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Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Yellow Kid" Weil: The Autobiography of America's Master Swindler


By: J. R. "Yellow Kid" Weil & W.T. Brannon 
Publisher: Nabat Books; Nabat ed. edition (February 22, 2011) (originally published 1958)
Softcover 352 pages 
Finished 3/24/2017 
Amazon Listing 










          “In those days, the police was not like the police of today. The force was not so large, and the Detective Bureau had not yet been organized. The Municipal Court was not a big organization. Most of the courts were operated by justices of the peace. We called them “Justice Shops”. Each justice had his own constables, who were the detectives of that period…. Both civil and criminal cases were tried in the Justice Shops. I knew one of the magistrates quite well- Judge Aldo. He used to send me out to select jurors. Juries were composed of six men. When I was assigned to get a jury, I was first of all, told which way the case was decided.”  
          The autobiography of one of America’s most well-known confidence men. His life of constant crime and cons spanned decades and raked in millions of dollars. According to him, he pioneered or perfected several techniques which were copied to death over the years, forcing him to continuously innovate his scams.  
           Beginning with selling snake oil in the days of horse and buggies, he moved onto pulling the fake stock swindle, staging fake illegal fights, staging fake fixed horse races, and the fake casino scam. For a lifetime of crime, he spent a total of six years in prison on three separate charges (two of which he claims he was the victim of circumstance), dying penniless in a nursing home at age 100 in 1976. 
          Like most cons of this era, Weil found it more expedient to rope his victims into a scheme where they thought they were getting something in an illegal activity. This was to prevent the victim from going to the police after they had been swindled, because then they’d have to admit their own intent on breaking the law. And in many cases this style protected Weil from prosecution. Such as in the when he worked a scam at the race track revolving around fixing a race. After he absconded with the money freely given to him what could he be charged with? Not fixing a race?
          His moniker, the “Yellow Kid” comes from his love of a comic of the same name about a bald Asian child wearing a yellow smock that bore out his internal thoughts, which appeared in Hearst run newspapers at that time (and gave rise to the phrase “yellow journalism”). There have been many other reasons given by people and biographers, but this is the one Weil sticks by. The story he gives around it is odd, but he claims it is true. 
          An easy read, the most interesting parts are the bits and pieces of how the justice system was set up in the past and the technology of the past. The last decade of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th were called the golden age of the con man. This was because the criminal codes had yet to catch up with the technology. The wire services ran all across the country, sending messages in Morse code from San Francisco to New York. Thus it was simple to tap a line to send a fake message or to simply have dummy apparatus around that appeared to be receiving a message. Thus you could claim something was happening in another part of the country and it was very difficult for the victim to check.
Original cover of the 1958 edition
          What sets Weil apart from the others, besides his innovations, was his attention to detail. He stole the identity of a mining engineer who was somewhat well known and had written several books. He had several books rebound with his picture in place of the author to prove his identity. Sometimes he would have fake articles about himself rebound into magazines, then a stooge would replace the local library’s copy with the forgery. It would slip out that he had an article about himself published and the victim would find it on their own. To Weil, the props of his scam was as important as the pitch itself.
          Weil shows no remorse for his cons. His opinion was that those who were fooled thought they were getting something through crooked means, thus they had no moral standing to be outraged. The mentality was that you cannot cheat an honest man. But he applied this mentality to himself after he was taken for 10,000 dollars by a pair of female con artists. He was even amused by the fact that he had been taken using the same techniques that he had practiced for four decades.
          His own downfall came from two parts, his spendthrift habits. He states that “money was like water in my hands.” He would turn most of his cash over to his wife who would save it. But when she died, he blew through everything. The other part is his own fame. He became too well known as a con man and his several attempts to go legitimate always ended up backfiring due to his past criminal acquaintances or police interference. Of course had he gone legit then he wouldn’t be remembered today.

