Posts Tagged ‘true crime’

Book Review: The Saga of the Bloody Benders by Rick Geary

Image of a book cover. A white woman stands in the foreground of a prairie holding a knife. Behind her is a white man holding a hammer. to his right is a white man with a beard holding a shovel. In the far background is an old white woman holding a cooking pot next to a small cabin. The title of the book - The Saga of the Bloody Benders is in red and orange across the top.

A true crime graphic novel telling of a family of serial killers in the 1870s.

Out on a deserted stretch of Kansas road linking newly forming towns, a mysterious family stakes a claim and builds an inn for weary visitors. Soon, reports multiply of disappearances around that area. Generally, those who disappear have plenty of cash on them. A delicious tale of a gruesome family fronted by a beguiling lass who led their victims on…

I first heard about the Bloody Benders in an American Indians in Children’s Literature blog post about what Laura Ingalls Wilder left out of the Little House books. Essentially, Laura said she left out some aspects of her childhood because she didn’t think they belonged in a book written for children,…one of which is how Pa probably participated in mob justice against the Benders. American Indians in Children’s Literature does a great job breaking down how problematic it is that depicting white serial killers in her books wasn’t ok but depicting the horrifying treatment of Indigenous peoples was. In any case, I got curious about the Bloody Benders, and the internet said this was one of the better books written about the topic, so I picked it up from my public library.

The artwork is nice. I particularly enjoyed this depicted of the Bender family’s one-room grocery and inn to demonstrate how they pulled off the serial killings.

Image of a photograph of a page of a print book. There is a drawing of a one-room cabin with the roof pulled aside to see inside. A man sits at a table in front of a curtain with a woman serving him food. Another man lurks behind the curtain with a hammer.

The content is factual and is careful to steer clear of using quotes in the panels when we don’t actually know what anyone said.

What made me dislike the book, though, was how it treated both Indigenous peoples and women. I understand that sometimes in historic nonfiction if a quote is being used or documents from the time period that it will use offensive language. However, this book used offensive language in parts that were narration written by the modern day author. It was published in 2007, and I truly feel someone on this book team should have been more thoughtful. A near-victim of the Benders was a Catholic missionary to the Osage people. Instead of saying it this way, though, the book says he, “dedicated his life to converting the savages.” This is the use of both a dehumanizing term and a glossing over of how missionary work was used as a weapon against Indigenous peoples in the Americas. This is a book about serial killers – I think whoever is reading it should be able to handle at least a footnote illuminating the complexities of this person’s missionary work.

With regards to the treatment of women, this is mostly in regards to how Kate Bender is discussed in the book. She is one of the four Bloody Benders, so I certainly don’t expect her to be discussed kindly, however while most of the book strives to stick closely to the truth as far as we know it, there is one part of the book that breaks down how folks determined the Benders pulled off their killings, based on the layout of the room, the trap door found, and reports of survivors. Most of this sticks to the facts, but then it gets to the part where Kate feeds the person sitting down at the guest table and says, “Does Kate also offer sexual favors as part of the package? No certain answer will ever be known.” What an unnecessarily and misogynistic supposition. Nothing that we know about Kate from survivors and those who knew her suggests she was promiscuous at all. In fact, earlier in the book it mentions she entertained suitors who ran errands for her but the suitors were never successful with her. Later when the book discusses possible endings for the various Benders that the rumor mills supposed, one proposed for Kate is as “a whore in Montana.” I trust that this was a true rumor, but it could have very easily said prostitute or sex worker.

True crime writing has the opportunity to analyze a crime and the society that surrounded it through a current lens. It can highlight both the good and the bad of that society and look at how this crime managed to occur, and, in the case of some crimes, go unstopped for so long. This book doesn’t do that, making it a beautifully illustrated reporting of what happened, lacking any analytical meat.

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2 out of 5 stars

Length: 76 pages – short nonfiction

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

February 21, 2020 Leave a comment

First, a note….

If you’ve subscribed to this blog, bless you for still being around. I hadn’t posted since July 2018! I’ve still been actively discussing books but mostly on my Instagram where I’ve been enjoying the bookstagram community. However, I have missed having a more permanent, long-form place to talk about books. I wasn’t enjoying the monthly round-ups I was doing but I also simply cannot devote the time to blog post about every book I read. So I’ve decided to aim for reviewing one book a month – the book I found most meaningful to read in some way in the month prior. Maybe sometimes I’ll review more, maybe less, but no longer take this blog to be a record of every single book I read. Moving right along.

Book cover of The FiveSummary:
You’ve heard of Jack the Ripper – the serial killer who murdered five women in London in 1888. Most people know the name Jack the Ripper but what about the names of his victims? Here, meet the women whose lives were cut short by Jack the Ripper – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary. Get to know their world, their personal struggles, and come to see them as people rather than simply victims.

I learned so much reading this book, and none of it was dry. It was entirely fascinating. I liked the structure very much – Rubenhold goes through the intricacies of the lives of each of the women in the order they were murdered. She also doesn’t just stop at the moment they died – she follows through with who identified the body, who grieved for them (and every single one had someone grieving for them).

A large misconception is that all five of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper were homeless prostitutes. Of course even if that were the case it wouldn’t make the murders less tragic. However, it is simply not true of these women. Four of the five were not prostitutes but rather were simply sleeping on the street because they were homeless. The fifth (Mary Jane) was a prostitute but had a home and was murdered in it.

