In their continuing quest for gripping narrative elements with which to hook the reader, it should come as no surprise that authors occasionally mine tragedies involving “cults.” A. W. Hill’s Enoch’s Portal uses the Solar Temple, David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten alludes heavily to Aum Shinrikyo, and Madison Smartt Bell’s The Color of Night contains a thinly-disguised reworking of the Manson Family. Indeed, I myself even experimented with a science fiction parody of the Branch Davidian disaster. Given that grand tradition, it seems almost inevitable that the Peoples Temple tragedy has inspired many an author with grist for fiction. Some draw subtle comparisons for minor flavor, but more often they wear the influence on their sleeves, incorporating events as major plot elements. Past issues of the jonestown report have already touched on a few of these, such as Steven James’ The Pawn, Scott Blackwood’s We Agreed to Meet Just Here, Armistead Maupin’s Further Tales of the City, and David Conn’s polemic-pretending-to-be-a-novel, Lednorf’s Dilemma. Below are five other entries that also delve into Peoples Temple in some way, as well as a more in-depth re-visitation of The Pawn. Before tackling them individually, some collective observations are in order.
In the past thirty-plus years, the output has almost gone on a J-curve: few books in the immediate years following the final White Night, lots in the past decade. Curiously, the quality of the books also follows this pattern: low to high. The few books from the immediate aftermath were quick-flip pulp pieces, the recent ones are complexly plotted novels. One could argue that the tradition of exporting Peoples Temple into a fictional narrative started as early as 1979 with William Rodger’s Cult Sunday. However, the book is more of a proselytizing piece warning readers of the dangers of all “cults,” using a lurid straw man stereotype of what the author thinks cults are like. Although most of the members are murdered by their leader, and Jonestown is mentioned in dialogue as a comparison to the book’s fictional villainous group, in practice the group bears no real resemblance to either Peoples Temple or even reality, and is little more than a Chick tract without the cartoons. Armistead Maupin puts Jim Jones himself into a subplot of 1994’s Further Tales of the City, but it is not until the mid-2000s that the floodgates open.
Each of these books, either directly or indirectly, are crime fiction/mysteries of some sort in which the character(s) investigate a murder and discover some sort of Peoples Temple connection. I suspect this is because the nature of the fatal finale at Jonestown simply lends itself best to this genre. Likewise, the books are all part of series. However, I think this says more about the publishing industry’s desire to have something “familiar” – in this case, a recurring protagonist – than it is a commentary on the types of authors who would tackle the subject.
Almost none of the authors show much familiarity with the subject of Peoples Temple beyond what could be gleaned through half an hour of surfing Wikipedia. The exception to this is The Pawn: James demonstrates a decent knowledge of the various conspiracy theories surrounding Jonestown, including a few that are comparatively obscure. Although many of the theories have been demonstrably debugged (at least to my own satisfaction), James takes the tack that they are in fact true. As this is important to the narrative, I personally don’t have a problem with it.
None of the books portrays Jim Jones or Peoples Temple positively. This is understandable: while I acknowledge that Jones still has his supporters out there, he himself and the situation he created is still too infamous for any type of “rehabilitation” or “critical rethinking” in the public mind – unlike, for example, the comparatively positive protagonist portrayals of Lee Harvey Oswald in Don DeLillo’s Libra or the young struggling-artist Adolph Hitler in the movie Max. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Jones should be “rehabilitated,” I’m merely opining that it might be refreshing to see some author take a more substantive tackling of him that fleshes him out or casts him in some light other than a cardboard cutout “crazy cult leader” stereotype.
Likewise, the congregational members of Peoples Temple continue to be portrayed poorly, usually as brainwashed sheep blindly following Jones. Indeed, in four of these books, the villains are Peoples Temple survivors. Two of them have picked up Jones’ work and started their own doomsday cults. Curiously, the one book that comes closest to giving a sympathetic portrayal is again The Pawn, though the sympathy is backhanded: it is the lack of sympathy towards the deceased that is the motive behind the villain’s plot to unleash a deadly virus upon the world.
What follows are more substantial reviews and commentary of the six novels, listed chronologically by release date. I was unfamiliar with any of these works before beginning this article project. Each review contains a helpful context about the book, a plot synopsis (with spoilers), an analysis of the “Jonestown Connection,” and a “my two cents” commentary that may (or may not) help the curious decide if they would actually want to tackle these tomes on their own. As to the last, please keep in mind that these reviews are being written by someone whose favorite novel is Naked Lunch and who thinks the movie A Clockwork Orange is a comedy, so caveat lector…
• Retreat for Death by Nick Carter
• Terror In Guyana (Phoenix Force #47) by Gar Wilson
• Before the Frost by Henning Mankell
• The Pawn by Steven James
• The Crazy School by Cornelia Read
• The Hunter by John Lescroart
Publisher: Charter (imprint of Ace)
First printing: August 1980
Length: 213 pages
Context: Although the author is listed as “Nick Carter,” that’s actually the name of the narrator/protagonist, and the book was in fact ghostwritten by David Hagberg. Nick Carter as a character has a somewhat long-toothed history dating back to 1915 with a pulp magazine called Nick Carter Weekly that featured short stories and serialized adventures of Nick as a private detective. He has survived over the years through spin-offs on radio, a trio of movies starring Walter Pidgeon, and even a made-for-TV movie with Robert Conrad. After the success of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series in the early ’60s, Nick Carter was retooled to be a secret agent (his official title was “killmaster”) working for the super-secret AXE, an off-the-books black ops organization responsible solely to the President. In Retreat for Death, he still functions as a private detective by taking a case as a pro bono personal favor for a friend. Apparently he has no qualms about using government personnel and resources in this private matter, but I’ll give him a free pass on that: it’s not like there was a cold war, hostage crisis, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Polish labor strikes, terrorist bombing in Bologna, assassination of the Turkish Prime Minister, or an upcoming U.S. presidential election that might have needed his professional attention…
The Plot: Carter gets a surprise call from a former friend/coworker/lover named Pat Staley, who is worried that her brother Don has joined what she calls a “crazy cult” (p. 12) known as The Church of the Final Reward. Don, who happens to be worth about $50 million, is giving tons of money to the group, and has just drafted a new will bequeathing all his assets to the church in the event of his death. Pat thinks there’s something suspicious about all this, and she’d like Carter to look into it. He agrees to snoop around, wondering if they might be “[s]omething like the Moon cult? Or Jonestown?” (p. 16) and breaks into the church’s headquarters. After ransacking their computer database, he finds that several thousand members of the church have made similar post-mortem arrangements that leave everything to the sect. Carter concludes “(t)he church, as it turned out, was nothing more than a cleverly conceived scam to bilk people out of their life savings. [The church officials] were nothing more than high class con men who worked under the guise of their religion” (p. 96).
