Murder at the salvage yard

Here’s a remarkably good first novel by the latest addition to my list of outstanding North Carolina authors.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

IT DIES WITH YOU.  By Scott Blackburn. Crooked Lane Books. 304 pages. $27.99.

When Hudson Miller was just a boy, his dad “dismantled” what had been a reasonably happy, church-going, middle class North Carolina family by getting way too fond of the wife of a younger couple who lived nearby. After months of bitter quarrels and tears, Hudson’s mom divorced his dad and moved into an apartment. Tammy’s husband left her and moved away.  His dad married Tammy, and Hudson became something of a problem adolescent.

So when a call from his dad comes late one night when Hudson’s trying to relax after a difficult shift at work, he doesn’t answer. He doesn’t relent when his dad tries to call a second time.  When he occasionally meets or talks with his father, they have nothing in common. Hudson has no sympathy for his dad’s increasingly belligerent beliefs that everybody is out to get him and all the other people his dad deems hardworking, upstanding Americans. Worst of all, his dad fears, “they” might try to take his guns…

The next day, Hudson gets a call from a police officer in the small town of Flint Creek where he’d grown up, not far from Greensboro, where he lives and works. His dad had been shot to death the night before at the salvage yard he owned.  A robbery, most likely, he’s told.

Hudson’s life has been on a downhill spiral for a while. He’d been piecing together a living as a boxer, trying to qualify for bigger fights that could mean more money and attention, and training kids and teenagers in the afternoons at a recreation center, plus tending bar some nights. When he lands a dangerous punch in a brawl following a fight one night, he derails his boxing career, loses his job at the rec center and becomes notorious on YouTube. He takes on more bartending shifts and also starts working as a bouncer at the bar.

To his surprise and Tammy’s dismay, Hudson soon learns that his dad has willed him the salvage yard and three small rental houses.

As he tries to figure out what to do with his new business, Miller’s Pull-a-Part, Hudson discovers there was quite a bit more going on there than selling car parts and scrap metal – and none of it good. His dad seems to have been involved in illegal gun smuggling, for one thing. Things get worse as a body turns up at the salvage yard. Hudson tries to figure out the dark secrets hidden in Flint Creek. He is joined in his quest by his dad’s former employee, gruff, beer-swilling 71-year-old Charlie Shoaf, and Lucy Reyes, a tough and determined teenage girl on a mission to find justice for her missing brother.

Scott Blackburn’s debut novel is remarkably well done. The mystery, the amateur but determined detective work and the hidden side of a seemingly placid small town are all well told. But there’s so much more here. We have complex, well-developed characters, starting with Hudson, who is trying to figure out what he wants and how to rebuild his life. Just as in real life, in Flint Creek, people are neither all bad nor all good, but some certainly have a definite bent in one direction. There’s also good insight into small-town life, where people who know your family or knew you when you were growing up think they know a lot more about you than they do. And, despite some grim developments, there is humor, and there are moments that might restore some of your faith in humanity.

Blackburn, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro graduate, lives in High Point.

Read this book.  Then join me in waiting eagerly for Scott Blackburn’s next novel.

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Twists and turns in a fast-moving thriller

Bob Moyer reviews a new thriller that sounds like a great choice for those long winter nights – or any time you want to lose yourself in an entertaining book.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE LIGHTNING ROD. By Brad Meltzer. William Morrow. 419 pages. $28.99

The good news is Brad Meltzer writes a big book containing lots of characters, all with interesting back stories, and plot twists and turns galore

 The other good news is that his books don’t read long, he writes in short chapters that keep us interested, and he moves around the story without confusing the reader.

In his latest, he features two of the most interesting characters in current thriller literature, Zig and Nola. Zig is former head mortician at Dover Air Force Base, where they bring all the banged-up bodies of military fatalities to get fixed up for their families. He’s now in private practice. Nola is a military artist-in-residence, traveling wherever there’s a story that needs artistic interpretation. Nola and Zig have a history—she was in his daughter’s Girl Scout troop, and she saved his life in the first of the series.

