still, fixed, — and she is unbelievably beautiful.

See also:


Leave a comment

Filed under Musings

“The Reservoir” by John Milliken Thompson

Below is an excerpt from my review of an outstanding debut novel. See the entire review and my interview with the author at: John Milliken Thompson « Southern Literary Review

The world that Mr. Thompson creates in this astonishing novel has many centers of interest. It is a story of passion, of family feeling, and of spiritual testing. It is a crime story with meticulous development of trial procedure, public opinion, evidentiary certainties and uncertainties. It is a psychological thriller that plumbs the nature of guilt as a dynamic, festering force. It is a historical drama of the American South a generation after the Civil War. 

Set in Richmond in 1885, The Reservoir embroiders upon what is known of an actual case, “Commonwealth v. Cluverius,” that attracted the attention of history-lover Thompson. The author sets us up as follows: Soon after the corpse of a pregnant young woman, Lillie Madison, is found floating in the Marshall Reservoir, clues lead to the arrest of her cousin, Tommie Cluverius. Tommie is a young man just starting out in the practice of law. He seems to have the equipment for success: intelligence, industry, good looks, and a willingness to please. From the outside, villainy doesn’t seem to be in him. But facts are facts – or are they?

Are there dimensions to Tommie that have been kept hidden?

Complications: Lillie had caught the eye of Willie, Tommie’s workaday, rock solid older brother, before Tommie had become interested in her. Tommie simultaneously carried on a flirtation-courtship with another young woman, Nola, whom he felt was a better match for his career and social aspirations. There is a strong suspicion that Lillie has been sexually abused by her father. It’s not clear which of several men got Lillie pregnant. Moreover, there would seem to be several people who would want her out of the way for one reason or another: jealousy, cruelty, and freedom from Lillie’s claims or revelations among them.

Further complication comes from Tommie’s odd behavior as he awaits his trial and then participates in his defense. On the one hand, he seems to have exculpatory evidence or information that for some reason he won’t reveal.  On the other, his alibis don’t hold up. He oscillates between being frantic to save himself and being stoically resigned to the fact that he cannot. Thompson brilliantly portrays Tommie’s troubled soul, while leaving the source of Tommie’s guilty feelings an open question. Perhaps his guilt stems from some other horrible deed and not the murder of Lillie Madison. . . .

More at: John Milliken Thompson « Southern Literary Review

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books