Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Review: On the Farm by Stevie Cameron

On the Farm by Stevie CameronOn the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women by Stevie Cameron, is a difficult book to read. Difficult because of the horrific crimes perpetrated by Robert Pickton, the suffering of the women and their families, and the failure of the police to adequately investigate the crimes early on in a case that was clearly the work of a serial killer. So much pain to wade through, and so much human filth.

White Trash Wonderland

The farm on which Pickton lived and slaughtered was a veritable magnet for the lowest scum on the face of the earth. With white trash royalty (Hells Angels) near-by to provide dead-enders with role models to look up to, you had a nearly endless supply of the kind of people who, to paraphrase Yves Lavigne, walk around with chunks of shit clinging to the hairs around their assholes. Low-bred criminals, drug addicts, and other assorted filth.

And while this very kind of rankism resulted in Pickton getting away with his crimes for so long, it absolutely has to be mentioned that many of the women who were lured to their deaths on his farm were also nasty pieces of work.

To take this rankism even further, filth can be sorted according to degrees of nastiness. At least two lowlifes procured women for Pickton. They would make an irresistible pitch to poor Downtown Eastside prostitutes, promising drugs and money if they came to Pickton's farm. And while it appears that the women doing the procuring did not know that Pickton was a murderer, they are certifiable scum for preying on such easy targets.

Because Pickton was surrounded by filth, it is inevitable that many of the people who relayed information to Stevie Cameron as she wrote this book were unreliable to some degree. Also, they maybe were conscious of the fact that they could paint a positive picture of themselves in their one shot at white trash immortality. As a result, you sense revisionist history coming through in some of the statements that are made. I lost track of the number of times that someone indicated that despite the fact that they spent countless hours on the farm, something they can't quite exactly pinpoint prevented them from ever eating the meat that Pickton produced. Right.

Cameron senses the unreliability of some of her sources of information and mentions when she feels their accounts may be less that truthful. But in a case where so many incomprehensible things took place, you may find yourself even questioning facts that have been confirmed beyond any doubt.

Weirder Than Fiction

You simply could not make up some of the weirdness that played out over the years on the Pickton farm—and here I am talking about events that predated the murders. For example, many years ago a number of insane asylums were in the direct vicinity of the Pickton farm and it is clear that poor old freak-boy grew up an emotionally damaged individual. Reeking of pig shit and shunned by other kids in the neighbourhood, the seeds of his murderous hatred no doubt were sown in those early years.

Cameron interviews countless people who knew Pickton, and she paints a picture of a truly freakish environment. Strange incidents were the norm for Pickton growing up, and there is little doubt that he is, in some ways, a very deranged person. This is not to imply that he is not completely culpable for his actions. And there was never any attempt by his lawyers to claim that he was criminally insane. Later in the book when readers are presented with verbatim exchanges between Pickton and a cell plant, and interviews with police interrogators, the utter strangeness of this freak of nature comes through in spades. His weird rambling speech patterns peppered with skewed aphorisms, non-sequiturs, and bizarre descriptions of how he views himself, really highlight him as an exceptionally weird creature.

But those early tales of his twisted upbringing will not lessen any of the loathing you will feel for this most repulsive and repugnant of individuals who does not truly belong to the human race. However, aside from likely wishing that he could be quickly exterminated and his existence erased from the records for all time, you may also find your hatred for Pickton has a strangely limited shelf life. As if you just can't waste the mind space necessary for such a low, sick animal.

However, you will almost inevitably feel a great deal of anger towards those whose job it is to solve crimes and protect the most vulnerable in society.

The Vancouver Police Department

After reading this book, you may be left with this impression: the degree of incompetence, ineptitude, and arrogance as demonstrated by the Vancouver police department (VPD) in this case, ranks them as one of the worst and most shameful police forces to ever exist. Their sneering arrogance and willful decision not to attach priority to a group of missing people may have indirectly cost countless women their lives.

To read the details of this incompetence and to know that these people are paid with tax dollars to protect us will quite possibly make you physically ill. The police forces in every society should care first and foremost for the weakest and least able to protect themselves.

But based on the facts in On the Farm, the VPD didn't. Their colossal, monumental and historical failure to adequately address the reports of missing women is difficult to comprehend. It is hard not to feel enraged when reading about the years when they disregarded and, according to the book, outright lied to the families of the missing women who literally begged them for assistance.

Cameron discusses the group in top management positions with the VPD who were more concerned with acting like petulant school girls than working to direct resources and instruct their force to solve this case. They had a world-renowned geographic profiler in Kim Rossmo working for them, but they refused to let him do his work. Work that could have led to the capture of Pickton. In this passage, Cameron gives an example of the pettiness that Rossmo had to deal with:
It was October 16, 1995, when Kim Rossmo stepped into the elevator at police headquarters at 2120 Cambie Street on his first day as a senior officer. One of his colleagues joined him. There were no words of congratulations; he didn't even say good morning. Instead the other man turned his back on him and stared at the corner as the elevator ascended. Wordlessly the two men left the elevator on the sixth floor, where top management worked, and walked to their own offices.

As Rossmo travelled to different parts of the world to share his expertise, his ignorant overlords in the VPD worked to undermine him because, according to the book, they were small-minded, jealous individuals. As a number of people point out in On the Farm, perhaps it is the fact that the VPD—like many of our police forces—was rammed full of individuals with only grade 12 educations that they were collectively so ignorant.

As early as 1991, the VPD were told straight up that a serial killer was at work in their city. This information was given to them by a group of expert profilers (including Rossmo). What did the police do with this information? Literally, we are told in the book, at that time, NOTHING was done to address this claim. Imagine the horror, grief, pain, and loss that they could have prevented if they had acted with all the urgency that such a reality should have dictated.

However, the police are not the only ones to blame. A lack of urgency also existed because we allow it. Because we are an extremely self-centred and selfish society—we're satisfied as long as things are going well for us personally. That other people are being slaughtered is meaningless to most of us.

As much as you may want to give the police the benefit of the doubt, it is difficult with the information that is presented in On the Farm. Cameron writes about Bill Hiscox, someone who alerted the police to the crimes he felt were likely going on at the Pickon farm:
The way Hiscox remembers the Pickton farm is that after he and Yelds talked about Willie Pickton and all the women's clothing that was strewn around the place, he began to believe that Willie might just be the person responsible for abducting the missing women. It's a strange coincidence, he told Leng [Wayne Leng, owner of missingpeople.net], that the police charged Pickton with the attempted murder of Sandra Gail Ringwald in 1997. And that was because of "all the girls that are going missing, and all the purses and IDs that are out there in his trailer and stuff."

Yes, amazingly, years before Pickton was finally caught, information as brazen and straightforward as this was presented to the police. But for whatever reason, they weren't able to act on it to a degree that would allow them to catch the murderer much sooner. And so the slaughter continued.

Not only did they not follow up on leads as extensively as they should have, but passages in the book highlight the fact that the police continually insinuated, or even stated outright, that the missing women were not worth the effort involved because they were often drug users and prostitutes:

When Val went to the police to report that Kerry was missing, they weren't interested. Don't worry, she was told. "She is probably off partying." Val couldn't believe what she was hearing. Every time she spoke to someone at the Vancouver Police department the response was the same—dismissive and indifferent. One of the receptionists, Val said later, told her that the women were "just junkies and hookers; don't waste our time."

And when they couldn't be further bothered, apparently they outright lied:

Months later Allan [Elaine Allan, who worked in a downtown Eastside drop-in centre] nagged Dickson [constable Dave Dickson] once too often, and he said he needed to talk to her privately. When they were alone, he said this was a little awkward for him but he felt he had to tell her—Tiffany [Tiffany Drew, one of the missing women] was fine, she was in a safe place, a recovery centre, in fact, but she didn't want to talk to Aschu or to Allan. Tiffany was afraid, he said, that she might start using drugs again if she saw people from her old life. Neither Allan nor Aschu was buying his story. It didn't ring true; Allan knew it couldn't be true. Why would Dave Dickson make this up? She couldn't understand it.
Soon after the women had reported Patty's disappearance to Cameron, a police officer, Ron Palta, joined the conversation. Marion was told that Patty had gone to Montreal. That couldn't be true, Marion thought in horror. In her whole life Patty had never left Vancouver except for a visit to Lake Cowichan, on Vancouver Island. The police had to be lying to her. She was sure her child was the victim of the serial killer who was taking women from the Downtown Eastside.

The Missing and Murdered Women

The most harrowing and intriguing passages of On the Farm contain the tales of the missing and murdered women. Cameron interviews countless family members and friends and the results are very moving and compassionate, but also free of the clichés that so easily could have been used. And in the pitiful and heart-wrenching stories of the women's lives and their descents into the hell of life on the Downtown Eastside, Cameron really pays tribute to them.

When reduced to generalizations it is easy for many people to dismiss the tragedy of these women's lives. Even the most sneering of the "everyone has a choice" crowd, who smugly assume that because they have a reasonable life, all others who have made bad decisions deserve scorn, ridicule and whatever comes their way—yes, even the most self-righteous of those individuals may be moved to see that everyone is worthy of respect and no one deserves what befell these women:
As always, the stories begin when the phone calls stop. The women who went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside called their families all the time. They called their children to wish them happy birthday. They called their mothers on Mother's Day and their sisters just to gossip. They phoned on Christmas and at New Year's if their families wouldn't let them come to visit. They kept in touch.

