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Death in the City of Light – Book Review

DeathInTheCityOfLightBy: David King

Publisher: Random House, Inc., Broadway Paperbacks, (www.crownpublishing.com)

Copyright: 2011

Cover design: Dan Rembert

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 23 March 2013

 

Summary:  The serial killer of Nazi-occupied Paris and the theoretical dilemma presented at his trial.

 

You have heard the moral dilemma question before:  suppose you had a chance to kill Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin before they came to power, before they set out on the course of mass murder: would you kill them? Would you have killed them at their birth? It is the type of question some of us started debating in our teens.

DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHT presents the question from an objective rather than subjective standpoint. It is a story in which a man declares himself a “would be” Hitler killer and seeks the judgment of his peers for his proximate actions toward that goal.  Of course, since morality is merely a subset of deeds, it is much wiser to judge deeds than morality. All legal systems are designed specifically to weigh the consequences of deeds with morality being a fog in the background.

 

In 1944 war ravaged Paris, Dr. Marcel Petiot was put on trial for murdering what he contends were Nazi soldiers and, most importantly, Nazi collaborators. The distraction in this book, at least for people not accustomed to the Napoleonic Code of justice, leaves the morality question unaddressed because Petiot’s defense is a contrived manipulation of a horrible reality. The trial itself apparently had the air of a comedic Sam “Screaming” Kinison nightclub act. For his part, author David King lays out the most salient facts and concludes that the story of Marcel Petiot is the story of a “predator” who “brutally exploited opportunities for gain”. It is a sound conclusion. There are more than a few life lessons to learn from history King presents.

 

Marcel Petiot was a veteran of the First World War.  In May of 1917, Petiot was suspiciously wounded in the foot by shrapnel from a hand grenade. (He may have did it himself).  As King tells it, Petiot spent the next two years of the war “shuffled between medical clinics, army barracks, mental asylums, and even a military jail for theft.”  Diagnosed as having a “mental imbalance”, the future Dr. Petiot received a disability pension from the time he was discharged from the military in 1919 until his trial in 1944. Even before entering the military, King reports family members regarded Petiot as an odd child with bizarre behavior.

 

From this unusual, though by no means uncommon history, you would think that there was the germ of a mass killer waiting for just the right climate, the right circumstances.  Then we learn Petiot apparently applied himself with sufficient planning and dedication to graduate from the University of Paris with a degree allowing him to practice medicine.  There was even more to the public life of Marcel Petiot elevating him above the typical check-list items portending a mass murder or serial killer. At the age of thirty, he was elected mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, the town in which he practiced medicine. Later he would win the election for conseil general of Yonne, the “approximate equivalent of a U. S. congressman.” He was a very ambitious man who exhibited “eccentricities”, which, instead of hurting his reputation, aided it. Wait.  Have we not read this story before?

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The Phoenix Lights – Book Review

PhoenixLightsTh761Author: Lynne D. Kitei, M.D.

Publisher: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc., Charlottesville, VA

Copyright: 2000, 2004, 2010

Cover: Tracy Johnson

Reviewed by:  Lynard Barnes, 19 March 2013

 

Summary: More lights in the sky but with a difference. Part factual reporting, part speculative examination, the full title of this book is THE PHOENIX LIGHTS: A SKEPTIC’S DISCOVERY THAT WE RE NOT ALONE. Highly recommended reading because it explores two possibilities for “lights in the sky”. (See note at below).

A scant three months ago, we were eagerly anticipating the arrival of December 22, 2012. Reaching that date meant we had successfully moved beyond the end of the Mayan long-count calendar.  Little did we know that having survived that particular potential cataclysm, we were hurling through space filled with meteors and comets, possibly leading to another cataclysm. If that is not enough, we are now experiencing the eleven year cycle of high sunspot activity. These lights in the sky—comets, meteors, auroras—are fairly mundane and, more to the point, explainable. The lights appearing in the sky above Phoenix, Arizona on March 13, 1997 remain unexplained.

 

If you are one of those people who find the subject of unidentified flying objects and lights in the sky boring and inflated with hyperbole, THE PHOENIX LIGHTS will be something of a surprise. But a little history on the controversy. . . .

The Discovery Channel’s November 1997 program, “UFOs Over Phoenix: An Anatomy of a Sighting”,  left many with the impression that the lights seen by nearly ten percent of the population of Phoenix on March 13, 1997 were military flares mistaken as UFOs.  Dr. Kitei effectively refutes the assessment and, like Raymond E. Fowler (WATCHERS II, reviewed here in October 1995) and Jacques Vallee ( Dimensions: A Casebook of Alien Contact) before her, she presents the mystery of UFOs as just that, a mystery.

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Girl in the Leaves, The – Book Review

GirlintheLeavesTh760Author: Robert Scott

Publisher: The Berkeley Publishing Group, Penguin Group, Inc.

