Nonfiction Short Take: Murder in Matera – Helene Stapinski

Combining armchair travel, history and true crime, this memoir is a beach read for nonfiction readers. Stapinski is a journalist who has worked for both the NYT and NPR; her previous memoir explored her family’s criminal history in New Jersey. The Guardian said of that book that it “is not your ordinary memoir…she sews together family history, local history and personal history…. And there is never a dull moment.”

The same could be said of this new book that reaches farther back in her family’s history to a sun-drenched Italian village and the mystery of her great-grandmother and the murder she was said to have committed.

Italian-American author Stapinski mines her immigrant family’s roots to write a part memoir, part murder mystery…. The author posits that the darker side of her genealogy may have consequences for her own family: ‘All of us, I thought, are made up not only of what we know, but of all that we don’t know as well,’ she writes—as if the violence, revenge, and curses that accrued along with ignorance and poverty in Southern Italy in the 19th-century are somehow transmitted through DNA. The book—enlivened by anecdotes about Italian culture—will appeal to armchair travelers who long to visit the caves and culture of Matera.”
Publishers Weekly

“Stapinski continues her investigation into her family’s checkered past. The narrative begins as an enticing page-turner, an investigative jewel sending readers racing to the next clue…”

Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy (9780062438454) by Helene Stapinski. $26.99 hardcover. 5/23/17 on sale.

Nonfiction Short Take: The Spider and the Fly – Claudia Rowe

This is an ambitious if not completely successful attempt to marry the exploration of a horrific and bizarre series of murders to an introspective examination of the author’s own obsession with the case. It rises above the usual true crime fare in its attempt to throw a light on our personal and cultural obsession with violent and aberrant behavior.

“What begins as an investigation into how a person can commit cold-blooded murder became Rowe’s albatross, ultimately leading her to examine her own life… [It is] when Rowe admits her bias, that her story begins to strike a chord.”
Publishers Weekly

“Rowe’s engaging prose means the pages practically turn themselves….”

Extraordinarily suspenseful and truly gut-wrenching, The Spider and the Fly is not just a superb true-crime story but an insightful investigation of the nature of evil, the fragility of good, and the crooked road that can turn human beings into monsters. A must-read.”
— Gillian Flynn

“I read through The Spider and the Fly in one rapt day. It’s unique unto itself, a mix of thoughtful memoir and true crime, as author and reporter Claudia Rowe becomes fascinated by the bizarre case of Kendall Francois, a little known serial killer from Poughkeepsie, NY. Living in Poughkeepsie herself, Claudia becomes enmeshed in the story herself when she reaches out to Kendall in prison, hoping to find some kernel of truth that would explain the hows and whys of such a horrific case. But instead of finding truths, she just finds more questions as her life becomes more and more consumed with the case, and with Kendall as a person. Gripping and incisive, The Spider and the Fly is literary true crime that is a must read for anyone who is fascinated by the psychology of crime, and by our fascination with it.”
— Whitney Spotts, Schuler Books & Music, Lansing, MI

“When Claudia Rowe first hears the story of Kendall Francois, she convinces herself that she is investigating the story merely as a journalist. Francois makes an interesting case, giving her just enough information to pull her further and further into his web. Soon Rowe is uncovering secrets, exploring shame, and writing about the darker side of human nature. However, she finds that it is often herself and her family that she is writing about and exploring, rather than the life of Kendall Francois. Her relationship with the killer forces her to look at her life in a different and more challenging way. What starts as a true crime tale of a New York serial killer who targeted prostitutes, turns into a rumination on broken families, and the broken people who emerge from them.”
— Becca Chavez, Tattered Cover, Denver, CO

The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder (9780062416124) by Claudia Rowe. $26.99 hardcover. 1/24/17 on sale.

Movie Tie In: True Story – Michael Finkel

True Story is a ten-year-old memoir and crime story that might have drifted off your backlist. It’s soon to be released as a film; the book itself got terrific reviews in 2005. It’s worth another pass on the paperback displays.

“Astute and hypnotically absorbing . . . there’s a burning sincerity and beautifully modulated writing on every page.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Combines crime and intellectual heft…could well become a classic of the genre.
Washington Post Book World

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa (9780062339270) by Michael Finkel. $15.99 trade paperback movie tie-in. 3/24/15 on sale.

New Nonfiction: Lost Girls – Robert Kolker

Those booksellers who have followed (or been subjected to) my tastes over the years know I’m not generally a true crime reader. But when this book started piling up starred reviews—three in total—I went back for a more careful look.

Less true crime than a page-turning sociology, Lost Girls covers the lurid “Craig’s List Murders.” But rather than focusing on the possible perpetrator, author Kolker chooses to look at the lives of the victims. The result is an eye-opening indictment of lower middle class desperation in modern America.

Very solid publicity should give this book some velocity. Keep an eye on it and make sure it’s out where customers can find it when the major media hits: NYTBR on 7/7, CBS/This Morning on 7/12 and CBS/48 Hours on 7/13. It’s also been picked by Parade as one of their best books of the summer and reviews are forthcoming from USA Today, the New York Observer, Newsday and the Boston Globe.

“Robert Kolker unflinchingly probes the 21st-century innovations that facilitated these crimes… …An important examination of the socioeconomic and cultural forces that can shape a woman’s entry into prostitution.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Beautifully and provocatively written…. [Lost Girls] will make all but the hardest-hearted empathetic. Add a baffling whodunit that remains, as the subtitle indicates, unsolved, and you have a captivating true crime narrative that’s sure to win new converts and please longtime fans of the genre.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls is reportage at the highest level; it’s miss-your-bedtime storytelling; it’s the real story of the lives and deaths of real, unfortunate women. Most of all, it’s a kind of State of the Union — if you think (and you will, by the end of this book) that the sex trade and crime and suburban desperation tell us more than just about anything about American life as it’s lived today. It’s a wonder.”
— Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life


Publisher’s Weekly ran an illuminating interview with Kolker. You get a flavor for the author’s perspective from observations like this:

[E]verything that was commonly assumed about them was wrong. They weren’t outcasts. They stayed in close touch with their families—their mothers and sisters, and, in some cases, boyfriends and children. These weren’t classic cases of human trafficking, either; they weren’t kidnapped or enslaved or held hostage as undocumented immigrants. What they had in common was that they all came from parts of the country the media overlooks—poor,struggling areas where becoming a prostitute might not have been the most desirable path, yet somehow has become a valid, almost normal option. What made the choice to be an escort easier than ever was [Web sites like] Craigslist and Backpage. Prostitutes no longer have to walk the streets or even work with agencies or pimps. The backdrop of an open murder case offered an ideal opportunity to write about the story of five young women’s lives and their families in a way that would make people rethink the mythology and clichés that our culture projects onto prostitution.”

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (9780062183637) Robert Kolker. $25.99 hardcover. 7/9/13 on sale.