A History of Things

Historical nonfiction comes in all shapes and sizes. There is the grand sweeping kind that tries to tell the story of a whole era or a monumental event. Then there are the social histories that see history from the perspective of a particular class or group of people. Another popular type is the historical biography that illustrates the life of an important individual. I’m an indiscriminate lover of all these varieties but I must admit I hold a special place in my heart for a historical work that zeros in on a specific object and tells its story through time. In addition to having a pleasingly quirky and often obsessive focus, these books also provide the service of telling history from a different perspective. At their best, they can help us to rethink assumptions about what is truly important and give us the rare gift of learning something new.  Here at the library, we have many of these histories of things. Listed below are a few of the standouts.

Concrete Planet by Robert Courland
concreteplanetWe take it for granted every day. The house you live in, the sidewalk you walk on, the countless bits of infrastructure that make civilization possible: they all rely on concrete. But where did it come from? Courland guides the reader through the fascinating tale of a substance that was created long ago, but only recently rediscovered after centuries of being lost. In addition to many interesting facts, the author also reveals a few disturbing ones. Chief among them is the fact that the concrete of today is not as strong as that of our ancestors despite many modern manufacturers’ claims. It turns out that those Roman ‘ruins’ have a much longer shelf life than a modern office building.

Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt
airstreamThis book is many things. It is a biography of Wally Byam the inventor of the Airstream. It is a cultural history of the Airstream, documenting its effect on the idea of recreation in America. Interestingly, it is also a history of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Airstream caravan. All of these parts are skillfully told with a dazzling array of archival images that make this book quite beautiful. If you want to learn more about the trend of mobile living in America definitely take a look at Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America by Roger White for a wider angle view of this phenomenon.

cellphoneThe Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World by Guy Klemens
It is now a cliché to have a film demonstrate to the audience that it is ‘from the 80s’ by having a character whip out a cellphone the size of a loaf of bread. But this book goes way beyond that image to tell the history of the cellphone, which actually dates back to the 1940s. While a fun book, this title is definitely heavy on the technology of the cellphone with detailed discussions of concepts such as bandwidth and analog vs. digital so don’t feel guilty about skimming a chapter or two.

Digital Retrodigitalretro by Gordon Laing
This book tells the story of the formative years of the personal computer, 1975-1988, through the machines themselves. Each model is lovingly documented, photographed and provided with a detailed backstory. This was a frenetic period for the personal computer, with big corporations going head to head with eccentric professors, amateur inventors and kids working out of their garages. Definitely check this book out and visit the thrilling days of yesteryear when we were bowled over by the fact that the Commodore 64 had 64KB of RAM and BASIC was considered the programming language of the future.

theyugoThe Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic
You tend to think of history as a record of the ‘winners’ but as this book points out, epic failure can be instructive as well. Hailing from the former Yugoslavia, and riding a very brief wave of popularity in the mid1980s primarily due to a price tag under $4000, the Yugo turned out to be one of the most flawed cars ever built. The tale of how it even got to the commercial market in the first place, with the help of an overeager U.S. State Department and a Detroit auto industry reluctant to build cheap subcompact cars, is fascinating and instructive stuff.

jetpackdreamsJetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon
This is the story of one man’s quest to answer the burning, to some, question: Why can’t we all have our own working Jetpack? Popular culture, think Buck Rogers or Boba Fett, has been promising us one for a long time now. It turns out that prototypes were actually developed in the 1960s but funding quickly dried up so the Jetpack is now the province of a dedicated band of aficionados. The author travels the country to seek out these dedicated few to see if any of us will be able to commute to work via Jetpack in our lifetimes.

So if you are planning a foray into historical nonfiction, why not avoid the big picture and focus on the small stuff? The Devil is in the details after all.

Inside the Northwest History Room: Yearbooks

1924 Nesika page

Click to see detail

Through this blog I’ve had a chance to talk about a couple of the resources that get heavily used in the Northwest History Room (namely the Polk City directories and the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps). While there are many different areas of our collection that see frequent use, the Polks and Sanborns are joined by our yearbook collection to make up our ‘Big Three’ of local history reference materials. This year we began the massive task of digitizing our collection with the aim of getting them all online. So far we’ve received scans of all of our Everett High School Nesikas; in 2015 we’re hoping to do the same with the Cascade High School Vista. Now comes the fun but time-consuming work of uploading and describing all those pages of history in our database, but I’m not here to bore you with that!

