Tag Archives: investigative reporting

A thriller that spills over into the literary fiction genre

City of Endless Night, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Grand Central Publishing. 368 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Now that one member of this writing team, Lincoln Child, has established a winter residence in Sarasota, I have the pleasure of reviewing their new book in my “Florida Writers” column. Though each author has published notable fiction as a solo writer, their jointly written Pendergast Novel series has perhaps provided more best sellers. This one is certainly a dazzler. 

New York Police Department Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta has been assigned to the case, a search for a tech tycoon’s missing daughter. But then her body is discovered in an abandoned warehouse – headless! Now it’s a gruesome murder investigation. D’Agosta is please to discover that genius FBI Special Agent Pendergast is also assigned to the case.

There is a ton of pressure to solve this horrible crime. Fortunately, both D’Agosta and the legendary Pendergast handle pressure well, though their styles are quite different. Much of the pleasure in this addictive novel is how Preston and Child build such intriguing, distinctive major characters.

The pressure thermometer increases as more headless victims turn up. Why this horrifying signature? What possible motive? Is there one murderer or a bunch of copycats? Are such heinous crimes a symptom of a diseased city?

Preston & Child

The working out of the plot, and the series of beheadings, requires the efforts of many additional law enforcement professionals. The authors handle these subordinate figures well, providing just enough individuality for each so they don’t seem like merely walk-on parts.

The FBI and NYPD are not the only investigative forces at work. New York Post reporter Bryce Harrington is planning a long uptick in his career as the person who reveals the “decapitator.” He stirs things up with an emphasis on how the one percent (the phenomenally rich and privileged New Yorkers) exploit the ninety-nine percent. Maybe the motive – and the disease – is connected to this huge imbalance of power. Maybe someone is righting the scales by bringing down the powerful. Vengeance may be driving the series of crimes. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the February 15, 2018 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – City of Endless Night

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“A Crime in the Family” by Sacha Batthyany, translated by Anthea Bell

 Da Capo Press. 224 pages. Hardcover $28.00.  

Originally published in German in 2016, this disturbing memoir tells of journalist Sacha Batthyány’s confrontation with the truth and meaning of the heinous crime his family committed during the twilight of WWII.


During a party held by the author’s great aunt, Countess Margit Batthyány, her friends and relatives murdered 180 enslaved Jewish laborers.

Though Sacha Batthyány was not the first to write about this horrendous deed, his compulsive research and meditations enormously broaden the scope of information and understanding. He draws from his personal experience as well as diaries, public records, private papers, and interviews conducted with a mixture of determination and anxiety. His journey into the past becomes a journey into his deepest self – his life as a grandchild and child, as a husband and father.

To read the full review, click here:  https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/a-crime-in-the-family

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When farmed tilapia are dying from bleach, it could be big


Coastal Corpse, by Marty Ambrose. Five Star. 229 pages. Hardcover $25.95. Ebook $3.99.

Mallie Monroe is at it again in the fifth “Mango Bay Mystery.” She’s juggling two beaux. One is Cole, whose engagement ring she has managed to misplace (Freudian slip). The other is Nick, the chief police detective on Coral Island. Mallie seems to have a commitment problem. 

She has other problems as well. Her job as a reporter for the “Coral Island Observer” has been immensely complicated by the secretary-receptionist’s honeymoon and the editor’s disappearance. Suddenly, she finds herself in charge of just about everything, including getting out the next issue of the paper. There are just too many stories waiting to be researched and written. Which is the feature and which are the fillers? Mallie is not happy about having to enlist the help of people with little or no experience. Things are chaotic.

A local crazy is trying to pin all her problems, including a bad landscaping job, on Mallie and actually attacks her. Aging lothario Pop Pop keeps imagining that he’s Mallie’s boyfriend. Madame Geri, a local psychic, does more harm than good as a fill-in reporter. There is also a character whose violin bears scratches that resemble a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Should Mallie choose this item as the lead story? Probably not.


And there is trouble at the Town Hall meeting where former friends and business associates are at each other’s throats. When one of the ends up dead in a fish tank, the other is an obvious suspect – but there are plenty of other suspects to choose from, including jealous women. Now there’s a story.

Even Mallie’s friend and landlord, Wanda Sue, campaigning for a town council seat, finds trouble.