Unfortunately, Pat gets kidnapped by church henchmen and is secreted away to their home-away-from-home, an immense plantation compound deep in the Brazilian rainforest known as “Reward.” Carter flies down to South America, and after a lengthy journey up the Amazon that includes sporadic attacks alternately by indigenous cannibal “Indians” and equally-hungry piranhas — cuz ya gotta have piranhas in this sort of story — he reaches Reward. The entire commune is strung out on drugs (tranquilizers to keep them docile) and shows signs of what he diagnoses as brainwashing. Alas, Pat has become a smiling, compliant member of the commune. Carter finally meets the church’s founder, Franklin Knox, who tells our hero he has arrived just in time for the culmination of the church’s plans: The Festival of the Final Reward. (Cue ominous thunderclap on soundtrack.) Carter concludes of the man, “He’s quite crazy, you know. I think he actually believes in all this mumbo jumbo” (p. 158).
The Festival of the Final Reward turns out to be an elaborate Rube Goldberg scheme involving shooting each member of the church in the heart with a laser and then letting their lifeless bodies fall off the altar and into the arms of some hungry cannibals below. Commune members are eager to line up for this. When it’s his and Pat’s turn, of course, Carter is able to escape and miraculously rally an insurrection among the masses. A three-way battle breaks out between Carter, Knox loyalists, and the cannibal natives. Knox escapes in the bedlam, but Carter finds him in the compound basement loading forklifts full of gold onto a waiting C-130 Hercules cargo plane 100 yards away that somehow the entire population of Reward had failed to notice in the past five years. Knox dies in a gun battle, Carter is able to distract the natives with a hologram, and he flies the remaining 425 survivors away to safety.
The Jonestown Connection: The book’s connection to Jonestown is actually a fractal of the novel itself: superficial, ineptly handled, and collapsing under the slightest scrutiny. It’s the characters themselves who bring up the alleged connection, calling the Church of Final Reward “a Jonestown-like cult” and such. Almost certainly this was to help prejudice readers as to who the book’s villain was, plus superliminally program them – kind of like cults do – for the direction the book was headed. Sure, there are obvious parallels such as the remote South American setting and the mass suicide finale motif, but the similarities end there. The theology of the CotFR is never explored, nor is Knox’s back-story, save for a two-sentence blurb that mentions he had started out as a Bible salesman before forming his ministry. The book itself alternately calls Knox a charlatan and a crazy true believer of his own brand. Likewise, his appeal to his followers is never explained, so there is no hint if there was any sort of Messianic expectation of him that one would expect of a Jim Jones clone.
My Two Cents: Obviously, this book is not “literature,” but it’s not trying to be. It’s a pulp adventure novel, and as such it’s okay for what it is. If you like this sort of thing, turn your brain off and enjoy the ride. Or do what I did: treat it as the written equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space and find amusement in its over-the-top silliness. For instance, I found the trip up the Amazon segment to be vastly improved by mentally projecting Martin Sheen’s voice as the narrator, turning it into a low-budget literary Apocalypse Now. Anyway, it probably goes without saying that the “plot” is filler to pad between car chases, gun fights, and tawdry sex scenes. The story moves along at an exceedingly brisk clip, in part because the author has jettisoned such cumbersome cargo as descriptive detail, character development, words over three syllables, and caulking to plug all those pesky plot holes.
Buy it on Amazon.
Publisher: Gold Eagle (imprint of Harlequin)
First printing: June 1990
Length: 221 pages
Context: Number 47 in the “Phoenix Force” saga. Yeah, I’d never heard of it either. All books in the series are written by various authors under the pen name Gar Wilson; Terror in Guyana was scribed by William Fieldhouse, who helmed the majority of the series. In the books, The Phoenix Force is a branch of Stoney Man, an anti-terrorism outfit answerable only to the President (as differentiated from Carter’s AXE). The squad is multi-national, consisting (in this book at least) of James (American), Encizo (expatriate Cuban), McCarter (British), Manning (Canadian), and Katzenelenbogen (aka Katz, Israeli and the unit’s commanding officer). Don’t worry: I won’t expect you to remember any of that. While the ensemble struck me as interchangeable, there are fleeting glimpses that each has a quirk or eccentricity to distinguish himself, and I will concede the likelihood that this is expanded upon over the course of the series and that fans could probably tell them apart better than I could. Whatever the case, it is an unstated assumption that this team is the best of the best at kicking ass and cracking skulls. Their skills are certainly aided by the special miracle equipment common to the genre that makes all shots fired by them hit and all shots fired at them miss.