1916 yearbook page

Click to see detail

So why are the yearbooks so important to us and the work that we do? Mainly because they’re very important to the people who contact us. Whether it’s a walk-in to our room or a phone call from overseas, people seek scans from our yearbooks for a variety of reasons. Most people are doing genealogical research; the Nesika goes back to 1909, so there are a few generations of Everett residents contained within them. In some circumstances yearbook photos are actually acceptable forms of identification, so we get individuals and family members seeking them for a variety of reasons. One afternoon I helped a walk-in researcher locate photos of their birth mom whose face they had never seen.

Aside from being of interest for personal or nostalgic reasons, our yearbook collection tells us a lot of general information about Everett’s history as it grows and adapts to changes in local and national society. I’ve only just begun working through our scans but from the beginning in 1909 to the farthest I’ve reached, 1930, I’ve seen the girls’ hair shorten along with the length of their athletic costumes. Also striking to see is the rapidly increasing participation of females in different school sports and the addition of new events like field hockey and swimming. In the boys’ athletics one can watch the rise of the legendary Enoch Bagshaw era of Everett High School football, which led to a string of championships (opens an MP3 of our Bagshaw podcast).1922 Girls Hockey team

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Some of the history documented in these yearbooks can be sad or uncomfortable. The budding Nesika series goes ominously silent in 1917 and doesn’t resume until 1919, with that year’s volume including a memorial for the students and alums who lost their lives in the First World War. Other pages in 1919 display long lists of those who served and returned. In some volumes there are pages featuring minstrel show lineups, racially and ethnically insensitive jokes, and advertisements with black-face caricatures. The jarring nature of how casual and deeply ingrained racism was during those decades helps remind us of where we’ve come from as a society and how to continue moving forward.

In addition to reading between the lines to glean cultural information from the yearbook collection, we also get to learn about Everett’s commerce and industry. Starting in the 1920s the yearbook staff sold advertising slots to local businesses. Through these ads, many repeated from year to year, one can get a picture of what businesses were common. Also present are ads from many of the major employers in the area such as Sumner Iron Works, local paper and timber mills, and packing companies presumably to entice recent graduates to join the ranks of the working class.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Whether it’s family information, social context, or just enjoying some of the vintage artwork, you can find out all kinds of things by paging through our yearbooks. We hope that our future online collection will make this personal connection with local history more easily established for those near and far. In the meantime, scans are available at any time by request, or can be viewed at the Northwest History Room (the hard copies of the yearbooks are there as well, and are fun to look through). I will also be featuring interesting tidbits I come across during this project on our Northwest History Room tumblr – be sure to keep an eye out.

Inside the Northwest History Room: Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Sanborn 1914 title pageHere in the Northwest History Room of the Everett Public Library, we get frequent visitors looking into the history of buildings and land usage. One of the first resources we point people to is our collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. We have the set of 1914 maps, and a copy of the 1914 maps that was updated in 1955 to show the present state of the land. These dates come in handy for people who own older non-compliant structures because they can be grandfathered in if they predate 1955.

Aside from being able to check if your porch or outbuilding might be able to be grandfathered in, a lot can be gleaned from comparing the 1914 and 1955 maps. For example, in these two photos, you can see how the old Everett Flour Mill was gradually replaced by the sprawling Scott Paper Co. Mill (click images to enlarge).

1914 view1955 view

Over time, this expansion meant altering the natural landscape by filling in some of the tidelands and building over them on piers. Roads and rails were altered to make way.

These two photos show the expansion of residential buildings that happened at 26th and Rainier. One can see how some buildings changed use, for example going from being a dwelling (‘D’) to being a shed, or gained or lost outbuildings. Some houses, surprisingly, remained mostly the same over the course of those 41 intervening years (click images to enlarge).

1914 view1955 view

Lastly we have the key that helps us interpret all the colors and symbols used in the maps. This provides us with a wealth of information about the construction of the buildings, from the materials used on the exterior walls, to the types of windows and skylights present, to the appearance of the chimneys. This is really useful for people who are looking to restore their homes to an earlier appearance, or for people who are trying to discover what a demolished building looked like when no pictures exist (click image to enlarge).

