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Early in the shattering true crime memoir Rabbit Heart: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Story, Kristine S. Ervin pauses mid-sentence to tackle a question of grammar. Which tense does one use when discussing a relationship in which one person has died? It is a question that seems to form the crux of this stunning debut: that such a relationship does continue, though on very altered lines.

When Ervin was 8, her mother was abducted from a parking lot, her body later found in an Oklahoma oil field. Both the mechanics of the police investigation and emotional reverberations continued for the next 25 years, the brutal act lapsing into cold case territory. Lost in the background was Ervin, a confused child growing into a motherless teenager, the years bringing with them both new, terrible information about her mother’s killing and an evolving relationship with the mother Ervin might have had. Ervin achingly portrays not just the unmoored girlhood she experienced, but the lifelong processing of trauma that comes from personal and early knowledge of the violence against women lurking around every corner.

In the opening pages, Ervin dedicates the book to her 8-year-old self, and indeed, parts read as her efforts to reach backwards and mother her younger self in the absence of her murdered parent. While the facts of the crime and the unfolding of the investigation are clearly and baldly delineated, this is an emotional journey intimately revealed. Ervin is a poet, and her language here is lyrical. Her depictions of unimaginable cruelty cut so close to the bone that they feel almost tangibly interior. Rhapsodic and startling, Rabbit Heart moves inside of you and explores the places of rage and grief that are often left unmonitored, revealing both the power and danger of womanhood in a violent world.

Kristine S. Ervin’s Rabbit Heart is a shattering, rhapsodic true crime memoir that will get inside you.
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In 2007, doctor Paul Volkman was charged with illegally distributing opioids via pain clinics in southern Ohio, leading to the overdose deaths of over a dozen patients. Journalist Philip Eil was drawn to the case because of a personal connection to the 60-year-old doctor: Volkman was a med school classmate of Eil’s father. Relying on over a decade of research, Prescription for Pain: How a Once-Promising Doctor Became the “Pill Mill Killer” retraces Volkman’s steps from the prestigious University of Chicago Medical School to the cash-only pain clinics in rural Ohio where Volkman liberally prescribed opiates and other controlled substances during the early-aughts opioid boom. “What on earth had happened in the thirty-some-odd years between these two facts?” Eil asks in his prologue. “I found the mystery irresistible.”

Eil leans into the contradictions of Volkman’s world, starting with his decline from promising honors student and med school grad to unhappy pediatrician facing malpractice lawsuits that pushed him to post-industrial Ohio, where he made a fresh start building a pain clinic empire at the expense of rural communities while arousing the suspicions of pharmacists and authorities alike. After Volkman’s eventual arrest, Eil dug into transcripts and sources from the court case, exploring the elements in Volkman’s nature and environment that led him to plead “not guilty” to the deaths of his patients.

Through his own interviews with Volkman and dozens of others who interacted with him or were impacted by his crimes, Eil depicts the doctor as a man forever convinced of both his superior intelligence and his underdog status, warping his perception of the world in order to depict himself as a persecuted victim. Highly financially motivated, largely absent in the lives of his young children and constantly on the road between his luxury home in Chicago and his clinics in Ohio, Volkman amassed a fortune prescribing wild volumes of medication indiscriminately: to those with legitimate pain as well as to longtime addicts to drug dealers. One former patient testified in court that he prescribed her 34 pills per day.

Eil provides context about malpractice law, drug regulations and the history of opioids in America. He also gives care and space to the lives and predicaments of various Volkman patients, devoting his afterword to the memory of the 13 people who died, as described by their families and communities. With Prescription for Pain, Eil joins the ranks of investigative journalists like Sam Quinones (Dreamland), Patrick Radden Keefe (Empire of Pain) and Beth Macy (Dopesick), adding a crucial piece of the puzzle to understanding an epidemic that continues to arrest the nation.