Many of the characters – and there are perhaps too many of them for a relatively compact novel – are quite colorful. Their excesses are part of the novel’s fun. Several don’t act their age – their relatively advanced age. Others are simply wacky. It’s a community in which a frenzied motormouth like Mallie is the pillar of stability.

More complications. Bad fertilizer made from farm-raised tilapia killed by bleach is ruining gardens and crops. Who’s behind this? Why? Mallie has to help track down the culprit. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the October 4, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the Naples and other local editons for October 5 , click here: https://naples.floridaweekly.com/pageview/viewer/2017-10-05#page=53

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Dahl’s CONVICTION a gripping, worthy addition to her Rebekah Roberts series

 Conviction, by Julia Dahl. Minotaur Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

The latest entry in Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts series is a powerful exploration of how unjustifiable convictions occur and what the consequences are. It also evokes the spiritual overtone of the title word. The storytelling mode is particularly effective, mixing sections told in the main character’s voice with other sections that enter the minds and emotions of other important characters.

It’s all about perspective.

Something horrible happens in Brooklyn during the summer of 1992. A black mother and father, along with one of their foster children, are murdered in their Crown Heights home. Another foster child is convicted of the crime, a false confession wrung from him via despicable police interrogation.

The narrative moves back and forth, alternating between two timelines. One describes the sequence of events as they happened in 1992. The other reveals events of 2014, especially those that follow journalist Rebekah Roberts, who is sparked into action by a letter from fortyish prison inmate DeShawn Perkins. He claims that he has been in jail for 22 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

To explore the background and consequences of this claim, Dahl designs a layered plotline that includes the relationships between the African-American and Jewish communities; the abusive and often criminal practices of city landlords; the unwillingness of police and district attorneys to reopen closed cases; the decline of U.S. newspapers; and the shoddy journalism that arises from the tension between getting the facts straight and being first to break the story.

And that’s not all. Conviction probes the texture and dynamics of parent-child relationships in a remarkably rich way. It’s not all good news. The relationship between Rebekah and her mother, Aviva, for instance, is very rocky. . . .

To read the entire review, click hereConviction: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books

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“Casey’s Last Chance,” by Joseph B. Atkins

“Last chance for what?” the eager reader might ask. To make it to the majors? To score big at anything? In this debut novel, it’s this sorry fellow’s last chance to get out from under the debts incurred over a decade or two of minor league hustling and losing. Not talking about sports here, just life. Casey Eubanks has made mistakes – bad choices, really – over and over again. Hey, he may have killed his girlfriend, Orella, or someone else. Or somehow got her killed. He has been on the run.  Casey'sLastChancefinal1-05

Like most fumbling criminals, he thinks that he can change his dismal life by staking it all on one more crime for the payoff he needs to survive – even flourish. His supposed good friend, Clyde Point, puts him onto something . . . truly horrible. Clyde is ready to vouch for Casey to the big crime boss who needs someone assassinated. $500 now, $500 later. Death of you don’t come through. What a deal.

This big Memphis operator, a whole-hearted Nazi named (of late) Max Duren, is involved with illegal everything and even a business, garment manufacture, that could be legal but would make less profit if it followed the rules. And now there might be more rules, and even a union shop, to protect the workers who are viciously exploited. There’s a good-looking young Polish woman, Ala Gadomska, who is stirring things up at Bengal Britches. She’s a courageous, fast-talking labor organizer who must be stopped. Such is Casey’s assignment.

Readers follow Casey through an off-the-highways tour of the American South, circa 1960. It’s time for President Kennedy to turn America into Camelot – but that’s not happening along the routes Casey travels: a network of despairing, grimy small towns with their failed businesses and failed history rooted in slavery’s aftermath.



Atkins’ eye for unpleasant physical details and their cultural resonance is penetrating. His prose is tonally perfect. His dialogue is uncanny, accurate, and revealing on more than one level.

This is noir country with grits gone cold; sad, confused Casey is its exemplary figure. His one skill – marksmanship. His fatal flaw – some vestigial sense of right and wrong mixed with guilt that wiggles beneath his fear and greed. When the time comes, he can’t pull the trigger.