W.T. Brannon and Joseph Weil (aged 75)  
         

Monday, March 20, 2017

Astro City vol. 14: Reflections

By: Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, Alex Ross

Publisher: Vertigo (2017)

Hardcover 176 pages

Finished 3/19/2017

Amazon Listing    



         
          As usual the Astro City team excels themselves. Easily the best writing that Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek have ever done. It continues to build on the mythology of their universe, while simultaneously being a nostalgic look at the old school comics before the need for “grittiness” set in. It looks and feels like the early days of comics with that sense of wonder and optimism that often infused the style of writing at the time.
The book begins with the 20th anniversary episode that hearkens back to the first issue with the Samaritan, their Superman analogue. Demonstrating that he is so busy fighting crime, saving people, and averting natural disasters that the only time he has for peace is when he is dreaming. But now his dreams are being disturbed and he is not as effective.
 Next we have a story from the perspective of a young alien boy whose civilization is in constant strife against the Furst Family, the Fantastic Four analogue in the Astro City verse. On the boy’s planet the Furst Family are branded as war criminals and targeted for death, but as the boy discovers when he comes across one, his government’s propaganda misleads the populace. And we are left with the sense that he may try to change things on his world.
Last we have a story revolving around Steeljack, the Steel Jacketed Man, whom we last saw in the Tarnished Angel story, the former supervillain turned straight. He is now a low rent private eye and becomes involved in a case with a former associate who is being framed for a crime. He discovers that man old time villains that have hung up the mask have been framed or shot for crimes recently and begins to track down the culprit. This story has one of the most interesting villains we’ve seen yet in the series and is the gem of this collection. You could see they had a lot of fun writing this arc.  

One note, the Amazon listing states one of the stories spotlights three generations of the Jack-in-the-Box character, but that arc is not actually collected in this collection. No doubt it will be in the next one.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Bureau of Lost Souls

by Christopher Fowler

Publisher: Century Hutchinson (1989)

Hardcover 244 pages

Finished 3/17/2017

Amazon Listing 




 
          “She ran for the kitchen and the knife rack above the sink as he appeared behind her in a showering explosion of plaster and wooden staves. For a second she caught sight of him striding across the room through a spray of dust, and the madness which glittered behind his blood-streaked eyes spurred her on.”
          This is a collection of twelve horror stories from a veteran horror writer. The cover flap states that the tales are linked, but I found no real evidence of that, except that each is in an urban setting. It has been pointed out that most English horror seems to be set in the city, while American horror tends to drift out to the rural wilds, or the false face of a peaceful suburban scene.
Author Christopher Fowler
          While they are solid enough on their own, I have to say that they do not add much to the genre. With many of them I knew the ending three pages into the story and just kept reading hoping that my assumptions would be wrong. They were not. The horror elements here are human for the most part, the author eschewing supernatural elements for the more gritty tales of urban decay and paranoia.
          There were a few exceptions of above average stories. “Jumbo Portions” about a man accidently falling into a deep fryer has some gruesome details that might appeal. “Lost in Leicester Square” about police investigation into disappearing tourists, which may or may not be linked to vampires, is amusing. “Safe as Houses” about an obsessive security-conscious perfectionist is also fun. Plus the titular “Bureau of Lost Souls” is perhaps the cream of the crop.
          But again that’s not really saying much. Standard horror here. I don’t see myself reading this text again.

Friday, March 10, 2017

James T. Farrell's Chicago Stories

By: James T. Farrell (Selected and edited by Charles Fanning)

Publisher: University of Illinois Press (1998).

Softcover 296 pages.

