Murder Road: A Ghost and Lots of MacGuffins




Murder Road (2024)

By Simone St. James

Berkley/Penguin Group, 352 pages.



Canadian writer Simone St. James is known for paranormal thrillers in a nouveau Gothic style. Her latest, Murder Road, takes us to the shores of Lake Michigan in 1995. Newlyweds Eddie Carter and April Delray are heading for a honeymoon on the cheap. He repairs cars and she works the snack bar at a bowling alley, so there’s not much cash to throw around.


Theirs is also a get-acquainted trip as they got married just six months after meeting. He’s an Iraq vet suffering from PTSD, though April seldom sees signs of it, and he doesn’t know that Delray is one of several surnames April has had in her life. Her mother is supposedly deceased, but there's much Eddie has yet to discover about his bride. They are each in their mid-20s and, Eddie’s military service notwithstanding, have some growing up to do. But their giddy blue-collar desire for one another could have been yanked from a Bruce Springsteen song.


It's dark and pouring rain as they aim for Five Pines Resort, get off the interstate at the wrong exit, and find themselves heading for Coldlake Falls via Atticus Road. Why did Eddie turn his Pontiac onto this road? He's not sure, but it felt like it was the right way to go. Wrong!  They spot of a sopping wet figure by the road who seems distressed. They offer her a ride, learn her name is Rhonda Jean, but must rush her to a hospital as she’s bleeding all over the backseat. On the way, a black truck appears to be following them, but it speeds away when they turn toward the hospital. April has time only to see a young woman with long hair glaring at her from the bed of the pickup.


Eddie carries Rhonda Jean into emergency room. As they tell the intake nurse what they know, police arrive and advise that Rhonda Jean has died. They also behave as if Eddie and April are suspects and when Quentin, a state police detective arrives, he treats them as murderers. The Carters–April hasn’t had time to change her name but assumes Eddie’s family name–are flabbergasted when ordered not to leave town and lodge them with a 40ish woman named Rose, who seems hostile to the police and the Carters alike. Eddie and April are cozy enough, if one overlooks the Princess Diana* memorabilia, but this isn’t exactly a romantic getaway.


The command to stay in town is one of several MacGuffins–a device that exists solely to service the plot–in Murder Road. Police cannot detain you unless they charge you and, had they done so, even a public defender would have sprung the Carters in a flash. But this is a ghost story, not a courtroom drama. As such, there are many things in the plot that defy logic. St. James fleshes out some characters–especially Rose–and leaves others more hazy. We don’t learn until the very end why Quentin is acting as if he's auditioning for The Fugitive, why the high school Snell sisters are obsessed with an Atticus Lane ghost legend, or why the lakeside camping spot of Hunter Beach is presented as a kind of hippies-meet-bikers-and-hipsters haven. It’s 1995, after all, so hippies would be anachronistic unless the MacGuffin served the book’s central device of unsolved murders along Atticus Lane. No concrete motives are present, though the Snell sisters think they are all linked to a ghost with unfinished business.


To make such a thesis feasible, St. James adds more MacGuffins. The Carters find an unexpected ally in Rose and, instead of opening Pandora’s box, the Carters’ independent investigations unearth vital clues of close encounters of the creepy kind. The novel’s resolution rests upon linked contrivances that stretch credulity.


It was refreshing to read a novel whose protagonists are not spoiled rich toffs, trendy bourgeoisie, or clingy Millennials. I also credit St. James for a story that’s scary enough, but not particularly bloody. If you can get past the MacGuffins and logic holes, Murder Road is a decent whodunit thriller. Still, one must fault St. James for violating Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that successful MacGuffins require artful ways of hiding them. You’d have to be as clueless as the Carters to miss them whilst reading Murder Road.


Rob Weir


* FYI: Rose was not enshrining Diana, who was alive in 1995.


Galatea and Pygmalion: The Root of Centuries of Inspiration


Galatea (2013/2022)

By Madeline Miller

Ecco, 64 pages



Madeline Miller has won deserved acclaim for her reimaging of Greek mythology. I have read both Song Of Achilles and Circe, both of which made me go back to stories I read in undergraduate literature and history classes. In 2013, Miller wrote a short story/novella titled Galatea, which is the source for numerous Pygmalion plays, novels, poems, movies, and TV show variants (including several Star Trek episodes).


