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Hot Off the Press: Review of The Mad Bomber of New York by Michael M. Greenburg

The Mad Bomber of New York by Michael M. GreenburgWhere I got it and why: After I spotted this in the Goodreads new release newsletter, I put a hold on the library’s on order copy immediately. I love true crime and history – this is two in one! Also, I am a huge fan of CBS’s Criminal Minds, and they used the story of the Mad Bomber extensively in the first season. (The specific episode references, if you’re looking for them, would be 1×03, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and 1×13, “Poison.”)

Recommended? Yes, if you like history, the 1940s, or are like me trying to track down books on every one of the serial killers, cult leaders, and other criminals mentioned in Criminal Minds.

Review: From 1940 to 1956 – with time off for World War II – George Metesky waged a one-man war against the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, New York. He’d started with letters, but by the 40’s, he’d escalated to pipe bombs, wrapped in a man’s red woolen sock and stashed at various locations around the city. He eventually confessed to planting more than sixty of the things, although only about thirty-some ever went off. (There is one in the Empire State Building, Greenburg reminds us, that has never been found.)

Greenburg renders the story of the Mad Bomber, as he was known, from a variety of perspectives – from the newspapers who followed his exploits to the police who tracked him to the psychologist who profiled him to, sometimes, Metesky himself. He also does a fine job of including quite a bit of historical context, helpful for those of us who do not have a ready-made mental picture of New York in the 1940s and 50s. (Mine always includes Cary Grant.)

It took me a little while to get into this book, partly because the first few chapters are more than a little confused. They jump backwards and forwards in time – clearly an attempt to start in media res, but since so many of the bomb incidents are so similar, it’s hard to get a grip on exactly when this is happening. Around chapter two or three, though, things settle down and start moving forward at a reasonable pace: Metesky’s personal life, his injury on the job at the Con Ed plant, his escalation from letter-writing to bomb-making, the collaboration of policework and journalism that finally identified the bomber, and Metesky’s long incarceration in the mental hospitals of New York.

The Mad Bomber was a landmark case in a lot of ways, from the way newspaper articles drew out the bomber by inviting him to communicate with them to the impact it had on sentencing and dealing with mentally ill criminals, and Greenburg touches at least a little bit on each of them. He devotes a whole chapter to the profile of Metesky created by Dr. James Brussel and how this widely-publicized tool impacted the later development of criminal profiling as we know it today, which I found fascinating, Criminal Minds fangirl that I am. The passages comparing profiling to Pliny’s descriptions of the physical characteristics of the criminal type seem to indicate a certain disdain for profiling on Greenburg’s part, which I can’t entirely disagree with. In just a few short sections he provides a perspective on the field I haven’t seen before, and for that alone the book was worth it.

Although a little thin at times, and drawing more conclusions about various actors’ internal thoughts than I generally like in my nonfiction, I found this a good overview of an interesting and complex case. Greenburg does an excellent job of situating the Mad Bomber case in its historical and cultural context, and draws attention to all of the wide-ranging influences it had. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I would recommend it as a good summer read, if you’re inclined to find this sort of thing as fun as I do.

The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Paralyzed a City, by Michael M. Greenburg, was published by Union Square Press on April 5th, 2011. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound

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30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Five

Day 25 – Any five books from your “to be read” stack
I’ll take the letter of this one instead of the spirit and actually pull books from my “to be read” shelf instead of sampling from my to-read list as well. You do not even want to know about my list.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. The only reason I haven’t started this one yet is I have now reached hailing distance of having no more Bujold left, and I want to draw it out as long as possible while I can.

Library Wars Volume 1: Love and War, Kiiro Yumi & Hiro Arikawa. It’s shojo manga! About militant anti-censorship librarians! I admit, I’ve never actually read any shojo manga before. (Shojo is the stuff aimed at girls, with a lot of romance and relationships; my preferred poison is shonen, the stuff aimed at boys, full of fight scenes and wisecracks, or seinen, aimed at young men, which tends toward either more realism or more dramatic science fiction type stuff.) I’m looking forward to this one, though. Militant anti-censorship librarians!

Chicks Dig Time Lords, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea. One of my friends got this for me for Christmas – it’s an anthology of essays by women about the glory and wonder that is Doctor Who. (People apparently think that women don’t like science fiction, thus giving rise to this project. I will never understand why.)

Sarah Monette, Unnatural Creatures. This is a special-edition chapbook of four published but uncollected Kyle Murchison Booth stories. The original collection is The Bone Key, which I urge everyone who’s ever liked ghost stories to go out and buy right now. (Although it is being rereleased shortly, so you may want to wait until the new edition comes out.) I’ve read two of the stories in Unnatural Creatures already, but there are two in here entirely new to me. New! Booth! Ghost stories!

The Profiler: My Life Hunting Serial Killers and Psychopaths by Pat Brown with Bob Andelman. I may have mentioned previously on this blog that my favorite television show is Criminal Minds, now suffering from an excess of studio mismanagement but previously an exquisite drama about criminal profilers. It’s given me a fondness for profiling books and serial killer stories (and a low tolerance for badly-written fictional serial killers). And hey, this one isn’t by John Douglas.

30 Days of Books: Day Four

Day 04 – Your favorite book or series ever

Whoops, missed a day, largely because we’re coming up to a series of prompts I don’t really know how to deal with. Remember how, on Day One, I said that I’m really bad with “favorite”s and not to believe anything I put down as one? This would be one of the prompts I stared at for hours thinking “I DON’T EVEN,” and eventually I decided the heck with it, I’ll just write about something I’ve been reading lately. So just throw out the “favorite ever” part of this prompt and bear with me while I ramble on about books I like.

I’ve become enamored lately of John Douglas’s books about being an FBI profiler. Co-written with Mark Olshaker, these go into the basics of criminal profiling and break down categories of profiles. I’ve always been kind of interested in true crime, largely because I’m interested in people, and I think you can’t really understand something until you understand how it fails. Serial killers pretty much qualify as the failure state of humanity. Most true crime, though, particularly books about serial killers, tends to be really exploitative; they’re not about people, they’re about blood and guts and shocking! truths!

Though he gets a little melodramatic at times, Douglas is really good at treating people like people. It’s part of the reason I like profiling so much, even though I’ve read the studies that say it’s never actually been all that useful in criminal investigations or prosecutions. Most of the criminal justice system functions in one of two modes: either you’re Putting Bad People Away, or it’s a kind of game, a system where you get points for winning at something. Profiling is about treating everyone, criminals and victims alike, as people who had reasons for whatever they were doing, even if their reasons, quite frankly, sucked. It makes the monsters human again, and I think it’s important to remember that people we can call monsters are not necessarily that different from us. (It also makes the victims human again. My favorite Douglas book for this is Obsession, which my roommate and I call The Rape Book. Douglas’s rage about victim-blaming, particularly the type that happens in the courts, is righteous and amazing.)

And, okay, I would not be honest if I did not admit that I started reading these books because I freaking love Criminal Minds, and David Rossi is clearly based on John Douglas. (I swear I can hear Joe Mantegna in my head when I read them.) If I do a 30 Days of Television when I’m done with 30 Days of Books, like I’ve been thinking about doing, there’s a real chance it’ll be All Criminal Minds, All The Time. But I’ve never seen another crime show that so consistently treats every single character as a human being, with writing so consistantly challenging and demanding and downright awesome. So, if you are like me and find serial killers morbidly fascinating (and not just for the blood), a dual recommendation. Start with Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (Seriously, John, Mindhunter? What a terrible title), and continue with Criminal Minds. Start with season one and give it at least a full disc of episodes. You’ll thank me for it eventually.

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