Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Review: If Looks Could Kill

1. I haven't finished a book since December. Books I have started and failed to finish reading, through no fault of the books themselves, include: Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World; Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War; Agatha Christie, Appointment with Death; Stephenie Meyer, Twilight; and others. Books I had already started reading and failed to complete even as I began an entirely new round of starting to read new books that I have not yet completed include Robert Bolano's 2666 (still working on it) and Robin Hobb's Royal Assassin (OMG I won't give up!).

2. However, all of that is behind me. At long last, I have finished a book: M. William Phelps's If Looks Could Kill: Money, Marriage, Adultery, and Murder. Although true crime books are about death and murder, for me, they are comfort reads, mostly because the funny thing about true crime books is that while they have lurid covers and sensational taglines, the books themselves are usually fairly methodical and almost plodding looks at police procedure. I find it calming and even inspiring to read about the gradual accumulation of interviews, strategies, and forensic evidence, and I even love the (usually) one-dimensional descriptions of the people involved. True crime books also often provide an interesting look at a geographical region, and in the case of this book, that region was the section of Ohio my parents live in, so I enjoyed that. I also am usually happy to read about good police work or loyal, dedicated officers.

However, the same lists of facts that I find so soothing in these books tend also to mitigate the horror of the crime and reduce it to a logic problem that police work can solve. This is bad, because the truest thing about crime, I think, is that it so rarely makes logical sense: it's committed by people who have been driven beyond logic by desperation, sadness, fear, or desire. If true crime books focused on that, they'd be a lot scarier, but also less reassuring.

Also, true crime books rarely sympathize or side with defendants or the accused; they rarely criticize police behavior or procedure; they rarely contextualize crimes in terms of history, gender, race, or class; and they rarely feature good or memorable writing. All of these things are true of If Looks Could Kill. Plus, this book is full of misplaced modifiers and other grammatical errors; I believe it was not copyedited too carefully, which is a shame.

The crime: Jeff Zack, an unpleasant man who lived in Akron, Ohio, was gunned down at a gas station by a mystery man driving a motorcyle. Jeff Zack had been having an affair with Cynthia George, the wife of the millionaire Ed George (who, like me, is Lebanese), the owner of the Tangier restaurant in Akron.

The resolution: All I can say is that someone probably involved in the crime gets away with it, which doesn't always happen in true crime novels, and which definitely raises the interest level of this one.

Like I said before, I enjoyed reading about places in Ohio--Chapel Hill mall, the towns of Rittman and Stow, the Tangier restaurant--that I've been to. I enjoyed watching the case slowly come together. The people in this book were flawed and portrayed fairly realistically, which was a plus, although the defendants were neither spoken to nor interviewed, and thus, their perspective on the crime is absent from the book.

Best of all, perhaps, this book got me to pick up my copy of 2666 again, which is also quite influenced by crime/true crime narratives, and which kind of addresss/solves some of the problems inherent in the true crime genre. In 2666, Bolano forces the reader to care about crimes perpetrated against those who are voiceless and poor, people who tend not to matter from the perspective of the middle class. But I will save all of that until I am finished with that book. If I ever am.

3. Kindle has been redesigned. Seems improved. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00154JDAI/ref=amb_link_83626371_1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=gateway-center-column&pf_rd_r=1CW0BXCETMSWE2QM08WK&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=469548931&pf_rd_i=507846

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