TCF: The Great Pearl Heist

The Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace
By Molly Caldwell Crosby

The crime:

On July 16, 1913 the most expensive necklace in the world was stolen out of the mail. Converting figures into today’s dollars is not an exact science, but by Molly Caldwell Crosby’s calculations the necklace, which was a string of sixty-one pearls, may have been worth anywhere from $18 million to $120 million. She also pegs its value as twice that of the Hope Diamond.

Only a few months later, four members of a gang of London jewel thieves were tried at the Old Bailey and convicted of the theft. All but one of the pearls was finally accounted for.

The book:

I thought this was a great read, telling the story of a fascinating historical crime that I knew nothing about. I’m not sure why the case was subsequently, in Crosby’s words, “all but lost to history,” as at the time it was huge, with the trial built up by the press as yet another “trial of the century.” (As an aside: how many trials of the century were there in the twentieth century? The Lindbergh kidnapping trial and the O.J. Simpson trial have both received that billing, and I think arguments could be made for either.)

Crosby suggests that the outbreak of the First World War pushed a lot of the big news items of the pre-War years, or Belle Époque, not just off the headlines but out of public memory. I think this is probably right, as I was often thinking while reading this book of the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, which was also a big story at the time but which has mostly been forgotten about today (though there were a couple of books that came out about it in 2009: The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler and Vanished Smile by R. A. Scotti). The two cases had a similar cachet, which was recognized by contemporary observers, as the New York Times called the necklace “the Mona Lisa of pearls.” And by coincidence the trial of the pearl thieves ended the same week as the Mona Lisa case was resolved.

But as much as I liked it, I have tocall The Great Pearl Heist out on a few counts.

In the first place, it gets failing grades on the visual materials. The photo section has a bunch of pictures, but some of them are of no relevance to anything in the book. The Ten Bells Pub is shown because it “was a favorite haunt for Ripper victims.” What has that to do with anything? Meanwhile, the only picture of any of the thieves is a small, poorly-reproduced shot taken from a newspaper story where they are all shown in profile standing in the dock. The only picture of the lead detective is an even smaller picture, also cropped from a newspaper page and also a group photo, where you can barely make him out. A picture section like this is arguably no better than no picture section at all, which is something I could also say for the single map provided. A good map of the Hatton Garden area showing the location of the different shops would have been nice. But the only map is a crowded one showing a good chunk of London. What’s worse is it looks like a contemporary map, which means it’s almost impossible to read. I didn’t bother referring to it once, recognizing right away that it would be useless.

A second point has to do with the way Crosby fashions the story into a contest between “London’s greatest thief,” the gang leader Joseph Grizzard, and Scotland Yard’s top detective at the time, Alfred Ward. This is the usual formula of cops and robbers, but it doesn’t fit the facts of this case that well. The theft was unraveled only because a pair of continental jewel traders sold the gang out in hopes of getting the reward being offered for the necklace’s return. Ward then had to properly land Grizzard and his accomplices in a sting operation, which was well done but isn’t great detective stuff.

Finally, Crosby says there was a “lengthy legal battle” to determine who got the reward in the end, but doesn’t say how it worked out.

Noted in passing:

When looking at Grizzard’s motives for adopting a life of crime, Crosby quotes a snippet from a letter written by the poet William Blake:

Want of money and the distress of a thief can never be alleged as the cause of his thieving, for many honest people endure greater hardships with fortitude. We must therefore seek the cause elsewhere than in want of money, for that is the miser’s passion, not the thief’s.

This is an interesting take on criminal psychology. After the theft, the New York Times would suggest something a little grander than money as a motivating force: “the theft was committed just for the ‘glory’ of the thing and . . . the purloiner ranked among the great criminal artists.”

Personally, I’ve thought most thieves, at least of the common break-and-entry variety, not so much greedy or artistic as lazy. They think having a real job is too much work and would rather just grab money when they need it in the quickest way possible. Though for someone like Grizzard, and a few other frauds and swindlers that I’ve known, stealing isn’t always easy. Indeed, I’ve often wondered about burglars who put as much effort, and run far greater risks, to steal money that they could have made more of in a much easier, and legal, way.

Grizzard would fall back into his criminal ways after his release from prison, perhaps because it was the only thing he knew how to do. Or perhaps there’s something to the realization Walter White comes to at the end of Breaking Bad: that some people just take to a life of crime when they find out they’re good at it.