In this installment, Zig, now in private practice, is called back to fix up someone he knew. He’s not sure why until Nola shows up, and he realizes he’s been used as bait. Nola is running to or running from something. When she shows up, it’s not a good sign. As one of Zig’s colleagues says, “You’re like the number thirteen—or a lightning rod:  you attract bad things.”  Sure enough, as Zig tries to parse what the murdered man has to do with Nola, she turns up either just before, just after, or during the many places Zig explores. Meltzer heightens suspense by hiding the event that lies at the heart of the murders until three quarters of the way through the book.

Meltzer doesn’t stop with that reveal. In the last quarter of the book, he whirls through plot twists that produce one revelation after another, yet never really shed light onto Nola’s search. That hunt is not revealed until the very end of the book, and it joins a passel of surprises that keep us turning pages. It also provides a springboard for what will certainly be Book 3 in the series. Be on the lookout for another big book. Soon.

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Charlie Lovett’s new novel is a thriller, for sure

Charlie Lovett turns his considerable talents to writing an international thriller, with results that measure up to his fans’ high expectations.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE ENIGMA AFFAIR.  By Charlie Lovett. Blackstone Publishing, 350 pages, $26.99, hardcover.

Through four fine novels now, Charlie Lovett has proved that he is an imaginative, skilled, thoughtful, intelligent and all-around accomplished author. It should come as no surprise that when he set out to write an international thriller, he created a good one.

The Enigma Affair gives readers plenty of what they expect in a thriller – lots of fast-paced action, danger, plot twists, secrets, mysteries, betrayals, troubled characters … And, as you might expect from Lovett, who’s also made a name for himself in the world of antiquarian books and as a biographer, there is plenty of well-researched history.

The story starts in northwestern North Carolina, in a small mountain town where Patton Harcourt is a librarian – and where in the first sentence of the book, she knows exactly how to respond when a bullet whizzes soundlessly past her ear as she is baking chocolate ganache-filled profiteroles on a Sunday morning. Nor is she particularly surprised that someone is trying to kill her. She knows of at least three people with a good reason to want her dead.

When an armed man stealthily enters Patton’s house a while later, she’s ready for him. The man, who says his name is Nemo, eventually more or less convinces her that he’s not the person who tried to kill her, that he has neutralized – with a tranquilizer dart – the shooter.

Once they are away from the house and somewhere that might be safe at least briefly, Nemo tells Patton that he’s a professional assassin who was hired to kill an old friend of hers. Instead of accomplishing his mission, he’s being pursued by two men looking for something at the old friend’s house – and who now seem also to be after Patton.

As they try to figure out what the men are after, Patton and Nemo find a message from the German SS in World War II, encoded by an Enigma machine.

And with that they are off, to London and Bletchley Park in England, where Ruthie Drinkwater, an old love interest of Patton’s, just happens to be an Enigma expert. With that friend’s help, they learn that Hitler’s right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler, believed that his alchemy project had succeeded. Then they discover that a deceptively nice German woman seemingly on a crusade to return precious books stolen by the Nazis to the families they belong to is actually Himmler’s granddaughter – and the head of a group of white supremacists bent on acquiring enormous wealth so that they can make Hitler’s warped vision of the ideal world a reality after all.

From there, Patton, Nemo and a growing assortment of unlikely allies race against time, trying to win, as Nemo describes it, “the last battle of World War II.” The hunt takes them across Europe, Munich and Prague, and into mountainous regions of Switzerland, Germany and Italy. They are trying to stop the neo-Nazis – and to stay alive in the process.

Lovett does a fine job of keeping things moving, even as he moves back and forth in time from the war to the present, and from Patton, Nemo and their motley crew to their present-day enemies. We learn about the Holocaust, the code breakers at Bletchley and the poisonous white supremacist mindset that still threatens the world.