Pygmalion is best known in antiquity as a poem within Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In 1913, it became a play by George Bernard Shaw that the theatre and movie industry presented as My Fair Lady. Other movies you might know that are inspired by Pygmalion include Lars and the Real Girl, Ex Machina, Bicentennial Man, and Ruby Sparks. In essence, though, just about any cultural product involving some sort of magical or unexpected transformation owes a debt to Ovid.    


Rodin's Version


Painting by Gerome



Ovid’s Pygmalion was one of several Greek and Roman stories of an inanimate object that comes to life. (You could think of it as the inspiration for Pinocchio as well.) In Ovid’s telling and Miller’s modern reading, a Cypriot sculptor named Pygmalion carved a statue so beautiful that he literally falls in love with it to the point of kissing and caressing the female ivory body. (Miller has Galatea made of stone, but that’s a small matter as numerous sculptures were so rendered.) During a feast for the Aphrodite, the goddess is so moved by Pygmalion’s devotion and situation that she makes Galatea slowly come to life. She and Pygmalion have a daughter named Paphos. (In some tales Paphos is a son and a daughter named Metharme is their second child.)


Painting by Boucher


Miller’s story is unique in that it flips the switch and, like most of her work, tells the story from the woman’s perspective–even to the point of probing what Galatea was thinking when she was still made of stone. Her feminist takes on Greek myths would have been considered shocking, perhaps even subversive, in antiquity. Lucky for us, she’s writing now. Hers is a charming and thought-provoking tale that can be read in about half an hour or so. Ecco has reissued this 2013 story with a (slightly) revised afterword from Miller. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it. If you have, it’s worth revisiting. As the many uses of Pygmalion myth indicate, a good story never grows old.


Rob Weir


A Walk to Remember Seasonably Cliched



A Walk to Remember (1999)

By Nicholas Sparks

Warner Books, 240 pages





I occasionally like to read outside of my comfort zone, so when I saw a free Nicholas Spark book, I grabbed it. I know he’s a romance writer, which A Walk to Remember certainly is. It’s also religious in content, which is fine by me, though overt religiosity makes me nervous because of what how it’s abused. Many insist that organized religion is the root of all evil. That’s overstated, but it’s true that adherents frequently behave barbarically. Islam is troubled by terrorist groups (Hamas, Al Qaida, and El Shabab); ultra-conservative Jews interpret Zionism as an excuse for imperialism; Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims war with one another; and legions of Christians equate material success with faith, pick up guns in Jesus’ name, or behave with the intolerance of Old Testament Pharisees.


A Walk to Remember isn’t great literature, but it seems appropriate for the season. It is set in 1958 and was inspired by Sparks’ sister. Sparks was born in 1965, but he gets a lot of things about 1958 right. It is set in the coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina, during a period in which school prayer was legal, as were Christian-themed school plays. Its protagonist Landon Carter is the only offspring of a U.S. Congressman and a homemaker mother. They live in a historic home that’s large and well-appointed, though not quite a mansion. Landon’s life revolves around high school and he’s semi-popular, though he’s a slacker, is bright but not a scholar, and hangs out with athletes though he’s not one.


Sparks slathers on the nostalgia of the mythical Golden Fifties. In Beaufort, you can belong to any religion you want, as long as it’s Baptist. He and his family attend a Southern Baptist denomination headed by the widowed Reverend Hegbert Sullivan. Naughtiness for Landon and his friends involves sneaking into the cemetery to eat boiled peanuts, talk about “girls,” and engage in needling and braggadocio. Some occasionally drink a beer. Horror of horrors, Landon’s ex-girlfriend is now dating a guy who is in his 20s, drives a hot car, and wears a white T-shirt with a pack of Camels rolled into the sleeve. Shocked yet?


Landon is a senior working on his nonchalance. His father forces him to run for class president to bolster his chances of getting into the University of North Carolina. He doesn’t really want the role, but this is a “Yes, sir!” era, so he does and wins. This places him in what passes for the high school social whirl, though he’s still without a steady girlfriend. He knows who he doesn’t want to date: Jamie Sullivan, the minister’s daughter. “Old Hegbert,” as the kids call him, is stern, serious, and routinely works himself into a lather about the dangers of fornication. Jamie is forbidden to wear makeup or allow anyone in the house unless her father is home. Not that any peers would want to hang with her. She’s a mousy brown-sweatered loner never seen without her Bible whose idea of a good time is going to the orphanage to read to the children or perform other good deeds. In other words, she’s a classic Goody Two-Shoes. Landon does, however, take her to a school dance because he can’t find another date.