I’d also like to note all the wonderful names in this story. Grizzard is a great name for a master of crime, and it’s fitting that he should have been undone by a seedy underling named Lesir Gutwirth. Meanwhile, the jewel agents fishing for the reward were Samuel Brandstatter and Myer Quadratstein. I stumbled over the latter every time I read it. But the winner in the great-name lottery is Nicholas If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon. I think Crosby just wanted to drop his name into the mix for the sound of it, since he was a seventeenth-century economist who doesn’t have any connection to the rest of the story.


Any criminal conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest link. This one was undone by the aforementioned Lesir Gutwirth. Just because.

True Crime Files

Maigret: Maigret’s Informer

In my review of Maigret’s Madwoman I mentioned Simenon’s habit of introducing little “fillips for fans”: recollections of earlier books in the series that are then slightly adjusted. Typically a name is changed. Maigret’s Informer might be another example of this, as the informer in the title is a little guy known as the Flea and I had to wonder if he was the same character as appeared in Maigret at Picratt’s as the Grasshopper. I think he is. The same, but different.

The Maigret novels where the detective chief inspector takes on gangsters are, I think, the worst in the series. Because Simenon doesn’t write action scenes well and because gangsters aren’t very interesting psychological cases to begin with. Why do they kill people? Because they’re in the way or it’s just business.

Maigret’s Informer is a gangster novel with a very dull murder at its heart. The old boss has a young wife who is screwing around on him, and she and her younger lover (a new boss) conspire to kill him. They actually stand a good chance of getting away with it too, but the informer trips them up and after being arrested they abruptly fall out in an ending that plays like a weak rehash of the end of Maigret and the Saturday Caller.

I didn’t find this one worth bothering with at all. The funereal Inspector Louis was a bit interesting, but that was it. Otherwise it was just the usual dull round of Maigret going about interviewing those indispensable Paris concierges before heading to the bar, or going home so that Madame Maigret can take care of him. She even packs his luggage for him when he has to head down south. Ah, they don’t make helpmeets like that anymore.

Maigret index

Man and Trump and God

Holding a book he’d never read, standing before a building he’d never been in.

Over at Good Reports I’ve added an omnibus review of a bunch of a books on evangelical support for Donald Trump. Much of the Trump phenomenon is meant to generate outrage, but the support of the religious Right or Christian nationalist movement is probably the most outrageous thing about it of all.

It’s hard to imagine Trump coming back, but as of this writing he’s still the frontrunner to be the Republican standard bearer in 2024. The rot in the American body politic goes deep. What’s worse is that it’s hard to see how the conditions that gave rise to Trump are going to improve anytime soon. I may be reviewing more books like this again in another couple of years.

TCF: Kiss of Death

Kiss of Death: True Cases of Fatal Attraction
By Jean Ritchie

The crimes:

“The Giggling Blonde”: after being arrested for trying to kill her third husband with a baseball bat and a carving knife, Dena Thompson is convicted of killing her second by poisoning.

“Smiley Kylie”: Kylie Labouchardiere is murdered by Paul Wilkinson.

“One Go Was Not Enough”: Jill Cahill barely survives a first attempt on her life by her husband Jeff, who then sneaks into the hospital she is recovering in and finishes the job with cyanide.

“Lover in the Wardrobe”: Martha Freeman has a man living in her wardrobe for a month before her husband finds out (he hears him snoring). The two lovers then strangle the husband.

“All for a Life in the Sun”: Tina Strauss can’t handle moving from a Jamaican estate to the north of England and so threatens to leave the man she dumped her wealthy husband for. He kills her and buries her in the backyard.

“The Royal Aide Who Couldn’t Take Rejection”: Jane Andrews worked as a personal assistant to Sarah, Duchess of York. She didn’t like it when men rejected her, and kills Tom Cresswell (with a cricket bat and a knife) when he wouldn’t marry her.

“Left in a Car Boot to Die”: Joe Korp talks his mistress into killing his wife. She does a horrible job of it, with Maria Korp’s case becoming a controversial one in Australia when she was taken off life support in hospital.

“Not One Dead Wife, but Two”: Drew Peterson kills his third wife and disappears his fourth.

“If I Can’t Have You”: Bombay-born doctor “Buck Ruxton” kills his wife and housemaid and cuts their bodies into little pieces.