These tales are distressing and very tough to read. For example, the story of Cindy Beck:

In her teens Cindy became pregnant and decided to have the baby, a boy she called Tony. Unable to manage, she had to give up Tony for adoption, which must have seemed to her exactly what had to happen; after all, hadn't she been adopted too? She drifted west and fell into the company of people who used drugs; before long she was working as a prostitute to pay for her addictions. In the summer of 1996 her family travelled from Kitchener to Vancouver to look for her but couldn't find her. By the time Cindy disappeared none of her old friends would ever have recognized her; she was careworn, sick, destroyed. There was no hope left in her eyes, no tenderness in her smile. She had seen too much and lived too hard and there was no fight left in her.
Or the story of Janet Henry, who survived an attack by another one of Canada's vicious serial killers, only to have her life ended (quite likely) by Pickton:
His name was Clifford Olson. A vicious con artist and psychopath, he lived in a housing complex in Coquitlam during a killing spree that lasted eighteen months, from December 1980 until July 1981. A teenage girl he stalked and assaulted during this time was named Janet Henry; on at least one occasion he and another man dragged her into a car, fed her drugs—probably chloral hydrate, a knockout drug he used on children—and assaulted her. She was one of the few he attacked who survived, but in the late nineties, Janet Henry, who found herself working the Low Track in the Downtown Eastside, may heve met a different predator. She was reported missing on June 28, 1997, and is thought to have become another of Robert Pickton's victims, but he has not been formally charged with her murder.

A haunting sense of loss lingers in all these stories. Sometimes, you just can't believe what you are reading. One young woman named Diana Melnick disappeared only to become a millionaire months later after being named a beneficiary in her grandmother's will. But she never found out. Pickton was later charged with her murder.

Any Hope at All?

Amidst all the grief and horror, there is the occasional uplifting occurrence. In fact, Cameron weaves the story of Sandra Gail Ringwald throughout On the Farm. She survived an attack by Pickton at his farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Her story is perhaps the most uplifting and hopeful part of this whole sad saga.

And what she did to the scum Pickton will have you cheering:

Lisa Yelds was shocked by what had happened to her buddy [Robert Pickton] but thinks he was exaggerating the number of stitches. When she got there, she guessed he'd had about 150, many of them to repair two long stab wounds in one arm. As well as the stitches, the doctors had stapled the skin on his back to close a six-inch-long stab wound. The biggest job was repairing his throat and jaw. When Sandra Gail first slashed him [Robert Pickton] with the knife she found on the kitchen table, she cut him from ear to ear and then from his ear to his mouth. Not only had the knife entered his mouth, it had cut off the tops of some his teeth and part of his jawbone, so he had to have extensive dental work done, with bridges to connect the remaining teeth.
Cameron informs us at the end of the book that Sandra Gail Ringwald now leads a relatively happy and productive life and she is no longer addicted to drugs.

More Indignities

Cameron addresses head on the sick possibility of what Pickton may have done after he murdered his victims. Many people speculated that he may have fed the remains to the pigs on his farm. Well, that is not only possible, but after reading the details in this book, you would say very likely. The sicker realization is that he may have mixed ground human flesh in with the pork that he sold widely to butcher shops and to individuals throughout the area. The remains of a number of women were found in frozen packets of ground meat in freezers on his property.

Evil and monumentally bereft of anything decent that makes the rest of us human, Pickton almost assuredly dumped the remains of his victims at a rendering plant in Vancouver. And that means that the scope of this horror is even wider than anyone could have imagined. For rendering plants sell the oils derived from the fat of animals to be made into soap and cosmetics.

When you read information like this, the human mind truly cannot compute. It's as if you can feel something short-circuiting in your brain, as if all the qualities you hope are good about people are wiped out by such an incomprehensible thing. And then you think about the families of the murdered women who have to hear about this, who have to allow this enormous monstrosity to settle in to the corners of their minds for the rest of their lives. And then your rage against the Vancouver police department ratchets up another few degrees.

The Other Side

One of the only omissions in this book is the lack of police response to the criticisms against them for perpetrating what is depicted as one of the biggest failures in the history of modern policing. I assume that Cameron tried to get direct responses from representatives of the Vancouver police with regard to their actions. But aside from the public pronouncements the police made in which they came across as disingenuous and ridiculous, no one ever tries to provide a comprehensive and reasonable defense of police behaviour. Of course, this is probably because there isn't one.

Still, I would have liked to have read an interview conducted in which high ranking police were braced with blunt questions such as "How is it possible that your police force failed so monumentally and completely?" Or "How can people beg you for years to investigate their missing family members, and your only response is to be dismissive?"

All we get instead are the gutless deflections offered by police spokespersons:

He wasn't going to discuss the VPD's investigation of Pickton at this time, Driemel told them, but he did add, "I think there's a ton of misinformation out there. I wish I could sit you down, show you the entire timeline, every meeting and everything that was done, right from the inception of this whole process. I feel pretty good about it, but... it's tough, we just can't make it public. If you armchair it and quarterback it now, is there things we could have done or should have done or might have done more of? It's pretty hard to put today's judgment of an issue that was there yesterday. But from what I've seen, it looks like we were reasonably diligent as far as how we dealt with the resources that we had available and how it unfolded.

That a full inquiry will be conducted into the police investigation of Pickton is fantastic news.

Writing Style

On the Farm is an exceptionally well-written book. Like all the best non-fiction books, Cameron uses facts and interviews to present true-life characters so that they come to life on the pages. From the early days of Pickton's life, to the time when he started murdering women, you get a real sense for what pure, undiluted filth this person is. You can almost smell the rancid, repulsive smell of pig shit coming off him in waves as he stalks his prey and attracts other like-minded bags of absolute scum to his orbit.

While most readers will have at least a bare outline in their minds of what happened in this case, you will still find your self gripped by suspense as police finally wise up to Pickton and the investigation on the farm starts to take place. The amount of research that went into this book comes out in the details—in-depth interviews with families of the murdered women, descriptions of the crime scenes on the farm and the forensic work in the labs, and the court-room narrative that makes up the final chapters.

The book is almost flawlessly edited as well. Only a handful of sentences that don't have first-reading clarity appear throughout the entire 700-page book. I may have seen a single typo of note: "The retired mountie who had hunted down Clifford Olson in the 1960's..." Surely it was supposed to read "1980's."

Regardless of whether you followed the Pickton case as it was being covered in the mainstream media, you will likely be shocked by many of the things that you learn while reading this book. For example, as a final indignity to the families of the murdered and missing women, Pickton was shockingly found not guilty at his trial for first degree murder of six of the women. While he was found guilty of second degree murder and will never again know a day of freedom for the rest of his worthless life, the absence of a not-guilty verdict on the first degree murder charges is stunning.

It is easy to judge people while reading this book. Especially those who failed to realize a serial killer was at work and were unwilling or unable to put every resource possible towards stopping him. You may feel exhausted when you reach the final page because of such feelings. But in the same vein, the way a society treats its most vulnerable is a hallmark for judging that society. The lack of on an outcry by most of the rest of us while this was going on is also despicable.

The subject matter in On the Farm is handled with honour and grace that serve the memories and dignity of so many of the women who were murdered. A very engaging book that will pull you in and leave you emotionally hammered by the time you finish reading it, On the Farm instantly becomes one of the greats in the true crime genre.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Breaking Bad Season 3 Review and Analysis

Breaking Bad Season 3A sign of a great modern day TV serial is that it gets better with every passing season. The characters have more depth and nuance, the storylines become more complex and intriguing, and everything bleeds together in a fantastic mix of themes, suspense and tension.

Using that standard, Breaking Bad can now be considered one of the best crime dramas of the past few years. The third season has just wrapped up and AMC has renewed the show for a fourth season.

Happenings in the Third Season

Albuquerque, New Mexico is still reeling from the mid-air collision of two airplanes that was caused by Jane's air traffic controller father who was destroyed by her drug overdose death. Jesse is in rehab, getting clean but also developing a fatalistic, harder edge that will serve him well.

Walt White's meth cooking activities ramp up to a new level. He gets more involved with the local drug kingpin Gus Fring (fast food chicken chain owner and local drug distribution king) and essentially goes for broke in terms of making as much money as he can in the time that he has remaining. Walt at first tries to tell Fring he wants to quit cooking, but in that long standing crime drama cliché, Fring and his thugs won't let him out.

Fring offers Walt $3 million dollars for 3 months of cooking and Walt at first turns down the amount. However, it isn't long before Walt goes for the dough, and later negotiates a longer-term deal worth $15 million per year.

Skyler (Walt's wife) knows for certain that Walt is a drug dealer, though she initially thinks he is only dealing marijuana. She claims that she wants a divorce, starts having an affair with her boss, but then starts having second thoughts. Later, she accepts Walt's involvement in the drug trade and the money that goes along with it.

A pair of evil twin brothers (known as The Cousins) from Mexico make their way towards New Mexico, and based on some wild-ass mysticism BS, there is little doubt that they are on a mission to sort out Heisenberg/Walt. The brothers are the cousins of Tuco, who was killed by Hank in season one. The twins figure out through some divination that Walt is the one they should kill to avenge their cousin's death. Later, they are also on the trail of Hank.