Circumstances will force the lives of Landon and Jamie to intersect again. The upcoming play is a yearly Christmas pageant that Old Hegbert wrote and Jamie wants it to be special for her father, as she will play an annunciation angel. The male lead, though, stutters and is terrible, so Jamie asks Landon to tryout as a “favor.” She also makes him promise he won’t fall in love with her. No worries! He’s about as withdrawn as he can be and sometimes is downright rude. You can take it from there!


The novel is riddled with cliches, stereotypes, and predictable turns–except for a central one involving Jamie. Why bother with it? First of all, you can gobble it like a pint of ice cream and in not much more time. Second, it has the wholesomeness of “The Gift of the Magi” and the redemptive feel of “A Christmas Carol.” Finally, it’s about a 57-year-old recalling how he learned to be a decent person who does the right thing. I’m down with that, no matter what ideology inspires it.


Rob Weir   


Somebody's Fool Completes Russo's Trilogy



Somebody’s Fool  (2023)

By Richard Russo

Knopf, 464 pages





Somebody’s Fool completes the North Bath, New York trilogy. Even if you’ve only seen the movie version of book one, Nobody’s Fool (2018), you know that author Richard Russo is a keen observer of blue-collar life. In book two, protagonist Donald Sullivan dies. Somebody’s Fool picks up the pieces through Sully’s son Peter, a divorced man frustrated in his academic career. He moves into the house “Sully” inherited with the idea of restoring it, does some part-time teaching, and takes a journalism gig. His plan is to flip the house and move back to New York. Un huh.


Somebody’s Fool is a ghost story without a specter. Even ten years after his death much of the town of North Bath operates according to a WWSD principle: What Would Sully Do? As as one character asks, “…what if dead wasn’t the same as gone?” Sully was certainly not a model citizen, but his stubbornness, his support for underdogs, and his crankiness made him magnetic in a rough town that had seen better days. It’s still a given that not just anyone can sit in Sully’s stool at Birdie’s. Now North Bath is slated to be absorbed by its more affluent neighbor, Schuyler Springs. That news is greeted with all the enthusiasm of being told that root canal surgery is needed. Who cares if North Bath is broke and decaying? It boils down to culture–blue collar versus the upwardly mobile. What will happen to blue-collar bars and diners?


As in the previous two books, Russo weaves parallel lives into his story. Police Chief Doug Raymer is about to lose his job, but try telling that to people in North Bath who call him when a man is found hanging at a closed resort. His on/off African American girlfriend Charice is the new chief in Schuyler Springs, but she has issues of her own, not the least of which are resistance to her authority, confusion over how she feels about Doug, and her OCD brother Jerome. He is highly educated, erudite, and is normally meticulously dressed, but he reappears as unkempt, disheveled, and tottering on the edge of being unhinged. Former deputy Del (Conrad Delgado) still sees Doug as chief, though he too is working across the river and is aware enough to know that he’s the butt of contempt from other officers; he’s just not savvy enough to do anything about it. He does, however, have a new girlfriend who is trying to free herself from her abusive husband. Even dim-witted Rub is back, and there are surprising revelations about him.  The same is true of Carl, Sully’s old boss, who has fallen from crooked grace.


Throughout, locals find themselves musing upon one of the late Sully’s pearls of wisdom: “Do some f***ing thing. If that doesn’t work, do something else.” Peter especially needs to heed that advice when the children his ex-wife refused to let him see come back into play. Peter is also forced to confront dilemmas I suspect many readers will recognize. How many of us tried very hard to be unlike our parents, only to fear that we are more like them than we thought? Who are the people who have their act together and who are those who only imagine they do? How do we adjust when we discover that what we think we wanted isn’t really what we wanted at all?


In other words, there’s quite a lot going on in Somebody’s Fool, including solving the mystery of the hanging victim. Even Russo’s title is not as simple as it sounds. Who’s the fool? The snap answer is that it’s Peter. Perhaps, but the more we read the more we come to suspect that everybody is somebody’s fool. If you take that path, then the novel’s purpose shifts to sorting good fools from the bad. 