And we come to know the modern-day characters, especially Patton and Nemo. As you might expect from Lovett, they are more complex than they seem at first. As we gradually learn, they are deeply flawed and scarred – and they are trying desperately now to do the right thing.

Lovett has given us a book that’s hard to put down, one that’s speaks to the world we live in even as it reminds us of a dark chapter in our history.

Charlie Lovett, who divides his time between Winston-Salem and England, is also a successful children’s playwright and a leading authority on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland.

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Saying the right things, doing the wrong

Paul O’Connor takes a look at a sobering, thought-provoking book about a highly  influential global management and consulting company.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

WHEN MCKINSEY COMES TO TOWN: THE HIDDEN INFLUENCE OF THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL CONSULTING FIRM. By Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe. Doubleday. 386 pages. $29.75. Also available as an audiobook from Random House Audio read by Ari Fliakos.

Every year, thousands of the world’s most promising university graduates endure the rigorous application process in hopes of landing a job with McKinsey & Co., a global management and consulting company.

A job with McKinsey, even if it lasts only a short time, and many new hires are not retained long term, is a ticket to the fast track in the professional world. The company pays well and offers the opportunity to work with some of the world’s most powerful companies and governments. And, it is a company whose reputation for doing the right thing and for having principles and standards draws the most idealistic of graduates from prestigious places like Harvard Law and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

 It will be interesting to see how long that reputation for high standards and ethical conduct lasts after enough people read When McKinsey Comes To Town, the expertly researched new book by Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe. The authors, investigative reporters for The New York Times, nail the company as a ruthless, heartless, cold-blooded revenue producer. Forget McKinsey’s so-called high ethical standards, the authors say, because this company will work for just about anybody and offer expertise on just about anything, no matter how vile, if the price is right.

This is one of those books – David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie is another – that is painful to read. There is nothing redeeming about McKinsey as it is laid out in this book. To the contrary, everything about the company and the work it does leaves the reader asking how such gifted people can be so destructive of others and the world around them?

  Name a scandal or a major problem faced by the world today, and McKinsey is on the wrong side.

 McKinsey was a key adviser to Purdue Pharma as it pushed OxyContin and exploded the opioid crisis. Here’s how to sell more of the drug, McKinsey advised, and how to turn even more people into addicts.

 Addiction was something McKinsey knew something about from a long tenure as the tobacco industry’s leading marketing consultants. And when tobacco companies became too unpopular, only recently, to work with, McKinsey still had the vaping industry and ideas on how to increase nicotine addiction.

 Been in a car accident and felt that your auto insurer tried to screw you? In the 1990s, McKinsey taught Allstate how to do just that. Then other companies followed their lead. And remember the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the collapse of the financial system? McKinsey developed the financial strategy that led to the bundling and resale of mortgages, many of which were sub-prime.

The authors report on McKinsey’s involvement in two major scandals in South Africa, in consultations with the repressive government of Saudi Arabia that led to the crushing of dissent, and with government-owned businesses in China, some of which present a clear danger to American security. Great Britain’s health care system was the most efficient and effective in the world until Conservative Party officials called in McKinsey to help cut costs. It’s no long efficient or effective, and the Brits didn’t save much money.

McKinsey’s claims to support a cleaner environment and efforts to curb global warming are so much hot air. The company may purchase carbon assets for its air travel, but it also works with coal producers to increase their sales.

 McKinsey is even on the wrong side of baseball, having been a consultant to the Houston Astros in the years when they were perfecting the cheating schemes that led to their World Series championship in 2018. The team’s chief cheater is a McKinsey alum.

When McKinsey comes to town, layoffs follow. The company preaches cost-cutting through layoffs, mostly as a way to accelerate compensation growth for top management. The company doesn’t like maintenance, either, and that has led to terrible accidents at such sites as Disneyland.