“Did She or Didn’t She?”: Carolyn Warmus falls for a married man and is convicted of killing his wife. She continues to maintain her innocence.

“A Fit of Conscience”: Lovers Colin Howell and Hazel Stewart conspire to kill their spouses and stage it as a double suicide. Their plan works, but twenty years later Colin confesses and they both go to prison.

“Body in the Fridge”: Laren Sims and gal pal Sarah Dutra kill Laren’s husband, storing his body in a fridge for a while before burying it in a California vineyard.

“Kinky Cottage”: Max Garvie lived a swinging lifestyle in the northeast of Scotland, but is killed by his wife and his wife’s lover.

“Killed by a ‘Bag for Life’”: apparently a “bag for life” is made of particularly strong plastic. Pharmacist Mitesh Patel uses one to suffocate/strangle his wife.

“The Go-Go Dancer and the Cat”: John Perry travels to the Philippines for some sex tourism and picks up a wife. He expects a submissive helpmeet, so when she starts showing signs of independence, including having an affair with a neighbour, Perry kills her. He has trouble getting rid of her body though.

“Desperate Measures”: Mary Pearcey kills her lover’s wife in Victorian London.

“The Exotic Dancer with Two Boyfriends”: Catherine Woods goes to NYC in the hopes of becoming a dancer. She’s killed by a jealous boyfriend.

“The Parachute ‘Accidents’”: two otherwise unrelated cases involving a woman sabotaging a rival’s parachute to get rid of her and a man doing the same to his wife. The wife actually survives.

“Killed by the Dog She Loved”: Dolly Kaplan is killed by a pet pit bull terrier that her boyfriend turned on her.

“The Army Wife”: Christina Dryland runs over her husband’s mistress in her Saab.

“Kinky Sex and a Brutal Murder”: a lesbian couple who are also professional dominatrices have a falling out and the one arranges the other’s murder.

“So Much for Rehabilitation”: John Tanner kills his girlfriend, an Oxford student, and is sent to prison, which does not lead to his reform.

“A Vengeful Suicide”: Paul Dunn is charged with killing his wife with a shotgun, but at trial he is acquitted because it may have been suicide.

The book:

A good selection of cases that stick close to the theme of fatal attractions. In fact, at least one of them, the Warmus case, was dubbed by the press “the Fatal Attraction killing.” Each crime is described in 10-15 pages, so the writing is pretty basic sketchwork. At the same time, since they tell such a familiar, and in many instances repetitive, story there’s little need to go into detail.

Most of the cases aren’t that well known. I suppose everyone will have heard of Drew Peterson, but aside from him the others are pretty obscure. Some were notorious at the time but have since faded from public memory, while some played more in local media. Still others, though tragic, don’t stand out as noteworthy at all.

As noted by Ritchie in her Introduction, you’re more likely to be killed by someone you know intimately than by a stranger. And the domestic killers we meet here fall into easily identifiable gender stereotypes. The men tend to be violent and controlling. They are looking for partners who are submissive and loyal, with John Perry being only the most blatant example: “What John wanted from a woman was the house kept clean, meals on the table and unquestioning obedience. He wanted to be lord of his own home, and he had been unable to find a woman who would treat him with the deference he felt he deserved.” There’s a lot of that here. Meanwhile, many of the women are chasing status and lifestyle, or are threatened by the loss of the same when their husbands go wandering.

Nobody gets what they want, so they take their frustrations out in violent ways.

Sticking with the book’s theme, I found myself wondering to what extent these could truly be called crimes of passion. A lot of the killers here, male and female, had hyperactive sex drives, but they were indiscriminate as well as insatiable and they didn’t kill for kicks. Another point is that the killings were frequently just a way of getting rid of a spouse or lover who had become a drag. It’s rarely the case that each man kills the thing he loves. People are more likely to kill someone they’ve stopped caring about at all.

Noted in passing:

Several firsts are included in the line-up. The body parts discovered in the Buck Ruxton, or “Jigsaw Killer,” case had maggots growing in them, which allowed an entomologist to date when they’d been tossed away. Apparently those maggots “are now preserved in the insect archives of the Natural History Museum because this was the first time insects had been used in forensic investigation.” Then the pit bull killing Dolly Kaplan is said by one of the investigating detectives to be “the first case in the history of the world where somebody was charged with using an animal as a murder weapon and successfully prosecuted.”