As I have said in previous reviews of Russo books, he’s one of the few authors who never disappoints me. As always, Russo interjects enough humor to make certain we never grow overly serious or sad. My one small criticism of Somebody’s Fool is that it starts to tick au courant politically correct boxes as it nears its end. It’s not a matter of whether or not readers agree with such positions, but how they’d play in North Bath. Individuals change, but does a whole town?


Rob Weir


Why Holiday Music Bugs Me


A few weeks ago I expressed the view that Christmas music makes me unjoyful. Several people suggested I was a Santa-hatted Grinch, a spoil sport, a grump, or all three rolled into one. I’m not chastened, but I am explaining my reasons.


Reason # 1: Fatigue. You might have noticed that Thanksgiving has pretty much disappeared from the holiday hype machine. That’s weird because it’s the least controversial holiday we have–no battling faith systems, wars, or commercialism. Because there’s no pause between Halloween and Christmas, we start hearing Christmas music in stores well before the end of the October sugar rush. It’s bad enough the days are growing shorter; I don’t even want to think of dashing through the snow before I’ve finished raking leaves.


Reason # 2 is that I’m sick of hearing the same old/same old year after year. Have you ever sat in a church pew and wondered if there were any hymns written after the 18th century? Most Christmas carols aren’t quite that bad, but they’re close. “Jingle Bell Rock?” Are you kidding me? It dates from 1957 and if I want rock from that era, I’ll queue The Everly Brothers! “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus?” Country cornball from 1952. “Silver Bells?” Two years earlier still. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?” 1949. A majority of the religious tunes­: “Away in a Manger,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Little Town of Bethlehem,” etc.–come from the 19th century or earlier. I’d say let’s modernize the genre except…


Reason # 3: Schmatz. Christmas songs from pop and rock stars is the biggest affront to the ears since elevator music. I almost lost it when Dylan put out a holiday album, but my gag reflexes engage no matter who does them: Andrea Bocelli, Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, Bon Jovi, Nora Jones, Carrie Underwood…. It gets even worse when a celebrity such as Kelly Clarkson or Cher tries to write a new Christmas song destined not to become a classic. Just. Don’t. Those make me go full airsickness bag.


Reason # 4: Faux Comfort. Despite stated beliefs in innovation and newness, most Americans thrive on familiarity and repetition. They certainly don’t want anything that pricks the comfort bubble, which is why songs such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Circle of Steel” or Joni Mitchell’s “River” are not among their most-played compositions. Lines such as, “Deck the Halls was the song they sang/In the flat next door where they shout all day/She tips her gin bottle back till it’s gone,” or, “It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down the trees/They’re putting up reindeer/Singing songs of joy and peace/I wish I had a river/I could skate away on” do indeed burst imaginary nostalgia trips. No wonder legendary editor Peter De Vries once commented, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”


Reason # 5: The Forgotten Man. One thing Christmas carols are not about is the birth of Jesus. December 25 was a crock from the get-go. There’s no record of when Jesus was born, though sometime around April is a better bet given the efforts of centuries of theologians seeking to show how the Old Testament prefigured the New. Their exegesis would suggest a Christmas/Easter parallel. Christmas became associated with December in the first century to prevent Christian converts from celebrating the considerably more libertine and raucous Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Here in the USA, it’s hard to refute observations that Christmas is really Santa-based consumer capitalism–unless you think the Wise Men came to the manger bearing Amazon gift cards, L. L. Bean sweaters, and fruit cake destined for the compost bin. (Is fruit cake myrrh?)


Surprise! Last week, I actually went caroling–in a pub. I enjoyed it because it was heavy on public domain songs. They’re older than mall muzak but you don’t hear them as often. Do you have any idea how many “Twelve Days of Christmas” don’t have any “five golden rings?” Here’s one titled, “Green Grow the Rashes,” not to be confused with a ballad from Robert Burns.


Gathering with friends and sharing food and drink is nice. So too are presents, lights, decorations, and belting out choruses to less familiar songs. Just hold the mall carols.