The Plot: News reaches Stateside that residents of a small farming commune in rural Guyana are found dead. Many had drunk cyanide-laced fruit punch, many were injected with poisoned syringes. Last seen among the farmers – but missing among the bodies – were a U.S. Senator’s son and his girlfriend, both down there on a humanitarian mission. The Senator pulls some strings with the President, who sends in Phoenix Force to investigate.
After the group gets its marching orders, there is a quick shift to Guyana where the reader gets to meet the Villain of the Week: Otto Weissflog. The man is a second-generation Nazi: his father was stationed in Guyana in 1942 by the Abwehr (Hitler’s spy network) to set up a potential Fifth Column. Fearing he might end up at a war crimes trial, he stayed put after the war with the vague hope of somehow establishing a Fourth Reich. His son Otto now carries the banner. He exposits that he is responsible for the farmer commune tragedy, hinting that it was an unfortunate but unavoidable speed bump on the path to his Master Plan. He calls in two hired henchmen – mercenary commanders from Haiti and Nepal – and (while grumbling under his breath about having to rely on non-Teutonic goons) instructs them to begin Phase Two of his Master Plan.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Force lands in Georgetown. Two of the team members check into their hotel, where Weissflog is conveniently having dinner. He invites them to join him and promptly launches into a racist rant about Teutonic superiority. The two team members wonder why an ostensible rubber plantation owner would need bodyguards and find it curious the aforementioned muscle speak English with thick German accents.
Weissflog, conversely, wonders to himself why two ostensible photojournalists would not have cameras but would have physiques like Schwarzenegger.
The Force decides it best to check out the hamlet where the deaths occurred. Although the place has already been combed over by police and the press, they find a spent shell and a shallow grave containing the senator’s son and his friend. One was shot by a small-caliber weapon, the other sliced by a sword.
Returning to the hotel, one Force member finds two goons tossing his room. He subdues them, and the team busts out the enhanced interrogation techniques to learn that they are Haitian mercenaries sent to find out who these “journalists” really are. The Team also learns the Haitians are camped in a valley not far away. This prompts the squad to launch an impromptu assault on the Haitian base, which turns into a bloodbath… for the Haitians, of course.
Meanwhile, the ballistics on the spent shell come in: it was fired from an old Walther P-38 – once the preferred weapon of Nazi officers but otherwise not seen in over 40 years. At the same time, the group learns of a refugee from the village. He had moved out a year ago but has an interesting story to tell from that time: one day he was out in the jungle and saw a bunch of soldiers firing rifles. They were commanded, he said, by a blonde man who had a cavalry saber and barked orders in German. Phoenix Force trips out to the site, and sure enough uncovers lots of spent cartridges. Curiously, the shells came from blank rounds. They begin to posit that someone was clandestinely holding military drills here, and formulate the thesis that the villagers stumbled upon the mini militia and were killed to keep them quiet. The senator’s son was probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Before Phoenix Force can work things out further, though, they are ambushed by Nepalese commandos. The Force makes short work of them, of course, and then heads back to base to think this one out.
The team considers the clues: someone with a lot of money and fondness for German weaponry is secretly training a small army. The penny drops that maybe – just maybe – they should take a closer look at Herr Weissflog. Fortunately, there is a gala ball at the President’s palace that very night which Weissflog is attending. The team is able to swing invitations, and manages to plant a mic on both Weissflog and Goddard, one of the Ministers he’s chummy with. When the two go out for a cigar smoke, they reveal that the Master Plan is to assassinate the President and Prime Minister, orchestrating a coup that will swing Goddard into power and establish Weissflog as the power behind the power.
Realizing they have no time to lose, Phoenix Force springs into action. Unfortunately for the innocent partygoers, but not for the reader who hasn’t seen a dead body in over 20 pages, their attempt to warn the President and Prime Minister about the plot forces Goddard and Weissflog’s hand, and a free-for-all firefight breaks out. All the bad guys get blown away except for Goddard (who gets arrested) and Weissflog (who escapes to his plantation). Knowing the situation is hopeless, Weissflog decides to go out in glory with a heroic last stand. All for naught: the Guyanese Defense Force launches a full-scale assault – spearheaded by Phoenix Force, of course – and Weissflog meets a gruesome end in his office.
The Jonestown Connection: Once again, ties to the events at Jonestown are superficial, based on the Guyana setting and the cyanide deaths of a small commune. Early in the novel, Phoenix Force’s Guyanese liaison speculates about the deaths, mentioning rumors of a group of Peoples Temple survivors still at large and active in the jungle. It is implied that Weissflog orchestrated the manner of the village’s death to look like Jonestown merely as a red herring to draw attention away from his own group. The alleged cadre of survivors carrying on Jim Jones’ work is otherwise left unexplored, which is too bad: there’s some room to run with the concept.
My Two Cents: Now, I have to admit a bit of skepticism and hesitancy when I saw this was published by Gold Eagle. After all, that’s a subdivision of Harlequin. Well, never fear: no ripped bodices, boudoirs, or estrogen-fests here, no sir! Just touching the cover of this book osmosised so much testosterone into me that I promptly bench-pressed 500 pounds, beat up my neighbor in a ’roid rage, and registered to vote Republican.