Having screwed up his last chance, he gets a last, last chance. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in Southern Literary Review, click here: Southern Literary Review — January Read of the Month: “Casey’s Last Chance” 

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A tale told about idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying plenty

Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History, by Guy Lawson. Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

Yes, out of Miami Beach three barely-employable young men in their early twenties found a way to satisfy U. S. government emergency requirements for masses of military weapons to support the war in Afghanistan. Guy Lawson has done a miraculous job of digging up all the details; profiling the personalities; and finding both the horror and absurd comedy of their strange adventure. I’m already waiting for the movie and trying to cast my own version. The Warner Brothers version will star Jonah Hill and Miles Teller. Director? Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” films. ArmsandtheDudes

How do you win a $300 million Defense Department contract for arms and ammunition? Well, you’d better have made a darn low bid, especially since no one in the procurement chain has ever heard of you. With the bravado of ignorance and the lift of marijuana, Efraim Diveroli was able to learn, in a frenetic race, just how to fill out the proposal, how to find the goods, and how to get them delivered. Each step was a nightmare of complications, wrong turns, and unbelievable recoveries.

And Albania was munitions central. This corruption-riddled nation, awaiting NATO membership, was the place where the desired goods, primarily decades old Communist bloc surplus ammunition for the AK-47 rifle – ubiquitous throughout former Soviet client states – could be found. So could the layers of middlemen. The wheeling and dealing between the dudes and the private and governmental agents in Albania provide many of the high points of this suspenseful and blazingly colorful narration.

However, Diveroli and his two cohorts at AEY (the company Diveroli headed) had to somehow get around the problem that during these years there was a ban on the purchase of Chinese-made arms. Repackaging the munitions and removing traces of Chinese manufacture – plus the fact that the American military was winking at the ban anyway – made it possible for AEY to meet – or almost meet – its astounding contract.

Lawson photo by Franco Vogt

Lawson photo by Franco Vogt

Repackaging was also a means of lowering the weight to be flown to Kabul and thus lower AEY’s costs as is intermediaries, both legitimate and not, kept finding ways of taking larger slices of the potential profits.

For the sake of propping up the client armies of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States military establishment ran a covert gunrunning operation that made deals with a wide range of illegal and ill-prepared private dealers. It is only slightly ironic that bills encouraging small business bidding on government contracts opened the door for schemers like the totally inexperienced Diveroli to get a foot in. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the August 12, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 13 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Lawson

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Murder mystery follows a young reporter into Ultra-Orthodox Judaism’s closed world

Invisible City, by Julia Dahl. Minotaur. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

Rebekah Roberts, about three years out of journalism school, is a stringer for a New York tabloid, the Tribune. She hustles around on various assignments trying to please her bosses and build a career. Her social life is built around other University of Central Florida grads who’ve made it to the big city. It’s deep winter in the New York when on one freezing day Rebekah is asked to check out a gruesome story – a woman has been found naked in a Brooklyn scrap metal yard.  InvisibleCity

As Rebekah attempts to question neighborhood people and find possible witnesses, we see how unskilled she still is in framing questions and taking notes. No, she’s not a basket case, but she has a long way to go. In fact, she’s learning on the job, making her mistakes and striving to overcome them. She is also learning about herself in expected and unexpected ways.

The deceased is identified as the thirty year old wife of a prominent member of the Hasidic community – the very man who owns the scrap metal yard. The police investigation seems compromised, and – as one expects in this Orthodox Jewish community – there is no autopsy planned. Rather, a time-honored rush to burial. Moreover, the investigation seems to have been taken over by the Shomrim, the community’s own quasi-police force. This group of guardians not only protects lives and oversees observance of Jewish religious laws and proprieties, but it also protects reputations.

Rebeka feels that the activities of the Shomrim and the seeming inactivity of the police force are both inexcusable. Where is the search for truth and justice? The fact the Aron Mendelssohn, widow of the murdered woman, bankrolls the Shomrim, suggests a compromised investigation.

At the beginning of this assignment, Becky’s curiosity seems as numb as her fingers and toes. Only slowly and cautiously does she engage. Perhaps this is because she’s afraid of coming too close to the world her mother was raised in – a mother who abandoned her soon after giving birth. More and more, her reporter instinct and her need to explore her personal history charge her curiosity and push her forward.


Rebekah, who was raised in Florida by her non-Jewish father and gets along with him fairly well, never gets quite enough information out of him. She doesn’t know whether her mother is living or dead. Filled with questions about why she was abandoned and just who her mother is, Rebekah accepts her inherited Jewishness though she has almost no knowledge of its traditions.

