Tag Archives for " corruption "

The case that helped put the FBI on the map

FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, an estimated 50 million people lived in the Hemisphere. Somewhere between seven and 18 million of them inhabited North America. By 1890, the population of indigenous people in the United States had been reduced to 248,000. Countless millions had died, primarily as the result of epidemic disease carried by European, and later American, settlers. By the 20th Century, hundreds of native communities eked out a minimal existence in and near the reservations where they had been forced to move.

“The wealthiest people per capita in the world”

In most respects, the Osage Nation was typical of the more than 600 North American Indian “tribes.” Once numbering tens or hundreds of thousands, the Osage were masters of a vast territory spanning what are now the states of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Recurrent smallpox epidemics and waves of settlers dramatically reduced their numbers and forced them from the first reservation they were allocated in Kansas early in the 19th Century. Following a treaty in 1870, the survivors were forced to move into a new reservation in north-central Oklahoma that is their current home. They purchased the land, deliberately selecting an arid, hilly area unsuitable for farming in hopes that white men wouldn’t take it away from them.

In 1907, a brilliant chief negotiated an agreement with the U.S. government allowing the Osage to retain all mineral rights, even if the land itself were sold. Soon afterward, oil was discovered there. The reservation sat on “some of the largest oil deposits in the United States.” By the 1920s, some three thousand Osage—a third of the number 70 years earlier—had become fabulously wealthy. “In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than $30 million [in royalties], the equivalent today of more than $400 million. The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.”

Corruption, sponsored by the federal government

Killers of the Flower Moon by New Yorker staff writer David Grann reveals the consequences of this new wealth. Many Osage spent their money ostentatiously, attracting thieves, con men, and profiteers to the reservation; some white men married Osage women in what seemed an obvious ploy to gain control of their wealth. In 1921, a new federal law was passed requiring “any Osage of half or more Indian ancestry to be appointed a guardian until proving ‘competency.’ Minors with less than half Osage ancestry were required to have guardians appointed, even if their parents were living.” Prominent local white men such as lawyers, bankers, businessmen, and ranchers were appointed as guardians. The scene was set for corruption. “One government study estimated that before 1925 guardians had pilfered at least $8 million directly from the restricted accounts of their Osage wards.” But even that massive thievery didn’t satisfy the local powers-that-be.

Two dozen murders in four years, none of them solved

In 1921, two Osage unrelated to each other were found murdered, and more than 20 others followed by 1925. Investigations by the local sheriff were bungled badly. “Virtually no evidence had been preserved from the various crime scenes.” Private eyes brought in to investigate failed to discover the killers. A local lawyer obtained documentary evidence pointing to at least one of the murderers, but both he and the man who had given him the documents were themselves murdered; the documents disappeared.

Enter the FBI

Pleas from the Osage council to Washington for federal intervention finally bore fruit in 1925. The Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) under its newly appointed director, J. Edgar Hoover, dispatched a team of investigators headed by a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, who proved to be a perfect choice. Incorruptible, dogged, and knowledgeable about the new “scientific” methods of policing, White uncovered a conspiracy led by a “domineering cattleman” named William K. Hale, who was known locally as the “King of the Osage Hills.” Hale and two nephews, both of them married to Osage women, were clearly responsible for at least four murders. White put them on trial—and encountered a “litany of dead witnesses,” crooked doctors and undertakers, witness tampering, manufactured evidence, and a local jury’s reluctance to convict a white man of murdering an Indian. Only in a second trial the following year did he succeed in gaining a conviction for Hale, one of his nephews, and an accomplice.

More murders than ever revealed

In researching the “Osage Reign of Terror” eight decades later, Grann came across claims again and again that the 24 murders that brought in the FBI only hinted at the scope of the killing. Through exhaustive digging in archival records, he turned up evidence that the murders had begun at least three years before 1921 and lasted for six years after 1925. “Scholars and investigators who have since looked into the murders believe that the Osage death toll was in the scores, if not the hundreds.” Grann ends this deeply engrossing and troubling book quoting Cain after he killed Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”

Killers of the Flower Moon is David Grann’s second book. The first, a New York Times bestseller, was The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, a fascinating book I reviewed here




Biowarfare, white supremacists, and a Hollywood star in the new Sara Paretsky

biowarfareFallout (V. I. Warshawski #19) by Sara Paretsky

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In the course of 18 novels by the redoubtable mystery writer Sara Paretsky, courageous Chicago detective V.I. (Vic) Warshawski has come face to face with corruption both public and private in her quixotic crusade to clean up her hometown—and get a life in the process. Now, in the 19th, Vic travels to Lawrence, Kansas, to track down a missing African-American Hollywood star and the young filmmaker accompanying her. The novel represents a homecoming of sorts for Paretsky herself. Lawrence is her hometown. There, her father was a cell biologist at the University of Kansas for decades, and a man whose work is similar is one of the book’s central figures.