In all candor, I was surprised at how well-written this book was, at least for its type. Sure, the plot’s an inch short of ridiculous, but the prose was surprisingly solid. The author did a decent job setting scenes with flavorful descriptions that helped paint a vivid picture in my mind. Granted, many of those descriptions are lengthy (bordering on fetishistic) detailing of various characters’ weaponry, plus gruesome depictions of how said items can cause bad guys to exit stage life. But hey: I’m a guy who grew up in the ’80s, so I have a soft spot for macho testosterschlock like Rambo and Predator, which this is the literary equivalent of. If you like over-the-top macho action/adventure, it’s pretty good… provided you suspend disbelief and lobotomize the lobe of your brain that analyzes story lines.
Buy it on Amazon.
First printing: February 2006
Length: 375 pages
Context: Henning Mankell is a Swedish author; this book was originally written in Swedish and translated into (British) English by Ebba Sergeberg. Mankell had previously penned seven books focusing on a small-town police inspector named Kurt Wallander. Although Wallander does appear extensively in this book, the main character is his daughter Linda. Much of the book consists of bickering between the two.
The Plot: Linda Wallander has just graduated from the Police Academy and is intent on following in her father’s footsteps. Kurt even takes her along on one of his cases: some sick sadist is going around burning animals – first swans, later a cow, and eventually a whole pet store. Meanwhile, Linda has a chance meeting with a childhood friend named Anna Westin. Anna is excited that she has seemingly caught a glimpse of her long-lost father, who disappeared back around 1977. Linda and Anna make plans to meet the next day to catch up further, but when Anna is a no-show, Linda becomes concerned. She takes it upon herself to break into Anna’s apartment to look for clues into her friend’s sudden disappearance. Seeing her opportunity to put some of her Police Academy training into practice – especially her class on outmoded privacy rights of civilians –she spends much time reading Anna’s diary.
Meanwhile, a random nature hiker named Birgitta stumbles across a concealed hut full of odd religious artifacts, only to be attacked by the hut’s squatter. When Birgitta’s daughter files a missing-person report, Linda recognizes the name from Anna’s diary and suspects a connection. Following some conveniently-placed clues, she locates the hut, which contains Birgitta’s decapitated head, severed hands clasped in prayer, and a blood-soaked Bible that the owner had seen fit to append with cryptic notations and verse alterations.
More concerned than ever about Anna’s safety, Linda pays a visit to Anna’s college apartment and finds an unopened (and unsigned) letter in the mailbox that simply says “We’re in the new house…” with explicit details on its location, and an exhortation to “never underestimate the power of Satan. And yet we await a mighty angel descending from the heavens in a cloud of glory” (p.151).
Linda visits the aforementioned house (which is recently vacated) and does some digging around in the area about its occupants. A real estate agent tells her the owner is currently a shady Norwegian named Langaas. Linda tracks down his last known address in Norway, but after being told by the flat-owners that they have never heard of the man, she is assaulted by a dark stranger who tells her “There is no Langaas!” Further investigation finds the names of the flat-owners in Anna’s diary. At the same time, a pet store is burned down, with a fleeing suspect shouting “The Lord’s will be done!” in a Norwegian accent. This is enough to convince Linda and Kurt that the burning animals, Anna’s disappearance, and Birgitta’s murder are all connected.
Throughout this, brief interludes pepper the narrative involving an unnamed man’s journey from the jungles of Guyana in 1978 to Cleveland through the ’90s. The character survived Jonestown with what he believed to be divine assistance, and has come to view himself as a latter-day prophet on some sort of holy mission. Langaas was his first convert, and he slowly built a homespun ministry of about 30 disciples before returning to Sweden around 2000. The torching of animals was the burnt offerings of Phase One of a Grand Scheme, and the character decides it is time to launch Phase Two, which will result in the demolition of thirteen cathedrals. Two churches have already been burned to the ground, and inside one are the (willingly) sacrificed remains of one of his flock. In a “twist” so blatant that even Stevie Wonder could have seen it, it is revealed that the mystery villain masterminding this is Anna’s long-lost father, Eric Westin.
As abruptly as she had vanished, Anna reappears and reassures Linda she has been fine. She explains she has been looking for her father, with no luck. Linda doesn’t quite believe her, though, and decides to subtly probe her for more information. Learning of this, Eric is concerned that Linda might be getting close to “The Truth,” so he orders her kidnapped. In the midst of setting up Phase Two, he decides Linda must die. Anna seemingly suffers remorse, so she slips Linda a cell phone. Linda calls her dad, and they are able to figure out where she is being held. A SWAT team stormtroopers the place, and Anna is accidentally (and lethally) wounded by her own father during the shootout. Langaas fatally crashes his car into a tree while escaping. Eric escapes unscathed, never to be seen again. (Mankell has written several novels since this, but to my knowledge Eric does not appear in any of them, so this loose end remains untied.)
The Jonestown Connection: The novel’s prologue (pp. 3-8) is set in and around Jonestown on November 18, 1978. An unnamed character (we eventually learn it’s Eric) alternates between hiding in the jungle and prowling the compound, looking among the deceased for his wife and child. (Although never explored, it seems assumed that after Eric left Anna and her mother, he remarried and had another child, and all three somehow ended up members of Peoples Temple.) In an especially-unbelievable scene, we are treated to Jim Jones himself chasing Eric around the corpses while firing shots at him with a pistol. The next interlude (Chapter 21, pp. 138-144) picks up with Eric in the months after Guyana, where he has slipped unnoticed back into the United States. Much of this deals with his coming to terms with the tragic events he has just eluded, and how he increasingly believes it is divine providence that he survived. He views Jones as a false prophet and the fulfillment of 2 John 1:7 – “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” However, where Jones did it “wrong,” Eric plans to do it “right.” Although Eric’s Master Plan is never fully explained – other than he plans to usher in an otherwise ill-defined New Age of Christianity – he does continue to acknowledge a debt to Jones: “I could not have managed this without the help of Jim Jones. He taught me how to overcome my fear of death, of urging others to die for the greater good. He taught me that freedom and redemption only come through bloodshed, through death, that there is no other alternative and that someone must lead the way” (p. 312). At one point, a theology expert offers her commentary on the blood-stained Bible, assuring the Wallanders (and the reader) that the marginal notes contain an internally-consistent religious message, and that there is a method to the madness, if you will, but Mankell chooses not to share any specifics with the curious.