Her quest, now connected to unraveling the murder mystery, is aided by several other people. One is a social worker named Sara Wyman who helps “questioning” Orthodox women find support and direction. Another is Malka Grossman, connected to the Jewish funeral home that prepared the body for burial. She allows Rebekah (whom she calls Rivka) to inspect the body in the presence of the Orthodox policeman, Saul Katz. They discover blunt force trauma as the probable cause of death.

And yet Malka, who has important information, is another person not interviewed by the police. She is courageous enough to go on the record with Rebekah, offering as well the information that Mrs. Mendelsson’s infant daughter was also a victim of blunt force trauma.

Saul is instrumental to several other discoveries that Rebekah makes in the course of her fact-finding. Among these is the existence of a “safe house” in Coney Island for the same “questioning” women who are helped by Sara. Rebekah finds this place and learns much from those who seek shelter and companionship there. Saul is the only person, besides Rebekah’s father, who knew her mother, Aviva. He had met her at that safe house.

Eventually, Rebekah’s reporting and her persistence moves the case forward, with suspenseful twists and turns, to a surprising conclusion.

Among the many intriguing aspects of Invisible City is Julia Dahl’s authoritative (she’s been there) portrait of the newspaper stringer’s world. The crisp telephone exchanges between Rebekah, her colleagues, and superiors involved in covering the story make this world come alive, and with it Rebekah’s anxieties, determination, and the texture of her daily life.

Dahl’s portrait of the Ultra-Orthodox community is on balance unsympathetic, though not excessively so. She explores with sufficient nuance the benefits and disadvantages of being raised in a closed world. However, the book’s heart is the young, fumbling reporter indirectly searching for her lost mother. I’m smitten by her striving to deepen her professional savvy. Rebekah’s assignment takes her into a world at once foreign and yet, ironically, the home of the secrets she must pierce.

This review appears in the May 2014 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Revealing the surprising progress of Obama’s agenda for change

“The New New Deal,” by Michael Grunwald. Simon & Schuster. 528 pages. $28.00.

Award-winning investigative reporter Michael Grunwald first came to the attention of many Floridians with his highly acclaimed “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise” (2006). This highly acclaimed volume demonstrated Mr. Grunwald’s ability to organize what would seem to be an unwieldy amount of complex research into a vivid, coherent, and intellectually stimulating narrative. It has been a game-changer in the world of ideas. Even more so will be his new book about “The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era.” While convincingly countering prevailing notions of the Obama administration’s accomplishments, “The New New Deal” manages to be just plain fascinating reading. 

In the face of his opponents’ drumbeat attacks belittling the outcome of Obama’s campaign message of hope and change, President Obama, as Mr. Grunwald tells it, has made good on a wide array of promises. A surprising measure of change has already occurred, much of it underneath the radar of the daily news cycle and public awareness. While it is astounding how many Obama initiatives have been stifled by Conservative Republican legislative blockades, it is equally astounding how much has been put into place. Underneath the hubbub and exchanges of insults, the game has changed.

Michael Grunwald frames his discussion of the early years of Obama’s presidency by analyzing several interrelated factors. First of all, the magnitude of the U. S. economic crisis was severely underestimated. Secondly, the Republicans were committed to regain control of the government at just about any cost. Thirdly, the Recovery Act and its underappreciated “Stimulus” projects, put into place while Obama governed with a legislative majority, have suffered enormous losses in the battle for respect from the general public. Yet they have halted a likely fall into a severe depression and initiated much of the forward-looking goals announced in the campaign agenda.

As Mr. Grunwald points out, there have been stumbles along the way. Some projects and investments failed to pay off. And certainly the selling of the Recovery and Stimulus package was far from effective, especially since the media has focused on high-profile failures. However, if one measures stated goals against what’s been put into place, the country has been undergoing a stealth revolution that holds great promise for the future if its legs are not amputated in the coming election cycle.

Michael Grunwald

In clean energy, there have already been significant strides with many government-aided private ventures taking hold – and creating new jobs in the process. The renovation of the fragile energy grid is underway, along with other energy supply enhancements. Important reforms in education – reforms to prepare the United States for a healthy position in the competitive world marketplace for ideas and products – are underway. The push for building a network of electronic medical information is already improving medical care while introducing cost-saving. time-saving, and error-avoiding benefits. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the September 6, 2012 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly, the September 12 Fort Myers edition,and the September 13 Spacecoast edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Michael Grunwald

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