Prescription for Pain investigates how a pediatrician built an opioid empire in rural Ohio, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake.
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A roadside discovery of the body of a beautiful, would-be starlet; an investigation into a city’s underbelly to find her killer; a cat-and-mouse game between detectives and criminals reminiscent of an early 20th-century detective noir. For many, this may call to mind the 1947 case of the Black Dahlia, a gruesome Los Angeles murder that lives on in the popular imagination. The crime at the center of Michael Wolraich’s The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age occurred 16 years earlier, across the country amid the freewheeling glamour of 1931 New York City, and held the public just as in thrall. 

Prohibition helped to nurture corruption throughout the government of New York, with the political machine of the Democratic Party, Tammany Hall, holding crucial positions in its fist. As America was pivoting from the glitter and excess of the Jazz Age to the scarcity of the Great Depression, the organization increasingly demanded loyalty, including from one Franklin D. Roosevelt, a young, charismatic politician with aspirations to the governorship of New York. 

With a concise voice schooled by years of reporting, Wolraich describes how the Tammany Hall empire of power began to teeter when Vivian Gordon was found strangled by the side of the road in Van Cortlandt Park. As police sought to learn more about the victim, details emerged: She was a small-time starlet, she had gangster ties, she made a living by blackmailing the wealthy men who hired her for sex work—and she had been days away from delivering damning information about the police, the courts and politicians to Samuel Seabury, a former judge charged with investigating corruption in the city. So straight-laced and impervious to corruption himself that he was nicknamed “The Bishop,” Seabury posed the first legitimate threat to Tammany Hall. Gordon’s murder became the catalyst for a series of events that would change the face of New York City forever.

In this meticulously drawn account of the crusade against unscrupulous characters deeply embedded in the halls of power, The Bishop and the Butterfly shares a glimpse into a fight for decency and fairness that continues to this day.

Michael Wolraich’s true crime saga, The Bishop and the Butterfly, chronicles a judge and a sex worker who rooted out corruption in Jazz Age New York City.

Our Top 10 books of December 2023

This month’s top titles include a chilling historical mystery from Ariel Lawhon and a ripsnorting true crime collection from Douglas Preston.
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Book jacket image for The Ferris Wheel by Tu¨lin Kozikoglu

A beautifully profound yet subtle story about refugees and global connection, The Ferris Wheel engages its text and illustrations in conversation, capturing the essence of

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Book jacket image for Gwen & Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher

Lex Croucher offers readers a quirky, queer Arthurian remix in which lighthearted, entertaining banter alternates with political machinations and intense battlefield scenes.

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Book jacket image for Happy by Celina Baljeet Basra

Happy’s unexpected climax is handled so masterfully that it seems, in retrospect, inevitable. The humanity underpinning this story will speak to anyone with a heart

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Book jacket image for The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

Atmospheric, unique and elegantly written, The Frozen River will satisfy mystery lovers and historical fiction enthusiasts alike.

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Book jacket image for The Other Half by Charlotte Vassell

Charlotte Vassell’s blisteringly funny The Other Half is a murder mystery written a la Kingsley Amis.

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Book jacket image for Here in the Dark by Alexis Soloski

Theater critic Alexis Soloski’s debut thriller, Here in the Dark, is flawless from curtain up to curtain call.

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Book jacket image for Chasing Bright Medusas by Benjamin Taylor

Chasing Bright Medusas is an inspired biography of Willa Cather’s life and work that conveys the author’s complexity with affection and admiration.

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Book jacket image for Sonic Life by Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore’s long-awaited memoir offers a prismatic view on the sonic democracy that was Sonic Youth.

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Book jacket image for Gator Country by Rebecca Renner

Rebecca Renner’s Gator Country follows an undercover mission to expose alligator poachers in the Everglades, revealing the scraggly splendor of the region’s inhabitants.

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Book jacket image for The Lost Tomb by Douglas Preston

A haunting compendium of Douglas Preston’s true crime tales, The Lost Tomb delves into the shadowy uncertainty cloaking things that resist being brought to light.

Read More »

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Recent Features

Recent Reviews

This month’s top titles include a chilling historical mystery from Ariel Lawhon and a ripsnorting true crime collection from Douglas Preston.