Finished 3/9/17

Amazon Listing


          “Judge Henderson just didn’t have the time. The cases had to be disposed of. Tomorrow there would be the same number. The juvenile problem was insoluble. There was no settlement of it. The same boys were warned, but they were brought back. Parents were warned, but they were helpless. There was nothing to do but rush through from case to case, let off so many, put so many on probation, send so many to the Detention Home. Day after day this must go on. The law must be upheld. There was no time for her to delay, study, probe into the causes of these delinquencies. All she could do was reach out and try, and hope that a few boys would be recused from crime, and a few girls from the life a prostitute. That was what she did. Lectures, warnings, scoldings, questions, sentences. Next. Next. Next. All morning. Next. All afternoon. Next. Tomorrow. More. Next.”  
          A collection of short stories, taken from ten separately published collections, by the great James T. Farrell of Studs Lonnigan fame. The authors gives us various slices of life for the working class Irish in Old Chicago from around 1920s to the late 1940s.
James T. Farrell
          The generation he’s writing about here was my grandparents, all of whom were old-school Irish (or very near), so this takes me back to the attitudes, thoughts, discussions, and worries of the my youth. The characters all feel very real and, from what I’ve gathered, plucked from the author’s own past. He is able to capture with believably the ravages of old age, the anxiety of teens, the depressions of middle age, and the emotional turbulence of youth. He is able to highlight the rich and poor with equal sympathy (or lack thereof when appropriate), and as such not one character rings false. Each seems a living, breathing, thinking, entity unto themselves.
          What always struck me about Farrell’s work, apart from the realistic characters, was the attention to minor detail of the world around him. His characters or narrator will causally mention some larger problem happening in the city at the time of the story, and a google search shows that something like that was going on in Chicago.
          This is an old fashioned view of the world from a time when it was acceptable to chase blacks out of parks deemed “whites only”. And while Farrell occasionally editorializes the content, often it is presented unemotionally and without comment. This is how is was, this is how it is. From the workhouses, to the pool halls, to the churches, to the row houses, to the elegant apartments. The priests, the professors, the gamblers, the bums, the working stiffs, the employers, the middle men, the union men, the lovers, and the haters. Without emotion, nostalgia, or regret. The Irish Chicago of the past. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Sociopath Next Door

By: Martha Stout, ph. d.

Publisher: Harmony Press (2006)

Softcover 256 pages.

Finished 2/28/2017

Amazon Listing






 
          “After listening for almost twenty five years to the stories my patients tell me about sociopaths who have invaded and injured their lives, when I am asked, ‘How can I tell whom not to trust?’ the answer I give usually surprises people. The natural expectation is that I will describe some sinister-sounding detail of behavior or snippet of body language or threatening use of language that is the subtle giveaway…. The best clue is, of all things, the pity play. The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.”
          A fascinating look at the nature of the sociopath which, the author contends, makes up one in twenty five of the current population- or roughly four percent of the country, close to 14 million Americans. The sociopath does not just simply lack a conscience, but is unable to process any emotional encounter. It simply slides off of their brain. The sociopath cannot feel the emotions of others, but learns to mimic them in order to become the social chameleon and manipulate others.
Martha Stout- Author
          The above quote sheds light on my previous research on a book about serial killers.  One of the things that struck me was how they were all such whiners. Once captured they always attempted to curry sympathy, even they had committed the most horrific of crimes. I had always assumed it was a manipulation, or they lacked any emotion but self-pity, but to see that it was endemic of a wider pathology was fascinating.
          It covers several case studies of different sociopaths, their methods, and how they manipulate people. Apart from their remorselessness, what they all seem to have in common is a general unhappiness, an inability to commit to anything, an unwillingness to do any hard work if there is a dodge around it, a love of mind games, and a life that generally is always destroyed by their own actions.
          The only problem I had with this book is the author’s occasional tendency to knock Western culture, suggesting that we are fundamentally flawed for being descended from Europeans. She suggests that our culture produces more sociopaths than our cultures, which is ridiculous, nor borne out by the statistics. She compares American society to Indian culture, stating the stereotype that service to the family is inbuilt into their culture as it is not in ours. She then speculates that the Indian culture would have prevent the individual from becoming a sociopath, or at least curbed some of their activities or they would less of a burden on society. She offers no specific study for these ideas and must be considered spurious. These parts do not fit in with the rest of the book and seems to have been inserted to either pad up the book or appease some leftist editor.