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps key

 

I invite you to come down to the Northwest History Room at Everett Public Library’s Main Library to see what you can find out about your home, or any other Everett property you might be curious about – either David or I would be happy to show you how to use our map collection.

The Best Laid Plans

As you may recall, gentle reader, in June I devised a list of interesting non-fiction titles to guide my summer reading.  Well the good news is that I have been reading non-fiction. The bad news is that none of the titles I’ve chosen so far have been selected from that list. I had hoped to whittle away at my reading list, but sadly I’ve just added to it. Still, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse problems to have than a long list of interesting books to read.  Speaking of the grand scheme of things, the titles I have been reading this summer have had a philosophical bent for some reason. Perhaps sunshine makes a person question their place in the universe. Or it could be sunstroke. In any case, here are few more titles you might want to consider for your summer non-fiction reading.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm
dyingeverydayWhile this work is definitely chock full of intriguing Roman Imperial history, the book’s central aim is trying to answer a seemingly intractable question: Just what kind of person was Seneca? On the one hand, thanks to many of his surviving philosophical works, we know that he was a dyed in the wool Stoic preaching the rigorous virtues of poverty, morality and the equality of all before fate. On the other we have his career as a shrewd politician and tutor to the young Emperor Nero; Seneca amassed a huge amount of wealth while delicately maneuvering through the deadly and incredibly amoral minefield of the imperial court. The author is a master at examining a tenant of stoicism that Seneca espoused and then contrasting it with the rather seedy political world he found himself in. Romm makes a convincing argument concerning Seneca’s moral character, but ultimately leaves it up to the reader to decide.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
theswerveThis one is a librarian’s, or book lover’s, dream. In the winter of 1417 the Italian humanist and former Papal secretary Poggio Braccilini was searching for forgotten manuscripts, a popular pastime in that era, in the monasteries of Southern Germany.  What he discovered was a fragile copy of an ancient poem titled On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura). This text, written by Lucretius and promoting the ideas of the philosopher Epicurus, was praised for the beauty of its language, but the ideas it conveyed were definitely not kosher for the time. A few examples: early atomic theory (discovered centuries before the scientific method was invented), the idea of an indifferent universe, and, worst of all, the concept that seeking pleasure was actually a good thing. Greenblatt’s book is not only an examination of the history of these ideas and their influence on our culture, but also the fascinating story of Poggio Braccilini and his time.

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman
accidentaluniverseAll the essays in this short work are concerned with the impact of recent scientific discoveries on our view of the universe and our place in it. The author is both a theoretical physicist and a novelist which I found to be a great help when it came to his descriptions of some of the more complicated scientific concepts such as dark matter and the multiverse which he deftly puts in layman’s terms.  The essays are not simply explanations of scientific concepts. Instead, Lightman tries to integrate the scientific ideas with concepts from history, literature, and his own personal experiences.  This creates a balanced approach that is greatly appreciated when it comes to hot button topics like the often uneasy relationship between belief and the scientific method. This book is not a series of rants from a particular perspective, but rather a balanced and humane attempt to genuinely explore the ideas scientific discoveries are bringing to the fore.

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning by Robert Zaretsky
alifeworthlivingWhile you may associate Albert Camus with past memories of disgruntled youths wearing all black and mumbling the first line from The Stranger (Mother died today. Or was it yesterday; I can’t be sure.) this blend of biography and criticism would argue that there is much more to the man and his ideas for living.  Zaretsky structures the biographical details around a series of concepts that Camus grappled with and that make up the chapter headings: Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity, Revolt.  What emerges is a set of ideas for understanding the world that are constantly open to exploration and interpretation, far from the static label (existentialism) often ascribed to them. While struggle is definitely a component, Camus finds that there is actually cause for hope and, gasp, happiness in this life:

It was the middle of winter, I finally realized that, within me, summer was inextinguishable.

So, a few suggestions for a little light non-fiction reading this summer. Perhaps I need to get out of the sun.