Gardening Can Be Murder  

Horticultural expert Marta McDowell has explored the links between writers and gardens in previous books about Beatrix Potter, Frances Hodgson Burnett and U.S. presidents. It’s only natural that she’s turned her attention to the ways in which gardens have played a role in mysteries. After all, she says, “In gardens, the struggle between life and death is laid bare.”

McDowell’s Gardening Can Be Murder is as full of delights as an English cottage garden in summer. McDowell explores the connection between gardens to mysteries from all sorts of angles (as any good detective would). She provides an overview of gardening detectives from classic to contemporary, beginning with Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ 1868 thriller The Moonstone. Cuff is a “horticulturally inclined investigator” who dreams of retiring from catching thieves to grow roses. Naturally, McDowell includes Miss Jane Marple, who often makes use of gardening and bird-watching to inform her keen-witted observations of life—and death—in St. Mary Mead. 

McDowell discusses gardens as crime scenes, as well as gardens and flowers as motives. In a chapter playfully entitled “Means: Dial M for Mulch,” she recounts examples of the deadly use of garden implements in crime fiction. Poisons, of course, merit their own chapter, and McDowell also investigates authors such as Agatha Christie, who lovingly cared for the gardens of her country home, Greenway; Rex Stout, “an indoor plant whiz”; and contemporary author Naomi Hirahara, who writes the Japantown mystery series as well as books on Japanese American gardens.

Along with photos and period illustrations, the book is visually enhanced by Yolanda Fundora’s distinctive silhouette illustrations. As an added bonus, McDowell appends a reading list of plant-related mysteries, ranging from The Moonstone to 21st-century writer Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. It’s not always possible to garden in winter, so dig into this book and enjoy! 

★ The League of Lady Poisoners

Lisa Perrin, an illustrator who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, begins her highly entertaining and lavishly illustrated study of 25 female poisoners with this dedication: “For my parents, who really hoped my first book would be a nice children’s picture book.” And while The League of Lady Poisoners may not be for young children, it’s a sure bet that adults will eat up (pun intended) this original, thought-provoking and visually stunning book.

Perrin’s sense of color and design makes it a pleasure to simply turn the pages. The distinctive arsenic green on the eye-catching cover is used to excellent effect throughout, often as the sole color offsetting a stylized pen-and-ink illustration. For example, a skeleton with green bloodlines graces Perrin’s introduction to poisons, which includes a “toxic timeline” tracing the knowledge of plant poisons back to around 3000 BCE in ancient Egypt. There are also some gorgeous botanical illustrations of poisonous plants and creatures. (One can’t help wonder: Will they inspire some new nature-themed mysteries?)

Perrin organizes her profiles by the motives that led these women to perform their deadly deeds: money and greed, anger and revenge, and love and obsession. Each main subject appears as a full-page, color illustration, beginning with Locusta, a poison expert and assassin for hire in first-century Rome. 

While some names, such as Cleopatra, will be familiar to readers, Perrin’s well-documented research has unearthed little known stories including that of the women of Nagyrév, a small village in Hungary, who in the early 1900s sought to poison their abusive husbands with arsenic. With the aid of a midwife, the poisoning “epidemic” took hold, with at least 40 confirmed murders. Years later, when the police finally investigated, some women were sent to prison or executed while others women died by suicide to avoid such fates. 

Despite its gruesome subject matter, The League of Lady Poisoners is a beautiful book. And who knows? Perhaps Perrin will turn her attention to fictional poisoners next.


Readers interested in the history of true crime will be fascinated by Harold Schechter’s clever new book, Murderabilia. The title refers to objects owned by killers or otherwise connected to their crimes—artifacts that are often sold on the internet in the present day. But as Schechter makes clear, this impulse to look at or collect grisly mementos has been around for a long time. 