Another charming characteristic: McKinsey plays for both sides. They will work for competing companies, advising Company X on how to outperform Company Y while advising Y on how to beat X. And, they will work for the tobacco companies, advising how to increase profits and sales, while working for government agencies on strategies to reduce smoking.

 Maybe the saddest aspect of this book lies in the McKinsey workforce. The company draws from the best and brightest of our young people. They are recruiting the top graduates from the top academic institutions, promising these people not only generous compensation but the opportunity to do good in the world. They keep one promise but not the other.

 I’m glad I read the book, but it certainly did not raise my view of the human race.

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Soldiers, assassins, music and food – Bruno is on the case again

What can persuade Bob Moyer to take time out from his busy schedule to read a book and write a review? The answer is simple: a new Bruno, Chief of Police novel by Martin Walker. The Bruno novels are always a delicious treat, and it sounds as though this one keeps the tradition alive.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

TO KILL A TROUBADOR. A Bruno, Chief of Police Novel. By Martin Walker. Knopf. 320 pages. $27.

Not much changes in the Dordogne town of St. Denis. Bruno jogs every morning, followed by his faithful Bassett Balzac. Every afternoon he takes his horse Hector from his friend Pamela’s stable and rides him along the ridge. He even finds time every now and then for a brief tryst with Pamela herself. When a helicopter full of soldiers lands in his yard at noon, Bruno does what he always does for guests — he whips up a meal for them.

Soldiers in St. Denis? Of course. Not much changes in a Martin Walker novel. A few pages into the book, and the tiny town has once again become the center of an international situation that involves all of the French security agencies, three other countries’ security agencies, diplomats, countless soldiers, sniffing dogs, Bruno’s former girlfriend Isabel, and, of course, Bruno. It seems a local group, Les Troubadors, has made popular a tune called “A Song for Catalonia,” which the Spanish government has banned because it fans the separatist flames in Catalonia. At the same time, a wrecked car with a sniper bullet and a golf bag is found nearby, and everyone suspects an assassination plot by a Catalan terrorist organization. Everyone also quickly supposes an attempt on the life of the song’s writer, who will appear at the annual riverside concert in St. Denis, produced by Bruno — of course.

It will take Bruno the rest of the book, however, to find the real means of the attack. That’s where all the international attention and coded communication stem from. While all the kerfluffle continues, local life goes on. Bruno and Pamela enter the local tennis tournament and get through the first round. Florence the local computer genius needs Bruno’s help to keep her ex-husband in jail. And Bruno gets to help prepare both a boar and a lamb for roasting. He’s so busy he doesn’t get around to dishing up the requisite food porn of one of his meals till the very end of the book. That section (nine pages long) makes for two climaxes within pages — Bruno’s meal, and his stopping the assassin. Take your pick; they are both very satisfying.

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Seeking the truth about City 40

Paul O’Connor reviews a novel set in the 1950s in the Soviet Union, based on a real-life nuclear disaster, and finds it surprisingly entertaining.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE HALF LIFE OF VALERY K. By Natasha Pulley. Bloomsbury Publishing. 370 pages. $28, hardcover.

Fans of historical fiction get an extra discipline in The Half Life of Valery K, some very digestible nuclear physics, “digestible” being the pun here because this is the story of a very real nuclear accident that led to thousands of deaths from radiation exposure, some of it ingested.

In 1957, something bad happened at a uranium processing plant and scientific institute about 60 miles from the city of Chelyabinsk, Soviet Union. An explosion of some sort caused the release of a great deal of radiation, maybe as much as was released in the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in April 1986.

The Soviet government tried to hide the entire incident, releasing no information about it and refusing to warn nearby residents. Scientists descended on the scene, however, with the mission of studying the effects of radiation on humans, animals and plants, all in the hopes of finding what levels of radiation all could endure and which of these species were less effected.