My Two Cents: As you can guess, this book has a lot of subtle religion in it, most of it coming from the author himself. The book fairly reeks of the stench of burnt offerings to the god of plot convenience, and Mankell pulls a Jesus-like miracle of attempting to feed the masses (of readers) with loaves of contrivance and fishy red herrings. I have an exceedingly low threshold for such stuff. The novel is very meandering, and absolutely chock-full of anecdotes that fill in marginally relevant back-story but otherwise don’t advance the plot or add to the ambiance. The book is 375 pages, at most 100 of which are interesting. At times, this book dared me to like it. The nadir of this experience was a scene late in the story where Linda and Kurt want to confirm that it is Langaas’ voice on a 911 call. The tape has been accidentally misplaced, so Linda resorts to doing an impression of the voice from it – despite having only heard it once a few days previously and needing prompting on the actual verbiage – but the witness who’s met Langraas is able to say “yep, that’s the guy!” Ow! Ow! Mommy, make it stop! Although the heavy reliance of contrived “coincidence” is annoying, equally frustrating are the gaps in the narrative. I actually don’t mind books where key things are hinted at but left unexplored save by the reader’s imagination – something Ernest Hemingway and Philip K. Dick were masters of – but I’ll only give it a pass if I get the sense that the author did indeed work out an internally-consistent narrative that, like the body of an iceberg, is lurking murkily just below the water line. I didn’t get that vibe from this, especially in terms of Eric’s story pre-Jonestown and his warped worldview thereafter. Instead, it just feels like Mankell thought “wouldn’t it be neat if…” and churned out some filler to bridge the gaps between the endless father/daughter bickering that he hoped would glue the book together. I think he spent so much time working on Linda’s back-story dynamic to play off her father that the “plot” was merely an inconvenient afterthought.
Buy it on Amazon.
First printing: July 2009
Length: 427 pages
Context: This is the first novel in an eight-part series of psychological/crime thrillers, all of which have chess-themed titles. The novels are centered around FBI agent Patrick Bowers, an “environmental criminologist” who is more concerned with the space, time, and geography of a killer’s actions than the motives behind them. As he puts it, “I’m not trying to get into the mind of the killer, I’m trying to get into his shoes” (p. 74). Bower’s wife has just died of cancer, and a subplot throughout the series is the dysfunctional relationship between him and his stepdaughter.
The Plot: Agent Bowers is called in to assist investigation into a serial killer running amok in North Carolina. At each crime scene, the murderer has left a chess pawn and tied the victim’s hair with a yellow ribbon. Although the press dub the killer “The Yellow Ribbon Strangler,” he prefers to refer to himself as “The Illusionist.” Like a stage magician, he is obsessed with misdirecting attention away from what he is really doing and, like a chess Grand Master, has thought his actions out several steps in advance.
The Governor, Sebastian Taylor, calls Bower in for a private update into the case, and when Bower mentions that one of the victims had left a clue – writing “White Knight” in her own blood before dying – the Governor is visibly shaken. Although he claims to not know what it means, Bowers doesn’t believe him and makes a mental note to investigate the Governor’s past through some alternate channels. Meanwhile, Bower notices a puzzling anomaly among the victims. In some, but not all, instances, The Illusionist has left a foreshadowing trinket behind indicating who the next victim will be. (This is another chess motif: game etiquette states that if you touch an opponent’s piece, you have to take it on your next turn.) Two of the victims lack this, and between that and several other subtle differences in methodology, Bower begins to suspect the work of a copycat killer.
He’s right, and at this point the reader begins to get hints of the back-story of the two killers. The Illusionist was the son of a trailer-trash prostitute who used to lock him in the closet while she was “entertaining clients.” He would spend the time playing chess in his head, but his games in the darkness ended when one of her mother’s johns strangled her to death with a yellow scarf. Already unstable, this traumatic event pushed him over the edge. Police eventually placed him in a state-run foster house for troubled orphans, and it was there that he met an equally troubled youth named Aaron Kincaid, a survivor of the Jonestown tragedy (he was playing in the jungle when the deaths began).
Back on the case, a promising suspect emerges: a local state park ranger and part-time journalist who not only has intimate knowledge of the crime scenes but was also seen at several of them. Bower leads a team to search his house, but The Illusionist has booby-trapped it to explode. Bower and crew narrowly escape without fatality. More convinced than ever that they are on the right track, they follow the suspect’s girlfriend to what turns out to be yet another elaborate trap set by The Illusionist. In the darkness they shoot the suspect, but it turns out to be the Ranger, drugged, gagged, and propped with toy guns taped to his hands.