Rob Weir


Music for December: Finch/Ni Bhriain, Gravet de Coulomb, Kumara, Powers, Earl



The term “Celtic music” is often more marketing than historical circumstance. Many of the progenitors of what we often now think of a single genre that features jigs, reels, airs, and sad songs were once played by parlor, castle, and dance hall musicians. Catrin Finch and Aoife Ní Bhriain remind us of the first two in a collaboration titled Double You. Finch is a highly celebrated harper. She has won major awards, recorded more than a dozen and a half albums, once served as the harper for the Prince of Wales, and teaches at both the Welsh College of Music and Dance and the Royal Academy of Music in London. Ní Bhriain is an Irish fiddler with an impressive collection of prizes of her own. Their instrumental duos also depart from associations of Celtic music with New Age music. Finch and Ní Bhriain find the intersections between classical and traditional music in nine serious compositions whose nod to Celtic humor is that all nine titles are one word beginning with the letter W. Most are also longer, because they take their time to establish themes and spin off from them. “Woven” begins with delicate fiddle with Finch’s harp acting almost like a drone in its repetitious delicacy. As if unfolds, though, it’s akin to a suite in several movements that open and close via Ní Bhriain’s bowing. “Wonder” has an appropriate air of mystery, almost as if the harp is walking us through a mist draped with repeated fiddle pulses that scaffold Finch’s precise harp notes and bell-like tones. The appropriately named “Whisper” is quiet, builds, and evolves into something more pastoral before it ends seven minutes later with a return to quiet music with space between the notes. If you watch the videos, know that the album sound is better balanced, but you can see from their respective intensity that Finch and Ní Bhriain are serious about what they do and how they do it. 




Le gravetat de Coulomb is a Catalonian trio that between them give a workout to a variety of flutes, accordions, drums, tambourine, and bass clarinet, and voices. Their latest project, L’efecte doppler, indeed involves changes in sound frequencies, but it also references a modulating style of flute playing. Most of the album is devoted to “Gypsy” dances. “El salt de la rata” might be the most familiar as it’s a joyous jota, a folk dance in ¾ time. “Tu” is a chotis but might also sound vaguely reminiscent; its three-voice call-and-response vocal evokes traditional Quebecois singing, though the instrumentation differs. “Una punxa al peu” has a celebratory village feel and invokes visions of a tune chasing its own tail. “Ottawa és més a la vora del món real que del Japó” is an unusual tune that changes flavor and tempo. It’s not on the album, but you can sample what they are like in concert. Hey, you try trying flute and percussion at the same time!



Kumara is the stage name of an interesting collaboration between Uganda’s Samite Mulondo, sessions violinist Sean Harkness, and chamber musician Shem Guibbory or, as Samite notes, a melding of African, jazz, and operatic music with “flow.” If you don’t recognize the plucked instrument on “River Crossing,” it’s a litungu, an eight-stringed Kenyan bowl lyre. The sonics in the background are a combo of violin and electric guitar. In a similar vein, the structure of “Adunga Jam” is set by the tune’s namesake instrument, an eight-stringed–they have anywhere from 7-10–­arch harp with wood and leather bodies. As you will hear, it sets a hypnotic pace for guitar and Harkness’ impressive violin work. You can hear splashes of Samite’s vocals on “Conversation in C Minor” and “Forest Music.” I emphasize, though, that this is mostly an instrumental album, not a Samite solo project. You might recognize the tones of the more familiar thumb piano on “Waxed Kalimba,” though the tune itself has a traveling feel. This project is intended as a post-Covid healing effort and the trio’s very name derives from Sanskrit and roughly translates  “higher self.” I’m not sure we are post-Covid, but the music has a decided calming effect.



Summerlyn Powers is an Alabama folk/country singer now living in Nashville. She’s young, but as her five-song EP The Hive indicates, she’s poised and ready. The namesake song is somewhere between rock and a boot kicker with Powers’ voice muscling its way through an electric mix. She turns to a bit of rockabilly on “Let’s Roll” and tamps down the noise for the soulful “Healing Like I Am.” The latter sports the line crying when need to/laugh ’cause you have to… hope you’re healing like I am. It’s kind of like Powers in that it’s straightforward but ambiguous–a relationship song that’s somewhere between breaking up and not being ready.  Ready or not, Powers is primed to arrive.