Schechter brings a lifetime of research to this topic: He is Professor Emeritus at Queens College, where he has taught for four decades. Along with nonfiction works about serial killers, he’s also penned detective novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe and has a novelist’s sense of what makes a good story. And the stories here are good. As he uncovers the history of 100 grisly artifacts, Schechter provides a fascinating examination of the often unexpected and surprising ways in which crime has seeped into social history and popular culture. 

Schechter begins in 1808, with the tombstone of Naomi Wise, a North Carolina indentured servant who became pregnant by a clerk named Jonathan Lewis. Lewis promised to elope with Wise, but instead he strangled her. This sad tale was memorialized in the murder ballad “Little Omie”; in other words, we’re not the first to find the gruesome compelling.

Given the author’s deep familiarity with Poe, the master of the macabre makes an appearance here too, with Schechter linking one of Poe’s detective stories to the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, a cigar girl. Schechter also details other kinds of murderabilia, including a hammer wielded by John Colt to murder a printer; a kind of bottled mineral water that nurse Jane Toppan laced with poison and used to kill 31 people; and a shovel used by serial killer H.H. Holmes.

Short chapters and copious illustrations make Murderabilia a great choice to leave on the night table to dip into before bed. Then again, given the subject matter, maybe not.

If you don’t have a clue what to get the true crime lovers and cozy mystery readers on your gift list, fear not—we’ve done the detecting for you.
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When Mandy Matney graduated from journalism school at the University of Kansas in 2012 and her parents asked her to choose a celebratory vacation spot, she picked Hilton Head, South Carolina. During that trip, Matney remembers glancing at the local newspaper and thinking how nice it would be to have a job there. “They’re talking about alligators and all these cool things,” she remembers thinking.

“And then it happened!” Matney says, speaking from her Hilton Head home. After disappointing reporting stints in Missouri and Illinois, the Kansas native came to Hilton Head in 2016 as a reporter for The Island Packet. “I think I was drawn to this area for some reason,” she reminisces, adding, “I feel like it was kind of the universe telling me to come here.”

Several years later, Matney was covering a story much more predatory than alligators—the trial and conviction of prominent attorney Alex Murdaugh for the 2021 killings of his wife, Maggie, and their 22-year-old son, Paul. She had already been delving into the Murdaugh family’s influence and corruption: In 2019, 19-year-old Mallory Beach was killed in a boating accident in which Paul was driving, inebriated. These crimes opened a floodgate of investigations into Alex Murdaugh’s massive financial improprieties, and eventually led Matney to launch “Murdaugh Murders Podcast”—a career trajectory she recounts in Blood on Their Hands: Murder, Corruption, and the Fall of the Murdaugh Dynasty. 

“You have to be the person to say something when you see that something isn’t right.”

Matney likens the Murdaugh case to a “superstorm that we can’t get out of,” acknowledging, “I kind of do miss my life before it was just constant chaos and absurdity.” After a bit of a break this summer, the Murdaugh story has heated up again, with Murdaugh asking for a new trial and his lawyers wrangling over whether the state or federal government should control the remainder of his assets. Throughout the myriad developments in the case, Matney has found the national press coverage to be “eye opening.” While she’s seen “a lot of really great journalism,” she acknowledges that she’s also been disappointed with reporters who “take the easiest, goriest, most salacious angle of the story and roll with it,” which is “the opposite of what I want to do.”

Cognizant of the swirling sea of media being produced about the family—books, documentaries and more—Matney and co-author Carolyn Murnick decided to frame their offering as her own “memoir based on four years of reporting,” a sort of story-behind-the-story that provides new material for even Matney’s most faithful podcast fans. It’s meant to be inspiring to other journalists, and, as Matney notes, “It’s the book that I would have wanted to have 10 years ago when I started my journalism career.”

Book jacket image for Blood on Their Hands by Mandy Matney“It’s kind of a whole new layer of vulnerability for me to tell all these [personal] stories,” she says, comparing her process to “taking an ice cream scoop to my insides” and revealing “those deep-down things that you don’t want to talk about and you don’t want to deal with.”