When History Splashes Off the Page

You may recall I gave myself a list of reading challenges for 2014. They are all self-imposed and they all just randomly fell out of my brain one day in a burst of madness inspiration. Whether this is the first you’re hearing of my reading resolutions or you just want to review, here is the list of my reading inspirations:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book 
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular (see below)
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel 
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

Up until now I thought of this list as only a clever way for me to have some ready-made books to blog about. However, I really didn’t expect anything mind-blowing to result. Then I decided to tackle number five, the super-popular designation. And guys, I finished reading this book three weeks ago. Three weeks ago. I have been unable to pick up another book since. This book broke me. I am stuck in a rut, afraid to pick up another book because it’s really not fair to that book to have to follow behind one so good as this one.

The boys in the boatUnless you’ve been living under a rock, or just not in the Pacific Northwest, everyone has been buzzing about The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The library first bought the book last June and I don’t think we’ve ever been successful at keeping a single copy on the shelf. As of this writing there are still twenty-two outstanding holds across all formats. I was lucky enough to snag an eBook copy. Pro tip: if you need a popular book quickly, the holds queues for eBooks tend to be far shorter than physical print copies.

So there I was: sitting curled up on the couch, Saturday morning, fresh-brewed coffee in hand. This was back before that big summer heat wave hit Seattle. It was just me and the title screen on my Kindle. I had no idea what was about to happen, how truly involved in this story I would become. I ended up creating countless highlights in my eBook of passages I thought embodied a person, idea, or event. I didn’t count on how difficult it would be to retrieve said highlights later. So you’ll have to keep with me as I try to put into words how incredibly magnificent this book was, and still is.

Joe Rantz was born in Spokane in 1914. His childhood and early adulthood are detailed throughout the book, juxtaposed with great inventions of the time, and a healthy dose of local, federal, and world history. His father invented as a hobby, but it was never enough to pay the bills. When Joe was still quite young his mother died. His father, heartbroken and searching for work, moved all over the Northwest. Sometimes he took Joe; sometimes he left Joe behind; sometimes he shipped Joe out to a relative’s house. As a result, Joe had a severely unstable childhood but also became extremely self-reliant. Being left behind in a half-built house in the wilderness outside of Sequim, while your father packs up his new family and leaves for parts unknown will do that to you.

By the time he got to the University of Washington in 1933, Joe was always second-guessing his worth. Despite working hard, and during the Great Depression no less, to not only scrape together tuition money but also find a place to live, Joe never really saw his strengths. Joe was used to hard work, but he thought he would finally feel like he fit in with like-minded people in college. Instead his threadbare clothes and deep poverty made him feel like an outcast from the very start of his college career.

Eventually, Joe managed to work his way onto the UW crew team. Despite his aptitude, dedication, and stamina, he saw that his place on the team was not permanent and never guaranteed. Coaches swapped students around on different boats, trying to find the right combination of rowers. This boat-swapping, coupled with his childhood of abandonment put Joe constantly on edge, fearful that he would be let go from the team just when he was starting to feel at home. Knowing that staying on the crew team was his only chance to stay in college, and have a shot at a good future, Joe was constantly worried but always striving to be better.

Over his freshman and sophomore years, his boat had its ups and downs in competitions and teammate personality conflicts. But it wasn’t until his junior year that his teammates became as close as family. In 1932 UW’s west coast rowing rivals, UC “Cal” Berkeley, had won Olympic gold. Entering the 1935 rowing season, everyone at both UW and Cal knew that their coach would be pushing them to fight for the chance at the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. And any team competing against Germany on their home turf during an oppressive time would, if they could win it…well, do I need to go on?

The Dust Bowl. Nazis. The Great Depression. Hitler’s rise to power. All of this is set against our group of farm boys, working hard on the waters of Lake Washington. This is a true underdog story, one made more inspirational because every word of it is true. Pay special attention to the quotes from George Yeoman Pocock at the start of each chapter. He handcrafted all the racing shells at UW during Joe’s tenure, and he was wise beyond his years. I would love to read more about him and his equally humble beginnings and incredible life.