Bower’s furious superior pull him off the case. This gives him time to finish his inquiries into Governor Taylor. It turns out the Governor was a CIA operative stationed in Guyana in the late 1970s. What’s more, the two victims of the copycat killer are revealed to be apostate members of a strange cult run by Aaron Kincaid, the Jonestown survivor. When Bower learns that the Peoples Temple code word for the fatal finale was “white night,” he checks the crime scene photo of the bloody clue and realizes that the “k” is a random smear: she was writing “white night” as a warning of what her killers were planning to do shortly.
Unfortunately, Bower isn’t the only one who realizes that the two anomalous homicides were staged to look like the work of the Illusionist, so Kincaid can cover his tracks without suspicion on himself. Kincaid gets a call from The Illusionist, who has not only realized that Kincaid is the copycat killer, but also what Kincaid is ultimately planning. He essentially blackmails Kincaid into doing a special favor for him lest he tip off the law and spoil the surprise.
The surprise is that Kincaid has genetically bred a particularly contagious and deadly virus, and he plans to poison everyone at an upcoming media conference the Governor is hosting. His motive is two-fold: he recognized the Governor as part of a secret team that had gone into Jonestown after the deaths to clean up evidence of CIA connections, and he is getting revenge on how the media portrayed Peoples Temple. “(W)hen I arrived back in America, the media was saying the same kinds of things the looters had said about my family [ie: that “their brains were asleep before, and now their bodies have joined them” – p. 328]. The world has had thirty years to apologize, and no one, apart from a few fringe websites and a couple of self-published books, has tried to imbue compassion and humanity into their tale, has treated them with the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings, as children of our common God. … That’s why they’re all going to pay” (p. 331).
Bower confronts the Governor with this, or at least as much as he has pieced together, but the Governor gets the upper hand on him. Suddenly, though, Kincaid shows up, claiming to have a gift for Bower. Before he can reveal it, a scuffle breaks out and both the Governor and Kincaid escape. Bower chooses to chase Kincaid, and after another scuffle, Kincaid commits suicide with a syringe full of cyanide – an authentic memento from November 1978.
Bower is able to get the CDC to come in and prevent an infectious contagion, but then he discovers what Kincaid’s gift for him was: his stepdaughter’s locket. Realizing The Illusionist intends to make a play for her, he rushes to her rescue but is too late: The Illusionist already has taken her. At this point, the identity of The Illusionist is revealed: he is an FBI agent who has been a minor background character throughout the investigative narrative. Bower’s stepdaughter is able to free herself and cause the ambulance they were escaping in to plummet over a cliff. The Illusionist’s body is never found – but to my knowledge he does not appear in any of the other books in the series. There is a brief coda that, although the Governor’s career is ruined, he too is still lurking out there and planning revenge. Again, to my knowledge this is left unexplored in the other books.
The Jonestown Connection: In the novel’s acknowledgements, credit and thanks are given to The Jonestown Institute. Although James had not contacted any of the governing members of the Institute, I don’t doubt he spent considerable time researching the tragedy. For instance, he was the only author among those that I read for this projectthat correctly spelled “Peoples Temple” without the apostrophe. While Bower was researching Jonestown, he learns an impressive amount of the various conspiracy theories that have circulated about the topic: that Jones himself had CIA connections, that Jonestown itself was a CIA operation for the MK-ULTRA mind-control experiment, that Representative Ryan was assassinated by a professional hit squad, etc. All these are spread across pages 250-253 and 257-260. The especially-obscure Q875 tape – made the day after the tragedy – figures prominently in the book: Taylor himself had been “…in charge of the wet work on the congressman… [and] (h)e’d almost finished editing the tape when the stupid kid [Kincaid] showed up” (pp. 328-329). Many of the conspiracies mentioned in the book have been either discussed if not debunked in past issues of the jonestown report. James takes the starting position that they are all true, but since this is clearly a fictional novel and those elements are necessary to the plot, I’m willing to suspend disbelief and allow it. For those curious and wishing to skip the novel and delve directly into the recreations of Jonestown, the relevant sections are pages 122-126 and 327-331.
My Two Cents: I liked this book a lot, but I’ve always had a soft spot for conspiracy-theories-as-plot-points and villains who are super-geniuses with overly-elaborate schemes. Others might not be as forgiving. Perhaps my biggest complaint would be the sketchiness of The Illusionist’s motives, which I never did fully grasp. Likewise, I never did get a satisfactory glimpse into the workings and mindset of Kincaid’s spin-off sect. Still, James is a decent writer, and he did a good job weaving a fairly intricate narrative. Things move quickly, and even the subplots were handled deftly without being too distracting: unlike Before the Frost, I actually enjoyed the father/stepdaughter bickering here. As with any crime drama, some descriptions of what the murderer has done to his victims can be a bit gruesome, but James was subtle enough to just hint at the gore and horror. There was also a lurking undertone of religion throughout – James is a devout Christian – but fortunately the book shied away from being overtly preachy.
Buy it on Amazon.
The Crazy School by Cornelia Read
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
First printing: February 2010
Length: 326 pages
Context: The story takes place in November 1989. The main character and narrator in this, Madeline Dare, also appears in other books by the author. There are brief hints of the previous book, A Field of Darkness.
Before becoming a writer, Ms. Read was a teacher at the DeSisto therapeutic boarding school in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. That school became the subject of controversy when one student, Heather Burdick, ran away/escaped from it and began telling horror stories (some true, some not) about her experiences there. This was the first of numerous problems for the school and its founder, Michael DeSisto. The school was eventually shut down in 2004 due to a combination of low enrollment and legal difficulties, including allegations from the Commonwealth that the school promoted “an environment that endangers the life, health, and safety of children enrolled.” Read openly admits that the fictional Santangelo Academy of The Crazy School is a thinly-veiled allusion to her experiences at DeSisto, of which she says: “I am still haunted by what was done there in the name of therapy, and have never felt more strongly that I was in the presence of pure evil.”
