Category: Book Review

Audiobook Review: Chase Darkness With Me

Billy Jensen’s book, Chase Darkness with Me is part memoir and part how-to guide for wannabe twenty-first century citizen detectives who want to join Jensen in finding missing persons and helping to solve America’s more than 200,000 unsolved homicide.

As a memoir, the book provides an origin for Jensen’s fascination with unsolved homicides, and how that led him into the world of true crime television and podcasts. He also writes of his friendship with the late Michelle Macnamara, author of I’ll be Gone in the Dark. Jensen writes how her efforts helped lead to the capture of a suspect in the crimes of the infamous Golden State killer, who committed a series of rapes and murders in the 1970s.

In the past few decades, the nationwide solve rate for murders has plummeted from above 90% to a little more than 60%. Jensen attributes the change to a couple of factors. First is a decline in trust for the police. Second is the shift in how people get news and information. In past decades, newspapers and TV newscasts would carry information about homicides, as well as pictures of unidentified suspects  the public might know. However, as people have begun to curate their own news, these sources have been viewed less and less.

Jensen began to have success in helping locate killers from cold cases by launching social media campaigns that reached people who had turned off their television. He was able to do this by leveraging skills he’d learned when newspapers began to decline at the turn of the century. In the book, he tells the stories of several murders and missing person cases where he used social media to reach people who may have the key to solving a case.

He does a good job structuring each chapter and giving appropriate time to each incident. He also does show a healthy introspection about his motives and about the way these campaigns affect the investigation and the families of the victims.

He also writes about how familial DNA databases like 23andme and ancestry.com may hold the key to solving murders, as with their popularity, it’s quite likely  many killers who have left DNA evidence could be located through family members who have signed up for these services, although he discusses many challenges on that point.

The how-to-section at the end of the book mostly serves to re-enforce lessons gleaned from the narrative portions of the book but adds a few handy tips on technical details.

In addition to the sort of social media detective work Jensen has specialized in, he mentions other tasks that can aid the capture of criminals, including volunteering to digitize old police records and helping build family trees for those who’ve used familial DNA databases to trace killers.

Jensen also does spend a good deal of time discussing  how to do citizen detective work responsibly and ethically. He sees a great opportunity for citizen detectives to bring closure to victims and justice to killers who’ve thought they got away with it. However, he knows that a few irresponsible people could ruin things for everyone.

He advises those who’d like to be Batman that they can be. They just can’t be the vigilante that plays by his own rules. They have to be the Adam West 1960s Batman and play by the rules.

Jensen is also honest that Citizen Detective work is often time-consuming and frustrating. He pegs his own success rate at cases he became involved in at under 20 percent. In addition, running social media campaigns to locate someone who saw something gets to be expensive. However, America boasts a growing affluent retiree population that’s looking for something to do with their time. Jensen thinks for many retirees this may be an answer to how to deal with all the time on their hands.

If there’s one thing I’d caution potential readers/listeners on in these highly polarized times is that Jensen goes off into dictum expressing his opinion on a variety of controversial subjects, including religion and political issues (though thankfully not opinion on politicians). Some are related to crime such as gun control and the death penalty and others are not. The good news/bad news about these portions is that he makes assertions and offers no evidence to support them. The bad part is that it seems he’s taking for granted that his view of the world is correct and that his entire audience agrees with it. The good part is that because his views aren’t key to the central premise of the book, you can move on rather than getting bogged down spending hours on irrelevant side trails.

Still, despite my disagreements with Jensen on some things, I walked away from the book admiring his desire to make the world more just and the practical steps he’s taken to do so. If you’re interested in true crime, in becoming a citizen detective, or if you’re a mystery writer looking for realistic methods that your characters could use to solve crime without a badge, this definitely is a worthwhile read.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Book Review: Boston Blackie

Boston Blackie was the lead character in fourteen movies and two separate radio series’ in the 1940s and a TV series in the 1950s. Before that he was a character in a series of short stories by Jack Boyle, the first few stories were collected in the 1919 book called Boston Blackie.

In literature, Blackie was a master criminal. He was hardly alone in that as both the Lone Wolf and the Saint were reformed thieves. What made Blackie different is not only was he a thief but he was a thief written with exceedingly noble character. The book opens with an introduction where Boyle describing his first meeting with Boston Blackie in San Francisco after the San Francisco Fire where he was tenderly caring for children left homeless. Boyle highlighted his dedication to his own moral code and suggested readers were in no position to judge the man.

We learn that Blackie has a wife named Mary. This seems to be the one thing both radio and TV shows took from the book in naming Blackie’s girlfriend in both mediums. They are partners in life and in crime. Both are pillars of the criminal community.

They commit all sorts of crimes but stop short of murder. Blackie, Mary, and their friends live according to a criminal code of honor. And Blackie is the ultimate upholder of the code. In the first and best story, Blackie is robbing a safe when he meets the son of the owner, who is a poor little rich boy left all alone. Blackie manages to get the boy a better home life and bring his parents together while still getting away with a fabulous jewel.