It is into this historical landscape that British writer Natasha Pulley inserts her fictional characters and storylines.

Valery Kolkhanov is an esteemed Soviet scientist wasting away in the Gulag in 1963 when, one day, he is shepherded out of prison, escorted to an airplane and transferred to City 40, as the accident site and its research institute are called. Today, this is the city of Ozersk.

It turns out that Valery’s former mentor, a woman for whom he worked as an undergraduate during a Berlin internship before World War II, is conducting studies and needs his expertise. It was that contact with the outside world that got Valery K in trouble with the authorities in the first place. Exposure to anyplace non-Soviet was a serious offense in their minds.

Valery’s transition from inmate on a near starvation diet living in squalor to the relative affluence of his new position is, at times, beyond his ability to process. Simply having real coffee, a warm bed and some freedom of movement are foreign to him. Pulley’s description of Valery’s challenge is insightful.

Although Valery has been released from his prison, he is still considered an inmate. The local KGB officer informs him of security protocols and explains that, if he breaks them, he’ll be shot. In the first few chapters, the officer shoots a couple of people for breaching security.

Valery, having spent years in the Gulag, is ambivalent about life. He doesn’t see himself living very long, anyway, considering that his next four years will be on the site of a nuclear mishap or back in the Gulag. Also, he finds rules difficult to obey when they conflict with science.

Almost immediately, Valery begins seeking the truth of about the events at City 40 and what the institute is doing there. Simple scientific observations convince him that the official story is a lie. Chapter after chapter, he uncovers more about the accident and its residual effects. All lead to an exciting conclusion.

Pulley has done an excellent job with this novel. Her characters are strong and well crafted. She builds a storyline that leads the characters to take drastic action, a storyline that is both believable and captivating. She writes so clearly about the science involved that those readers without knowledge of the material will be able to understand.

The book is fun, if “fun” is the right word for a book about a radiation disaster.

On the minus side, Pulley’s British, so she spells a few words oddly and has some weird idioms, and in something I see too often in historical fiction, her denouement is bland. She’d have been better served to just end the book at the climax.

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A gem of a Southern novel

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SOUTH OF HEAVEN. By Patti Frye Meredith. Mint Hill Books, Main Street Rag Publishing Company. $17.95, paperback.

Patti Frye Meredith’s South of Heaven is a gem of a Southern novel, one of those rare books that captures life in the South with all its contradictions and nuances without turning characters into caricatures, complete with exaggerated accents.

It’s a debut novel, but Meredith has been writing good Southern stories for years, most of them set in the mountains. Meredith grew up in Galax, Va., but has fond memories of Carthage, the book’s setting in the North Carolina Sandhills, from childhood visits to her grandparents. She’s moved with her husband as his career took him to several Southern states, and she writes now from their home in Chapel Hill, so we North Carolinians can claim her as one of our own.

This is the story of two adult sisters who  bear grudges against each other that go  back to childhood and whose infrequent interactions are always fraught. Leona, the elder sister, purposefully married well and has what appears to be the perfect life, complete with two children, an impressive house in Raleigh and a place at the coast.

Fern, the younger sister, has not fared nearly so well, but she’s learned to be content with her life as the single parent of her son, a young man in his early 20s who always says exactly what he thinks. Fern married young, and her husband went missing in action in Vietnam, 23 years earlier. She works part time at the small local newspaper and  lives in the family home in Carthage, not far from Southern Pines. Her son, Dean, lives with her, and so does the elderly aunt who raised Leona and Fern.

Now it’s 1998. As the Monica Lewinsky scandal holds the spotlight nationally, the sisters are worried about secrets of their own becoming hot news in their towns. The perfect marriage and life Leona worked so hard to create are  crumbling, and the discovery of the remains of Fern’s long-missing husband threatens to revive old  gossip and reveal a shameful secret from the days when she was young and foolish. Both sisters’ grown children are furious as they learn their mothers have kept important secrets from them.