Most of the familiar characters surrounding Vic appear in the story at least in passing: her late cousin Boom-Boom Warshawski, a star with the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team; her 90-something neighbor, Mr. Contreras; Lotty Herschel, an eminent physician and a Holocaust survivor; Lotty’s boyfriend, Max Lowenthal; and Vic’s beloved golden retriever, Peppy.

The story opens as impetuous young Bernadine Fouchard, a rising hockey star, comes to Vic demanding that she track down a missing friend, a young African-American man named August Veriden. Someone has broken into the locker where drugs are stored at the gym where August trains. August has disappeared—and is widely blamed for the theft, even though both his home and the gym have been methodically torn apart. It soon becomes clear that the young man has left town with an aging movie star, Emerald Ferring, one of the first Black stars in Hollywood. For unknown reasons, they have headed off to Lawrence, Kansas.

When Vic arrives in Kansas, it doesn’t take her long at all to get into trouble. Outside a bar where she’s gone for information, she stumbles on two women passed out. One is a young college student, the other a woman in her 30s who is clearly the worse for wear from drink and drugs. Her name is Sonia Kiel. Eventually, Vic learns that Sonia is the daughter of a famous microbiologist at the University—but neither he nor his alcoholic wife is willing to lift a finger for their daughter. Then Vic finds the body of another woman lying on the floor of a farmhouse. Dead. The local Sheriff blames Vic for the murder.

Fallout is a complex story that involves not just the microbiologist, his allegedly crazy daughter, and the movie star but also an abandoned Minuteman missile silo, a shadowy agribusiness, the U.S. Army and Air Force, radioactive fallout, a white supremacist group, a missing film, and a young woman who is desperate to know whether her father is the graduate student who worked for Dr. Kiel and then died or went missing in 1983. It’s a little difficult to sort all this out along the way, but a careful read of the text will clear things up before the halfway point.

I’ve enjoyed all the many V. I. Warshawski detective novels I’ve read, but this one doesn’t quite measure up to the rest.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

Police corruption in suburbia

Police corruptionWhere It Hurts (Gus Murphy #1), by Reed Farrel Coleman

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After decades of reading mysteries and thrillers, I still frequently encounter authors whose names are new to me—but are described as “bestselling” and sometimes have dozens of novels to their credit. Reed Farrel Coleman is the latest example. Author of at least 23 books divided among six series of crime novels, Coleman is the recipient of half a dozen literary awards. His latest series features John Augustus “Gus” Murphy, a retired cop in suburban Suffolk County on Long Island. Where It Hurts is the first in the series.

For most outsiders, Long Island is identified with the Hamptons and other wealthy New York suburbs. But, as Coleman writes, “most of the island isn’t about Gatsby. A current of poverty and violence roils beneath the surface here, too. A lot of senseless blood gets spilled. What off-islanders see is the 24-carat gilding along the edges where the money flows, not the fool’s gold in the middle where the rats race as hard as in the city and where the stray dogs lie in wait.” This is the territory Gus Murphy worked in uniform for 20 years in the Suffolk County Police Department. It’s also where his life has been unraveling for the two years since his teenage son died, his wife left him, and he resigned from the department. Now Gus works nights at a third-rate hotel driving a courtesy van to and from the local airport and serving as house detective.

When a pathetic ex-con approaches him about looking into the murder of his own son, Gus resists. Eventually, though, he is drawn into opening the case, which police have failed to investigate. As Gus begins to ask questions, he quickly comes up against a wall of resistance from his old department. First, he’s warned away. Then the violence starts, and more bodies begin to fall. Few of even his best friends on the force are willing to lift a hand to help him. Evidence of police corruption soon becomes obvious—and it may go all the way to the top, to the very popular Chief of Police, Jimmy Regan. Repeatedly risking his life, Gus persists in his investigation and gradually begins to recover interest in living. Along the way, he gets help from an old priest who has lost his faith and a woman who is ready to love him despite his wounds and flaws.