Matney grew up watching “Dateline” and “20/20″ with her mother, and remembers following the O.J. Simpson case when she was a kindergartner “because my mom was so into it.” She writes that although her first two jobs were soul-sucking (“I cried often”), her saving grace came in the form of nights spent listening to WBEZ’s “Serial” and watching Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” while dreaming of “doing something as inspiring.”

Unfortunately, Matney’s job at The Island Packet was overshadowed by a misogynistic editor she refers to by the pseudonym “Charles Gardiner” in her memoir. When, for example, Matney got access to key files related to the strange 2015 hit-and-run death of a young man named Stephen Smith, potentially linked to the Murdaughs, Gardiner luridly asked, “What did you do to get that file?” Matney reflects, “I don’t think people talk enough about bosses being mentally abusive, and how much that affects your entire life and your work.”

Thankfully, she partnered with a savvy, supportive colleague, Liz Farrell (with whom she still collaborates) to follow their instincts in the Murdaugh story, even as their editor tried to discourage them. Matney believes that their outsiders’ perspectives added fuel to their reporting—they weren’t used to “this system of good old boys just running amok and doing whatever they wanted.” She adds, “I think a lot of people have a really hard time imagining that a guy who looks like Alex can do these things. But that’s a big point that I think we all need to realize is that there are people like Alex, who are manipulators and narcissists, and we can’t be fooled by them. . . .You have to be the person to say something when you see that something isn’t right, because they will—like Alex did—destroy everyone in their wake.” Just a few days before our conversation, Matney reveals, she stood a few feet away from Murdaugh during a federal hearing. “It’s bone-chilling,” she says. “It’s not fun for me to be in his presence.”

“It’s the book that I would have wanted to have 10 years ago when I started my journalism career.”

Matney’s memoir also addresses the toll that the case has taken on her mental health. “No one really told me when you start digging into stories that are this dark, and communicating often with victims of really horrific crimes, you are carrying a load that is unbearable at times. People need to talk about that.”

On a brighter note, Blood on Their Hands also chronicles how she and David Moses (then her boyfriend, now her husband) began their Murdaugh podcast. “It’s not this easy process where a microphone comes out of nowhere and just magically puts your words into a podcast and it sounds beautiful. It’s very frustrating at the beginning. . . . I’m not ashamed of the fact that our first few episodes sounded very rough. I want other people to know that it’s OK to start something and not be perfect at it. . . . I think that that’s been a big reason why a lot of our fans have been really attached to our podcast.” Matney loves podcasting, especially because “journalism is so different when you own your own business and you can actually do and say the things that you want.” Five years ago, she says, “I could never have dreamed of doing this with my husband in my house studio.”

Blood on Their Hands will surely satisfy true crime fans. And with Matney’s acknowledgment of the grinding work and mental toll her investigation demanded—to wit, “interviews with over one hundred sources, as well as hundreds of pages of legal filings, police reports, social media posts, and court transcripts”—the book is also a powerful tribute to journalism’s ability to hold the powerful to account.

Blood on Their Hands gets down and dirty with the murder and mayhem of the Murdaughs, the South Carolina family whose crimes made national news, and the toll it takes to bring the truth to light.
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When Mandy Matney and Liz Farrell started working together as reporters in Hilton Head, South Carolina, they bonded while covering an episode of “The Bachelorette” that was filming in the area. Before long, they began calling themselves Thelma and Louise. As Matney writes in her riveting memoir, co-authored with Carolyn Murnick, Blood on Their Hands: Murder, Corruption, and the Fall of the Murdaugh Dynasty, “Looking back now, I could never have realized how apt that Thelma & Louise comparison would end up being; while the film starts as a buddy comedy, it quickly turns darker.”

In 2019, Matney and Farrell were among the first to report on the boating accident that killed teenager Mallory Beach when a drunk 19-year-old Paul Murdaugh was at the wheel. The reporters quickly realized that the Murdaughs, a prominent family in the coastal Lowcountry, “seemed to be like the Mafia.” Nonetheless, they kept digging, undaunted even in the face of possible danger and the lack of support from their misogynistic editor. “When you’re a journalist,” Matney writes, “you’re sort of like a cross between a treasure hunter, an archaeologist, and a heat-seeking missile.”

