American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

32191677The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate—there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.

A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America—a land half gutted before the fires even began.

Review:

I went into this book blind, knowing nothing about the Accomack fires, and Hesse is a surefooted and well-spoken guide.  She spent months living on the Eastern Shore and it shows in the way she paints the community and pulls us into the crime.  While the culprit is pointed out early on the whydunit aspects kept me reading – what would drive someone to do this?  What does it mean when you’ll do literally anything for someone?

The reporting and particulars of the case are handled exceptionally well, with the crimes, apprehension, interrogation, and court aspects carrying equal weight.  However, I was hoping that Hesse would spend more time digging into the social and economic trends that led to Ammomack’s fall in the first place.  Many factors are briefly touched on – the importance of the railroad, the rise of chicken farming – but it never gets to the point of an overarching theme.

Even though I was hoping for more thematic heft American Fire is a fascinating look at what happens when you find an arsonist in your midst.

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Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

24399756On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man is shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of the thousands of black Americans murdered that year. His assailant runs down the street, jumps into an SUV, and vanishes, hoping to join the scores of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes.

But as soon as the case is assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shift.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

Review:

I’ve made the mistake of not writing this review right away so particulars have flown out of my brain, gah. Check out Doing Dewey’s review for a more proper look but let me give you my overall impression – wow.

Leovy’s writing is outstanding and is just as amazing on audiobook as I imagine it is on the page. She weaves background and context into the story of a single murder so that we understand not just what happened in one case, but in South Central LA over the course of decades.

The only thing that gives me pause is there is a whiff of white savior narrative going on, though Leovy does her best to squash the impression. And looking at Goodreads there isn’t a single person of color (as gleaned from avatars) in the top page of reviews, which makes me wonder what I’m missing. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is going on my TBR to make sure I get another perspective.

Even so, this book – part police procedural, part court drama, part whodunit – is narrative nonfiction at its best.