Saul, Walt's lawyer, is also in deep with Fring, and lets him know that Skyler is hip to Walt's involvement in the drug trade. This is the impetus for one of Fring's thugs (Mike) to start keeping tabs on Skyler.

Hank Schrader starts obsessing over the blue meth that is once again flooding the region thanks to Walt's production and Fring's distribution. He does some serious police work and tracks down the RV that Walt and Jesse Pinkman had used to cook meth.

While Hank is genuinely interested in finding the link to Heisenberg (Walt) and the meth dealers in the region, he also uses it as a way to avoid another promotion that would require he do work near the Texas/Mexico border. He tracks down Jesse and Walt as they are about to have the RV destroyed at a wrecking yard. Unknown to Hank, Walt is locked inside the RV with Jesse.

Hank receives a phone call telling him that his wife is in the hospital and he races off, allowing Walt and Jesse to have the RV destroyed. Later, Hank lays a severe beating on Jesse and is suspended from the force as a result. However, he receives a reprieve when Saul realizes that it would be in his best interest for Jesse to drop any charges against Hank.

In one of the most intense scenes in season three, Hank takes out the The Cousins, killing one, and slicing off the legs of the other with his SUV. But he also gets shot numerous times and is hospitalized for the remainder of the season.

A back and forth takes place between Walt and Jesse as their friendship sours, followed by the expected cool peace as they start cooking together in the state of the art lab that has been built beneath the industrial laundry that is part of Fring's fast food operation. When Walt first starts cooking in the new lab, Fring provides an assistant, the good-natured Gale. When Walt patches things up with Jesse and brings him back into the cooking fold, Gale is out.

Through one of those wild coincidences that come up in dramas (and for which audiences are fully accepting when the quality of the show is so high) Jesse hooks up with the sister (Andrea) of the youngster who shot Jesse's friend, Combo, in season two. As Andrea talks about how her 11 year-old brother Tomas is already lost to drug dealing, Jesse deduces who the drug dealers are who killed Combo.

Jesse's resulting dispute with the drug dealers causes him to get turfed from the cooking operation, and Gale is brought back in as Jesse's replacement. Despite an attempt at a truce between the drug dealers and Jesse brokered by Fring and Walt, the drug dealers murder 11 year-old Tomas.

In the penultimate episode of the season, Jesse heads out one night to avenge the death of Combo and Tomas. Armed and prepared for whatever comes his way, he stalks towards the drug dealers near the same corner where Combo was blown away. However, at the last moment Walt takes out the drug dealers with his car, and then blows apart the skull of one of the creeps as he lays dying on the street. Jesse is now on the run from Fring, and Walt senses his days are numbered as well.

The season ends as Walt is taken one night by Mike and another one of Fring's thugs to the lab at the industrial laundry facility. The ostensible reason given to Walt is that there has been some problem at the lab that needs to be sorted out, but he is convinced that he being set up and will be killed. A frantic phone call to Jesse and the season closes as Jesse heads to Gale's apartment and shoots Gale (or does he?). Whether or not Gale is dead, Walt may learn that Gale was in fact looking out for him, and the reason provided for taking him to the lab late at night may well have been legitimate.

Cranston is Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston as Walter White continues to be the force that drives this show forward. Great acting on Cranston's part was on display again this year although the character of Walt White flattened out somewhat. White was in a constant state of unrelieved anxiety, and any internal conflict that he experienced was dealt with in one way: doing whatever a ruthless, money-grubbing piece of filth involved in the drug trade would do to protect himself.

This callous, do-whatever-it-takes and continue to shock the audience that such an apparently decent person is in it up to his neck and is going to out-nasty the real bad guys, has been part of White's character throughout the three seasons.

No saccharine sentiments or schlock to be had. White wants to be a nasty piece of work, and so it comes to pass that he is. He maintains the sympathies of the audience because we know he feels guilt, and there has to be a tipping point. There has to be a moment when some kind of revelation changes his character to a degree that will carry the show spiraling off towards its final conclusion. It's not quite there yet, but it's getting close. He either pulls back and seeks redemption (likely) or he breaks completely and is irrevocably changed.

While actor Aaron Paul, who plays Jessie Pinkman, doesn't have the chops of Cranston, he demonstrated some impressive acting in the third season—range that he really didn't have in the first two seasons of Breaking Bad.

Dean Norris, who plays Hank Schrader, also had an increasingly major role to play and he should be back with a force and playing a major part of the story in the fourth season.

Unfortunately, some of the other regulars really didn't have a chance to be part of the major action this season. Walt's wife, Skyler, really seemed to have a diminished role this season, despite the amount of time she spent on the screen. Her waffling on Walt's involvement in the drug trade, and her equivocating on whether to seek a divorce became tiresome after a while. Still, there were some great scenes between Walt and Skyler in which the familial conflict ratchets up.

Sour Notes

While Breaking Bad is a superb show, it is far from perfect. In the third season, as in past seasons, there were a number of examples of script transparency. In those instances, it is so brazenly obvious what the writers of the show were trying to do, that the results are awkward and cack-handed.

The clearest example of this was The Cousins, who made an early appearance in season three and were a major part of the plot for the first seven episodes. There might as well have been a text introduction flashed on the screen that said: "Now, we want you to know these two are bad. They are nasty. They are so bad that you are not going to believe it."

And they were correct. I simply didn't buy it. With no resistance early on, the badness of these two mostly fell flat and left me snickering on more than one occasion. The choice of twins was likely also an indirect metaphor for the duality—good vs. evil, internal conflict, two sides to everyone's character etc.,—that has been a theme throughout the show (although they were identically evil and there was no real difference between them).

The fact that these two were supposed to be two of the hardest, nastiest individuals to ever walk the face of the earth was telegraphed in such a contrived and absurd way, that any part of the story in which they were involved became somewhat clichéd and annoying. The only exception is in episode seven in which Hank blows one of the twin's skulls apart and slices off the legs of the other with his SUV. Now, if the intent all along was to use these two walking clichés to build up to that one particular scene—one of the most riveting and intense in the series so far, and easily the best scene not involving Walt White—then OK, job accomplished!

While the creators of this show no doubt have the plot arc for the remainder of the show all mapped out, they are probably flexible and likely adapt on the fly when certain storylines don't seem to be working out or generating the suspense that they initially expected. I'm guessing that they too saw the absurdity that these clowns had turned into.

Wild Speculation

Numerous unresolved issues will no doubt be dealt with in the next two seasons (which is what I expect will take the show to its conclusion).

First, the fact that Walt witnessed the death of Jesse's girlfriend, Jane, and did nothing to save her will have to be sorted out. This is either going to be the point on which Walt seeks salvation or the spark that will cause an explosion between Walt and Jesse that cannot be patched over.

Walt's actions on that fateful evening, which saw Jane expire and ultimately led to the collision of the two airplanes, have been eating away at him ever since. And he came close to confessing to Jesse in the third season.

I expect that further details of that night in which he broke into Jesse's house and witnessed Jane choking to death on her own vomit in a drug overdose will be revealed. Maybe a flashback scene in which something further is revealed. Someone the audience didn't previously see perhaps witnessed the scene. Or maybe something much simpler such as Jesse reconstructing the events of that night in his mind and realizing that things aren't quite right.

The issue of Walt's cancer has two components that have to be resolved before the show finishes its run. It has been alluded to a number of times that Walt's cancer may be a result of the years he worked as a chemist developing products that made his former colleagues wealthy. I expect this storyline to be picked up in season four.

I can't see the focus of season four being solely on the machinations of the cooking and the drug operations conducted by Fring and his thugs. In keeping with the trend of this show to expand the scope of the drug dealing every season, I can imagine that the final step will see some link made between the former organization for which Walt worked and the world of illegal drugs in which he is now involved.

It may be as simple as highlighting some of the destruction wreaked by large organizations as compared to the world of illegal drugs that always generates disproportionately more heat. Or, we could see the characters from season one, Walt's former partner and his wife who Walt was involved with romantically many years ago, somehow worked back into the story.

Of course, Hank will return to the police force and take up his case against the meth dealing in Albuquerque and the surrounding regions. Is there a bent copper on the force who is helping Fring to remain untouched?

A show that really takes chances and isn't scared to send characters careening off in unexpected directions, season four of Breaking Bad is likely to contain the great writing, acting, and suspense that the audience has come to expect.

Read a review of the first two seasons of Breaking Bad

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Movie Review: The Honeymoon Killers

The Honeymoon KillersHow do audience members rate verisimilitude in the films they watch? We sometimes say that a certain film has a realistic feel to it. A certain visceral impression that the situations in the film could have happened just the way they are presented to us.

Maybe low production values combined with a decent story contribute to an authentic feel. And sometimes even the passage of time may allow that tangible sense of "real" to creep into a movie.

Or perhaps because of the fact that so many of the films we watch are churned out by Hollywood, the good, non-Hollywood ones that come along are so jarringly different in comparison that we are inclined to attach the authentic label to them.

Regardless, filtered through the lens of movie-speak and other suspension of disbelief aspects, there is something about particular films that strikes us as being somehow more real or believable than others.