Matney also covered the 2021 murders of Paul and his mother, Maggie, for which father and husband Alex Murdaugh was charged and convicted—and delved into other heartbreaking cases in which Murdaugh, an attorney, stole money from his clients. Early on, Matney predicted, “I knew this case could be as big as any Netflix documentary. . . . It could be life-changing for my career.” While the book offers plenty of fodder for true crime enthusiasts, Matney wisely focuses her narrative within the framework of her own journalistic trajectory, including the popular “Murdaugh Murders Podcast” she created with David Moses, now her husband. Journalists, especially those new to the field, will find these details not only inspiring, but also empowering, as Matney finds success in the face of the changing media landscape despite how the corporatization of journalism negatively affects reporters’ abilities to do their jobs.

Part memoir, part true crime story, Blood on Their Hands is an up-close-and-personal narrative that will appeal to a wide variety of readers. Fans of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, as well as Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You, take note.

Journalists at a small local newspaper uncovered the misdeeds of Alex Murdaugh, a scion of coastal North Carolina. Blood on Their Hands chronicles how they did it.

Investigative journalist Rebecca Renner’s breathtaking Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades brims with exhilarating tales of the denizens—both human and animal—that lurk in the saw grass, skunk cabbage and mangrove roots of the rapidly vanishing Everglades. The fast-paced narrative is imbued with the atmosphere of tension that shapes any good mystery story—but unlike other mysteries, Gator Country is shaped by moral ambiguities among antagonists and protagonists. With deep affection for a beloved place, Renner, who grew up in the Everglades, sketches a vivid portrait of the scraggly splendor of the land and its tenacious hold on life in a world that often fails to see its beauty.

At the heart of Renner’s book lies Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Jeff Babauta’s struggle to balance his sympathy for wily lifetime poachers with his understanding that alligators are a key species in the conservation of a fragile ecosystem. Near retirement, he takes on one last mission, going undercover to catch alligator poachers who are stealing gator eggs from nests and selling them, despite being torn about this charge.

Who is the hero, and who is the villain? It depends on who you ask. Before the Everglades became a national park, “poaching” was simply “hunting,” and it was largely done for sustenance. As Renner points out, tourism, the rapid encroachment of urbanization, farming, the disruption of natural fire cycles and land-hungry builders who “snatched the land and made hunters into poachers” have endangered the Everglades far more than poachers.

Renner weaves Babauta’s story with her own; she grew up in south Florida, and as she puzzles through her reporting, she reflects earnestly on her relationship with the swamp. Her mission, she writes, was “to go to the Everglades and listen.” In doing so, she captures the inhabitants of the region—human, animal and ecological—in all their frailty and splendor.

At the end of this tangled environmental morality tale (no spoilers—we learn this up front), the FWC takes down the ring of poachers. For Renner, though, the moral of the story is that “To be at odds with nature is to be at odds with ourselves . . . Our centuries of war with the swamp have shown that when we attack nature, nature will fight back, and both humans and nature will lose.”

Rebecca Renner’s Gator Country follows an undercover mission to expose alligator poachers in the Everglades, revealing the scraggly splendor of the region’s inhabitants.
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In 1964, the young Douglas Preston buried a tin time capsule in a field with his best friend. Decades later, in a moment of nostalgic curiosity, Preston set out to unearth the box of buried treasure, but the remembered childhood landscape of its location was too altered to find it again. Later, Preston looked up the friend only to discover that the man had died years earlier, bludgeoned to death for unclear reasons in the boarding house where he lived. Preferring to remember his friend as the quiet, shy boy he had known, Preston made the conscious choice to step away, never finding out the exact circumstances of his friend’s murder.