Blackie has reasons that he thinks makes most of his crimes virtuous. He plots to steal from a ship as revenge on the ship owner for treating Mary’s father badly. Blackie gives up the fruits of one robbery to save a poor man being railroaded by the police. In keeping with the criminal codes, he goes to prison rather than turn in a criminal who killed someone.

The only tracking down of a criminal occurs when Blackie goes after a bigamist who got out of prison because of his practice of encouraging jailbreaks and snitching to the guards to get reductions in his sentence, getting several prisoners killed while escaping.

The police and prison officials are universally corrupt in the Boston Blackie stories. Framing people for crimes they didn’t commit and being willful sadists is part of the job description. In many ways, this reflects big city police corruption and plays into the distrust the public had for the police.

It may stem from writer Jack Boyle’s run ins with the law. Boyle spent 11 months in San Quentin and created Blackie while serving in Canon City near Denver.  Boyle’s stories embellished his criminal career, though. He actually was in prison for check forgery. (Source: In Search of Jack Boyle)

As a book, Boston Blackie has a twisted moral sense to it. Often times, I’ve heard old time radio police programs and various leaders from the era complaining about literature that glorifies criminals. I never understood the full thrust of what was meant by that until this book. I often imagined books that, like modern media, glorify sadistic murderers for being as bad as they wanna be. Boston Blackie instead glorifies criminals as honorable, saintly figures who live by a code of honor.

The book’s relation to the radio show and the later Chester Morris movies is a bit strained. While the Lone Wolf and the Saint shifted in literature, Blackie’s transformation from an honorable crook to straight-laced hero came exclusively on radio and film.  (Update: Curt notes in the comments that the last three Blackie stories which weren’t collected in this book saw a change in Blackie to the character he’d become in the 1940s films.) He began as a reformed thief in the Chester Morris movies. By the late 1940s, one episode of the radio series suggested Blackie had never been in trouble with the law at all.

The book comes from the same era as another book that launched a media franchise, Tracer of Lost Persons (See review here. Like Tracer of Lost Persons, this book has its share of pretty dated sappy melodrama. Unlike Tracer of Lost Persons, there’s far fewer surprises or goofiness to add to the entertainment value. The main draw of the book is if you want to see the origins of Boston Blackie as a literary character. On its own, the book doesn’t have a whole lot to commend it.

Rating 2.25 out of 5

Book Review: The Innocence of Father Brown

Note: A version of this review appeared in 2009

This is the first Father Brown short story collection by G.k. Chesterton. Father Brown was in many ways a continuation of what Chesterton wrote in his classic Orthodoxy. 

The intellectuals of Chesterton’s time viewed the orthodox Christian as superstitious and weak-minded. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, asserted his vision of orthodoxy was entirely different: conscious, sensible, winsome, and wise. 

Two years after writing Orthodoxy, he wrapped it in a Cossack and embodied it in the person of Father Brown, a physically unremarkable and humble priest, who uses his wisdom, common sense, and experience as a confessor to solve even the most baffling crimes.

It should be noted that, contrary to what many people have said, Chesterton was not a Catholic at the time he wrote the first Father Brown stories from 1910-1914. That conversion wouldn’t happen until the 1920s. However, he already knew the priest who would facilitate his confession and Father John O’Connor was the basis of the character.

To enjoy Chesterton’s books, you have to appreciate a couple of things. First of all, many are unlike any detective stories we read today.  While there’s plot and action, the main focus is the puzzle, not character development. Outside of Brown and his friend Flambeau, most of the characters remain flat. They’re stereotypical Frenchmen, Calvinists, Rich Men, and Atheists. They’re there to provide their piece of the puzzle and then get on with it.

 There’s also not any sense of danger or mayhem. There’s little violence onstage, although Chesterton can come up with some quite ghastly ways to kill a man.

This is a battle of wits between you and Father Brown, and most of the time you’re going to lose quite badly. The plot unfolds to reveal the puzzle, Father Brown solves the puzzle and the story ends, often abruptly.

What carries the stories is Chesterton’s voice which I find delightful, even when reading a book over one hundred years after the time. Chesterton uses his prose like a painter uses paint, true artistry that’s understandable to a modern reader.

Father Brown is a fun character. When he speaks, he says something important. Brown was the first in a long line of unlikely detectives that would include Charlie Chan and Inspector Columbo: the last person in the world that the criminal would be worried about finding them out. But somehow, he solves the case with a completely unexpected solution.

There are a total of twelve stories in the collection, each constituting a different mystery. Several stood out to me:

The Blue Cross: The first Father Brown story and perhaps his most iconic tale. When Chesterton originally published this short story in 1910, readers must have been shocked to see Father Brown emerge as the hero. Through the whole of the mystery, the focus had been on a police detective following him. But the makings of the great detective were in place. He would hang back as a background figure until stepping forward to solve the case. When that first story was published in September 1910, a literary star was born.

The Invisible Man: This was a fitting case, because it not only provided an extraordinarily surprising solution, but also an insight on how Father Brown surprised so many with his observations.