Where It Hurts is the first of what are now two novels in Coleman’s new Gus Murphy series.


February 28, 2017

Hedge funds, insider trading, and the most wanted man on Wall Street

Hedge fundsBlack Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar

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If you want to understand the depth of corruption that prevails on Wall Street, a good place to start is New Yorker staff writer Sheelah Kolhatkar‘s admirable new book, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street.

A loathsome human being

The central character is this superb piece of investigative journalism is Steven A. Cohen, the founder of a hedge fund named SAC Capital Advisors. Cohen is clearly a loathsome human being—obsessed with greed, contemptuous of the law, and ruthless beyond compare. For example, here is an eyewitness account of a statement he made to the traders at his fund while in the midst of ugly divorce proceedings with his first wife. “‘I just got ripped off by my wife,’ he said . . . ‘I’m going to make it all back by cutting your payouts.'” This was not bluster: he actually did it, reducing their compensation from 30% of profits to 25% and increasing his own correspondingly. The author also notes that “he went out of his way to abuse people and belittle them.”

However, Cohen is also undeniably brilliant. Occasionally he’s referred to as the greatest stock trader in Wall Street history. Cohen’s instinct is apparently matchless. Obviously, too, he was diabolically clever in shielding himself from responsibility for the illegal actions he forced his employees to take. After decade-long investigations by the FBI and the SEC, Cohen was forced to close down his hedge fund, but he escaped from prosecution, paying only a fine that was modest on the scale of his wealth. (Cohen is now estimated to have a net worth of $13 billion. That’s billion with a B.) Kolhatkar makes clear that despite his undisputed brilliance as a trader, he broke insider trading laws and regulations to gain most of his fortune.

How hedge funds operate

It helps to understand what hedge funds really are and what they do. Originally, hedge funds were designed to “hedge” or protect the assets of extremely wealthy individuals, pension funds, and other high-net-worth institutions. You can find an explanation of classic hedging strategies in plain English here. Over time, however, as the industry became more competitive, hedge fund managers increasingly gravitated away from investing and took up trading, eventually even trading in and out of stocks over fractions of a second. Kolharkar explains that “the name hedge fund lost any connection to the careful strategy that had given such funds their name and came to stand, instead, for unregulated investment firms that essentially did whatever they wanted.”

The role of hedge funds in the economy

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that hedge funds like Steve Cohen’s invested in the stock market like Main Street’s typical small investor. Kolhatkar quotes an email from one of Cohen’s traders three weeks before earnings of computer manufacturer Dell, Inc. were to be announced: “‘gm looking 17.5% vs. street 18.3%. Doesn’t sound good.'” In translation this jargon would read “Dell’s gross margin is anticipated by insiders to be 17.5% in the most recent quarter as opposed to estimates by Wall Street analysts of 18.3%.” In other words, this trivial difference in earnings for Dell for a three-month period would cause hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars worth of the company’s shares to be sold, thus depressing its stock price. This means, of course, that Dell’s board of directors and top executives would do everything within their power to reverse that decline in the next quarter, regardless of the long-term consequences to the company, its employees, its investor-stockholders, and the economy at large. In this way, Wall Street distorts the American (and ultimately the world) economy. That makes no sense at all except for the gamblers who engage in day-to-day and minute-to-minute stock trading.

Given the complexity of the financial markets, it’s too easy to imagine that hedge funds are just one minor element of the problems they pose for the economy. “By 2015,” Kolhatkar writes, “hedge funds controlled almost $3 trillion in assets around the world and were a driving force behind the extreme wealth disequilibrium of the early twenty-first century.” A couple of numbers convey a sense of the magnitude of the problem caused by hedge funds: as Forbes magazine writes, “In total, the 25 highest-earning hedge fund managers and traders made a combined $12 billion in 2015.” The top earner, James Simons, logged an estimated total of $1.65 billion. In one year! The average top manager of a hedge fund earned nearly half a billion dollars that year.

Should there be an upper limit on compensation?