The Plot: Madeline Dare, a 26-year-old teacher, has just taken a job at the Santangelo Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in the Massachusetts Berkshires that caters to troubled teens. The students are mandatorily medicated with mood-stabilizers and antipsychotics like Lithium and Thorazine. Everyone – faculty, students, and parents – are required to participate in daily therapy sessions that are as ineffective as they are ridiculous. Life on campus is heavily regulated, with things like caffeine and tobacco being verboten. These rules are almost universally broken by faculty members, including Dr. Santangelo himself, who has an espresso machine in his office. With all the rules and security, Madeline begins to wonder – only half-jokingly – if she’s joined some sort of cult: “…if I stay here one more week, they’re gonna shave my head and make me sell flowers at the airport” (p. 46).
When a favorite student of hers named Mooney punches a window, Madeline has a quick heart-to-heart with him while waiting for the ambulance. Mooney confides that he has just learned that fellow student (and his secret girlfriend) Faye is pregnant, which understandably has thrown a monkey wrench into their plans to run away together in a few days when Faye turns 18. As punishment for the window, Mooney is exiled to a secluded subdivision of the school known as The Farm. Faye commits an infraction to get sentenced there so she can join him.
About this time, one of the deans named Dhumavati tells Madeline she’s taking a brief sabbatical and wants to know if Madeline would like to fill in for her. Madeline says it’s a terrible idea, but agrees to think about it. The scene for this is a small garden that has a plaque reading “Everything grows well in this place, especially the children.” A small bench is inside, in honor of Dhumavati’s deceased daughter; the dates read April 3, 1970 – November 18, 1978.
Madeline manages to throw a birthday party for Faye with most of the staff in attendance, but in the midst of it begins to feel sick and light-headed. She goes outside, begins vomiting and hallucinating, and passes out. Madeline awakens the next day at a faculty friend’s house, only to learn that the previous night Mooney and Faye had apparently committed suicide by drinking poisoned punch.
Madeline doesn’t buy that it’s a suicide, especially when she finds Fay’s treasured necklace (which she said she would never take off) broken and in her coat pocket. She passes her concerns onto the police, who agree to look into things. Unfortunately, their investigation reveals Madeline’s fingerprints on the poisoned cups the two victims drank from. Between that, her unexplained possession of Faye’s locket, and her own dark, violent past (presumably detailed in A Field of Darkness), she becomes the prime suspect and is arrested. She uses her one phone call to redeem a favor from a very rich, influential uncle, who in turn pulls some strings with a prestigious Boston law firm to get Madeline some top-notch legal defense. Thanks to her attorney, she’s able to make bail.
Madeline and her attorney promptly launch their own investigation to find the killer. A promising suspect is another teacher named Gerald, who was in charge of punch distribution at the fatal party. Madeline chums him up, during which he confesses his motives for being at the Academy. His sister was a former student/patient here, but she was raped (he suspects by Santangelo), became pregnant, and was then found dead of an apparent suicide. He has infiltrated the faculty in an effort to uncover who is behind his sister’s death.
The culprit suddenly reveals herself by bursting through the door and shooting Gerald. It’s Dhumavati, of course, and in a sudden fit of Super-Villain Expository Monologue Syndrome, she spills the whole story. Both she and Dr. Santangelo were members of Peoples Temple in its Indiana stage. Santangelo was her baby’s father. When Jim Jones relocated to California, Dhumavati followed him while Santangelo went off to college. Dhumavati rose to Jones’ inner circle, and did indeed give her child the cyanide during the fatal White Night. Obviously, she had a literally last-minute change of heart when it came to be her own turn. Santangelo finally sent for her in Guyana, and the two resumed their rather warped codependent relationship, with Dhumavati shifting her love and loyalty from Jones to Santangelo. She killed Gerald’s sister because of the rape/pregnancy, and did likewise with Faye because she, too, was raped by Santangelo. Now she intends to kill Madeline because she knows too much, attempting to make it look like a repentant suicide. During the struggle on the roof, though, it is Dhumavati who falls to her death.
In a brief coda, two disgruntled students blow up Dr. Santangelo’s helicopter… with him in it.
The Jonestown Connection: Although it’s tempting to attempt to view the Santangelo Academy as Jonestown and cast Santangelo himself as Jones, this is superficial and contrary to the author’s own stated commentary that the school and its founder are patterned after the DeSisto School and Michael DeSisto. At best the parallels are a happy coincidence. Still, the author went out of her way to plant seeds to foreshadow where the book was headed, with about a half-dozen references scattered throughout in dialogue and description. Most of them are obvious to people familiar with the subject; indeed, at the end of the book, one of Madeline’s students snarkily points out that she should have figured this out from all the blatant clues. Read has also clearly listened to Q042 (the “Death Tape” of 11/18/78) and has Dhumavati quote from it twice during her recounting of her story on pages 296-297.
My Two Cents: I liked this book. Granted, I have a soft spot for spunky, sarcastic heroines, but there’s some clever dialogue and witty descriptions in this. I’m half-tempted to call it “a hoot.” Of course, the weakest aspect was the plot, but given the author’s intention to do a parody of her DeSisto days, I’ll be lenient. She did a decent job of crafting a paranoid who-can-you-trust? vibe, and I’ll give her bonus points for references to counterculture and anti-pop like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of the six books I read for this article, The Crazy School wasn’t the best, but it was the one I enjoyed the most.