Meredith has the dynamics of the small Southern town just right, as she weaves the story, weaving back and forth from the 1960s of the sisters’ youth to their predicaments in 1998. Those dynamics include the importance of the church and its sometimes self-righteous and gossipy congregation. But there’s a new twist to that element, too, in the person of a new pastor of the local Methodist church who moves in across the road from Fern. A widower with a young daughter, Rev. Roy Puckett is frank about his own doubts about his faith.

The sisters find themselves in something of an uneasy truce, living in their childhood home together. Despite differences, family ties are strong, and soon they and Dean find themselves in new businesses ventures – home decorating plus some emus.

Meredith’s story tells us much about the powerful bonds of family, about the toll keeping secrets can take on a person and about the pitfalls of worrying too much about appearances. It is a story of redemption, and second chances and what really matters.

Yet, the novel is never too heavy, always a delight to read. Meredith laces her story with an ample measure of humor. She deftly gives us the right amount of Southern expressions, customs and eccentricities. The main characters are fully developed and utterly believable.

North Carolina is known for having a strong literary tradition and a vibrant community of writers today. Patti Frye Meredith fits right in.

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An unlikely success story and the sorry state of college football

Paul O’Connor, a fine journalist himself, doesn’t tell us in this review, but I happen to know that he went to a little college in the Midwest, one at South Bend, Ind., that has quite a football tradition of its own. My only connection with the University of Michigan is that my high school (no longer existing) borrowed the tune to its fight song, although we added our own lyrics. Yet I found this review intriguing, as many of you probably will.

Fans may not want to start reading the book on this college football Saturday in late October, but Paul’s review sounds as though it’s worth adding to a winter reading list.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE HOT SEAT: A YEAR OF OUTRAGE, PRIDE AND OCCASIONAL GAMES OF FOOTBALL. By Ben Mathis-Lilley. Public Affairs. 240 pages. $29, hardcover. Also available as audiobook, narrated by Peter Berkrot, from Audible.

Sometimes a journalist just gets lucky.

Slate writer Ben Mathis-Lilley began researching a book on the University of Michigan football team, its coach Jim Harbaugh and college football in general after the end of Michigan’s miserable 2020 season. While he doesn’t come right out and say it, he was probably expecting to write the history of Harbaugh’s final year at Ann Arbor and a further fall for “the champions of the West.”

But then Michigan went out and had a great season, ending the regular season with only one loss – albeit to in-state rival Michigan State. The team earned its first victory over Ohio State since most of the players were in preschool and then went on to win a Big Ten championship before losing to Georgia in the national semi-finals.

What was most likely to be a book about failure turned out to be one about success, and Mathis-Lilley, who does not hide his love for the Wolverines despite not being an alumnus, was delighted. But he is not delighted with the state of college football today, and a majority of college football fans probably share that sentiment with him.

Today’s game is controlled by the sports networks. Whether watching on TV or in person, the fan must endure a game repeatedly interrupted by commercial breaks. A change of possession, a score, an injured player on the field, the end of a quarter, a timeout, it doesn’t matter. The play-by-play announcer says, “We’re stepping away for a moment,” and thus follows four minutes of Allstate, State Farm and AT&T commercials. And in October, the local ad slot is filled by lying politicians.

Today’s game is also noncompetitive. At the beginning of each season, all fans know that the national champion is likely to come from a small group of teams, the same teams there every year. Many games are blowouts, even games between ranked teams.

Fortunately, Mathis-Lilley’s book is not all anti-college football screed. He spends a good bit of time on the history of the University of Michigan, which, even those of us who root for other Midwestern teams will concede, is a fairly decent school. And he goes into great depth on something I’ve been trying to figure out since I was 11: Why the hell do we care, do I care, about a team of people I’ve never met, who probably aren’t like me, and who charge me a week’s pay just to watch them play in between TV timeouts?