Twisted Relationship

A refreshing and unusual movie released in 1970, The Honeymoon Killers, starring Sharon Stoler and Tony Lobianco, has that raw, unpolished feel that contributes to its memorable quality and, at times, sense of realism.

Stoler plays Martha Beck, a damaged woman who has never known love, and as a result has become a bitter, angry individual. But she still shows glimpses of warmth: when she tries to soothe herself and when she finally does find someone to love her. But a twisted love it is.

Martha meets the essence of seediness: a swarthy, shameless lothario—Lobianco as Ray Fernandez—who is creepiness distilled into its purest form. Yet he possesses the uncanny knack that so many predators have: preying on the weak and lonely.

Ray responds to a letter that Martha writes to a lonely hearts dating agency. He spins some horribly clichéd missives professing his love for her. But of course, he really wants to use up Martha and throw her away. She senses this and homes in on that predatory element in him, nurtures it, and makes it a part of who they become together.

After a few meetings, Ray tells Martha that she was just one of many. He regularly writes to women who advertise in the lonely hearts pages of newspapers. He shows romantic interest and then tries to suck them dry financially. Instead of showing revulsion and disgust at what he does, and the fact that she was one of his targets, Martha gets involved with his scams. She tags along as his "sister" when Ray meets up with his victims.

Sick, Murderous Little Vignettes

A series of simmering, twisted, and sad vignettes in which Martha's jealousy and the vulnerability of the women being set up make for good drama. It also provides a painful look at the lonely lives that so many people lead, and what can happen because of that desperation.

The swindles get nastier and more ruthless, and Martha and Ray start murdering their prey. There really is never any doubt how things will turn out, but the situations can be at times intense, and the growing warped relationship between Ray and Martha creates a great deal of voyeuristic appeal. As some couples bond through a life of ups and downs and various challenges, a twisted yet real love seems to develop between these two pathological freaks.

The Honeymoon Killers features two of the most harrowing murder scenes you will ever see. The banal, bathetic manner in which Martha and Ray destroy their victims is part of the power of this film. It switches from black humour and near farce to ruthless, nasty violence in a heartbeat. But they are so wrapped up in the surreal world that they have created that it is all rationalized away with little effort.

Absurdity and Realism Mix Well

While there is that sense of realness about the film, it also has an absurdist quality about it. And after all, since reality is absurd so much of the time, this aspect of the movie is very appropriate. The film is "based on a true story," but as with most such claims, and especially regarding obscure crimes that happened so long ago and for which there is little historical evidence, it's hard to say how true to life this movie is. That's not important though.

The movie was ahead of its time, or at least not in sync with its time, in terms of editing and pace. It ticks along and jumps from scene to scene in a way that will appeal to the move-goer of today who has little time for long, drawn out scenes and extended dialogue.

A tale about how far some people will go to alleviate the loneliness and existential drudgery that plague their bleak lives. The Honeymoon Killers will seem gratuitous and exploitative to some but others will enjoy the film's haunting, bleak depiction of a strange murderous little world.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Movie Review: Out of the Past

Out of the Past Mitchum"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."

The fact that we can never escape our past is a theme in countless crime dramas.

Out of the Past, a 1946 crime noir starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, is an early example of just how powerful that theme can be. A lean, cool movie with all the backstabbing, moral ambiguity, and hopeless fatalism that you could hope for.

Mitchum plays the nihilistic, unflappable Jeff Markham, who has changed his name to Jeff Bailey and opened a petrol station in a small town in California. Markham was previously a private investigator in New York before accepting a case that forced him to take it on the lam and change his identity. A former associate passes through town looking for Markham, and quickly finds him. Markham registers little emotion as he sees Joe Stephanos waiting for him at his petrol station.

In fact, no character in this film so much as flinches when some bit of nastiness comes down the pipes; only perhaps the odd flash of rage when things really heat up. The more likely reaction to any horrific piece of news is not real fear, excitement or worry. No, lighting a cigarette is always the most logical thing to do!

Stephanos wants Markham to go to meet Whit Sterling, played by Kirk Douglas. Markham agrees, and a few days later he sets off to Lake Tahoe with his girlfriend Ann. On the ride up to meet the heavy from out of the past, Markham regales Ann (and isn't it always the case that the second-choicer in any Hollywood flick is very attractive in her own right, but is always missing that certain something that the lead actress has?) with the tale of what led him to this point. And so begins the classic extended flashback scene that is so often a part of crime noir flicks.

The Extended Flashback

Seems that a number of year ago Sterling sent Markham after his woman, Kathie Moffet, who had taken off after pilfering 40 thousand dollars of Sterling's money. She also put a slug in his guts before skipping town. Markham took the gig to find her and wound up in Mexico, that teeming city of millions of people. Within that sprawling mass of humanity, Markham quickly found Moffet.

And she instantly knows why he is there but plays along. She casually drops the fact that she knows his real intentions after they kiss on the beach one night. He similarly doesn't flinch when she tells him this. Instantly enamored with each other, they start trading cryptic, double entendres, and acting nihilistic and doomed.

When they meet on the beach for the second time, they engage in some of the memorable dialogue that is part of the film.

"I didn't know you were so little."

"I'm taller than Napolean."

"You're prettier too."

Markham's character demonstrates one of the many truisms that is part of the slow suicide shadow world that exists in great crime noirs. You might as well just try to take a woman like she's yours for the taking. Perhaps you'll get humiliated by rejection, but it's better than acting like a castrated loser who will get humiliated anyway.

Still in the extended flashback scene, Markham and Moffet leave Mexico after Sterling gets hip to what they are up to—Sterling and Stephanos show up at the door of Markham's bungalow in Acapulco wearing their New York suits. Markham and his new dame head to California and try to start over in San Francisco. Markham's former partner—Fisher— sees him at a racetrack one day, and then locates him and Moffet at a cabin in the woods a few days later.

Of course, in Out of the Past nothing is ever what it seems. But still, it's not all that surprising to Markham or the audience when we find out Kathie has been stringing Markham along. The sly look on Moffet's face as she shoots Fisher during a standoff in the cabin tells you that there is more to her than we have seen so far. She drives off and leaves Markham with Fisher's corpse and a bankbook that she dropped, which reveals evidence of the 40 thousand dollars she had been insisting she never stole.

Out of the Past

Back now to the present, as Markham concludes the retelling of his past to Ann, and they pull up in front of Sterling's mansion in Lake Tahoe. Ann drives off back to Bridgeport and leaves Markham alone to casually walk back into whatever Sterling has waiting for him. And what a non-shocker when Markham reacquaints himself with Sterling, and Moffet waltzes into the room and rears her sultry viper head.

A great twisting plot plays out over the rest of Out of the Past. Sterling and Moffet try to reel Markham back in so that they can use him to take the fall for the murder of someone who was trying to lean on them. Turns out they will also try to pin Fisher's unsolved murder on him—Moffet has conveniently fingered Markham in a written confession that they have tucked away in a safe.

The audience knows, and Markham knows, that Moffet is a nasty piece of work who will do whatever it takes to come out on top. Like most crime noirs, despite the ostensible lack of morals of most of the characters, this is in fact a morality play. Markham susses out that he is in some kind of frame-up, but goes along because he feels there is no other choice. Maybe he will right some wrongs, and see the scum who tried to ruin his life suffer in the process.

Great Lines

Some great lines throughout the movie in the crime noir/gangster/movie talk tradition:

"A dame with a rod [gun] is like a guy with a knitting needle."

Markham to Sterling and his thug when they find Markham in Mexico and sense that he may not be telling the truth: "Let's go down to the bar. You can cool off while we try to impress each other."

A cabbie to Markham: "You look like you're in trouble."


"Because you don't act like it."

"I think I'm in a frame."

Moffet and Markham in one of their many great exchanges: "I don't want to die."

"Neither do I. But if I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die last."

And Sterling to Moffet as everything starts to unravel near the end of the film: "I took you back when you came whimpering and crawling. I should have kicked your teeth in."

Along with the twisting, murky plot, the classic lines and the great performances, the cinematography adds a dark, shadowy (chiaroscuro), evocative feeling to Out of the Past.

One of the classic early crime noir movies that still packs heat and delivers the goods.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book Review: The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

The Executioner's SongOccasionally in life, certain elements conspire, and individuals are cast into exceptional situations. With the glare of the spotlight, and the realization that their every move in a bizarre drama is being chronicled for posterity, the players often step up, and are so thrilled that they have the starring roles in their own real-time soap opera watched by millions, that something surreal happens. A strange hybrid of "reality" plays out that makes you question the motives, observations, and sanity of all those involved.

So it is with The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer. The book details two murders committed by Gary Gilmore in Utah in 1976 and the lead-up to his execution by firing squad less than a year later.

This is probably the best true crime book that I have ever read. While the actual crimes are not remotely as intriguing as the Manson murders detailed in Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, the stunning amount of information presented, and the writing of Norman Mailer, ranks it above that other true crime classic.

The book is split into two main parts: the details surrounding Gilmore's attempt to reintegrate into society and the ultimate failure to achieve that—the two murders he commits—and the period of Gilmore's incarceration leading up to his execution by firing squad in early 1977.