I recognize that many Americans are convinced there should be no upper limit on income. I disagree because I do not believe that anyone whatsoever could possibly provide enough benefit to society to warrant compensation of half a billion dollars a year—and because I know that such high levels of income are only possible because the U.S. tax laws are rigged to favor the superrich and disadvantage the rest of us. To grasp how much money these numbers represent, consider this: in 2015, the same year cited by Forbes, the single highest-paid corporate executive earned $156 million. Thus, the average top-25 hedge fund CEO received more than three times as much money. And I know no one who would pretend that $156 million represents fair compensation for anyone for a single year’s work.

Seeking a “black edge”

In trading, hedge fund managers routinely came to seek out an information “edge” to reduce or eliminate the risk in their trades. As Kolhatkar explains, a “black edge” is information obtained in obviously illegal ways, such as paying a company insider for advance word of important developments in that company’s fortunes. “Gray edge [is] trickier. Any analyst doing his job well would come across this sort of information all the time. For example, an investor-relations person at a company might say something like ‘Yeah, things are trending a little lower than we thought . . .'” This may or may not constitute insider information. The lawyers decide. “White edge,” of course, is “readily available information that anyone could find in a research report or a public document.” Much, perhaps nearly all, the information on which Steve Cohen based his trades was on the “black edge.”

Hedge funds and the corruption of the American economy

Kolhatkar did not pick Cohen and SAC Capital Advisors arbitrarily. The fund posted average gains of 30 percent per year over 20 years. Anyone who has investment experience knows that it’s virtually impossible to earn such high profits year after year for such a long period entirely by legal means. However, SAC Capital Advisors was in many ways typical of the hedge fund industry. Kolhatkar again: “When one trader was asked if he knew of any that didn’t traffic in inside information, he said: ‘No, they would never survive.'”

The corruption fostered by the hedge fund industry extended far beyond Wall Street. In their scramble for insider information to give themselves a black edge, hedge fund managers bought off doctors throughout the country. “In 2005,” the author notes, “Journal of the American Medical Association published a finding that almost 10 percent of the doctors in the United States had paid ties to Wall Street investors . . . The unofficial number was probably much higher.”

It’s difficult to imagine how any public official acquainted with these facts could seriously contend that Wall Street should be deregulated. Yet the elected leadership of the United States seems hell-bent on doing just that.

About the author

Sheilah Kolhatkar was recently interviewed by the New York Times Book Review. The interviewer notes that she “worked in the late 1990s and early 2000s as an analyst at a couple of small hedge funds. . .” As she told the interviewer on the phone, even then she “heard people talking about the trader Steven A. Cohen and the stellar returns at SAC Capital, which he began in 1992.” Kolhatkar explained why she left the hedge fund industry after the dot-com bust and went into print journalism instead. “I could not handle the stress of making imperfect decisions based on incomplete information with other people’s money . . . I didn’t have the personality for it.” Before signing on with The New Yorker in 2016, Kolhatkar was a features editor and national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek.

January 10, 2017

A true story of high finance and murder in Putin’s Russia

Putin's RussiaRed Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder

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Even if you follow international news only casually, you’re likely to be aware that Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy. The country is effectively governed by fewer than two dozen oligarchs. Some, including President Vladimir Putin himself, hold government office. Others are private “bankers” and “businessmen.” Together, they have looted hundreds of billions of dollars, plundering Russia’s oil and gas reserves and buying up government enterprises at pennies on the dollar in a corrupt process of privatization.

The truth about Putin’s Russia

Putin alone is reported to have amassed a fortune of at least $40 billion. Other observers consider him the richest man in the world, with assets totaling more than $100 billion. Though from time to time we’ve also read reports about the murder of whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and opposition politicians, these fragmentary reports don’t make clear just ruthless and brazen the rulers of Putin’s Russia have shown themselves to be

Russian-American journalist Masha Geffen’s expose, The Man Without a Face, gave us insight into the rise of Putin himself. Now comes Red Notice, Bill Browder‘s lucid memoir of nearly two decades’ involvement in the Russian financial markets. Through painful personal experience, Browder bore witness to the violence and other criminal behavior that built the great fortunes at the top of Russia’s economic pyramid today.

An investment adviser turns civil rights activist

Red Notice encompasses two stories. First is the remarkable tale of how Browder made a fortune through investments in Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s. Second is the story of how quickly his business, his life, and his colleagues’ lives began falling apart once Browder ran afoul of Vladimir Putin. He began his career as an investment adviser. He ended it as a civil rights activist.