Ava Earl is a bubbly singer from Alaska who has been prolific despite her relative youth. Too Much falls into the category of acoustic pop and, to be forthright, just isn’t my bowl of cloudberries. Earl’s vocals are earnest but girly and her lyrics don’t always connect. What would you anticipate for a song titled “For Hell?” Having listened to it several times, it’s still not clear what she’s driving at. At its center is a woman who is five months pregnant, but after that I’m not sure where we’re supposed to go. There’s a musing on tall buildings as secular religion that leads to this: I can’t be too greedy/Cause it’s you that I need/Don’t break my heart. The whole thing is wrapped in a light orchestral backing. “Too Much” has good instincts–a young feminist’s message that it’s okay to be yourself–but it veers into bad luck at romance and hearing loss. (She also explores the latter in  “Ears Bleed.”) Yet it’s hard to derive weightiness in such a bright tune that seems to have the dance hall in mind. Moreover, lyrics such as I regret half the things that I said/ I know I talk too much/ I guess I’ll make a fool of myself, until you shut me up isn’t exactly in-your face defiance. In my estimation, message music and bouncy pop are seldom a good mix.



Rob Weir


Crook Manifesto: Part Two of the Harlem Trilogy




Crook Manifesto (2023)

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 321 pages.



Crook Manifesto is a mild disappointment, if a work by a brilliant writer with two Pulitzer Prizes for Literature can be such a thing. It is the second book of a planned Harlem trilogy and, like many such efforts, has neither the wallop of Book One nor the anticipated resolutions of Book Three.


This one offers snapshots from three years: 1971, 1973, and 1976. Those familiar with New York City in the 1970s know that much about the Big Apple was rotten to the core: rampant crime, street corner hookers, bodies dumped in parks, arson, decay, and politicians as crooked as a shepherd’s herding tool. Things were especially fraught in Harlem, with the revolutionary ideology of Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army adding to the tension. Whitehead divides his book into three sections: “Ringolevio,” “Nefertiti T.N.T.”, and “The Finishers.” At its center is fulltime furniture dealer/part-time fence Ray Carney, whom we met in Harlem Shuffle.


Ray would dearly like to get out the moving stolen goods game and might have done so, had it not been for the Jackson Five. His daughter May wants to see them at Madison Square Garden with all her heart , but where’s Ray supposed to get tickets that much in demand, let alone pay for them? He calls upon Munson, the crooked cop who used to shake him down for protection money. Bad move. Munson is a mess–booze, marital discord, and the Knapp Commission breathing down his neck. Munson wants to blow town and will score tickets if Carney moves some hot stones for him. A bit too hot, as it turns out. The section title references a street game analogous to Red Rover involving hunters, prey, and “jail.” It parallels Ray’s forced journey with Munson who squeezes cash from every contact in Harlem. A few he kills and others he should have treated with more respect. The power of Chink Montague, Harlem’s reigning crime boss, is waning and that of Notch Walker is on the rise. Let’s just say it wasn’t healthy to mess with one of Notch’s men.


Whitehead switches gears and tone in Part Two. Former porn purveyor Aaron “Zippo” Flood is seeking to go semi-legit by making a Blaxploitation film titled “Nefertiti T.N.T.” that is being filmed in Carney’s showroom. It’s bankrolled by the estate of a white guy who adopted him and paid for his arts education at the Pratt Institute, but Zippo has a problem: his title role star Lucinda Cole has disappeared. Enter Pepper, a tough guy for hire who is unimpressed by Zippo, Cole, Chink, big-shot comedian Roscoe Pope, his manager, rising black politician Alexander Oakes, or anyone else–except Carney.  Pepper gives us the book’s title: “A man has a hierarchy of crime, of what is acceptable and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches.” All of this happens at an inopportune time as Blaxploitation movies are on the way out and disaster films are all the rage. Heads will roll faster than the film reels and some won’t survive to see it.


Part Three is the arson chapter, “The Finisher” being the guy who actually lights blazes (broadly defined). Whitehead writes, “The city was burning… not because of sick men with matches and cans of gas, but because the city itself was sick, begging for it.” It is also the section in which we see how long Carney can burn the candle at both ends of the straight/crook spectrum. Elizabeth is supporting Oakes for Manhattan borough president, but Ray knows that he’s corrupt. Carney has survived by not taking sides or having someone else do the heavy lifting. Does he recede to the background or standup to the likes of Walker and Oakes?