Nasty Piece of Work

Gary GilmoreIn the early part of the book, Gilmore comes across as what I feel he truly was—a worthless white trash criminal who was violent, ignorant, and unable to fit into society in any way. The smallest slight would push Gilmore to the edge, and he was quick to look for ways to get revenge on those who did not give him the respect that he felt he deserved. Despite all his talk of jail-house honour codes, he was gutless in many ways. In one incident, he challenged a co-worker to a fight and then punched the man in the back of the head as they were heading outside to settle things.

Enjoyably, Gilmore still got his head literally ground into the concrete in that dust-up. Similarly pleasing to read about is another incident in which Gilmore finally does engage in the closest thing to a fair fight, and promptly gets his face split open as he is dropped to the ground with a single punch. While no doubt a fearsome individual, Gilmore is nothing more than a contemptible coward. In an anecdote Gilmore told numerous times, he walks up behind an inmate sitting on a chair, and drives a hammer into his head. In still another attempt at impressing people with his tough guy credentials, he brags about a two-on-one attack on an inmate using pipes. Whether these tales are true is irrelevant (how easy would it be for an inmate to get his hands on a hammer?): what a man wants to be admired for is very telling.

Gilmore suffered that singular trait that seems to afflict all small-time hoods: a complete inability to delay gratification. After being released from prison to start his life again in Utah with the help of his extended family, he quickly highlights himself as a petulant man-child as he demands the accoutrements of life that take most people many years to acquire. He does make an attempt to some limited degree after he gets assistance in finding work. But he quickly lets people down, becomes a serial shop-lifter, and develops a bizarre fixation for buying a used pick-up truck. When the frustration of trying to function in society becomes too much, Gilmore murders two people in as many days to, as he says, "relieve the pressure."

Throughout the entire book, Gilmore not once expresses remorse for the killings. Sure, he talks about wanting to be executed so that he can "pay the price," but that always comes across as a desire to escape the horrors of prison that he had come to know so well. Gilmore apparently even had an aversion to mentioning the victims' names. Once, when responding to written questions, he repeatedly misspells the name of one of the men he killed.

White Trash Romeo and Juliet?

Nicole Baker BarrettA major part of the book focuses on Gilmore's brief affair with Nicole Baker Barrett, a single mother he meets shortly after arriving in Provo, Utah. Together, they are some of the lowest, seediest pieces of pure white trash you will ever read about. The essence of filth distilled into its purest essence. Barrett is presented as one of the most shameless sluts that you will ever encounter in either fiction or non-fiction. She essentially fucks whatever walks. For example, prior to meeting Gilmore, she sleeps with a man who picks her up while hitch-hiking, and then promptly marries him.

But that alone is not enough to engender contempt for a hard-done by young woman who had few opportunities in life, and was used and abused by many. In one episode, she tells a man that she will kill him if he brings charges against Gilmore for attacking him. All the while she demonstrates a sad, despicable neglect towards her children. This does not mean that she is not worthy of sympathy—she is. But it seems to be a sympathy far too easily doled out for the simple fact that she is a very attractive woman. Just imagine what kind of condemnation she would have received if she had been fat and haggard?

Her affair with Gilmore was incredibly short—it spanned a few months immediately before he slaughtered his victims. During that time, they fought, Gilmore beat her a few times, and then she turfed him out of the house they shared. It was only after he committed the murders and was sentenced to death that their supposed love for each other reached such mythical heights in both their minds.

The appeal of melodrama played out for the whole world, and some horrible, cringe-worthy love letters (when aren't other people's love letters cringe-worthy?) seemed to convince Barrett that the scum-of-the-earth Gilmore was the love of her life. I'm not buying it. This was a romance that only became so passionate under the glare of the media lights and the realization that a certain twisted kind of immortality beckoned if the roles were played to perfection. The ex post facto spin put on her feelings as they are detailed in the book just doesn't wash with me. Entertaining, yes. But anyone who is given the opportunity to be interviewed by one of the greatest writers of our era, and then to have her story presented to the world, cannot help but cast things in a romanticized light.

Locked-up and Sentenced to Death

Gilmore comes across much differently as the book shifts to his time in prison after the murders. Numerous people refer to him as intelligent, and he seems to have an inordinate amount of respect from guards in the prison. While he is very literate and can write fairly well as evidenced by his letters to Nicole, I can't agree with the intelligent label. The guts to push this situation to its conclusion by demanding that his death sentence be carried out is somewhat admirable, but then, his utterly senseless murdering spree negates any positive feelings you may have towards the creep.

Though I question those claims by numerous people in the book that Gilmore was intelligent, he was indeed a master manipulator. After Gilmore is locked up, and there is some doubt that the execution will go ahead, he convinces Barrett that they both should commit suicide on a designated date. His life is wasted, and so he sets his mind to gaslighting Barrett in the hopes that she will off herself. They both make the attempt and both survive. And while it seems pretty clear that Barrett made a legitimate try, Gilmore's attempt seemed half-hearted. You are left with the sense that he had every intention of surviving and hoping that Baker succeeded, content that he could then be executed knowing she would never be with another man.

Plausible but Unprovable

Much of the second half of the book focuses on the machinations of acquiring interview deals, literary rights, and the court wrangling that took place as Gilmore fought for the right to have the state follow through with his death sentence. Specifically, the efforts of Larry Schiller take centre stage. Schiller is a writer and producer with a knack for getting on top of sensationalistic stories and gaining the trust of those involved (or at least convincing them that he will bring them the most money and publicity).

Together with all the legal battles, Gilmore's reactions and public pronouncements, and the effect of the murders on many of the book's supporting characters, the reader gets a pretty honest and in-depth look at how Schiller finagles and operates. We also learn about Schiller's feelings through the entire ordeal, how he is conflicted by various aspects, and how he tries to spin his image to the world-wide media.

Schiller employs the help of Barry Farrell, a professional writer, to assist in putting together interviews that could then be sold to various media outlets during the period of publicity before the execution. As someone trying to explore the issue in as much detail as possible, the reasoning that Farrell engages in to see something positive in Gilmore may grate on some. But at the same time, he offers the most intriguing and thought provoking musings on Gilmore.

Despite the numerous interviews with Gilmore (some by proxy through the lawyers that Gilmore had hired to ensure that the execution was carried out), he gave away very little information about his childhood. However, Farrell synthesizes an intriguing thesis that comes together regarding Gilmore and what he was all about.

Numerous facts may lead some to believe that Gilmore was more than just a small time punk and a ruthless murderer. First, Gilmore repeatedly refers to Barrett as his elf, and talks about her child-like features. Then, at one point, after he has been incarcerated for the murders, Gilmore asks for a book of photographs that could be construed as appealing to pedophiles. And while he was with Barrett, they started having a ménage à trois with an underage teenaged-girl. Finally, some second hand reports from those who had known Gilmore claim that he had once admitted to both being raped in reform school and also committing rapes against other young men while there. And then these observations from Barry Farrell:
Farrell passed it by and then came back. That little elucidative light one depended upon was flickering again. Yes. Could it be said that Gilmore's love for Nicole oft depended on how childlike she could seem? That elf with knee-length socks, so conveniently shorn—by Gilmore—of her pubic locks. Those hints in the letters of hanky panky with Rosebeth, the rumble with Pete Galovan [he had questioned Gilmore on his approach to the underage daughter of a friend]. Barry nodded. You could about say it added up. There was nobody in or out of prison whom hardcore convicts despised more than child molesters. The very bottom of the pecking order. What if Gilmore, so soon as he was deprived of Nicole, so soon as he had to live a week without her, began to feel impulses that were wholly unacceptable? What if his unendurable tension (of which he had given testimony to every psychiatrist who would listen) had had something to do with little urges? Nothing might have been more intolerable to Gilmore's idea of himself. Why, the man would have done anything, even murder, before he'd commit that other kind of transgression. God, it would even account for the awful air of warped nobility he seemed to extract from his homicides. Barry felt the woe of late discovery. He could not say a word about this now. It was too unsubstantial. In fact, it was sheer speculation. If Gilmore was willing to execute himself for such a vice, assuming it was his vice—beware of understanding the man too quickly!—then let him at least die with dignity of his choice. In fact, how much could a word like dignity conceal?
This speculation goes no further but it is highly compelling.

The significance of the Gilmore case can't be overstated. At that time, it marked the first execution in the US after a ten-year break. It also signaled the beginning of a wave of state-sanctioned killings that really has not abated to this day.

Bizarre Facts: A Murderer Named Fay

Aside from the legal importance of the case, and the prurient interest of the details, there are some strange facts that come out in this book. A nasty, sociopathic, cold-blooded killer, Gilmore's real name as it appears on his birth certificate was apparently "Fay." In some odd way, that makes Gilmore seem even more sinister.

Also, the claim is made on a few occasions that Gilmore may have been the grandson of Harry Houdini:
Fay [Gilmore's grandmother on his father's side] and Frank [Gilmore's father] talked about the man, however, like they knew him intimately. Listening to their conversation, Betty [Gilmore's mother, usually called Bessie] had to conclude that Houdini had given Fay the money to send Frank to private school. Then she remembered that Houdini was killed by a boy who hit him in the stomach with a baseball bat, and Frank had told her that his Jewish father, whose name was Weiss, had been killed by a blow to the belly. Then she learned that Houdini's original name was Weiss, and he was Jewish too.
This is referred to briefly a number of other times as well, but it is never confirmed by Mailer. Just another odd factoid in an extremely troubled and wasted life.

