Curious murders and peculiar lifestyles

Bones of Betrayal, by Jefferson Bass

“Say cheeeeese!”

As a child, you undoubtedly held “cheese” in your mouth while your mother was on the backside of a camera. Birthdays, picnics, silly backyard days in a blow-up pool, holidays with Grandma and so many firsts were immortalized with a pop (remember flash cubes?), a snap (cameras with a fold-up viewer?) or a whirr and a shake (instant pictures?).

But, some pictures, long held in storage, could deepen a mystery. In the a book, “Bones of Betrayal,” by Jefferson Bass, Dr. Bill Brockton needs to put everything in focus to solve a murder.

The old man floating in the abandoned swimming pool on the side of a Tennessee hill had been dead long enough to have frozen in the ice. When Brockton and his assistant, Miranda, got the body thawed, they turned it over to the medical examiner, Dr. Edelberto Garcia, for autopsy.

But, this was no routine procedure. The dead man’s internal organs were almost liquefied. He had died slowly and painfully, after swallowing a tiny capsule of iridium-192, an extremely deadly pellet of intensely radioactive matter. And, Garcia and Miranda had handled the capsule.

Decades before, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was key to the development of the nuclear bomb, and Dr. Leonard Novak — the dead man — had been an important scientist at the helm of the Manhattan Project. Highly intelligent, yet humble, Novak was the keeper of many secrets. One of them was in the freezer of his apartment, stuffed in an old Prince Albert tobacco can.

It was a film which appeared to be unused, but when Brockton’s experts eked out an image, they found another mystery. Faintly, the photos showed a man with a bullet hole in his head, lying at the bottom of a crater.

With two mysterious deaths on his hands and two horribly injured colleagues in treatment, Brockton learned that Novak was once married to a charming, now-aged lady, who still lived nearby. The former Mrs. Novak loved her vodka and she loved to tell stories. She also loved to pretend she was senile, to everyone but Brockton.

And then, beneath murky waters, another body surfaced…

I usually have a pretty strong stomach, but “Bones of Betrayal” was a little gruesome, even to me. Luckily, I started it well after dinner, late at night.

On the other hand, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea either. This book kept me reading way into the wee hours.

Bass is actually two people: Jon Jefferson is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, while Dr. Bill Bass is a widely-known forensic anthropologist and founder of the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm.” These credentials mean that this book contains real-life details you won’t find in many novels of this type. There are been-there, done-that, authentic autopsy and crime-scene scenes that delicate readers will want to avoid, but that “CSI” and true-crime fans will relish.

If you love a mystery and can picture yourself engrossed in a good novel soon, then read this one. “Bones of Betrayal” will make you smile.

Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach, by Laurence Leamer

You’re not allowed. For most of your life, you’ve been under constrictions of allowance. Not allowed to cross the street by yourself. No staying up late on a weeknight.

And school? Well, that brought a whole new set of “not alloweds.” No running in the halls, no talking out of turn, no gum-chewing. It just wasn’t allowed.

These days, you’re given a little more freedom, but you’re still not allowed. You’re not allowed to speed, steal, or slander, and most of us are not allowed into the fancy parties or private clubs of upper society. But after reading “Madness Under the Royal Palms,” by Laurence Leamer, would you want to be in there, anyhow?

Wanting to find a warm-weather spot to write his books, Leamer says that he was drawn to Palm Beach, a small island just off the coast of South Florida. It was beautiful there, and though Leamer says he and his wife didn’t feel welcome on their first visit, they bought a duplex in 1994.

Fifteen years later, the welcome mat is still relatively absent.

A 140 years ago, Florida was mostly wild and sparsely populated. Henry Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil, came to the region and built railways, ships and hotels. Luxury was also a Flagler standard, and Palm Beach personified it.

For years, there were two main clubs on the island and Jews weren’t allowed to join either one. They still aren’t, no matter how much scheming is done to present oneself as socially worthy.

But, no matter. Donald Trump bought Mar-A-Lago, a fabulous mansion, and created a club that accepts all comers–as long as they have the mid-six-figure membership fee and can pay five-figure annual dues.

Palm Beach is where someone purchases property and tears down a 16,200-square-foot home (with two wine-tasting rooms; one for red wine, one for white wine) in order to build a mansion of nearly 85,000 square feet, a “home” that takes an hour to walk through.

It’s a place where weddings are preceded by prenuptial contracts (“It was 15 pages of different ways of saying, ‘No.’”); a place where stepmothers hate their late husband’s children so much that they order the dead man’s wardrobe shredded, to keep heirs from having mementos.

A place where the law often looks the other way, except in cases of murder.

Leamer is a factual writer, often given to wry understatement and only occasionally editorializing. When he does offer his observations, they’re deliciously dead-on and oh-so-wonderfully snarky, the kind of comments that make you want to take the phone off the hook, so you can read more. This made “Madness Under the Royal Palms” like peeking at a supermarket tabloid or watching a daytime talk show, only twice as much guilty-pleasure fun. I love a good scandal and I loved this book.

If you’ve often wondered what goes on behind the gates at those areas you’re not allowed to visit, pick up this book and allow yourself a few hours with it. “Madness Under the Royal Palms” is one you won’t want to put down.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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