That tension of the knowable and the unknowable permeates the bestselling novelist’s new collection of essays, The Lost Tomb: And Other Real-Life Stories of Bones, Burials, and Murder, all of which concern that which lies buried. Written over a span of decades for publications such as The New Yorker and Smithsonian Magazine, these essays tackle shadowy things that resist being brought to light in archaeology, in anthropology and in ourselves. Preston, who co-authors the popular Pendergast series with Lincoln Child, presents mysteries—a lost tomb in Egypt, a series of grisly murders in the Italian countryside, an elaborately booby-trapped pit rumored to contain treasure—in which the secrets seem to multiply as increasing efforts are made to expose them. He has compiled a book that haunts.

It is human nature to become preoccupied with revealing that which has been concealed. Indeed, Preston’s essays are peppered with journalists, archaeologists, detectives and ordinary people who become so consumed with the desire to expose truth that it crowds out friends, family and the regular stuff of daily life. These figures endure ridicule and persecution, yet they cheerfully surrender their entire lives to the chase. It is hard work to convince yourself that you would make a different choice, so skillfully sketched is the lure of the unknown in Preston’s collection of essays. From the safe distance of the pages of The Lost Tomb, we are allowed a delicious taste of what it is to be consumed with the desire to know, even when all evidence points to the fact that, maybe, we are better off leaving a mystery alone.

A haunting compendium of Douglas Preston’s true crime tales, The Lost Tomb delves into the shadowy uncertainty cloaking things that resist being brought to light.
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Dr. Alexa Hagerty, an associate fellow at the University of Cambridge and an anthropologist with a Ph.D. from Stanford, can read bones. In Still Life With Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains, Hagerty explores the close connection between bones and words. Like words, bones can be articulated (arranged into a coherent form, such as a skeleton) and become articulate (capable of clear expression). Using sight, touch, smell and even sound, Hagerty can interpret the stories that bones conceal. For example, she can tell by touch if a bone’s fracture took place before, during or after its owner’s death. She can piece together the shattered remnants of a little girl’s skull to reveal the bullet hole in the middle of her forehead. She can even determine how a person’s occupation shaped their bones. A dairy worker might have compression fractures in their neck from leaning their face against a cow’s flank. A grooved incisor might once have held a tailor’s pins.

Still Life With Bones is in part a memoir of how Hagerty gained this extraordinary expertise, recounting the physically and emotionally draining work of meticulously searching for bones and identifying the dead and how they died. It sounds bleak, but there is also pleasure in these pages: the camaraderie of co-workers, the friendly competition among fellow students and the joy when a skeleton is reunited with the community who believed they would never see their beloved again. 

However, Still Life With Bones is more than just a memoir. Woven throughout these memories and lyrical reflections on bones, anthropology and storytelling are the actual horrors that some particular bones reveal. Hagerty did her fieldwork in the mass graves of Guatemala and Argentina; her subjects are the victims of genocidal wars committed by dictators against these countries’ citizens. Her colleagues are forensic anthropologists committed to reclaiming the dead and returning them to their grieving families at great personal risk and cost. Every beautifully written page of this extraordinary book affirms the individuality of each victim, and honors the living who serve them and their survivors.

Anthropologist Alexa Hagerty's extraordinary memoir pays tribute to the victims of genocide in South America, whose bones Hagerty returned to their grieving families.

The latest book by journalist Alex Mar (Witches of America) is a valuable contribution to the true crime genre. Taking its title from a verse in the Gospel of Matthew, Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy begins with a heinous murder but then follows the difficult, inspiring path of forgiveness and redemption traveled by those whose lives were forever altered by that crime.

On May 14, 1985, 15-year-old Paula Cooper and three teenage friends entered the Gary, Indiana, home of Ruth Pelke, a widowed Bible teacher and grandmother approaching her 79th birthday. What began as a hastily conceived plan to snatch cash and jewelry ended with Ruth dead on her living room floor, the victim of an attack so ferocious, Mar writes, that it’s almost unimaginable. 