The “first” I found most interesting though was more recent. This was the use of the iPhone health app to track Mitesh Patel’s suspicious movements within his house on the day he murdered his wife. This could be done on a granular level because motion processors not only monitored the number of steps he was taking but the difference in going up stairs. I know tracking locations by way of phones had been used before in cases, but I didn’t know it could be used this precisely (yet). Patel’s trial was in 2018 and apparently it was the first time such evidence had appeared in a UK case.


When considering so many case studies of relationships gone bad it’s natural to look for any warning signs – the proverbial red flags – that were missed. I think there are clear patterns that stand out.

Some of these are so obvious they seem barely worth drawing attention to. Men who seem overly controlling or who show any proclivity at all toward violence should be avoided at all costs. If you find out people regularly lie or cheat (to the point of even adopting various aliases) you should also take that as a danger sign.

Perhaps less obvious, especially in an age where serial monogamy is now an established norm, is that someone (man or woman) who has been married and divorced two or three times before they’re forty, and has kids from at least a couple of those marriages, is probably a bad bet. Anyone can be given a mulligan for having one committed relationship going down the tubes, but if there’s a pattern you should take it as fair warning and pay heed to Samuel Johnson’s adage about second marriages being the triumph of hope over experience.

True Crime Files

Playing pocomon

Trolling too hard to be a true poco.

I recently re-read Ford Madox Ford’s great novel The Good Soldier (the saddest story, but pure joy!) and came across this sentence near the end describing the casual lifestyles of the local gentry: “It is queer the fantastic things that quite good people will do in order to keep up their appearance of calm pococurantism.”

I’m sure I knew what pococurantism meant at some point — I last read The Good Soldier thirty or so years ago — but I pulled a blank here and had to pull out the dictionary. As a noun, pococurante is defined as a careless or indifferent person, someone who displays a lack of concern. As an adjective, someone who is careless, nonchalant or apathetic. It comes from the Italian poco (“little”) and curante (present participle of “to care,” or “caring”).

In fact, it’s a word with a solid literary pedigree. In Voltaire’s Candide there’s a Senator Pococurante and Laurence Sterne uses it Tristram Shandy. As near as I can tell, it’s traditionally been used to carry a negative connotation. A pococurante is an idle person who’s not doing anyone any good. Perhaps someone shirking their duties and responsibilities. When the Ashburnhams in Ford’s novel affect the appearance of “calm pococurantism” it’s a bit like conspicuous comfort and being above it all. Or, as a former first lady’s coat once put it, “I really don’t care. Do U?”

But I like to see pococurantes in a more positive light. Isn’t pococurantism a little like the classical Greek notion of ataraxia? Or the modern cool? Still, there are moments where one should be cool and care, as Thomas Pynchon once put it. In such cases the word, which sounds silly enough, still makes a handy pejorative.

Words, words, words

TCF: Let’s Kill Mom

Let’s Kill Mom: Four Texas Teens and a Horrifying Murder Pact
By Donna Fielder

The crime:

Seventeen-year-old Jennifer Bailey, her thirteen-year-old brother David, and Jennifer’s sixteen-year-old boyfriend Paul Henson Jr. conspired to kill Jennifer and David’s mother, Susan. How, exactly, it all went down is still disagreed upon, but Susan was stabbed to death after returning home from work. The three teenagers tried to escape by driving from Texas to Canada but literally ran out of gas. All three pled guilty to get reduced sentences (in this case, avoiding the death penalty), but Jennifer and Paul are likely to remain in prison for life.

The book:

Maybe it’s because of the notoriety of the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case (filmed as Heavenly Creatures in 1994). Or maybe it’s because I’d previously reviewed Bob Mitchell’s book The Class Project: How to Kill a Mother, about a pair of teenage sisters who drowned their mother in a bathtub in 2003. Or maybe it’s just because the killers here were such high-school clichés of disaffected youth: listening to emo music, playing Dungeons & Dragons, pretending to be vampires, practising Wiccan rituals and reading books on devil worship. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t as shocked by the murder of Susan Bailey as I suppose I should have been. To be sure, it was a terrible crime, and it’s hard to understand kids who kill, but it’s not something I couldn’t get my head around.

I believe Donna Fielder was a local reporter who drew on her coverage of the case to write this book. It’s not bad, though there are some places where the editor (if there was one) was taking a nap. I also questioned dramatizing the actual murder, attempting to describe it from Susan’s point of view. This is especially problematic given that the three people involved each have different accounts of what happened. Did Susan really think to herself “Oh God! Her children were killing her! Why?” Or were her last thoughts more along the lines of “Oh God, I didn’t think things had gotten this bad.” I don’t think it makes any sense to speculate.