I really did not think I would like The Boys in the Boat, but was curious how a book about rowing could become so popular. I told my dentist I was going to read this book. He, an avid fisherman and happiest, I suspect, when he’s on the open water, said that it was also on his list to read this summer. I feel like I did us both proud. Look at me, reading a book about sports! But it’s so much more than that. If you, too, decide to give it a chance, prepare to be swept away at forty-five strokes per minute. Now that I’ve written this review I hope it releases me from the spell cast by Daniel James Brown. I’m going to crack open a new book tonight and test my theory.

In case you’re wondering, and lest us always remember, the boys in the boat:
Left to right: Don Hume, Joe Rantz, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillin, John “Johnny” White Jr., Gordon “Gordy” Adam, Chuck Day, Roger Morris. Kneeling: Bobby Moch

1936 UW Varsity Crew Team

Must Reads for Summer 2014

186d4192b2c58e47b37c8609e68ccc36

There are good and bad things about working in a library. The good: all of the great books that you discover and get to read. The bad: all of the great books that you don’t have time to read. We all have excuses and these are mine: full-time work and a toddler who just turned two years old and a baby who is ten months old. Oh yeah, and a house and garden and that guy I married 33 years ago. So, I often feel like that funny old bird the pelican whose beak holds more than his belly can. I have a beak full of great reads these days which may interest you if you’re participating in the summer reading program at the Everett Public Library or if you’re lucky enough to be planning a vacation and need a good book to take along. This list has a little bit of everything so there may be just the right book for you. Let’s start with non-fiction.

indexCA1ADCTLFlash Boys: a Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis is on my list since I read Boomerang and I thought that it was the bomb. This guy also wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side and other excellent books. It reads like a John Grisham novel, but it’s a true story about stock exchanges, high frequency traders, and dark pools. The author is great at explaining complicated technical subjects and telling a good story around them. I want to read it!

indexCA63IMS4Leonardo and the Last Supper has been by my bedside for a few weeks now. It’s excellent! I was an art history major in college and I’ve learned so much more from this book about the creation of this Renaissance masterpiece. Mr. King has managed to focus on a particular theme and give the reader as much information as needed to really understand it. Another of his earlier books accomplished the same thing, Brunelleschi’s Dome, which I can also recommend.

indexCAAEEVC8The President and the Assassin: McKinley, terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century is a great book (obvious from the first chapter) by Seattle author, Scott Miller. He creates a portrait of turn of the century America going back and forth between an under-appreciated president, William McKinley and his anarchist assassin, Leon Czolgosz. This was a time when the powerful were growing more powerful and desperate men turned to terrorism. Sound familiar?

And now for some fiction:

index (16)I have to read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because my daughter heard her give a talk recently in Copenhagen and apparently it’s wonderful. The author takes on immigration, race, and what it means to leave home and to return, all wrapped up in a love story. Adichie has also written Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. The first chapter alone is marvelous. Let’s all get with it and read this one.

indexCAZNZBA7The Care of Wooden Floors by Will WIles was recommended to me by two co-workers so I checked it out and my husband read it while we were on vacation. Even though I couldn’t read it, he confirmed that it is funny and interesting and a good book.  It’s an odd couple story of a fellow who house sits for a composer friend. He accidentally spills wine on the apartment’s priceless wooden floor and endures a disastrous week of perfectionist repair and maintenance.

index (1)Delicious! is by Ruth Reichl. I’ve read all of her memoirs from Garlic and Sapphires to Tender at the Bone. This is her first attempt at fiction and she certainly writes about what she knows: the heroine is a woman who works for a venerable food magazine that suddenly ceases publication. It looks like a pretty fun and fast read, and if you’re looking for a souffle-type novel, you could do worse! Plus, the cover is lovely.

indexBroken Harbor is Tana French’s new ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ crime novel and it’s supposed to be every bit as brilliant as her three earlier books featuring that tough cop, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy. This is a murder story which seems easy to solve at first until the details don’t add up. Read this one to get the atmosphere of an Ireland hit hard by the recession, an idea of police procedure and to become engrossed in a well written who dunnit.

index (1)The Possibilities is written by Kaui Hart Hemmings who also wrote The Descendants. You’ll remember that movie with George Clooney. This new book follows a similar theme of family and loss and is set in the paradise of Breckenridge, Colorado. A single mom is grieving the loss of her son, Cully, in an avalanche when a strange girl shows up with a secret from Cully’s past.

indexThe Vacationers by Emma Straub  will take you all the way to the beaches of Spain, where a family’s dramas are set against the beautiful background of a lush vacation. It will leave you feeling like you were just on a family trip — laughing, exhausted and filled with love.