I found it very interesting how different all of their lives began and yet how most of them ended up on the street regardless. In a way this is really the story of how society failed these women long before it failed to find their killer by allowing them to end up living on the streets to begin with.

I personally found Annie’s story to be the most meaningful, but I think everyone will connect with a different woman in a different way. Annie ended up on the street due to a failed battle with alcoholism. She had a loving family, had climbed up to the middle class, and even did a stint in rehab. But she still lost the battle with her addiction.

Interestingly, her sisters chose the sobriety movement and prospered from it. I found this to be a meaningful passage:

The complete rejection of alcohol resonated with those who found themselves balanced precariously on the edge of middle-class life. By eschewing drink, a hardworking man or woman could save money and build a better life for themself and their family. Annie’s sisters not only adhered to this creed but prospered by it financially. (27% location)

Although her sisters were able to give up the drink, Annie was not. Her brother also still drank alcohol at the time of her murder. Even though she was on the street, he would still see her sometimes and imbibe with her. After her murder, he left the UK for Texas and achieved sobriety.

This hit me hard:

What her murderer claimed on that night was simply all that remained of what drink had left behind. (33% location)

To me, Annie’s full life story was sorrowful, although some beauty did come out of it in that her brother’s life was saved by observing her downfall. I still reflect on her story sometimes. I hope through Rubenhold’s work, Annie’s unfortunate downfall will come to affect change in more people than solely Annie’s brother’s.

I’ve spoken at length about the woman’s story I found the most personally moving and meaningful, but there is also a story of an immigrant, a woman scorned by her husband, a prostitute and the man she loved, and a working class woman who worked in a tin factory and ran from an abusive husband. I am sure you will find one that connects with you and that you will find meaningful.

Those who are disturbed by the gruesome will be pleased to note that there are not gruesome details in this book. The focus is on the women’s lives, not their deaths.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

January 17, 2013 2 comments

Black adn white photo of a young woman above the skyline of Peking.Summary:
In 1937 the entire world is on the brink of war.  In Peking, China, the Japanese invaders are encroaching.  In the midst of this chaos the adopted daughter of British consulman is brutally murdered, her body found in the shadow of the Fox Tower, universally viewed with suspicion by the Pekingers as haunted by spirits.  Due to the special circumstances, the murder investigation requires the presence of both a Chinese and a British investigator.  They must race to find Pamela’s murderer before the Japanese engulf the city.

This true crime novel takes a bit to get things set up, but once they are, oh my how it sucks you in.

My fellow librarians will appreciate the backstory of how this true tale was discovered by French.  In the Afterword he states that he was digging around in some archives and stumbled upon a box of evidence that Pamela’s father sent off to the government, which was never really looked at and just put away in storage and then into archives.  It was through libraries that he even discovered this fascinating, intersectional true crime.  I think that’s encouraging to any librarian who has ever spent hours making a finding aid for archives.

So just what makes this true crime more fascinating than others?  Pamela was the adopted daughter of Werner, and her adoptive mother died at a young age.  She had been away at boarding school in Tientsin and was home for the holidays.  Because she was born in China but was also adopted by British consulman, there is an interesting assimilation into Chinese culture going on in her life that we don’t often see in Western novels.  Peking itself featured the legations and white districts for multiple different white Western countries.  This means that because Pamela was technically a British citizen murdered on Chinese ground both the Chinese and the British police force had to be involved and work together in the investigation.  Officer Han and DCI Dennis certainly make for a unique investigation team.  In addition, Pamela’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Fox Tower, and this led to speculation about fox spirits, which in Chinese tradition show up as wily women.  Of course quickly the seedy underbelly of Peking is implicated, featuring a multicultural bunch of addicts, dope dealers, brothels, and more, and naturally some of the classy elite start to be implicated into that underworld as well.  Add in the fact that the Japanese invasion was encroaching and toss in the first rumblings of Communism, and it makes for a story that is impossible to not find fascinating.

French unfurls the story well.  He quotes only when it is fairly certain what was said, but summarizes scenes well.  A clear picture of both Pamela and Peking are rendered fairly early in the novel.  I also appreciate that he spent time at the end talking about what happened to all of the key players and discussing how all-encompassing the Japanese invasion were.  I think what he handled best though was presenting people as individuals and not representative of their race or nation or even class.  In a true crime as multicultural as this one, that is important.  It’s also nice that in a story that could have easily turned into victim blaming, which happens so often when the victim is a young woman, he eloquently avoids any hint of that:

Pamela wasn’t perfect; she was making the same mistakes many girls do when experimenting with their independence, their newfound power on men. Her tragedy was to encounter the wrong men, at just the wrong moment. (location 2834)

I did, however, feel that the beginning was a bit lacking.  It took a bit to truly get into the story.  A faster pace or a more clear this is where we are going set-up would have been nice.  At first it felt like the rather dull story of some poor little imperialist rich girl.  But that’s not the story at all.  The story is that of an adopted girl in a country where she just so happens to be the color of worldwide colonizers, but it is instead the story of a diverse group of people horrified by the brutal murder of a young woman by a diverse group of sick, twisted people.  It would be nice if that was more clear from the beginning.

Overall, this is a well-told, historic true crime novel that manages to avoid victim blaming and also embrace multiculturalism.  It will be of particular interest to anyone with a fascination for Chinese or WWII history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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