Paranoid America Revealed

It’s comforting to think of McCarthyism or the Salem Witch Trials as exceptions, as bursts of madness and vindictive cruelty in an otherwise sane country.  But they’re not exceptions, they’re par for the course in the United States where fear of conspiratorial plots is the “great unseen engine of American history.”  That’s the verdict of cultural historian Colin Dickey.

In a memorable, chilling phrase, the author of Under the Eye of Power throws down the gauntlet with the opening line of his new book: “The United States was born in paranoia.”

Dickey goes on to explain that there’s nothing hyperbolic about this statement.  In briskly narrated and sometimes alarming chapters, what follows is a parade of secret, secretive, or “foreign” groups that have  been seen as targeting America for a hostile takeover of one kind or another.  All these groups have supposedly sought total control, and the unreasoned fear of their machinations has consistently created “moral panic.”

The culprits include real and quasi-imaginary groups: Freemasons, the French, Catholic immigrants, the Molly McGuires, Mystic-Red, Abolitionists, labor unionists, The Illuminati, slave owners, Jews, anarchists and socialists.

All of those groups have been viewed as malign, destructive, nefarious and subversive, deviously operating behind the scenes as puppet masters and saboteurs of American values and independence.  And so there’s been a drumbeat of fear, outrage and violence throughout this country’s history going back to the time of the Revolution.

One of the many surprises in this ugly catalogue of craziness is the fact that even George Washington was prone to see the unseen hand of conspiracy behind contemporary events. Ditto Samuel Adams, as Stacy Schiff shows in her splendid biography of Samuel Adams–he thought that the English were definitely conspiring to “enslave” the colonists and deprive them of their liberties.

The author brings to our attention riots and massacres that deserve more attention, but does the second incarnation of KKK really belong here when it was so ostentatiously public in its racism and violence?

The book definitely needed a firmer editorial hand.  Dickey keeps explaining in different ways that belief in secret groups with inordinate power supplies a simple explanation to complex and frightening realities.  Yes, we got that the first time, and it’s not an especially original observation.

The author has a degree in comparative literature , so it’s curious that he doesn’t mention the influence of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s classic tale of priestly depravity The Monk when he discusses wild, anti-Catholic novels featuring depraved monks and nuns that were best-sellers in the 1840s.

The book is colorful and often shocking, but even at only 328 pages of text seems too long for its thesis.  And given that Dickey ably pinpoints our continued forgetfulness about these episodes, his book will likely fade away too. ★★★

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-seven books in genres from memoir to mystery and has seen his work appear in fifteen languages. He has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other publications.

Ukraine Then & Now

If you want to understand the conflict in Ukraine and go behind the headlines, there’s no better place to start than Anna Reid’s Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. Deeply researched, elegantly written, totally enthralling, the book explores the history of Ukraine  back to the Vikings and how Ukraine and Russia have followed completely different paths.  

Unlike Russia, which became an autocratic empire, Ukraine has been ruled and misruled by Poland, Lithuania, Austria-Hungary and of course Russia.  A key to the current slaughter of Ukrainians and the seizure of vast swathes of territory–as well as what sounds like crazy rhetoric on Russian talk shows–is a profound Russian delusion about this country that hasn’t been independent very long but has an undeniable historic existence, culture, and language.  Reid notes that historically Russians have regarded

Ukrainians as really just a subspecies of Russian…Any differences that did demonstrably exist between them were the artificial work of perfidious, Popish Poles–replaced in today’s Russian imagination by the meddling West in general.  Rather than attacking Ukrainians and Ukrainian-ness as inferior, therefore, Russians deny their existence.  Ukrainians are a “non-historical nation,” the Ukrainian language a joke dialect, Ukraine itself an “Atlantis–a legend dreamed up by Kiev intellectuals”…The very closeness of Ukrainian and Russian culture, the very subtlety of the differences between them, is an irritation.

That was written in the 90s; now the irritation appears to have turned to seething hatred.  

Blending history, personal exploration, and interviews, the book is unique because it is divided into two parts: the first was published in 1997 90s when a democratizing Russia under Yeltsin seemed highly unlikely to attack its neighbor.  The second, of course, was written after Putin launched his “special military operation” at a time when Russia seems like a fascist state to many international analysts–and certainly to Ukrainians who have experienced fascism under the Nazis.

Reid doesn’t pull any punches exploring Ukrainian antisemitism and pogroms or the country’s lack of readiness to face up to the truth the way Germany has done about the Holocaust.  Nor does she whitewash past governmental and cultural corruption.  Reid is especially adroit at discussing how Ukrainian nationalism has been growing stronger and investigating the role of the Ukrainian language in a country where many people have been bilingual and Ukrainians have Russian relatives and marriages are often “mixed.” 