Mailer Was a Master

As far as the writing goes, this is a stunning piece of work. The labour that went into extracting the information was performed by Mailer through numerous in-person and telephone interviews, and by Larry Schiller, the producer and writer who acquired the literary rights to many of the key players in the whole twisted drama.

While Mailer engages in very little editorializing (though no doubt there is some in a 1000-page book), inevitably the interviews and commentary have to lead the reader somewhere. At times I felt that somehow the individuals in this seedy drama come off as more complex and sympathetic because of the simple eloquence of Mailer's writing.

Then there is the problem that afflicts every non-fiction book. How do we know how accurate the depiction of events really is? Mailer addresses this question directly in the afterword when he states that numerous discrepancies arose between different people's re-telling of events. And of course, every person has a subjective view of what took place—did Mailer latch on to the most believable presentations of "facts"? Or did he head into the project with a thesis that he was eager to see confirmed by the interviews he conducted? Impossible to say. These are inherent aspects of any reportage. But it is certain that the quality of writing lends plausibility to the book.

There are some flaws in The Executioner's Song if you look hard enough. For example, one lengthy passage that depicts the supposed thoughts of Nicole's younger sister comes off as incredibly contrived. But then, I've rarely, if ever, read an author who is able to convincingly depict the thoughts of someone who is mentally ill. As far as the length, some readers may feel that Mailer includes too much detail—this is really down to personal preference. I enjoyed every last passage, nuance, and angle that resulted in over 1000 pages. The writing is lean and straightforward, and like many of the greats who employ such an approach (though important to note that Mailer wrote much denser prose in some of his other works), there is so much more here than this kind of style might initially lead you to believe.

Shot in the Heart

It is perplexing that a man could throw his life away for such meaningless and horrible crimes. After finishing the book, you are no closer to understanding why Gilmore chose to randomly destroy so many lives. The only defense that Gilmore ever offers is this written response to a question from Schiller and Farrell submitted via Gilmore's lawyers:
I never felt so terrible as I did in that week before I was arrested. I had lost Nicole. It hurts so fucking bad that it was becoming physical—I mean I couldn't hardly walk, I couldn't sleep I didn't hardly eat, I couldn't drown it. Booze didnt' even dull it. A heavy hurt and loss. It got worse every day. I could feel it in my heart... I could feel the ache in my bones. I had to go on automatic to get thru the day.
And it grew into a calm rage.
And I opened the gate and let it out.
But it wasn't enough.
It would have gone on and on.
More Jenkins [his name was actually Jensen, but in this written answer to a question and in numerous other ones, Gilmore misspells it], more Bushnells.
It didn't make any sense—

At least this is more than the "I don't know" Gilmore usually offered up. In essence, his version of a hissy fit was murdering innocent people. And so, regardless of whether you are for or against capital punishment, it's hard to feel any remorse as the bullets rip through Gilmore's heart and deliver him into eternity.

Though the conclusion of the book is no surprise, the impending execution of Gilmore as it plays out in the book is as full of tension as if it were taking place today. You will find it hard not to at least give credit to Gilmore for having the conviction to push his desire to the final self-destructive conclusion. For there is little doubt that, with a word, Gilmore could have set the appeal process in motion and had his sentence reduced to life in prison. The execution itself is surreal, a combination of sick, exhilarated spectators and apparently last-minute considerations that saw an old desk in which Gilmore was strapped to, and a seedy, rancid old mattress placed behind him to absorb the bullets that tore through his heart.

Regardless of how you feel about Gary Gilmore, once he has been executed, due to the power of this book, you feel that a strange force has left the world.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mass Murder: 2010 and Beyond

Another mass murder that is briefly acknowledged and then forgotten. The coverage is muted because we have become so accustomed to the explosive and sudden slaughter of numerous human beings.

Newspaper reports about mass murders include the details of the slaughter and sometimes mention the apparent ho-hum response that such stories now seem to receive. It's only when a new record is set for deaths in a single episode that we take notice for any length of time.

To be clear, when I talk about mass murder here, I am generally referring to instances where someone (or a pair, or group of people) kill four or more people in one geographic location within a relatively short period of time. There is a categorical difference between a killer whose murders are spread out over a number of days and wider location—the proper term to describe these kinds of killers is actually "spree killer." At the same time, I won't include mass murder carried out for political reasons, either by the state or by a terrorist group.

Within the narrative that usually plays out, there are two main types of killings: those who target their victims, and those who are more random in the people they kill. Think of the killer who murdered 35 people at Virginia Tech a few years ago as falling into the latter category. While the most recent case in the US state of Virginia in January 2010 appears to be the targeted killing of people that the murderer knew. However, you could say that even the so-called "random" killings are somewhat targeted, as a particular group is usually the focus.

The current lack of public surprise caused by every subsequent mass murder is due to how familiar we now are with such acts of violence. Perhaps we even have an inkling of understanding of why people choose to end things this way. Because the reality is that every mass murderer had a reason for doing what he did. No matter how delusional, criminally murderous, and flat out wrong his rationale, he still had a reason.


Why do people commit mass murder? Aside from the excellent information provided in this article, here are some possible societal reasons that contribute to mass murders.

First and foremost, a growing alienation in society brought on by globalization, the institutionalization of life, and fewer and fewer opportunities to take part in communal events, or in fact to have any sense of community whatsoever.

More and more people now work within large corporations and are meaningless cogs in the system. They have little or no control over their day-to-day lives. The fact that many mass murders take place in large, clinical organizations is no coincidence. The term "going postal" originates from the fact that so many mass murders have taken place in post offices or other sterile environments where individual workers have little say in their work lives. These institutions are a microcosm of society in general.

When there is sense of hopelessness, when a person is one of those cogs, and they feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have been treated badly, what easier—albeit warped—way to confirm in their minds that they can have an effect on things than to go on a murderous rampage and then commit suicide.

Another reason is the decline of religious beliefs. Don't get me wrong here—I am no proponent of organized religion or the beliefs it represents. (Or simply call it the increased isolation of many people, and the lack of collective morals and beliefs.)

Try to put yourself inside the mind of someone who has been pushed to the breaking point. If you have decided to check out of your miserable life, and you have been abused, belittled, or humiliated on a regular basis, why wouldn't you bring pain, misery and death down on those who made your life a living hell? If someone feels they are simply going to blink out of existence when it's all over, a lack of a belief in a fairy-tale afterlife where all accounts are settled is one less obstacle holding them back from evening the score.

Common decency, personal morals, a sense of right of wrong, and the realization that murder is a whole lot worse than betrayals, lies, and ridicule should be enough to prevent someone from committing mass murder. But what if someone has been cheated, used, or robbed of their life savings? At some point, any sense that a person can move on must get extinguished in certain individuals. And no doubt humiliation and mockery are often part of the mix. Being laughed at is often worse than the initial wrongdoing.

And let's discuss that abuse and humiliation that seems to be on the rise in the freakshow of a society in which we live. As people seem to be getting more self-absorbed and obsessed with themselves, casual disrespect of others is on the rise. This is anecdotal and very hard to quantify, but I feel that it is true. The word greed is rarely mentioned by the mainstream media anymore because any act of bettering yourself, or gaining more, is seen as a virtue. Short of ponzi schemes that bilk thousands of people out of billions, most acts of greed seem to be passed off as the work of shrewd individuals. Getting revenge and making people pay for what they have done is a huge part of everyday life, and is often praised— from sports to aggressive business tactics.

And, the question that no one dares to ask (at least not in any kind of public way) is "how many people feel an affinity with mass murderers?" Does the apparent increase in mass murders make it seem more socially acceptable for each subsequent person who decides to perpetrate a slaughter?

Are Mass Murders Really on the Increase?

The general belief is that mass murders are on the increase. Barely a month seems to go by without another crime scene littered with numerous corpses. However, that may be more perception than reality. From the same article linked to above:
For all the ink and airtime that follow an attack like the one at Virginia Tech, mass murder is an exceedingly rare crime. The rate of killings in the U.S. involving five or more victims — one generally accepted definition of a mass killing [others use four or more]— represented less than 1% of all homicides 25 years ago, and still does today. Among kids, the overall violence figures are actually plummeting, with the number of children under 17 who commit murder falling 65% between 1993 and 2004. Mass killing, says Diane Follingstad, a professor of clinical and forensic psychology at the University of South Carolina, "is a low baserate thing. It just does not happen very often."
This post will become a running list of all the mass murders that occur in the year 2010. Perhaps some patterns will emerge, and maybe a discussion will start about how to head off such horrible events before they occur.

Eight Murdered in Virginia, January 20, 2010

Where: Virgina, USA
When: January 20, 2010
Number of Victims: eight
Murderer: Christopher Speight

This mass murder appears to be of the targeted variety, i.e., all of the victims were known to the murderer.

More details here.

13 Murdered in Mexico, January 30th, 2010

Where: Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
When: January 30, 2010
Number of Victims: 13
Murderer: Numerous hitmen, currently unknown

While this doesn't fit into the pattern of mass murderers that was discussed at the beginning of the post, I have included it. This would seem to fit into the targeted variety, though it is quite possible the killers didn't know the victims. More details here.