Whitehead tells a thrilling tale, but his tripartite structure doesn’t always cohere. This is especially the case in Section II in which Carney nearly disappears. Though Zippo’s   cinematic dilemma and Pepper blowing the lid off Lucinda Cole’s glamorous cover adds a certain amount of historical heft, it feels forced and seems more of a detour along the road to Harlem’s slide into self-interest and dysfunctionality. We wait to see how it impacts Carney. I doubt Whitehead could write a bad novel, but Crook Manifesto smolders too long before it combusts.


Rob Weir




The Art Thief: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction



The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession (2023)

By Michael Finkel

Random House, 269 pages.





When Emily Dickinson wrote, “Fortune befriends the bold,” she didn’t have someone like Stéphane Guillaume Frédéric Breitwieser in mind. Boldness can be easily bent in untoward ways; few criminals have done so with the sheer moxie of Breitwieser. Between 1997-2001 he and his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus heisted 239 works of art from 172 museums in seven countries, an average of one every 15 days, though he often stole from the same museum more than once in the same day. Most items were pirated in broad daylight when the museums were open.

For the most part, his only tool was a Swiss army knife. He was arrested after trying to steal a 16th century bugle from the Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland, and spent 26 months in prison. When he got out, he wrote a book about his wayward ways, but was far from being rehabilitated. In all, Breitwieser stole more than $2 billion worth of artworks. In The Art Thief journalist Michael Finkel recounts the boldness of Breitwieser’s spree and seeks to get into his mind. 

As Finkel notes, the very “story of art…is a story of stealing” that stretches deep into the past. The Babylonians stole (destroyed?) the Arc of the Covenant, the Vandals–from whom we get the term vandalism–plundered Rome, the Conquistadores hauled away Incan treasures, and imperialists such as Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and State-sponsored tomb raiders filled museums with stolen goods. Picasso hired thieves to lift a few figurines, the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre for two years (1911-13), and the 13 paintings taken from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 have yet to be located. Breitwieser isn’t the king monetarily speaking, but few if any larcenists have been as persistent as he.

Breitwieser insisted that he was an art lover who “liberated” works locked away in museums that didn’t appreciate them. He and Anne-Catharine dressed meticulously in secondhand designer threads and lived in two converted attic rooms in the Mulhouse, France home of Breitwieser’s divorced mother, Mireille (Stengel) Breitwieser that she averred she never entered. Profit was never Stéphane’s motive; he stole things he found beautiful and had a fondness for 16th-17th century Northern European art. Each venue was cased to see what sort of security was in place and how many employees were present. Many were remote, lightly-visited museums that lacked cameras, sensors, or large staffs At first, he removed smaller items that wouldn’t be missed immediately–chalices, rings, pistols, clocks–but his chutzpah led him to use a large coat to spirit away items such crossbows and helmets, or rolled up canvases zipped from their frames.

Soon his Mulhouse rooms were crammed with looted goods, including paintings from Brueghel the Younger, Lucas Cranach, David Teniers, and Antoine Watteau. When he was arrested the first time, he claimed he was merely “borrowing” the works, and that his mother knew nothing of his exploits. The latter is dubious as upon hearing of his arrest, Mireille destroyed 60 works. (She claimed she threw them into the Rhine Canal, though she probably shredded the paintings in her garbage disposal!) Anne-Catharine got off with just six months in jail by pleading she fell under the Svengali spell of her older (by 9 years) boyfriend. (Mireille served 18 months.)

As for why Breitwieser got such a light sentence, the answer seems to be that be bamboozled psychologists. Only a handful of writers had the courage to denounce him as a common thief. Armed with parole, a new girlfriend, a car bought by his mother, and $1000 worth of stolen clothing, he embarked on a book tour that was also a continuation of his pre-prison pilferage. He went back to jail for three years, was arrested a third time and is now required to wear a tracking monitor.

The Art Thief is a fascinating read, though more expert psychological analysis is in order. Put simply, the question of Breitwieser’s makeup remains unsettled. Is he an evil genius, a kleptomaniac, a spoiled rich brat protected by his mother, or just a punk treated with kid gloves because he’s suave and of bourgeois background? His is a fascinating tale, but the art world would be richer had he never been born.

