The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868

V.A.C. Gatrell

It’s pretty well known that Britain basically went noose-crazy in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, hanging people for the most trivial offenses before appreciative crowds. There’s plenty of stuff (mainly from capital-punishment abolitionists) on the period, but The Hanging Tree is the first social history of the institution to look at what your average Englishman thought of the whole thing. Gatrell carefully examines the entire milieu, paying special attention to the attitudes of the mob towards these exhibitions they attended so enthusiastically. Gatrell also digs out some interesting material from the condemned’s appeals for mercy on the social conditions of the average Englishman—and it wasn’t as prim and proper as you might think. JM

Publisher: Oxford University
Hardback: 634 pages

Homicidal Insanity, 1800-1985

Janet Colaizzi

A somewhat dry history of medical and legal thinking about homicidal maniacs, examining such topics as “The Alienist as Medico-Legal Expert” and “From Static to Dynamic Neurophysiology.” The actual murder cases are described only sketchily to provide enough of a hook on which to hang each era’s theories. So, instead of bestiary of lunatics, we run the gamut of 185 years of medico-legal psychobabble. Of interest only to the most hardcore student of homicidal mania. JM

Publisher: University of Alabama
Paperback: 182 pages

Hot Blood: The Millionairess, the Money and the Horse Murders

Ken Englade

The 1977 disappearance of Helen Brach, the widow of multimillionaire candy maker Frank Brach, is one of the most fascinating crimes of the last 20 years. Her fate remained a mystery until a few years ago when her death was linked to her unwitting involvement with an elaborate scam involving the killing of heavily insured show horses. Apparently, Brach got wind of what was really going on and was rewarded with a professional hit when she threatened to go to the police.
Unfortunately, Englade proves that for every interesting crime, there’s a mediocre crime book. Hot Blood is pedestrian enough to try the patience of all but the most devoted Brach fans, with its pages and pages of bad trial coverage and the novelistic, sycophantic stuff all too common in the crime genre these days. Yawn. JM

Publisher: St. Martin's
Hardback: 309 pages

Inside the Cult

Marc Breault and Martin King

An above-average quickie paperback purporting to give the insider’s scoop on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Breault joined the Davidians in ‘86, King interviewed Koresh just before the going got good. Of course, there’s plenty of dirt here and loads of background material. Make no mistake, Koresh was one strange dude who combined an ability to make people believe the stupidest things with an inability to keep his pants zipped. His “legal” wife was 14 when they got married. He was, in short, the perfect cult leader. (Ever notice how these groups are always set up so the top dog gets all the girls?) There’s plenty of weirdness here, and thankfully, no BATF/FBI/conspiracy stuff—in fact, the whole raid/holocaust thing gets short shrift in favor of pre-raid cult antics. But the field is still wide open for the definitive book. JM

Publisher: Signet
Paperback: 375 pages

Killing for Company

Brian Masters

Dennis Nilsen was England’s answer to Jeffrey Dahmer. He preyed on young men he picked up in the gay bars of London. In his apartment, he’d strangle them and keep the bodies around the flat for a few days for further use before ultimately dismembering and disposing of them. He’d killed 15 men before an alert plumber noticed that the obstruction clogging the sewer line serving Nilsen’s apartment building was a little too human. Now, even a crummy paperback would be welcome on a crime of this magnitude, but Killing for Company transcends the true-crime genre. Masters has written more of an in-depth biography, attempting to answer the whys as much as the whats by drawing heavily on interviews and Nilsen’s writings. It’s easily one of the most insightful looks into the mind of a murderer in the past 30 years. JM

Publisher: Stein and Day
Paperback: 336 pages

Overkill: Mass Murder and Serial Killing Exposed

James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

Fox and Levin got in on the ground floor of a trend in 1985 with Mass Murder: America’s Growing Menace, one of the earlier ‘80s books to take an overview of what would soon become better-known as serial killing. In Overkill, they deliver essentially an update on all the carnage of the past 10 years, liberally salting the volume with excellent, well-written and concise case studies of famous and not-so-famous mass and serial killers, many of whom have received little, if any, coverage elsewhere. Surprisingly, given one of the author’s Ph.D. credentials, the analysis side of the book is pretty simple-minded; more what you’d expect from USA Today than from a serious academic study. But then, they’ve been on enough talk shows to know which side of the bread the mass market likes its butter on. JM