Browder is a remarkable figure in his own right. His grandfather was Earl Browder, who headed the US Communist Party during the 1930s and 40s and twice ran for President on its ticket. Other members of his family, including his father, two uncles, and his brother, are not just progressive politically but prodigies in science and math as well. They hold distinguished professorships in their fields at top universities. (“In my family,” Browder writes, “if you weren’t a prodigy, then you had no place on earth.”) Bill Browder himself rebelled against his family from an early age, resolving to do the one thing that would most upset his family: become a capitalist. And so he did, earning an MBA from Stanford and going to work for the investment bank Salomon Brothers and later as a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group.

Making billions from privatization

Browder’s interest in Eastern Europe soon got him involved in some of the very first privatizations in that region. Later, having proven his ability to pick wise investments in Poland and elsewhere in the region, he founded his own firm in Moscow, Hermitage Capital Management. With substantial funds from Israeli and American investors, Browder quickly built Hermitage into “the best-performing emerging-markets fund in the world” in 2000. By the early years of this century, the firm held $4.5 billion in assets. It had been started only in 1996 with $25 million. Browder made all this money taking great risks with large investments in what appeared to be sure-fire 50- or 100-to-1 payoffs as the Russian privatization program proceeded. He turned out to be right again and again.

This process of privatization lay the foundation for many of today’s great fortunes in Russia. “Instead of 150 million Russians sharing the spoils of mass privatization,” which had been the alleged purpose of the program, “Russia wound up with twenty-two oligarchs owning 39 percent of the economy and everyone else living in poverty. . . [B]y the year 2000 the richest person had become 250,000 times richer than the poorest person.” This is not the way business works in most of the rest of the world. It’s criminality, pure and simple. It may be unkind to point out that Browder might well have been one of these oligarchs had he been Russian. The fortune he built was considerable.

From Putin’s favor to criminal charges

Once Browder ran afoul of Putin and his cronies, the full might of the Russian government began mobilizing to ruin him. Police official raided not just his offices but those of his lawyers as well on the basis of trumped-up charges. Criminals literally stole three of his companies by forging documents and filing them in obscure provincial courts. Bogus complaints were lodged against Browder and his lawyers for tax evasion, beginning a years-long saga which ended when criminals engineered the theft of $230 million from the Russian government—the same amount Browder’s firm had actually paid in taxes! But all this legal maneuvering was only the beginning. During these times, Browder successfully moved all his assets out of Russia and out of reach. When the criminals realized there was nothing to steal, the threats escalated. Browder then managed to extract two of his principal lawyers from the country before they could be jailed and tortured. A third, Sergei Magnitsky, was not so lucky.

Much of Red Notice is about Bill Browder’s years-long effort to gain Magnitsky’s freedom. When he failed, and Magnitsky eventually died before the age of 40 from torture, medical neglect, and a vicious beating by guards when he was deathly ill, Browder became virtually a full-time civil rights activist. It was in large part through his efforts that the US government eventually took action against the 60 individuals who had taken part in the illegal jailing, torture, medical neglect, and murder of Sergei Magnitsky. With help from several remarkable government officials, he even managed to persuade a very reluctant Obama Administration to issue sanctions personally directed at the 60. Their vehicle was the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which Browder was instrumental in passing. It’s a truly moving and remarkable tale.

John Grisham takes on judicial corruption

judicial corruptionThe Whistler: A Novel, by John Grisham

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With Big Money flooding into politics and overseas into the tax havens of Luxembourg, Panama, the Cayman Islands, and the Bahamas, Americans are becoming inured to corruption. If a United States Senator is shown to have received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from lobbyists for an industry his votes support, we shrug. It’s only natural. Still, when a sitting judge is found to be accepting bribes to convict someone falsely accused or acquit someone else who’s demonstrably guilty, we feel a little more of our faith in democracy slipping away. Somehow, in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, we Americans still tend to feel confident in the soundness of our courts.