Buy it on Amazon.
The Hunter by John Lescroart
First printing: January 2012
Length: 400 pages
Context: This is the third book in a series featuring a San Francisco private investigator named Wyatt Hunt who runs a detective agency called The Hunt Club. The book contains a hefty subplot about the burgeoning romance between Hunt and one of his employees. Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky, respective protagonists in two other series by the author, also have cameos in this.
The Plot: In 1974, Wyatt Hunt was adopted by a foster family, and since then the number of times he’s thought about his birth parents could be counted on one hand. All that changes when he gets an anonymous text message asking, “Do you know how your mother died?” Hunt didn’t; indeed, he didn’t even know who his parents were or that one of them was dead. Somewhat intrigued, he begins looking into the question and finds the answer in the musty archives of Child Protection Services: his mother was murdered in 1971. What’s more, his father stood trial for it twice, both times resulting in a hung jury. When Hunt gets a follow-up text asking if he’s made any progress, the Texter drops a bombshell: the murderer was not Hunt’s father, but someone else who is still alive. Citing personal danger, the Texter refuses to reveal more but encourages Hunt to continue digging into the matter.
Hunt essentially hires himself as a client to look into both his mother’s murder and the identity (and motives) of the mystery Texter. One lead that at first seems promising is a friend of his mother, Evie Secrist, who is described by people who knew her as “a fundamentalist, cult-following religious nutcase” (p. 89). It turns out that “Secrist” was a home-spun homophone for “See Christ” and her real (married) name was Spencer. Using his Google-fu, Hunt discovers (on a site suspiciously reminiscent of the Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website!) that she was a fatality at Jonestown in 1978. Hunt thinks that this is literally a dead end, but when the Texter contacts him for a progress update and Hunt mentions Evie, the Texter tells him he’s on the right track.
Evie’s ex-husband, Lawrence Spencer, is still alive and local. However, he seems unwilling to dredge up the past to Hunt’s polite probing, other to say that he had been a former member of Peoples Temple but left due to Jones’ manipulation of Evie. Meanwhile, Hunt continues digging both into his mother’s and Jones’ past, and discovers that both were from Indiana. Suspecting a connection, Hunt flies out to Indianapolis looking for clues. He finds them, too: in articles relating to Peoples Temple located within the archives of The Indianapolis Star, he discovers a half-dozen pictures of his teenaged mother. What’s more, he discovers that her mother – his grandmother – is still alive and well. She confirms that his mother was in Peoples Temple, and that Jones had been having a sexual relationship with her since she was eleven years old. Hunt forms a hypothesis: his mother eventually left Peoples Temple and moved to San Francisco to escape Jones, but when Jones relocated his ministry there and the newly-converted Evie tries to reconcile her friend back into the fold, his mother threatens to blow the whistle about her under-aged dalliance with Jones. Jim Jones had her killed to shut her up.
Back in San Fran, one of the Hunt Club investigators named Orloff makes a follow-up visit to Lawrence Spencer, only to be murdered minutes after. Lawrence himself is found dead a few days later, ostensibly a suicide, and the police think everything ties up nicely: Lawrence killed both Hunt’s mother and Orloff, then himself. Hunt doesn’t buy it, though, and his suspicions are confirmed by a message from the Texter: “It wasn’t Lawrence.” At the same time, Hunt gets the penultimate piece of the puzzle: the location of his biological father, who has been living under the radar in Mexico the past three decades. After a teary yet cheerful reunion, Hunt’s father fills in some of the last gaps in the mystery. Lawrence Spencer, he says, lied about leaving Peoples Temple: he was a high-placed henchman who was partly responsible for handling finances, specifically squirreling away millions of dollars in Temple assets in various secret bank accounts around the world. What’s more, Lawrence had a brother named Lance who was Jones’ personal bodyguard and enforcer. A light bulb goes off over Hunt’s head: the murderer was Lance, and the Texter is his wife Dotie. She had found out Lance’s dirty secret, but had also previously hired Hunt on an unrelated matter and put together who his father was. In the novel’s climactic scene, Hunt confronts Lance, who conveniently exposits the truth of the Jones-put-a-hit-on-the-mom-to-shut-her-up theory before Hunt himself shoots Lance dead. After that, everyone lives happily ever after… at least until the next book in the series.
The Jonestown Connection: Peoples Temple plays a major part in The Hunter as background to several characters, as well as serving as the mortar binding the mother’s murder. Lescroart clearly did a moderate amount of research on the subject, and a fairly succinct summary of the events leading to the morbid meltdown of 1978 appear between pp. 128-130. One of the threads the author chose to expand upon was the matter of the missing money, a matter that seemingly is traced back to old newspaper articles containing the confessions of Terri Buford. Buford claimed the deaths were partly to cover up the theft of over $26 million in Temple funds. Elements of this appear in The Hunter, where the Spencer twins are pinned with the theft.
My Two Cents: Most of North America probably heard my sigh of relief when Hunt met his father, because I had made a call early on that the twist in the book would be the revelation that Hunt’s dad was none other than Jim Jones himself. Fortunately no go on that, so once past that potentially cornball roadblock, I let myself enjoy it. Although this book takes a bit to get momentum, once it does get going. it’s pretty good. Lescoart’s a solid writer, and occasionally amusing to boot. While he’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as mystery/crime authors like Gregory Mcdonald or Donald Westlake, I did chuckle a half-dozen times.
Buy it on Amazon.
(Matthew Thomas Farrell is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other article in this edition is Bungle in the Jungle: A Review of Citizen Lane. His earlier writings for this site are collected here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.