Mathis-Lilley went to Harvard, also a decent school, and cites a lot of sociological mumbo-jumbo to explain that we all have to have something we identify with and cheer for, and we all want to be considered winners, and we all want our teams to glow in the aura of victory because it makes us feel good.

There are some great chapters in the book, especially the one on Louisiana State University football and the shift of collegiate football power to the South. He uses census data and other demographics to explain the population shift that has left the South far more populous than the Midwest and touches on the obvious, that the big Southern schools are less academically demanding of their players, more lenient regarding off-field behavior and more likely to have been illegally paying their players for a long time.

His chapter on the Michigan State rivalry should resonate with residents of states where the flagship and land-grant vie for students and fan loyalty. To the snobs at Michigan, MSU is a cow college, full of people who couldn’t get into Ann Arbor. To MSU fans, UM is just what’s wrong with America’s elite woke population.

One need not be a fan of Michigan football to enjoy this book – Lord knows this reviewer isn’t. But it probably does help to be a fan of college football, and maybe better yet a  fan disgruntled about how the game has been taken over by the networks.

I listened to Peter Berkrot’s capable narration while on my morning walks and enjoyed it very much.

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All that glitters…

Paul O’Connor reviews a disturbing true-crime story that shines a light on the dark side of some usually well respected institutions.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

BAD CITY: PERIL AND POWER IN THE CITY. By Paul Pringle. Celadon Books. Hardcover. 304 pages. $29.99, hardcover. Also available from Macmillan Audio, read by Robert Petkoff. 9 hours, 48 minutes.

At the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, opthalmologist Carmen Puliafetto was a superstar. As dean for the previous decade, he had raised enormous amounts of money through donations and grants and helped lift the school’s national standing, both essential for a university determined to climb into the highest ranks of American academia.

Outside of his glittering life at Tinsel Town’s leading private university, however, Puliafetto was also a heavy drug user and a sexual deviant.

In Bad City, veteran Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Paul Pringle details the investigation he and a team of reporters conducted in 2017-18 to expose Puliafetto’s misdeeds, stonewalling by police and the university, and his own newspaper’s internal conflicts regarding the story’s publication. Almost as a late throw-in, Pringle details the sexual misconduct case of a USC student health doctor, gynecologist George Tyndall, a scandal that the university appears to have deliberately overlooked. In the end, only the reporters come out of Bad City looking good.

Puliafetto’s downfall begins with a day spent with his mistress, someone approximately 45 years younger than he. She has overdosed in a fancy hotel room registered to the doctor, and both the police and an emergency medical team have been called. One thing leads to another, there are the usual police and university dismissals of the concerned hotel employee who reports the doctor’s involvement in the overdose, and then a connection to someone who tells the story to a reporter, Pringle.

From there, it is one of those true-crime stories that is too hard to believe. A physician of national stature, earning $1 million a year from USC alone, is purposely keeping a young woman addicted to drugs, undermining the very residential treatment programs she enters by smuggling drugs to her. Puliafetto has no bounds in his evil-doing. When he meets the woman’s younger brother, a high school student, he gets that boy hooked on drugs too.

Once Pringle gets onto the story, he requests information from Pasadena police, where the original overdose occurred, and USC. Both stonewall him. Puliafetto is an important asset to both the university and the community. He has his protectors.

As his research gains momentum, Pringle comes to believe that Puliafetto’s protection might extend to his own newspaper. His editors, by habit slow to publish investigative pieces, are, by his account, throwing one set of roadblocks after another in the way of publication to protect their favorite school. The book becomes as much an expose of what Pringle, in excruciating detail, sees as a newsroom scandal as it is of the more serious USC, police and Puliafetto scandals.

His former editors, to this day, months after publication, continue to vigorously deny his allegations, claiming their reluctance to publish the story when Pringle first considered it complete, and their insistence on more information, led to a much stronger story in the end.