If you’ve read Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, Reid’s book is a perfect companion piece, vitally important work that has been superbly edited and updated. ★★★★★

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery and his work has appeared in over a dozen languages.  He has reviewed books for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and a handful of public radio stations.

The Amazing Art Thief


The Art Thief is really a romance, but not so much the tale of Stéphane Breitwieser and the girlfriend who helped him steal art worth two billion dollars.

No, it’s a romance about the profound attraction of beauty and how it can be  even stronger than the love for another person–and can make someone take wildly unimaginable risks.

Starting in the 90s, Breitwieser’s eight-year haul in a handful of European countries broke down to two hundred heists that yielded three hundred works.  And he hid all these thefts in his mother’s attic as if it were the treasure-filled vault in David Baldacci’s Absolute Power.

Stéphane grew up in a haut bourgeois, wealthy French home surrounded by beauty and turned into a teen who fell in love time after time with paintings and countless objets d’art: late Renaissance and early Baroque ceramics, silver pieces, ivory statuettes, paintings on copper and paintings in oil, antique weapons and helmets and anything else that spoke to him.  He was especially fond of work from Northern Europe in that period, and unlike the “typical” art thief, he was careful not to damage what he stole.

As the author makes clear, Breitwieser truly was no ordinary thief: he saw himself as “liberating” these pieces from their imprisonment in museums and galleries.  And he wanted something more than money, since he didn’t funnel the works to fences.  He craved an intimate, in-person relationship with everything he stole.  The daring daytime thefts weren’t what turned him on, it was the glorious art and craftsmanship itself.

Remember the thief played by Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crowne Affair and Steve McQueen before him?  Both of them seem like mere shoplifters compared to Breitwieser.

Finkel is a masterful story-teller who makes this unbelievable story come vividly alive: it races forward, immediate and electric.  You really feel at times that you’re watching an on-screen thriller that involves a thief and the art detectives who gradually close in on him.  The courtroom drama is topnotch and Finkel’s prose is consistently lean, colorful, gripping.  His use of many sources, including interviews with Breitwieser, is exemplary.  He’s also careful in sifting various theories as to why Stéphane was the mother of all art thieves, because a variety of mental health professions had a variety of explanations.

Take this book on a plane ride, to the beach, take it everywhere and anywhere–it is a work of beauty itself with spectacular and stunning illustrations, an unforgettable story that’s ultimately about one of our deepest and most chaotic feelings: desire. ★★★★★

Lev Raphael was a frequent visitor to many New York museums when he grew up there and recently published a piece about one of his favorite pieces, Canova’s Perseus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


“The Street” is Too Easy to Figure Out

It’s no surprise that Anna and Peter have been moved in The Street from London to a brand-new, upscale, little development in Scotland because they’re in witness protection.  Anna’s experiencing high anxiety, she and Peter are very much at odds, and their new home is too meticulously furnished and equipped.  The street of eight houses itself is on the creepy side: “perfect white cubes with their perfect gardens.”

Tension mounts when Anna starts meeting the neighbors, all of whom live in identical homes whose doorbells play the same annoying tune.  You start to wonder: Are they cult members?  Aliens?  Spies?  Is this some weird kind of prison?  The enclave is gated and there are security cameras, okay, but why does Anna have a very intrusive phone app?

Something is definitely amiss on this street, because no matter who Anna talks to after her boozy first night (more about that below), she experiences “an odd sensation, a shift in the atmosphere that seemed to happen every time she spoke to one of the residents.”

Their next-door neighbors seem like fun, drink a lot, and enjoy Indian food just like Anna and Peter, and the four of them have a hard-drinking, hilarious night before the couple have settled in (or tried to).  But the day after, those neighbors have disappeared and their house is totally empty. Everyone on the street denies they were even there. . .

It’s an intriguing hook if you’re going to be hooked.

As the book progresses, we learn through flashback chapters more about how the couple came to be ripped out of their London lives and planted in Scotland, and why they might be in profound danger.  She’s a writer and he’s a carpenter but each of them is far more complex than they first appear to be, and they have some ugly stuff to hide from the world and each other.

Holliday writes keenly about fear, paranoia, and how married couples can work each other’s last nerve and not have any idea who they’re really married to. She builds tension skillfully and  keeps you actively guessing as to what’s going to happen next. 

All the same, the  book has a gigantic sinkhole of a problem: the explanation for all the strange behavior on Anna’s street was so obvious early on that you may wonder why Anna couldn’t figure it out herself.  After all, she’s a crime novelist.  The time changes throughout the book complicate the storyline, but they don’t camouflage the excruciatingly simple solution that’s apparent before the book truly takes off.  This is a mystery that’s ultimately not mysterious enough. ★★

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer at The Detroit Free Press.