3 Murdered in Huntsville, Alabama, February 12th, 2010

Where: University of Alabama, in Huntsville, Alabama, U.S.A.
When: February 12th, 2010
Number of Victims: 3
Murderer: Dr. Amy Bishop

A rare female mass murderer (only three victims here, which, according to some definitions, does not qualify as a mass murder) goes on a rampage at a University, killing three, and wounding three others.

The woman was a faculty member at the University, which is a fairly common theme in mass murders. Numerous mass murders in the past have featured disgruntled university professors or other staff who start firing due to being passed over for promotion, academic rivalries, or other disputes with fellow colleagues. In this case, apparently she was angry that she was being passed over for tenure. Well, definitely no chance for that now.

Read the full story here.

8 Murdered in Fujian Province, Eastern China, March 23rd, 2010

This is a particularly sick and tragic incident. Eight children were stabbed to death by a mentally ill former medical worker as their parents were taking them to school in the morning.

Where: Fujian province, eastern China
When: March 23rd, 2010
Number of victims: 8
Murderer: Zheng Minsheng

Read the full story here.

12 Murdered in Cumbria County, England, UK

A rampage that went on longer, and over a wider geographical area than is common in mass murders. The killer slaughtered two people he knew (one was his brother), and then continued shooting random individuals across a number of small towns in England's Lake District. When he was finished killing, 12 people were dead.

Read some of the stories in the British press about what happened, and you will notice a common theme that crops up when mass murders have just been committed and people are weighing in on the killer and what type of personality he had. The word "loner" is almost always mentioned.

But even more interesting is the fact that the word "loner" seems to be a cliché that is offered up as a knee-jerk reaction. It often turns out that the killer was anything but a loner—as is the case here. Read these two stories on the tragic mass murder in the same newspaper and notice how the image that emerges is almost completely different in the two stories. Edit: the earlier story in which Bird was described as a loner is no longer available on the Guardian's website. However, it is very interesting how the media almost inevitably latches onto this stereotypical image of what a killer is supposedly like.

For the full story on the mass murder in England, click here.

Where: Village of Lamplugh, Cumbria county, England, UK
When: June 2nd, 2010
Number of Victims: 12
Murderer: Derrick Bird

8 Murdered in Manchester, Connecticut, USA

One of the most common narratives that plays out in mass murders: a killer goes on a rampage in the workplace, with a gun, in the United States.

In this case, the murderer, Omar Thornton, was a driver for a beer distributor. He was called in for a disciplinary hearing, but decided to dole out some sick, murderous discipline of his own. Reports are trickling in that Thornton was dealing with some nasty racism in the workplace. Of course, that will colour people's reactions to this mass murder.

Thornton finally turned the gun on himself, bringing the total dead in this butchering spree to 9.

Read the full story here.

Where: Manchester, Connecticut, USA
When: August 3rd, 2010
Number of Victims: 8
Murderer: Omar Thornton

4 People Murdered in Buffalo, New York, USA

This appears to be a case of someone snapping on the spur of the moment and murdering the people with whom he was having a dispute. Either that or just another garden variety freak who has seen too many gangster flicks and not only wants to end some lives, but wants to be seen ending those lives. A group of people shot as they left a restaurant. Killer quickly apprehended. His life for all intents and purposes over as well.

Where: Buffalo, New York, USA
When: August 14th, 2010
Number of victims: 4
Murderer: Keith Johnson

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Review: The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

The Billionaire's VinegarThe Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace is a story of malleability, desperation to be part of the crowd, pretentiousness, and greed. In short, the anatomy of a swindle.

For anyone who has long loathed "serious" wine drinkers, and especially wine writers whose turgid tasting notes are full of laugh-out-loud descriptions, there is a great deal of schadenfreude to be had in this book.

And while it easy to mock those who are wine connoisseurs, the very best of them no doubt have the palate and experience to sample a dozen wines and accurately pick out the producer and vintage of each one.

But that doesn't insulate them against being taken by a fraudster who sold old bottles of wine for tens of thousands of dollars (often much more) and made millions from numerous deceptions.

Wine Fraud

Wine fraud has been going on almost as long as the drink has been made. In many ways, wine provides the perfect opportunity for scam artists. Short of filling bottles with coloured water (which is not unheard of), detecting fraud, and most importantly, proving it, can be very difficult. Wineries do not issue certificates of authenticity, and many collectors are not skilled enough to determine whether the liquid in the bottle they have purchased is of the chateaux and/or vintage they have been led to believe.

Also, wine is often not drunk until many years after purchase, if ever. Add in the fact that those who have been duped are often reluctant to come forward if they ever realize what has happened. Fear of showing ignorance is rampant amongst casual wine drinkers, and what better way to prove your lack of knowledge than to let everyone know that you were suckered into buying supermarket plonk in a fancy bottle.

The Scam

The con artist in The Billionaire's Vinegar first appealed to collectors by offering up a group of bottles that he claimed were owned by Thomas Jefferson. Wallace provides some great back story on Jefferson's travels to France in the 18th century and the former U.S. president's love of wine. Within the community of wine connoisseurs, the story of Jefferson and his love of wine is well known. And so these bottles had instant cachet.

Like many con artists, the German at the heart of this scam was a smooth talker skilled at ingratiating himself with all the right people. With Christie's auction house vouching for the legitimacy of the bottles, a tense bidding war kicked off, and the U.S. billionaire Malcolm Forbes became the proud owner of a $156, 000 dollar bottle of wine.

By focusing on these (supposedly) extremely old bottles of wine, there were even greater opportunities to equivocate and avoid scrutiny. In this passage, the author discusses a private investigator hired by one of the wealthy individuals who finally wised up to the scam:
Elroy was drifting straight toward the same morass of subjectivity that had bedeviled all previous challenges to the bottles—the arguments about the bottle variation, the blind street of Rodenstock's reticence, the how-would-you-know-what-it's-supposed-to taste-like posture, Monticello's skepticism versus the impossibility of proving a negative, the inadequacy of existing radio-dating methods, the sensory validations by such luminaries as Broadbent and Jancis Robinson, not to mention the disincentive for Koch to sacrifice a bottle that had cost tens of thousands of dollars for a test that might not be definitive. The odds were against his coming to any more certain a conclusion than had the few people before him who had questioned their bottles.
Numerous celebrities in the wine world were reluctant to raise questions about the authenticity of the wine as well, and gushing praise from some of the most prominent wine writers gave added credibility to the creep who kept flogging his fake bottles.

The Jefferson bottles represented only a fraction of the questionable bottles that emanated from the German collector. As he continued to sell bottles, he started to suffer that same kind of sloppy recklessness that seems to bring down so many con artists. Vintages that had never surfaced in recent memory (1737!?), puzzling bottle types, and tastes that just didn't jibe were some of the things that started to give the game away. And a staunch refusal to provide details on where many of the bottles came from was also a warning bell to all but the most gullible.

The tale continues up to the present day—a court decision a few years ago allowed the case to sort of reach a conclusion. But amazingly, many of the people who gagged up thousands of dollars for dodgy bottles of wine seem not to be troubled or are entirely dismissive of the claims. As mentioned earlier, this may be due to embarrassment. But just as likely, there was a great deal of rationalization involved. When all the facts are laid out in a well-researched and well written book, it all looks so obvious. But when you are neck deep in your own enthusiasm and delusions, you are just begging to be told what you want to hear.

However, if some of these clowns really have few problems with being held up as gullible buffoons, and instead gain satisfaction at the supposed status their purchases confer, perhaps there should be a special category of auctions in which fake bottles are knowingly sold.

Writing Style

Like many good non-fiction books, there is plenty of great information here. After reading this book, you will know a lot more about the world of wine. For example, while you no doubt know what a magnum of wine is, have you ever heard of a jéroboam (contains the equivalent of 4–6 bottles of wine) or a nebuchadnezzar (it contains the equivalent of 20 bottles of wine)? You also learn about types of wines, regions, the sub-culture of wine collecting, and some of the sniping and bickering that takes place within its ranks.

The Billionaire's Vinegar is very well written. Tight prose that slowly builds up the story and all the characters involved makes for an entertaining read. No doubt Wallace came to his own conclusions while researching the book, but he doesn't engage in the kind of brazen editorializing of which lesser writers are sometimes guilty. Instead, he paints a picture of the characters involved and the situations that played out. No doubt readers are led to certain conclusions, but it is done in such a sublime and nuanced way that you're certain that the events as depicted are exactly as they occurred.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: The Pickton File by Stevie Cameron

When we hear about horrific events, we usually express immediate shock and outrage. But without looking further and seeking out the full story, any real opinions we have on the subject tend to be superficial, and fade into a few stock responses we offer up whenever the subject is raised.

For years I felt and expressed the usual sadness and disbelief about the holocaust and other events associated with WWII. But it was only when I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem many years ago that the true horror sunk in. The devil, and the understanding, are always in the details.

That was the thought that I had when I started reading The Pickton File by Stevie Cameron. The book is about Robert Pickton, the women he murdered on his farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, and numerous related storylines.