The brutal death of an elderly white woman at the hands of four Black girls in Gary, a city many white residents had fled after the election of its first Black mayor in 1967, sparked public outrage and made prosecutor Jack Crawford’s decision to seek the death penalty an easy one. After pleading guilty without a plea bargain, Paula was sentenced to death, making her, at the time, the youngest person ever to receive the death sentence in modern American legal history and the first female juvenile ever to receive that penalty.

At that point, Paula’s story took an unexpected turn. Sitting in his crane one night at the steel plant where he’d worked for many years, Ruth’s grandson, Bill Pelke, sensed in a moment of profound personal crisis that his grandmother was calling on him to forgive her killer. But Bill went far beyond that single generous act of compassion to embrace an entire life of activism against the death penalty, in solidarity with others who had lost family members to violence. In tandem with Bill’s journey—one that took him across the United States and as far away as the Vatican—Mar describes the efforts of the lawyers who fought tirelessly for the abolition of the death penalty for juveniles.

The details of Paula and Bill’s relationship and how their lives unfolded in the more than four decades after Ruth’s murder are readily available on the internet, but readers should resist the urge to seek them out and instead rely on Mar’s intimate and highly sympathetic account. Anyone moved by Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, will find Mar’s book a compelling companion piece on the issue of crime and punishment in America. It’s a story that beautifully marries tragedy and hope, illuminating some of the worst and best of which human beings are capable.

Alex Mar’s Seventy Times Seven begins with a heinous murder but then follows the inspiring path of redemption traveled by those whose lives were forever altered by that crime.

In September of 1740, a British man-of-war called the Wager sailed from Portsmouth, England, as one of six warships in a squadron bound for South America. Their mission: to harass Spanish naval forces while seeking out a treasure-laden galleon on its way from Mexico to the Philippines during the colorfully named War of Jenkins’ Ear. The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder is bestselling author David Grann’s vivid account of that ill-fated expedition, revealing humanity at its best and worst, from heroism to cannibalism.

Grann focuses his attention on three of the vessel’s crew members: Captain David Cheap, who sailed as the first lieutenant of another ship and inherited his first command of a man-of-war after the death of the Wager’s previous captain; John Bulkeley, the ship’s gunner and a deeply religious man who kept a meticulous journal of the disastrous voyage; and John Byron, an ambitious 16-year-old midshipman whose grandson, Lord Byron, would one day incorporate elements of the Wager’s tragic story into his epic poem “Don Juan.”

David Grann reveals why a disastrous shipwreck from the 1740s struck him as a parable for our own turbulent times.

Informed by the extensive documentary record and enriched by the experience of his own three-week visit to the site where the Wager, a former merchant vessel and therefore the “bastard of the fleet,” ran aground in one of the violent storms endemic to the area near Patagonia, Grann tells this story with a keen eye for arresting (and at times terrifying) details. Thanks to his sure-handed ability to create scenes with novelistic immediacy, it’s easy to feel the mounting desperation of the seamen as their numbers shrank in the face of relentless winter weather, disease and starvation. And yet, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, which pummeled the sailors as regularly as the towering waves that pounded their ill-equipped ship, a small remnant of the original crew was able to endure.

After 33 survivors improbably arrived in South America in two makeshift vessels, and then later sailed home to England, the British Admiralty felt bound to convene a court martial to address allegations of mutiny and the claim that Captain Cheap had murdered a member of the crew in cold blood. Grann writes that he has “tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.” However, the trial’s outcome is less important than the way it demonstrates how “empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell,” as Grann writes. “But just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” His thrilling book is an admirable example of how that veil of ignorance can be pierced

David Grann’s narrative nonfiction masterpiece about an 18th-century man-of-war that ran aground in South America reveals humanity at its best and worst, from heroism to cannibalism.

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Must-reads for May include the latest from bestselling historian David Grann and romance superstar Emily Henry, plus the long-awaited second novel from Abraham Verghese.

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Must-reads for May include the latest from bestselling historian David Grann and romance superstar Emily Henry, plus the long-awaited second novel from Abraham Verghese.

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