Publisher: Plenum
Hardback: 280 pages

Violence in the Workplace: A Company Guide to Prevention and Management

S. Anthony Baron, Ph.D.

Taking this book at face value as a serious guide to defusing potentially lethal situations—well, let’s just say that you’d be advised to spend your money on Kevlar vests and your time planning escape routes. Guidebooks of this type are always fine sources of campy case studies and amusingly vague advice, and this one is no exception. But the best thing here is that the case studies name names and give details not commonly known about recent workplace shootings. Duck and cover! JM

Publisher: Pathfinder
Paperback: 176 pages

Lord! Why Is My Child a Rebel?: Parents and Kids in Crisis

Jacob Aranza

The author of such exercises in salvation as Backwards Masking Unmasked, Aranza turns his utter lack of expertise toward the field of child rearing. Aranza’s amusing habit of lurching from point to point, with many a non sequitur left dangling, strains the credulity of even the converted, meaning more laughs per page for the rest of us. Aranza is convinced teenage rebellion is witchcraft, and the only antidote is the Bible—as if any teen’s going to pass up a wild party for a prayer meeting. We can only wish him (and his children) luck. JM

Publisher: Huntington House
Paperback: 138 pages

The Carpenters: The Untold Story

Ray Coleman

Death has always been a sure-fire tonic for flagging pop-music careers, but few have reaped benefits as great as the Carpenters. Singer Karen’s 1983 death from anorexia nervosa did more than boost their CD sales; it bestowed the squeaky-clean duo with a posthumous hipness (albeit tinged with irony) that eluded them during Karen’s life.
Here is the first in-depth look at these Nixon-era songsters. Unabashedly an authorized biography, Coleman traces Richard and Karen’s career from their humble New Haven roots to their triumphant years ruling the Top 40 all the way through their slow decline in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Mindful of who his sources were, Coleman unstintingly praises their music (even “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”!) and trashes the media for dismissing the C’s in their heyday. Naturally, no mention is made of Todd Haynes’ underground film Superstar, a bizarrely brilliant dramatization of the Carpenters story enacted with Barbie dolls.
Nonetheless, there are enough warts to keep the book out of the hagiography section. Between descriptions of Karen’s eating disorder, Richard’s Quaalude problem, and mother Agnes’ domineering tendencies, Coleman delivers plenty of reality to offset such saccharine exercises as “Top of the World” and “Sing.” Some of the best parts are Richard and Karen’s romantic travails. The real Carpenter love life was closer to “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Superstar” than “We’ve Only Just Begun.” One of Karen’s few promising relationships was quietly scuttled on orders of high-ranking Carpenter management (Herb? Agnes?), while Richard’s dates were always running afoul of his parents and sister. You can only imagine the stuff that’s between the lines. It may not be Carpenter Babylon, but it’s vital reading for anyone who’s ever fallen (no matter how guiltily) under the spell of Karen’s haunting voice. JM

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Paperback: 352 pages

Dear Mr. Ripley: A Compendium of Curioddities from the Believe It or Not! Archives

Mark Sloan, Roger Manley and Michelle Can Parys

“Ripley’s Believe It or Not” occupies a warm spot in the heart of any connoisseur of the unusual. But even the most dedicated Ripley fan may not be aware that many of Ripley’s strips were drawn from photos. The authors have scoured the Ripley archives to reprint a few hundred of these immortal images, from the man who could lift his sister with one hand while balancing twelve cups of coffee in the other—on ice skates!—to photos of various incredibly rubber-limbed contortionists, premodern primitives, and the obligatory freaks of nature (you won’t believe the Chinese farmer with the horn!). JM

Publisher: Bulfinch
Paperback: 207 pages