The Three Tools of Death: This is the first Father Brown story I heard an adaptation of, and after reading it, I appreciate it more. The solution is a gigantic surprise. It’s also a reminder that many descriptions Chesterton gives at the start of the story convey what the popular view of a character is, not necessarily what the person is really like. 

The Sign of the Broken SwordThis had to be my favorite in the collection. To give you an idea of how different these stories are from modern mysteries, the entire case takes place on an entirely different continent from where the mystery occurred, and no witnesses are questioned. The story centers around a simple riddle. 

Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?

From there, the case proceeds to a startling conclusion, all without leaving a forest an ocean away from the scene of the crime.

On the negative side, the Honour of Israel Gow was absurd. Chesterton was trying to make a point about his perception of Calvinist legalism, but it fell a little flat. The solution in the Wrong Shape was not the right shape of Chesterton’s best Father Brown stories, but it was still passable.

Overall, I found the stories enjoyable and would encourage others to read them. You can read the entire book online or you can buy it on Amazon. (affiilate link.)

Book Review: Dragnet Dailies Septemer-November 1952


Dragnet was not only a radio program, a TV program, and a movie in the 1950s, it was a pop culture phenomenon that not only led to spin-off novels and board games but a daily newspaper strip that spanned from 1952-1955.

Single strips have surfaced. Lewis Lovehaug (aka Linkara) did a review of an Australian Dragnet comic book which appears to have been made up of several edited newspaper strips. A few strips have appeared on various blogs around on the Internet. There does seem to be disagreement on the start date with many websites indicating 1953 as the start date, but this appears to be inaccurate. As best I can tell, it started in June 1952 and continued through May 1955.

This book collects an entire storyline from September 22-November 8, 1952. The overall plot is a good, standard Dragnet story about a search for a drug ring with the first clue coming at the scene of a drug-related accident.

The story features Frank Smith as a young police officer rather than the middle-aged character we came to know on TV. The Dragnet strip began in the interim period between the time Barton Yarborough (who played Friday’s first partner Ben Romero) died and when Ben Alexander was cast as Frank Smith. Clearly, the idea of having Friday with a younger partner appealed to Jack Webb. In addition to the newspaper strip, on a radio show, a young Martin Milner was cast as Friday’s partner Bill Lockwood for a month, but it didn’t work out, with Milner entering the military during Korea foreclosing the possibility. The newspaper strip Frank Smith does have a resemblance to Milner with a touch of Jimmy Olsen thrown in. The one plot complication is Joe Friday having a young partner makes Joe Friday going undercover as a college student seem silly. Smith would have been a more natural fit.

The art is decent with a fair likeness of Jack Webb as Friday. To be honest, it’s tough to tell how much of the mediocrity in the art has to do with the art and how much of it has to do with the quality of the scan of the material.

If you’ve read other collections of major newspaper strips, such as those published by the American Comics Library, this will probably not be all that impressive. Collections of major strips are often carefully restored. The collections are readable public domain comic strips of fair quality.

In addition, the price of $7.99 for a 42-strip story is a bit steep. Still, if you want to enjoy Dragnet as a newspaper strip and want to own a physical book as opposed to downloading them online then you may enjoy this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Book Review: The Case of the Crime King

The Case of the Crime King was Richard Deming’s second original Dragnet tie-in novel for the original 1951-59 TV series.

The book focuses on Lt. Joe Friday and Sergeant Frank Smith’s efforts to break up a robbery ring. The case begins with the arrest of a clever criminal who Friday and Smith catch and send to prison.

Word begins to leak out of prison that about a new statewide gang with plans to accumulate a fortune and use the money to get one big score that will leave them living like kings. Friday and Smith are sure their man is behind it, but proving it is another matter.

The stakes have never been higher in a Dragnet case file as the lives of thousands and the freedom of millions depend on Friday and Smith stopping this criminal gang’s plot.

Like in his first effort, The Case of the Courteous Killer, Deming manages to capture the spirit of Dragnet, only telling a more complex case. In many ways, the case calls to mind the 1954 Dragnet film which focused on a gang-related investigation, only there are no out-of-character moments for Friday or Smith and we get a more satisfying resolution. The criminal is genuinely clever and the narrative remains at a strong level throughout. Unlike The Case of the Courteous Killer, there’s not really a sag in the story.

Worth noting is that The Case of the Crime King acknowledged the existence of steamier sides of life and Los Angeles that the 1950’s series avoided as it includes references to prostitutes and the criminals use an adult movie theater as an alibi. Neither aspect is written about in a salacious manner, but it does signal a slight shift that would be seen in the 1960’s revival.

On October 5, 2019, a review was held in the City of Boise, in and for the County of Ada. In a moment, the results of that review:

Verdict:

I will say that while this book was a fun read, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the Case of the Courteous Killer. That case had a killer who came after Sergeant Friday and put him in peril. Here the criminals are dangerous but far more methodical. It also had less of Smith’s humor, which disappointed.

If you love Dragnet and you like mysteries of this era Dragnet: The Case of the Crime King is a worthwhile read and at $2.99 in the Kindle Store, it’s a great deal. It’s a well-written case that was probably better than most of the episodes aired during the original series’ final season.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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