What I liked about Fielder’s approach is the emphasis placed on the perspective of Susan’s mother, whose journals are quoted from throughout. The catastrophe of having her daughter killed by two of her grandkids presented her with an awesome moral challenge, and I give credit to her for making the right decision in the end and basically giving up on Jennifer. That’s hard on any parent, or grandparent. But if your kids are shit, you just have to make a break.

Another thing I thought worked well was adding separate chapters on Fielder’s three visits to the killers in prison at the end as an epilogue. Given her pretty clear judgment on culpability in the matter, and indeed barely restrained anger at the killers for how they repaid their hard-working mother “with violence and death,” she remains fair in her reporting of these interviews, and we’re left to make our own minds up on the question of crime and punishment.

The question of why kids kill is raised in one chapter, which leans heavily on Michael D. Kelleher’s book When Good Kids Kill. It’s a point that often comes up for debate in reference to school shootings. Parricide doesn’t gather as many headlines, but it’s a phenomenon that has proven equally hard to come to any firm conclusions about. What stands out for me is the way that some kids are able to stand up to the usual storm and stress of their teenaged years quite well, while others have far less tolerance for authority and a greater sensitivity to perceived slights. It doesn’t take much to tip them over the edge. Indeed, it might be something so trivial that bystanders aren’t able to see it at all. Then, when the kid snaps, we’re all left to wonder why.

Noted in passing:

The teenaged trio were picked up in South Dakota in part because Yankton, the town they were driving through, had a teen curfew of 11:30 and it was the wee hours of the morning. I did a double-take at this. There are towns with teen curfews in the U.S.? Is that constitutional?

People were amazed at the kids’ “plan” of escaping to Canada with no money, no jobs or marketable skills, and no friends or family to help them out. Is Canada seen as that much of a land of milk and honey? Even when Jennifer hated the cold of Minnesota so much? Never mind the fact that Canada isn’t some criminal sanctuary, since extradition treaties exist and their arrest would only have been delayed by a bit.

Investigators were gobsmacked when Henson revealed that he was having sex not only with Jennifer, but a younger student at the same high school, and that they would have threesomes and sometimes the two girls would have sex together while he watched. I can understand their incredulity. Jennifer was an above-average looking young woman, and the third girl (whose identity as a juvenile is protected) is described as being pretty. Paul Henson, on the other hand, was a really ugly guy. He also had limited social standing at school (other kids saw him as a weirdo), clearly wasn’t that bright, and lived in a mobile home with his dad. I have a hard time figuring the attraction out. He was over six feet tall though, so it may just have been another case of the well-documented priority, amounting almost to a fetish, that many women place on height when it comes to mate selection.


Everyone comes to Jesus in prison. I guess if you’re a believer you can see this as natural: we only look for help when we are at our lowest, and we find salvation and forgiveness in the Lord. Cynics are more likely to see it as coping or manipulation. Jennifer claimed to have been born again almost immediately after she was caught, and one of her jailers perhaps put it best: “Maybe she was really looking, but I think she was one of those people who was not going to find what she was looking for.”

The abuse excuse is just knee-jerk claiming of victim status now, isn’t it? After her arrest, Jennifer would complain of a “mentally abusive” home, whatever that meant. I really rolled my eyes though at how her father, who seems to have been absent from his children’s lives for the most part, was later said to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder due to his kids killing his ex-wife. Because of this PTSD he was no longer able to work, and so couldn’t even contribute anything to Jennifer’s or Dave’s prison accounts.

True Crime Files

DNF files: Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth

By Elizabeth Williamson

Page I bailed on: 44

Verdict: I really wanted to like this one, but it turned out to be not what I was expecting. There was too much stuff on the families coping with the tragedy, a lot of which felt overwritten (“Neil carried his grief like hard water in a metal container, blunting its corrosive power by staying in motion . . .”). What I was looking for was something more in-depth on the rise of conspiracy culture in politics and the media, which is where Williamson was heading but she was taking way too long getting there. I skimmed ahead a bit, but the book came out just before the first of Alex Jones’ trials so it all felt a bit behind the times. Then there was an extra point off for putting “American Tragedy” in the title. Wasn’t that the name of Matthew Lysiak’s Newtown book? It was.