A whistle-blower on judicial corruption

In The Whistler,John Grisham toys with this belief in a tale of “the most corrupt judge in American history.” It’s all fiction, of course. Sadly, though, it’s entirely credible. A clever criminal gang settles in the Florida Panhandle, buys a circuit court judge and other local officials, and teams up with greedy leaders on a small Indian reservation. With all this firepower behind them, the gang maneuvers through the legal system to build a huge casino and hundreds of millions of dollars of housing and small businesses all around the region. For years, millions flow into the pockets of the judge, the leadership on the reservation, and — in much larger volumes — the coffers of the gang. Then a disbarred lawyer, an ex-con, surfaces at the Florida Board of Judicial Review to bring a complaint about the judge on behalf of an anonymous whistle-blower. The investigation that ensues steadily broadens to include the tribal police, local police in Florida and Alabama, and ultimately the FBI.

A police procedural writ large

If you’re familiar with John Grisham’s work, it’s likely you would expect The Whistler to be filled with twists, turns, and surprising betrayals around every corner. This novel doesn’t fit that mold. It’s a police procedural writ large, following the investigation of the judge and the gang from beginning to end in considerable detail. There’s violence, some of it graphic, but this is not a crime thriller crammed with serial killers and mangled corpses. The Whistler is, instead, a gripping story that’s satisfying to the end. It’s another example of the remarkable range of John Grisham’s writing talent.

You might also like to take a look at 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

A postmortem for the Arab Spring

Arab SpringA review of A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS, by Robert F. Worth

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Historians are fond of advancing the notion that no major event in human affairs can be fully understood until many years later, when the major actors have passed from the scene and long-suppressed archival records finally come to light. Journalists sometimes dispute this contention, citing their eyewitness accounts and face-to-face interviews with players large and small. Though I’m fond of history and read a good deal of it, I’m sometimes tempted to side with the journalists, if only because contemporary conditions may be best understood by contemporaries. Robert F. Worth’s new postmortem on the Arab Spring, A Rage for Order, is a case in point.

The Arab Spring and the disorder it spawned

Shifting from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Worth’s account of developments in the Middle East beginning in 2011 introduces us to a series of fascinating individuals whose stories illustrate the intimate realities that together comprise what we sum up in shorthand as the “Arab Spring.” It’s a finely textured portrait of the region, and profoundly sad.

In A Rage for Order, you’ll meet two Syrian women, one Sunni, the other Alawite. Close friends in their youth, they gradually grow apart under the pressures of the increasingly violent civil war. Worth sees the tragedy here and elsewhere in the region, explaining “that this great battle between Sunni and Shiite was really just a cynical power struggle between the region’s two biggest oil producers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who fed their people sectarian slogans the way you might feed amphetamines to a tired boxer.”

You’ll also meet the two remarkable old men, bitter enemies for decades in the turbulent opposition politics of Tunisia, who swallow their differences to force a moderate compromise on their followers, ensuring peace for their nation. You’ll meet a defector from ISIS and read his tale of favoritism and corruption within the Islamic State. And you’ll learn the little-understood history of the Alawites who rule Syria under the iron thumb of their leader, Bashar al-Asaad. This is history in the making, well told.

In summing up his story in the book’s final paragraph, Worth writes: “The protesters of 2011 had dreamed of building new countries that would confer genuine citizenship and something more: karama, dignity, the rallying cry of all the uprisings. When that dream failed them, many gave way to apathy or despair, or even nostalgia for the old regimes they had assailed. But some ran headlong into the seventh century in search of the same prize.”

About the author

Robert F. Worth’s bio on his publisher’s website reads as follows: “Robert F. Worth spent fourteen years as a correspondent for The New York Times, and was the paper’s Beirut bureau chief from 2007 until 2011. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine and The New York Review of Books. He has twice been a finalist for the National Magazine Award. Born and raised in Manhattan, he now lives in Washington D.C.”

Dirty politics, union style

dirty politicsA review of Yellow-Dog Contract, by Ross Thomas

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It’s been so long since labor unions have appeared high on our radar screens here in the US that you may be unaware what the phrase “yellow-dog contract” means. I for one had forgotten. Well, it turns out that such a contract, or a clause in a contract, requires that a new employee never join a union. And that archaic concept is the hook at the centerpiece of this brilliant novel about dirty politics, union style. The book was published in 1976, so the concept was by no means archaic then.