Copyright: 2012

Cover: Diana Kolsky

 

Summary: Tina Herrmann, her son Kody, and family friend Stephanie Sprang are murdered in Apple Valley, Ohio and convicted arsonist Matthew Hoffman confesses to the crime.

 

We read about people like Matthew Hoffman all the time. Our questions about them have a center. Empathy, compassion, basic decency—how can anyone survive without at least a drop of these traits of the human experience?  In what vacuous crack of human community could such a person live and mature? These are the questions. The why of their heinous crime is not really the quest. Certainly no crime book can answer the why of a crime. Even the perpetrators themselves have no reasonable explanation for their errant behavior. But what a crime reporter can do is take an expositive snapshot of the lives lead by people like Matthew Hoffman. From that snapshot, the reader is left to make up their own mind about the why.  The best example of taking a snapshot is Jeannie Cummings’ A Rip in Heaven (reviewed here in April 2005). Cummings’ standard may be a bar too high. Still, there is Jerry Bledsoe’ Death Sentence, about the life and murder conviction of Velma Barfield (reviewed here in August 2003). THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES by Robert Scott does not approach the level of a picture of Matthew Hoffman, either by accident (making it writing malfeasance), or design (making it editorial pandering).

 

THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES is a book about the physical victims of Matthew Hoffman. There is a problem with this.  A big problem. The victims of Hoffman’s crime go far beyond Tina Hermann, her children; of Stephanie Sprang her family and friends. From the law enforcement men and women who responded to the crime, to the community at large who woke up on the morning of November 11, 2010 to discover that two women and possibly two children had been murdered, to the communities around them—they were all victims of a senseless, incomprehensible crime.  Most people experienced this sense of victimization upon hearing of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012. Why would anyone walk into an elementary school and gun-down 27 children and teachers? But that really wasn’t the question people were asking themselves.  The real question was how could anyone do such a thing.

 

On November 10, 2010, Hoffman entered the house of Tina Herrmann, killed her and her friend, Stephanie Sprang and later, upon the arrival of Tina’s son and daughter from school, killed the son and kidnapped the daughter. Four days later, authorities recused the daughter, Sarah Herrmann, who was being held in the basement of Hoffman’s house. The most salient unknown presented in THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES and the question asked by Herrmann’s ex-husband, Larry Maynard, is why Hoffman chose to invade the house lived in by Tina Herrmann and her two children. To the author’s credit, he does lay out enough information on this point for the reader to rule out the most obvious possibility. It is the possible reason that so irked Larry Maynard.

By sticking to the official chronicle of events, this book comes across as a newspaper report: a bad newspaper report in which erroneous and misleading tips to the police are extensively reported. Nothing substantial in the book is related to the “tips” with the possible exception of a reported connection between Hoffmann and Stephanie Sprang. But if Hoffmann knew Sprang or they had any sort of encounter prior to Hoffmann murdering her, the book does not provide any conclusion one way or another. It is as if the “tips” are reported in the book are written merely to pad the word count of the book.

In a scant four pages, designated Chapter Four, we essentially learn that Matthew Hoffman was a “weird” child and teenager.  Later, we learn of his hiatus in Colorado.

Hoffman’s September 2000 arrest in Steamboat Springs, Colorado for setting a fire in a condo and stealing city property road signs is the reader’s introduction of Hoffman’s criminal tendencies.  He was sentenced to eight years in prison, six years of which he served before moving back to his native Ohio in 2007. The author mentions that Hoffman presumably set the condo fire to cover up his theft of property and the fact that, over a period of time, he had entered the condo surreptitiously. Scott writes that Hoffman had a psychological need to invade homes, reveling in the feeling of being in a place where others lived. Hoffman himself mentions the “thrill” he got from being in the home of others when the owners did not know he was there. This psychological need is presumably the reason for the invasion of Tina Herrmann’s home.

 

In providing the foundation for an answer to the question of why Hoffmann invaded Herrmann’s home, Scott does not take the next step and provide possible reasons that Hoffman resorted to murder. If there is an answer to the question, it is most likely found during the time Hoffmann spent in Colorado sneaking into the homes of strangers. Like the motivations of people who never outgrow an infantile fascination with fire and the invasive behavior of peeping-toms, such behavior sometimes matriculates into more monstrous behavior. But the Matthew Hoffmanns of the world are not ethereal monsters. That our social and legal systems are unable to effectively corral these people once they are identified is testimony to the real confusion we have about their victims.  We are all their victims.  But then, to accept that judgment, we are forced to ask whether we are not also responsible for their very existence.

 

It is difficult to recommend THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES.  It does report the facts and the facts are important. But a good newspaper article also gives us the facts.  What THE GIRL IN THE LEAVES is missing is a perspective.

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