So, check out one of these books to take on your next vacation or simply read one for a great ‘staycation’. Either way, enjoy!

De-tech-tives

detechtives

Recently I’ve noticed that television detectives’ detection skills have been replaced by technology. Between cell phones, email, tracking devices and the multitude of cameras that cover every nook and cranny of the earth, it’s nearly impossible for a modern TV criminal to operate in anonymity. This is a strange and drastic change from Dragnet days when phone dialing, ledger collation, footwork and thinking were involved in any arrest.

The YardThe Yard by Alex Grecian
What fascinates me is that, before modern techniques and technologies were created, police could catch criminals at all! In the novel The Yard author Alex Grecian portrays a squalid, horrifying London of 1890 where five-year-old children work dangerous jobs, living conditions for many are abysmal, and human life is held in little regard. Scotland Yard’s murder squad consists of 12 detectives who have roughly 400 murders per year to crack, and after the unsolved Jack the Ripper killings of 1888 public opinion of the police force’s skills is extremely low. Then the unthinkable occurs. A member of the murder squad, one of the men attempting to keep London safe, is brutally slaughtered. The team’s newest member is put in charge of the investigation, but there seems no hope in unearthing the crime’s perpetrator. Even after the Ripper murders, the idea of killing for pleasure is foreign to the detectives and they don’t know where to begin to find this new type of killer. But with the aid of Dr. Kingsley, the Yard’s first forensic pathologist (and somewhat of a Sherlockian figure) the squad makes slow progress, although the murders do continue. This is crime solving at its most basic – follow paltry clues, cogitate, and find a killer.

keystone-kops-granger

These 1890’s were a time when it was relatively simple to be a successful murderer. Police had few tools-of-the-trade and criminals were able to easily disappear in obscurity. Here are a few titles that examine various aspects of the infancy of crime fighting.

Devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
While examining the amazing feats that went into constructing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Erik Larson also describes the activities of H.H. Holmes, a Chicago serial killer who used the draw of the World’s Fair to murder somewhere between 27 and 200 people in relative anonymity. In fact, it wasn’t until he left Chicago, continuing to commit homicides and other crimes, that Holmes was finally arrested in Boston a year later. His Chicago killings, however, remained unknown until the custodian of Holmes’s Chicago murder castle (you’ll have to read the book for those details) tipped off the police and Holmes’s murder victims were found. This true story shows how easy it was to operate as an invisible killer in the days before advanced technologies.

Great Pearl HeistThe Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace by Molly Caldwell Crosby
This non-fiction account of an early 20th-century jewel heist details both the plans of the thieves and the methods used by Scotland Yard to catch them. In addition to being an engaging read, Crosby’s book highlights the importance of this case to the future of British crime fighting.

Poisoner's handbookThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
This entertaining book looks at the careers of New York’s first medical examiner and toxicologist. Surprisingly, these positions didn’t even exist until after World War I. Blum makes a potentially dull topic intriguing and understandable.

police corruption

As police forces moved into the 20th-century, corruption came to be accepted as a normal facet of law enforcement.

Breaking blueBreaking Blue by Timothy Egan
In 1935, during the dust bowl years, a spate of dairy robberies in the Spokane area resulted in the shooting death of Marshal George Conniff. Decades later, Sheriff Tony Bamonte of Pend Oreille County tried to shed light on the robberies and Conniff’s death. Author Timothy Egan paints a vivid picture of Spokane’s dirty underbelly and the role that law enforcement played in these crimes.

LA ConfidentialL.A. Confidential
This Oscar-winning movie portrays a shady LA police force that is rife with injustice and brutality. At a time when Hollywood was king, justice was elusive (put that on your movie poster!) and criminals often dwelt on both sides of the law.

victorian police

Certainly TV policing has little in common with reality, but then again, reality is far more interesting. So set aside your new-fangled DVDs and give an old-timey police investigatory book a try. At the very least, you’ll gain an appreciation for the accomplishments that were made with minimal means in less-than-hospitable conditions.