I hoped that I would gain some insight into the mind-numbing events that took place. I wanted my loathing for Pickton to ratchet up several levels, and I wanted to feel more for the women who were killed than just the angry but ultimately hollow feelings a person has when hearing about terrible things that happen to strangers.

The Pickton File starts off well. However, ultimately the frustration that the author, Stevie Cameron, felt when she was writing the book will also be felt by the reader. No clear sense of which tale this book wants to tell ever fully emerges.

That lack of focus is partly due to the time frame in which the book was written. Cameron accumulated the information that went into the writing of this book starting after Robert Pickton was arrested in 2002. She followed the preliminary hearing that dragged on for six months, interviewed family members of many of the missing women, and then released the book shortly after Pickton's trial finally started in January 2007. Unfortunately, numerous publication bans prevented any information from the preliminary hearing from being included in the book. Of course, in such a huge case that affected so many people, there should have been plenty of other sources of information.

But nothing much was being said by anyone who could have provided valuable insight in the lead-up to the trial. The Vancouver police and local RCMP detachments were in defensive mode after being highlighted as some of the most shamelessly incompetent and insensitive police forces on the face of the earth. In the early pages of the book, the reader gets the sense that Cameron will explore this tale of incompetence in detail. What does appear on the topic is great, and is likely to stoke the anger of anyone who has followed this sad saga for any length of time.

For example, one of the most accomplished and educated members of the Vancouver police department was driven out of the force for, among other things, daring to suggest that there was likely a serial killer at work. However, while Cameron talks to the former police officer, Kim Rossmo, on numerous occasions, she does not, or is unable to, provide any other perspectives on this matter. The best and most thorough non-fiction books (and especially true crime) give credible perspectives from more than one side when warranted.

But the focus on police insensitivity to the missing women tails off. It is revisited incidentally throughout the book but is never fleshed out completely. As Cameron mentions, an entire book could be devoted to how the police refused to start looking into the issue until long after it was too late. As a lone writer working on a book, Cameron was simply overwhelmed at times by the amount of information, the numerous angles, and the spin that was being offered up by police:
All of this information was useful and interesting. It was good to know that so many qualified people were examining evidence on the farm. I was relieved that no expense was being spared, that nothing was too much trouble. But I began to feel as if I were being choked with numbers, statistics and little fact nuggets. I wouldn't say, exactly , that the information was spin, but it was so far from so many important issues that it began to worry me. All the public relations bustle, the steady torrent of numbers, couldn't stop people from asking how this had happened in the first place. Why had the police ignored, for years, the anguished efforts of family members and friends to have their loved ones listed as missing persons? Why didn't the police look for them? When Kim Rossmo told his colleagues in the Vancouver police in 1998 that he was convinced a serial killer was working in the Downtown Eastside, why was the official response a humiliating demotion—essentially a public dismissal? And if Pickton was taking women out of the Downtown Eastside to kill on his farm, why hadn't the RCMP, whose jurisdiction included the farm, picked up on the rumours that he might be involved? Especially when he was "known to the police," as the expression goes, a man who had once been caught by the RCMP running a chop shop (an illegal bit of entrepreneurial activity where he helped take apart stolen cars for their parts) on the farm for the Hells Angels.
One of the other very good sections of the book involves Cameron's investigating in Port Coquitlam, where Pickton's pig farm is located. A great atmospheric image of the town and its inhabitants emerges. This is where the writing is also at its best, with a real rhythm and purpose that makes you want to keep reading.

The Victims

Cameron interviews some of the family members of the dead and missing women, and this could have been one of the best and most riveting sections of the book. However, the interviews are generally brief and the picture of the women that comes through is often quite superficial. In the few cases where more details are given, you still get the sense that more could have been included.

Other women who lived the life and were friends of the dead women also have compelling stories to tell. For example, Cameron accompanies Maggy Gisle to the court during the preliminary trial. When she is first mentioned, she is making a good effort to change her life. Her story is one of constant struggle and setback, and like many of the women trapped in drugs and prostitution, you are never able to believe she will finally be all right. The shocking difference between Gisle when she was on the streets and when she got clean, as evidenced by two photos that appear in the book, is proof of what a nightmare life so many in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside live. When, a few chapters later, Cameron mentions almost as an aside that Gisle's life again spiraled out of control after their meeting, you wish that she would provide more details.

Most people aren't honest about the voyeuristic appeal provided by the broken lives of these women. Like stars in a real-life crime noir, there is not only tragedy in reading about these women but, if it hadn't been for the brutal deaths at the hands of the murderous freak Pickton, a kind of poetic beauty in the fact that so many of them chose a life of slow suicide.

As referenced by Cameron numerous times in the book, the website missingpeople.net contains the best collection of information on the missing women, and numerous interviews with the women's families. As much as you might think that the family members will white-wash the lives of the murdered women and provide a romanticized version of events, they often are forthcoming with honest anecdotes. Yet, the result is still hauntingly tragic in a way that makes our problems seem small and manageable. And like so many people who fall hard, they discovered too late that things can always get worse.

There is something almost naive and child-like in the images that are painted of these women by their surviving family members. That's probably because the families naturally reference the years before their lost daughters' descent into hell began—i.e., when they were little girls. But the fact that they did succumb to the pressures and dropped out is also an indication of their fragile, child-like state. Most drug users are of the functional variety and never fall as far as the women who end up on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. A combination of early trauma in childhood (often sexual abuse), a family that was unable to support them (although that is not always the case), and a lack of self-esteem is the usual profile.

And gutless animals like Pickton prey on these weaknesses and know how to exploit them.

Beyond the Generalizations

Yet it is far more complex than the visceral responses of pity and guilt that most people have when they hear about the fate suffered by these women. If you had met any one of them before they were killed by Pickton, when they were at their worst on the streets, would you be able to summon the compassion to help them in any real way?

The honest answer for most would be no. Make no mistake, while many of the drug addicted prostitutes need our sympathy and help, when they are at their worst, some of them can be nasty pieces of work who do plenty of their own victimizing. In the most truthful accounts on missingpeople.net, families of the women who were killed admit that they did not have what it takes to rescue their daughters, sisters, and mothers. Sometimes, people simply are unreachable. But that doesn't alleviate the guilt. As Cameron mentions,
But the saddest family members were those who had seen their girls taken to foster homes by welfare officers because of neglect and addiction in the family. The regrets of these people had no limits and no answers, and most of the people I interviewed will never forgive themselves.
To go beyond the stereotypes and present this huge part of the Pickton story, there really needs to be an in-depth and thorough presentation. To avoid the normal divisions that this subject prompts, it has to go beyond the superficial. It has to let people know that all of these women have pasts, families (sometimes fractured, destructive, and the source of much of their pain, but families nonetheless), and, hopefully, futures.

For a grim and very difficult look at many people caught up in this life, the National Film Board's Through a Blue Lens is an excellent look at life on Vancouver's streets. No matter how far people have fallen, most still seem to have something worthwhile to offer, and, unbelievably, flashes of optimism and a sense of humour.

I mentioned in a previous post that the sick tale of Pickton offered no sense of humanity. But I was wrong. Brief glimpses of the people who devote their lives to helping the women trapped on skid row Vancouver provide a sense of hope. If we all had the compassion of these people, no doubt our society would be different in many ways. Perhaps there wouldn't be so many individuals who seem to experience a twisted schadenfreude at seeing others suffer, simply because they think "it's all about choices."

This takes us to about the half-way point of the book, and after that there isn't much more of interest related to the case.

Too Much Filler

Cameron writes in the first person and includes many of the obstacles she encountered when gathering information. The book is often more about her trying to come to grips with the enormity of the case, and find credible information, than it is about the case itself. This works quite well in the early part of the book. But the bland minutiae of her day-to-day interactions and travels becomes very tiresome after a while. Did she include these sections to contribute to a kind of general theme of confusion that is part of the Pickton case? Perhaps. However, it comes across as so much filler after a while.

The only really gripping part of the book appears in the closing chapter as we hear details from the opening arguments from both the lead Crown prosecutor and the lead defense lawyer.

This book is really only a primer. After so many years devoted to following this story, Cameron obviously wanted to get something out to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Pickton and his crimes. To be fair, Cameron doesn't claim this book is a comprehensive look at what happened. In the foreword, she states that she did her best with the restrictions in place and the constantly increasing scope of the case. Still, that bit of prolepsis doesn't insulate the book from criticism.

Cameron states that she is in the process of writing The Pig Farm, which will presumably be a longer, more structured, and better book. It will no doubt include the details that emerged during the preliminary hearing, the court case in which Pickton was found guilty, and will probably provide more details related to numerous killings. As far as it goes, The Pickton File is worth reading but doesn't provide much more than the experiences of Cameron as she researched the book.

There are numerous tales at work here, and I hope that Cameron does them justice in The Pig Farm, which is supposed to be released in early 2011. More than all the individual strands of the story—the women, the sicko Pickton, and the hell on earth he created on his farm, the monumental failure of the police—this is a story of how people can rationalize anything and look the other way as long as they aren't the ones who are being victimized. And I hope that Cameron seriously considers renaming her coming book to something more memorable and lyrical than The Pig Farm. While that may elicit all the horror of what happened, it doesn't do justice to the memories of the women who were killed.