So not a bad book, from what I read of it, but not one that I thought was going to repay the time spent finishing it. A longish magazine article might have handled the subject just as well. It’s quite a tome, going on for nearly 450 pages, and I couldn’t see myself hanging in there.

The DNF files

TCF: She Wanted It All

She Wanted It All: A True Story of Sex, Murder, and a Texas Millionaire
By Kathryn Casey

The crime:

In the early morning hours of October 3 1999 retired Texas businessman Steven Beard was shot by Tracey Tarlton with a shotgun while he was sleeping. He would die of complications related to the injury several months later. Tarlton had acted at the behest and with the assistance of Beard’s wife (and Tarlton’s sometime lover) Celeste. For cooperating with the D.A. in prosecuting Celeste, Tarlton received a reduced sentence of ten years. Celeste was convicted of capital murder in 2003, receiving a life sentence.

The book:

This was Kathryn Casey’s second book and I think it’s still her best known. She clearly put a lot of work into it and it shows. I particularly liked how it told the story in-depth chronologically and still avoided the transcript trap so many true crime books fall into, with a final act in the courtroom just giving us play-by-play of the trial.

It reads well because it’s a classic soap opera, and Casey even describes it at the end as being like the plot of a Coen brothers movie. Celeste is the heartless gold-digger marrying a millionaire who was in poor health and nearly forty years her senior (they met when she was a waitress at his country club). Steven Beard had plenty of evidence supporting the conclusion that Celeste was only after him for his money, and indeed seemed at times to be well aware of what she was after (if not how ruthless she could be), but . . . men are fools when it comes to pretty young women. For her part, Celeste only had to wait to get everything, but she was impatient to go into full shopaholic mode and started trying to kill Steve off in various ways almost as soon as they were married.

While it’s an old story, there were some strange elements and weird moments. The relationship between Celeste and her teenaged twin daughters, for example, was something I couldn’t understand even at the end. I guess they were both just afraid of her. Steve’s 9-1-1 call for help after he was shot (in the gut, because Celeste didn’t want a lot of blood spatter) was stunning too. One can’t imagine waking up to something like that, but his confusion about what had just happened was luckily matched by incredible presence of mind. He immediately gave his address to the operator before calmly trying to explain how “My guts just jumped out of my stomach.”

The biggest mystery to me had to do with Celeste’s sexuality. On the one hand she was voracious, behaving like a horny party girl on boozy road trips, sleeping around while married, and even marrying for a fifth time just before going to trial. But at the same time several partners complained of her not enjoying sex, and she seems not to have felt a great attraction to any of the men in her life, from husbands to pick-ups. The relationship with Tracey Tarlton was typical of this ambiguity. Until the hatching of the murder plot she really had no use for Tarlton, and it doesn’t seem as though she felt any attraction to her, much less sexual desire. Lesbian love was just another sexual flavour that she took up in a compulsive but disinterested way.

The only person I could relate this to in my own life was a hypersexual, early middle-aged woman who was living with a friend of mine years ago. She’d been married several times, had several children, and would end up dumping my friend as well in due course. Given how she carried on you would think she had a tremendous sex drive, but she actually didn’t like sex and hated men. I don’t know what the current scholarly literature on hypersexuality (formerly known as nymphomania) is, but I’ve always suspected this is how most such people are wired. They have a lot of sex, but they don’t really enjoy it.

A couple of other points stood out. For example, cramming didn’t help Celeste very much in planning the perfect murder. She was a voracious reader, going through three to four books a week, most of which were true crime. She was also a big fan of Court TV and homicide investigations on A&E and printed out grisly crime scene photographs as study material. When trying to convince Tarlton to kill her husband she explained how “I’ve read so many books on things like this, watched so many movies. I know what I’m doing.” And yet, she seems to have learned nothing from all this research.

Some people shouldn’t be parents. When Casey describes Celeste as “a mother who’d never known how to love” her children, I thought that was putting it mildly. Not surprisingly, Celeste’s own upbringing had been chaotic and dysfunctional (though her claims of abuse were unproven). She’d been adopted, along with a couple of other children, by a couple who both had mental problems. The thing about bad parenting is it just keeps getting passed down the line.