Rob Weir






Fashioned by Sargent is Visually Stunning


Fashioned by Sargent

Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Through January 16, 2024


Many New Englanders think of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) as one of their own, but that’s wishful thinking. His father was from Gloucester, but John was born in Florence, Italy and was an expatriate for most of his life. He did spend time in Boston, where he painted society figures, but is best known here for his mural work, including the MFA dome ceiling. Mostly he studied, lived, and worked in London, Paris, and Venice. He had a complicated relationship with opulence and his bachelor life is up for dispute. He had brief affairs with women, but he was probably either gay or bisexual.


What is not up for dispute is that Sargent is among the greatest portrait painters in the history of Western art. Perhaps only Franz Hals painted white on white or black on black as well as he.


The MFA’s Fashioned by Sargent (in conjunction with Tate Britain) shows people in haute couture and also displays some of the clothing we see on the walls. It’s a large show marred only by harsh lighting that does not show Sargent’s oils in their best light. You will see how the light reflects off the canvases, which is why I shot some from the side to reduce the “bounce.” (Don’t even ask how long they took to edit!)


Suffice it say that those of means in the Gilded Age and Edwardian era wore their wealth. We see this in one of the show’s first portraits, “Madame Ramon Subercaseaux.” (Please note that it was the custom of the day to identify women by their marital status, a rule Sargent sometimes broke.) What do you see first, the gown or her face? Notice how the blacks bleed seamlessly into one another.


Madame Ramon Subercaseaux


The goal of Fashioned by Sargent is to show how carefully Sargent dressed and rendered his models. It was often not the subject who chose what to wear. He often kept clothing in his ateliers and insisted that sitters don them. When Mrs. Fiske Warren and her daughter Rachel came to his studio, Rachel wanted to wear green velvet; Sargent insisted she don the pink gown we see below. Note the dry brush work in the detail.


Mrs. Fiske Warren




He did the same with young W. Graham Robertson and told him he “must” wear the long coat Sargent handed him. He likely did the same in his famed portrait “Dr. Pozzi at Home.” Samuel John Pozzi (1846-1918) was a French gynecologist and apparently a bit of a rake, but it’s unlikely he wore such a red robe around his parlor. 


Dr Pozzi at Home

And then there’s the matter of “Madame X,” Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau,  perhaps Sargent’s most famous portrait because it scandalized viewers and critics. He painted two versions in 1883-84, the first one deemed obscene because her decolletage was even deeper and one strap suggestively fell from her shoulder. To top it off, she was the wife of a friend but rumors swirled she had a fling with the artist!


Madame X

 One of the favorite paintings at MFA is Sargent’s portrait of the daughters of Mrs. Edward Darling Boit. We get a portrait of her in the show wearing a flamboyant hat made of bird of paradise feathers. We also see the hat, which is even more imposing than it appears on canvas. It is indirectly linked to the 1895 founding of the Audubon Society, in part an attempt to save the fowl from an estimated 100,000 wearers of its plumage. 


Mrs. Edward Darling Boit


Bird of Paradise hat


Sargent also broke a few conventions. He dressed Ena Wertheimer (1904) in theatrical male garb in “A Vele Gonfire” (“In Full Sail”) and championed the New Woman ready for sporting action in “Mrs. Charles Thursby.” Her maiden name was Alice Brisbane, a socialist and Free Thinker. There are several portraits of his niece, Rose-Marie Ormond: “The Black Brook” (1908) and “Repose” (1911). As curatorial commentary notes, in each case “cloth” was the real main subject. There’s certainly a lot of it in the latter. 


Ena Wertheimer


Mrs. Charles Thursby




If I had to pick my favorite images, two, spring to mind, the first of which was of actress Ellen Terry portraying Lady Macbeth. Her costume is spectacular, the iridescent green coming from sewing beetle wings into her pseudo-Celtic gown. The entire was draped with a scarlet velvet cape. 


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth


Beetle Wing Dress


Cloak Detail

Another favorite–and an unusually “modern-looking” one despite its Tudor background paneling–is of Elsie Palmer (1890) that’s sometimes called “Lady in White,” though there’s a subtle lavender scarf on her lap. Like the previous one, it evokes the Pre-Raphaelites.



"Lady in White" (Elsie Palmer)


I can’t emphasize enough the importance of viewing this show in person. Below are a few images of detail you need to see to appreciate fully. 




Rob Weir