Saturday, June 1, 2019

Post # 43

Quote for the day:  "Michigan has put the world on automobile wheels, (but) Michigan novelists are still jogging along in one-hoss shays." Arnold Mulder. Saturday Review of Literature. March 4, 1939."

A brief rebuttal. Jim Harrison, John Smolins, Robert Traver, Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, Bruce Catton, Edmund Love, Iola Fuller, and Ernest Hemingway. Those are the authors this 70-some-year-old with a failing memory could think of within a couple minutes. Most, but certainly not all of the aforementioned admittedly blossomed into writers after 1939.


Empty Promises: A Seamus McCree Novel
by James M. Jackson

Seamus McCree is in serious trouble again and that is always good news and good reading. Seamus is a financial analyst who specializes in busting big time crooks by untangling their financial records. Invariably in a Seamus McRee mystery, of which this is the sixth, things never go as planned and the man finds himself up to his receding hairline in mortally serious trouble.

In this latest outing, Seamus has talked his girlfriend, a professional bodyguard, into letting him guard a witness by taking the man to his remote cabin in the UP's Iron County until he is due in court. That should be simple enough but the first time Sheamus goes to town and leaves his charge behind in the cabin he returns to an empty cabin. Outraged at his unprofessionalism, his girlfriend dumps him. It appears an assassin is on the trail of the man he was guarding and may decide to take out Seamus as well. Then there's the murdered body Seamus finds in the woods while searching for the witness he is supposed to be guarding, and the old human bone his Golden Retriever granddog proudly finds not far from the site where Seamus stumbles across the body. If that isn't enough trouble, Seamus is also withholding evidence from the sheriff of Iron County.

Seamus knows if he can't find his witness and unravel the mystery of two murders, that apparently occurred twenty-years apart, he'll land either in jail or six feet under. The pace is furious, the narrative is relentless, and contains more hairpin twists and turns than the Brockway Mountain Drive in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Seamus is a well-drawn main character but the author is equally adept at creating believable, always interesting, and singularly original UP  characters. Jackson captures the enchantment and rugged wilderness of the western UP and makes this reader and probably many others wish they could simply finish the book and head for Big Mac. 

As always, another thoroughly enjoyable mystery from a very dependable writer, and that's no empty promise.

Empty Promises by James M. Jackson. Wolf's Echo Press, 2018, $14.95 pb.

Welcome to Republica Dodge
by Natalie Ruth Joynton

This wise, fresh, and honest memoir asks if a young woman, from Houston, Texas who likes big cities, was raised a Methodist and converted to the Jewish faith, can find happiness and fulfillment living in a wood-heated old farmhouse some fifteen miles from Ludington, outside internet service range, a hundred miles from the nearest synagogue, and married to an atheist. To top off the author's northern Michigan other-world experience the house's previous owner built a replica of 1880s Dodge City when it was a lawless cowtown in the farm house's front yard. She also mistook deer blinds for outhouses and wondered why residents built them so far from the house.

The author felt totally out of place and "at odds with the Michigan countryside," and found the slowness of rural life hard to get used to. The reason for the move to the Ludington area was that both the author and her fiance landed teaching jobs with the local community college. They bought the house before they were married and her husband-to-be was fine with being married by a rabbi but the author finds it nearly impossible to locate a rabbi from Michigan or the surrounding states willing to marry them. It seems many rabbi's refuse to marry interfaith couples.

This intelligent and engaging memoir is a meditation on home, religion, family, and being culturally adrift. The author explores her doubts about Christianity, which began in childhood, her eventual conversion to the Jewish faith, and how hard it is to practice her faith without a synagogue or even meeting a fellow Jew in Ludington. It's interesting to view Michigan, especially rural Michigan, through the eyes of a young, life-long, urban Southerner. She slowly comes to terms with Michigan winters and beginnings to look at rural Ludington as home, for at least the near future. And she finds a rabbi that will marry them in their barn. The local, small German religious sect loans the couple their tables for the wedding and in return asked to be invited to the wedding because they have never seen a Jewish marriage ceremony.

From the first page to last the book is enjoyable, informative, and a view of rural Michigan from a new and definitely different perspective. In five years I would like to read where life has taken Natalie Ruth Joynton. Does she still live in Michigan and has she continued to adapt to the state? How difficult is it to raise Jewish children in an area that has no Jewish community, and if she's moved out of state how does she reflect on her Michigan experience? The book is well worth your time and may well have you reflecting on your journey through life.

Welcome to Replica Dodge, A Memoir by Natalie Ruth Joynton. Wayne State University Press, 2019, $18.99.

Michigan's Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of  Mrs. Mary McKnight
by Tobin T. Buhk

Death followed Mary McNight around like a rabid puppy. She was eventually convicted of killing her brother, sister-in-law, and their baby with Strychnine poison and is believed to have killed at least eleven others via poisoning including her two husbands. This succinct, readable, and absorbing book detailing the case of one of the earliest, if not first, Michigan serial killer is notable because the killer was a woman, the crimes took place in northern Michigan, and the earmarks of death by Strychnine  are so singular and horrendous it's hard to believe doctors kept filling out the death certificates of Mrs. McNights' victims miss-identifying the cause of death.

A victim of Strychnine poisoning has violent convulsions, foams at the mouth, their body twitches spasmodically, clenched fists turn white from the force of the grip, and the hands are suddenly snapped up toward the chest. Most significantly the back begins to arch and reaches the point where only the victim's heels and top of their head touch the bed. The grotesquely arched spine remains bowed even after death. When a Kalkaska doctor and the county D.A. became suspicious over McNight's brother's death they exhumed the body, removed the stomach, and send it downstate for analysis the corpse was still strung like a bow. When huge amounts of poison were found in her brother's stomach the corpses of his wife a baby were exhumed with similar results.

The murders and resulting trial made national news and were covered by nearly every paper in Michigan. The author gives a detailed account of the trial which was moved to Cadillac. The cost of the trial doubled Kalkaska County residents taxes. The only real mystery not settled in the book was Mary McNight's motive for taking so many lives. The author devotes the last chapter of the book to examine seven possible motives for McNights' murders and can't arrive at a conclusion. Mary McNight was found guilty of killing her brother. She served 18 years in the Detroit House of Correction and was paroled in June 1920.

The author has done a fine job of illuminating and recounting a little known but extraordinary chapter of Michigan history. A thorough bibliography, extensive photos, illustrations, and detailed footnotes compliment the narrative. 
Michigan's Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary McNight by Tobin T. Buhk. History Press, 2014, $19.99

All of the books reviewed in this blog may be purchased by clicking your mouse on the book's cover which will take you to Amazon where you can usually purchase the book at a discount. By using this blog as a portal to Amazon and purchasing any product helps support Michigan in Books.



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February 1, 2020 Post #51

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