Each month, the CrimeReads editors highlight the best new true crime and crime nonfiction releases. October brings a historical bent to our true crime roundup, with new releases digging into the history of organized crime, coal country assassinations, amoral opportunists, community activists, linguistic battles, and books bound in human skin.
Mark A. Bradley, Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America (Norton)
In 1969, in Clarksville, Pennsylvania, union activist Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, his wife, and daughter were murdered. Yablonski was in the midst of a heated campaign against the notoriously corrupt president of the United Mine Workers of America, Tony Boyle, long suspected of pocketing union funds and making side deals with mine owners. The killings ignited a major national investigation and eventually led to a rank-and-file overhaul of the union. It was a flash point in the modern history of union organizing in America, and Bradley weaves together the details of the brutal crime and the broader reverberations throughout organized labor. –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Editor-in-Chief
Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War (Bold Type Books)
In New York in the decades leading up to the Civil War, when slavery was outlawed in the northern states, a group of well-to-do, well-connected “businessmen” and municipal leaders built fortunes kidnapping free Black men and selling them into slavery in locations from New Orleans to South America. Historian Wells takes an unflinching look at this ugly chapter in the city’s history, showing how the era’s crimes helped build the city we now know. He also profiles David Ruggles, a journalist and abolitionist who pursued members of what was known as “The Kidnapping Club” and helped expose some. The result is a nuanced, compelling, and powerful history. –DM
Michael Cannell, A Brotherhood Betrayed: The Man Behind the Rise and Fall of Murder, Inc. (Minotaur)
When crime got organized, murder got incorporated. Michael Cannell, in his new history of the notorious Murder, Inc. gang of hitmen, has crafted a rollicking tale of mayhem and murder, arrests and atonement, in the best new true crime book about the mafia to come out in quite some time. Murder, Inc. had a simple pitch that led to an enormous body count: mafia leaders who wanted an enemy offed could approach the gang of murderers for hire, then acquire an airtight and very public alibi while Murder, Inc. took care of their little problem—at least until their leader started singing like a canary. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Senior Editor
Martin Puchner, The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate (Norton)
Martin Puchner weaves together family history, the study of linguistics, and the worst moments of the 20th century in this fascinating memoir. Puchner grew up listening to his uncle digress on Rotwelsch, a secret language used by criminals, vagebonds, travelers, and more. As an adult, he learned that his grandfather had put his linguistic expertise to the use of the Nazis, publishing antisemitic analysis of Rotwelsch’s many loan words from Hebrew and Yiddish. Rotwelsch peaked in usage during the disruptions of the 17th century, when much of Central Europe was constantly on the move, but the need for authority figures to condemn the language and speculate on its origins dates to Martin Luther and continued for hundreds of years. And the need for secret languages that authority figures struggled to interpret has existed for far longer (and continues to this day). –MO
Scott Peeples, The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City (Princeton Univ. Press)
Peeples’ new study offers a fascinating portrait of Edgar Allan Poe in a thoroughly new light. His book follows Poe through his many, many addresses, from Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York, putting his work in the context of the author’s surroundings, with keen insights into the social and community contexts of the time. Sketches of Poe’s Baltimore are especially illuminating, and the photography by Michelle Van Parys makes for a powerful counterpoint. Any readers who want to better understand Poe the man and the artist, as well as the world he passed through, ought to check out this engrossing new volume. –DM
This book is so cool! Many volumes have been rumored to be bound in human skin, but how many of these are just sheepskin in human follicular clothing? You’ll get that once you read the book. Megan Rosenbloom, equipped with a new scientific test to determine the leathery provenance of many of the world’s creepiest books, embarked on a world tour of books bound in human skin and the collectors who care for them. As a medical ethicist as well as a librarian, Rosenbloom gives a blistering critique of the clinical distancing that allowed doctors to care for a patient one minute, and flay them the next. She also visits a tannery and it’s so gross. Also there are death doolas.
Standout quote: “What a beautiful flayed penis!” –MO