As a retired newspaper guy, I found the inside newsroom story both fascinating and reminiscent of disagreements I had with editors who were slow to publish. But I never experienced anything on the scale that Pringle alleges, nor did I ever fear that my editors were in cahoots with the bad guys.

I wonder if, by reporting the newsroom angle to the extent that he did and by alleging misconduct by his editors, Pringle did not undermine the very newspaper whose credibility supported the much bigger story he was writing about USC.

Bad City is an indictment of institutions we depend on for the highest in ethical behavior: our universities and their medical schools, the police, and an independent press. It’s just more bad news in a year, a decade it seems, of bad news.

Pringle’s writing is clear and concise. He tells his story logically. I listened to the audiobook, and Robert Petkoff’s narration is very capable.

USC has been rising in the national rankings of private universities for years, but it has also been involved in a number of serious scandals, most notably the athletic department’s accepting of bribes to help the children of wealthy families gain admission.

This book, if widely read, certainly won’t help USC build the academic prestige its leaders so strongly covet.

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Intricate, believable and gripping

Paul O’Connor is a relatively new convert to the ranks of fans  who read thrillers involving crime and politics, and he can be a tough reader to impress. This novel impressed him.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

TWO NIGHTS IN LISBON. By Chris Pavone. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Hardcover. 433 pages. $28.

John Wright hadn’t mentioned leaving so early this morning. He hadn’t left a note. He is here for business, but his meetings are later in the day. She knows that.

 She asks hotel staff about him, visits the police and the American embassy. Hotel staff say they haven’t seen him; the police and embassy staff suffer through her frenzy and say it is too early to be concerned. He’s probably out for a run.

In his cover blurb, fellow author John Grisham says he defies anyone to begin reading this book and put it down within the first 20 pages.

 I put it down at page 16. To this point, it was totally unoriginal. Too many books, movies and TV shows are based on someone reporting a missing person and being told, “Come back in 24 hours if he or she hasn’t come home.”

 But when the library waiting list is as long as it is for this book, I figured somehow it would get better. It did, in a big way

 An intricate crime and politics thriller follows those first few pages, with clues scattered liberally throughout.

 The police ask questions. The embassy staff ask questions. Ariel is increasingly frustrated because she just wants her husband back. For God’s sake, they’ve only been married three months, have only known each other a year, but how is that relevant to the Lisbon police, who speak English well but often in phrases amusingly translated directly from Portuguese.

 What is Ariel’s history? How about John’s? Why, exactly are they here in Lisbon? Why did she accompany her husband on a business trip, and why doesn’t she know the name of the company with which he is working? Why is his sister in Morocco?

 She can answer some questions, is stumped by others, admits to being a ditz about a few and expresses total surprise that the detectives and embassy staff know things about John that she didn’t.

 Ariel also can’t understand the embassy staff’s suspicions of her, their lack of concern for her husband.

All the pieces fit together. The answers will eventually lead us to the last chapter. But we must remember Chekov’s maxim: If there’s a shotgun hanging over the fireplace, someone had better use it somewhere along the line – or something like that. In this case, there are plenty of clues above the fireplace, so to speak.

As a relatively new fan of such books, I’ve been amazed at how the authors envision and pull together such complex stories, their twists and turns, and still keep us believing it’s all plausible. My curse is that I give up on a story as soon as I see where it becomes implausible, where I don’t buy the characters or I can’t believe that the Mission Impossible guy can, with only his fingertips, hold onto a train going 200 kph.

 With Two Nights in Lisbon, the characters are fictionally believable, and each little detail in the unfolding scenario seems plausible because it is based on other plausible little details. And, in the end, while it’s not totally original, it’s at least an original remake of a storyline we’ve seen before.

  Chris Pavone held the interest of Grisham, Stephen King and Lisa Scottoline. I’m sure he’ll be delighted to learn he held mine, too. This is a fun read.

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