The reigning master of dirty tricks

Though not yet 40, Harvey Longmire has long since retired to his farm near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, as Yellow-Dog Contract opens. There he lives with his wife and a zoo’s worth of animals when two men from his checkered past show up in a large Mercedes. Murfin and Quane were his henchmen in an unsuccessful union election campaign a dozen years earlier, when their candidate, the incumbent president of the Public Employees Union (PEU), narrowly lost to his challenger despite their considerable electioneering skills. Now the two men have come to enlist Harvey in an effort to find the man who defeated their candidate and has served as PEU’s president ever since: the man has disappeared, and shenanigans are afoot in the union under his successor. Harvey had proven himself the reigning master of dirty tricks in politics by winning eleven of the twelve “hopeless” Congressional and Senatorial campaigns he took on after their work together at the union. Their new boss, the multimillionaire head of a family foundation, insists that they bring Harvey back to investigate the disappearance of the PEU president, and he won’t take no for an answer.

A plot that twists, turns, and does little dances

You can expect three things above all in a novel by Ross Thomas: colorful, three-dimensional characters; dialog that is unfailingly witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny; and a plot that twists, turns, and does little dances before your very eyes. Yellow-Dog Contract offers all that and more, including a huge dollop of suspense. It would spoil the fun to describe any more of the story. Read it. You’ll thank me.

Falling union membership

By the end of World War II, the percentage of workers employed in the US economy who were members of labor unions peaked at more than one-third. Three decades later, in the mid-1970s, that proportion had fallen to between one-fourth and one-fifth. (In 2013 the share was 11.3%.) Most economists today consider this trend to be a major factor, and perhaps the greatest factor, in creating the yawning gap between rich and poor in America today. Undoubtedly, dirty tricks of the sort portrayed in Yellow-Dog Contract as well as corruption within a few major unions helped undermine the trade union movement. However, it’s clear that the biggest factor by far was a massively funded nationwide campaign by the American Right that began in the US Chamber of Commerce, gained steam throughout the 1970s, and continues today under Republican governors in such states as Wisconsin and Michigan.

About the author

According to his bio on Wikipedia, Ross Thomas “served with the infantry in the Philippines during World War II. He worked as a public relations specialist, correspondent with the Armed Forces Network, union spokesman, and political strategist in the USA, Bonn (Germany), and Nigeria before becoming a writer.” Is it any wonder that Thomas would be well positioned to write Yellow-Dog Contract and so many other great books about dirty politics?



A detective novel that highlights corruption in Italy

corruption in ItalyA review of Death and Judgment (Commissario Brunetti #4), by Donna Leon

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Though she has lived in Venice for more than a quarter-century, Donna Leon has insisted that the Commissario Brunetti series of detective novels she sets in Venice not be translated from English into Italian. There’s no mystery here. Leon’s picture of Italian society is merciless.

In Death and Judgment, the fourth in her Commissario Brunetti series, Leon writes, “villains ruled the land. All, or what seemed like all, of the major political figures who had ruled the country since Brunetti was a child had been named in accusation, named again on different charges, and had even begun to name one another, and yet not one of them had been tried and sentenced, though the coffers of the state had been sucked dry.”

Again: Brunetti “often thought that the only safe procedure a person could undergo at the Ospedale Civile was an autopsy. It was the only time a patient ran no risk.”

Invariably, Brunetti is forced to work around the orders of his boss, Vice-Questore Patta, whose overriding concern is that the Commissario not jeopardize the favor he enjoys from the local elite. A typical admonition from Patta runs along these lines: “‘Brunetti, don’t go stirring up trouble with this.'”

Despite Brunetti’s brilliant detective work, the end result of his investigations all too frequently is a cover-up, leaving the Commissario despondent. “Brunetti knew this mood and almost feared it, this recurring certainty of the futility of everything he did. Why bother to put the boy who broke into a house in jail when the man who stole billions from the health system is named ambassador to the country to which he had been sending the money for years?”

As the long-suffering Brunetti notes in a conversation with his secret collaborator, Vice-Questore Patta’s extremely competent secretary, “‘For fifty years, ever since the end of the war, all we’ve ever been is lied to. By the government, the church, the political parties, by industry and business and the military.’

“‘And the police?’ she asked.

“‘Yes,’ he agreed with no hesitation whatsoever, ‘and the police.'”

Is this an accurate picture of Italy today? I haven’t spent enough time in the country or traveled widely enough there to be able to answer the question. Perhaps it’s relevant that Death and Judgment, published in 1995, was only the fourth book in the now 25-strong Commissario Brunetti series. But, other than the switch from the lire to the euro, I suspect that things haven’t changed that much in Italy in the last 20 years. Certainly, the recurring news reports about Italy’s nonstop political game of musical chairs isn’t encouraging.