Finally, we are reminded yet again of how important it is to always, always, claim victim status. I know this could be taken as a mantra for our age, but it’s something that stands out clearly in a lot of true-crime stories. When charged with serious crimes the best defence is a good offence, so accused killers and cheats always seek to shift the blame on to others. Celeste did this as a matter of course, claiming to have been abused as a child and telling Tarlton that Steven was going to kill her if she didn’t kill him first.

Noted in passing:

When you’re rich you can waste your money in all kinds of stupid ways. Since shopping was, like sex, a compulsion for Celeste, and she had no concept of the value of money, she was an easy mark for high-end stores and services. Particularly eye-opening was her spending $3,000 to decorate her Christmas tree one year, and $950 for an antique pickle jar. Unleashed, in the seven months after Steven died she burned through half a million dollars. This made me reflect on the lottery fantasy of what I’d actually do, or even what I could do, if I won $50 million in a lottery. I don’t think I could spend money like Celeste, and even if I did I still wouldn’t have enough time left to spend half of my winnings. Which makes playing the lottery seem all the more pointless.


I mentioned how obvious it was – even to Steven, I believe – that Celeste was a gold-digger as well as a nut-job. But even the people around him, including close friends and family, realized it was useless saying anything to him about it. There’s no warning men (or women) in such situations. All you can do is hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

True Crime Files

Re-reading Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

(1) The standard line on The Taming of the Shrew is that it’s a play that needs to be seen in performance. It’s a lot of fun when you see it live, but a chore to read. This is borne out by the evidence of its consistent popularity on stage over the centuries while not being studied much.

Then there’s the fact that the text as we have it is a mess. It may be that we were supposed to get more Christopher Sly interspersed throughout the play and at the end. Also, the already more-than-confusing-enough mash of secondary characters who adopt new identities is made worse by the way a couple of the roles (Hortensio and Tranio) seem to have bled into each other at some point. All of this is easier to follow on stage than it is on the page, especially when some streamlining helps sort things out.

That said, I remember an acquaintance of mine going to see it at Stratford years ago and saying that she hadn’t understood much of it and didn’t think any of it was funny. This is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works (again, on stage) and I figured if that production wasn’t working then there must have been a problem. But I can also understand her feeling that way regardless. Biondello’s description of Petruchio’s horse, for example, is one of the highlights, but it’s impossible for any modern audience to understand. It might as well have been written in Old Church Slavonic.

(2) Petruchio’s ambition “to wive it wealthily in Padua” is a great line (and song too), but just why is he so fixated on the bottom line? He’s after the money and he doesn’t care who knows that “wealth is burden of my wooing dance.” The fact that marriages at the time were primarily economic arrangements has been said to justify his mercenary motives on the grounds of realism, and to be sure Bianca is basically auctioned off. But Petruchio seems, at least to me, to go over a line, especially since he’s already a man of independent means. “My father dead, my fortune lives for me,” he tells us. He has been “Left solely heir to all his lands and goods, / Which I have bettered rather than decreased.” In the 2005 BBC modernization they rationalize his character by having him inherit nothing from his father but a dilapidated mansion and an ancient title. He reallly needs the money. But that’s not in Shakespeare’s play.

So why then such an insistence on a rich bride? I think he’s just that kind of guy. He’s not romantic, but a climber who knows his worth and is looking to increase it through marriage, which is just another deal to be won, to come out bettered rather than decreased. Is this something Katherina sees in him, and respects and approves of? The end of the play is usually read as Petruchio and Katherina recognizing each other as soul mates, and that may be true in a not very nice way.

(3) A lot of one’s response to the play depends on how you read Katharina’s final speech on the necessity of a wife’s submission to her husband. Are we to take it straight, or as her being ironic? And if the latter, how ironic?

Tony Tanner is one critic who says the speech “cannot be heard as irony,” but it still seems to me that she’s putting it on. Such a reading is prepared for by the Induction, when the page boy Bartholomew is instructed in how to play a dutiful lady. Then Petruchio’s tyrannical “taming” or training exercises (gaslighting well avant la lettre) have made the point that life, at least public life, is all a show anyway. That seems to always come up in Shakespeare, and the fact that this is such an early play means it’s presented in starker terms than it usually is.

The thing is, we tend not to like people who are looking to reshape our reality like this. We see them, justifiably, as both cynical and up to something. On the other hand, their cynicism is often justified. All the world’s a stage and they’re the playwrights, directors, and theatre-owners who get to make all the rules. At least until they bomb, or the stage burns down.