It may be no exaggeration to say that Death and Judgment, like the other novels I’ve read in the Commissario Brunetti series, is a work of social commentary as well as a murder mystery. Like many of her contemporaries, Donna Leon demonstrates a mastery of sociology as well as skill in crafting a suspenseful novel.



January 4, 2016

An irreligious take on Catholic history

Catholic history - the relic master - christopher buckleyThe Relic Master: A Novel by Christopher Buckley

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In an interview conducted by Deborah Solomon for the New York Times Magazine in 2008, Christopher Buckley engaged in this exchange:

[Your father] was a practicing Catholic. What are you? I am post-Catholic.

As opposed to a lapsed Catholic? I am probably more of a collapsed Catholic.

That’s about the size of it, to judge from Buckley’s latest satirical novel, The Relic Master. This diabolical tale is a send-up of the Catholic Church at what was probably the most unattractive period in its history. The dissolute scion of a notorious family, Lorenzo de’ Medici held forth in the Holy See as Pope Leo X, pursuing carnal pleasures and bankrupting the Vatican as a patron of the arts. He was perhaps the most corrupt and immoral in a long line of unspeakably awful Popes. In Wittenberg, in reaction to the excesses of Leo’s Church, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther began his campaign for reform. So went Catholic history.

A tale of the Reformation

In The Relic Master, Christopher Buckley spins a tale built around the historical figures who played key roles in the early days of the Reformation: not just Leo and Luther themselves, but also Johann Tetzel, the Dominican friar commissioned by the Pope to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica; Tetzel’s greedy bishop, Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz; and Elector Frederick “the Wise” of Saxony. The brilliant German painter, Albrecht Durer, plays a major part in the story, too.

The plot is built around two historical artifacts that helped to define the Catholic Church of the era: the veneration of “relics” of the crucifixion of Jesus and the martyrdom of the saints, and the notoriously corrupt practice of selling “indulgences” to credulous followers of the Church. By paying money to Tetzel (who split his take with Cardinal Albrecht), the ignorant believers of the era presumably were pardoned for a period of time in Purgatory, the more money they paid, the longer the period. Failing that, according to the Church, they would languish in Purgatory for hundreds of years.

The Relic Master in person

The protagonist, identified in the book’s title as the Relic Master, is Dismas, a former soldier of fortune turned relic-hunter. He pursues the choicest relics for his two principal clients, Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz and Frederick of Saxony. Frederick was nominally the more powerful of the two, because he held the powerful title of Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, one of a handful of officials who would choose the next Emperor. To help his clients continue to build their unparalleled collections of relics — each of them containing more than 10,000 items — Dismas scours Europe and the Middle East, stopping by “relic fairs” that are scenes of hilarity. All goes well until Dismas loses the fortune he has accumulated in a 16th-century version of a Ponzi scheme. His friend, the artist Albrecht Durer, persuades him to engage in an elaborate fraud against the Cardinal that will make them both rich. And that is the beginning of the end of the tale.

Where does satire come from?

By giving reality a few twists in one direction or another, satire makes us think. The Relic Master is a great case in point.

At this remove of five centuries, it’s difficult to understand how the people of the time could have been so colossally ignorant as to believe such nonsense. Yet, as I look around myself in the early 21st century, I can’t avoid thinking about today’s religious absurdities: the unfathomable violence of Muslim extremists, the irredentist absurdity that motivates ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the dogged insistence of fundamentalist Protestants in the literal truth of the Bible in the face of centuries of evidence to the contrary. Is there something in the nature of the human race that impels some of us to grasp so tightly onto such ridiculous fantasies? Sadly, it would appear so.

About the author

Christopher Buckley has long since managed to transcend his identity as the son of William F. Buckley, Jr., one of the founders of modern conservatism in America. Early in life, he became editor of Esquire magazine and shortly afterward a speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. In addition to a number of nonfiction books and numerous contributions to magazines, he has written ten satirical novels, of which three have been produced as films.

I’ve read many of Buckley’s novels. My review of one is at Wondered where UFOs come from? Christopher Buckley has the answer. You’ll find another at Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels.