Murder Among the Mormons (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: If it seems too good to be true …

Quick synopsis: A documentary about some major finds related to the Mormon Church which change what they know to be true.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Apparently you can test bombs in Utah, and no one will really notice.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The director is a Mormon himself, which is helpful because it seems like a hit piece at times. Keep watching, though.

My Take: I am going to keep this short because I don’t want to ruin it for everyone.

New documents show up throwing the Mormon Church into a panic because these documents directly refute certain aspects of their faith.

Things happen and people are mysteriously targeted by a mad bomber.

If you don’t know the story already but love true crime, then the third episode changes what you have been seeing the whole time. You may even sniff out the twist ahead of time. It’s well done and very well paced.

Verdict: It is really good and if you don’t know anything about the story ahead of time, then it is even better.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mommy Dead and Dearest (HBO Max)
  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)
  • Night Stalker (Netflix)
  • The Ripper (Netflix)

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Hahahahahahahahaha.

Quick synopsis: The story of Attila Ambrus.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: See below.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Keep going.

My Take: I don’t believe in trying to improve on perfection. In that spirit, here is the synopsis for this book:

“A true story of bank heists, ice hockey, Transylvanian pelt smuggling, moonlighting detectives, and broken hearts.”

None on that is made up or embellished. This is the funniest book I’ve read in a long time. And it is all true.

Verdict: Why aren’t you reading it yet?

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ben Macintyre, Agent Zigzag
  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • John Carryrou, Bad Blood
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial

Allen v. Farrow (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is so gross.

Quick synopsis: The story of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s relationship.

Fun Fact Non-History People Should Know Will Like: Woody Allen hired people to follow the detectives investigating the child molestation charges against him.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Woody Allen films a movie a year or so. He’s also a disgusting human being.

My Take: I never liked Woody Allen anyway. I certainly don’t like him any more now.

I was still rather young when the whole Allen fiasco went down. It was an interesting moment when I watched this miniseries to realize that the media blitz Allen used to protect himself actually worked on me. From what I recall, it seemed like a very “he said/she said” scenario.

It was not.

If you think for a second Woody Allen was set up by a vindictive ex, then you need to watch this. It will change your mind with actual facts instead of a media blitz. More importantly, you hear directly from Dylan Farrow, whom he molested.

Let’s be serious here. His explanation starts with falling in love with Farrow’s adoptive daughter who he’s known since she was a teen.

Verdict: You have to have a strong stomach for this. It’s well done but oh man will it ruin your day.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (HBO)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)
  • The Vow (HBO)

A Shot in the Moonlight by Ben Montgomery

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It’s amazing how racism and stupidity always go together.

Quick synopsis: The story of George Dinning, who survived being shot in the head to ultimately sue his mob.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Bennet H. Young, who helped Dinning sue the mob, once took part in a naked charge during the Civil War. Yes, you read that right.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The outcome of the initial criminal trial was novel in that it made literally no one happy, racist or other.

My Take: A mob showed up at a Black man’s house in the middle of the night just to “talk” as friends. Some of their faces may have been obscured, depending on who you talked to and whether they were in front of a jury or not. Oh, and the Black man shot indiscriminately. Honest. They didn’t do anything aggressive.

There’s the set up of the book which seems anything but paint by numbers. George Dinning survived his ordeal is amazing enough. That he was able to ultimately sue the mob as a Black man is equally amazing. Who helped him sue the mob is the least likely aspect of this story.

Bennet H. Young represented Dinning in the civil case and has entered my list of most confounding human beings at #1. I have never come across a real human so full of contradictions. He was an unabashed Confederate soldier. He was also a tireless advocate for freed people.

Yet another example of history being stranger than fiction.

Verdict: A great book even for a non-history nerd. Go read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman
  • H.W. Brands, The Zealot and the Emancipator
  • Charles Lane, Freedom’s Detective
  • Brenda Wineapple, The Impeachers
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals

Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You’d think exploring around the world would get you remembered but apparently not.

Quick synopsis: A narrative of the U.S Exploring Expedition of 1838 – 1842. Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it before either.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This expedition explored 280 islands, mapped 800 miles of Oregon, and documented over 60,000 plant and bird specimens.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Why don’t we know more about this epic expedition? Probably because it was very scientific and it didn’t help that the leader, Charles Wilkes, was kind of a jerk. How big a jerk? His men hated him for over the top discipline, he flouted a rank he didn’t actually have, and read the book to find out why Fiji isn’t a fan. It is very possible Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick is based on him.

My Take: I love anything Nathaniel Philbrick writes. The next way to classify his books in my mind is whether or not I know too much about the subject already. Philbrick has written about George Washington and he writes wonderfully for someone learning about a subject. He is not going to write the bricks (pun intended) that Ron Chernow writes which are meant to capture EVERYTHING about his subject (and to be clear, I love him, too).

That is a long-winded way of saying, I love Philbrick’s books when I know nothing about the story. In the Heart of the Sea is one of my favorite books of all time because I was new to the entire subject. This book is the same and it is fantastic.

The U.S. Ex. Ex. (yes, there were apparently hipsters in 1838 abbreviating things) is an absolute feat of scientific discovery and, at best, is a small footnote in most history books. Why? Drama, pure and simple. The leader, Charles Wilkes, was a (word that rhymes with sick). Run-ins with natives where they went sometimes ended extremely poorly. Politics shaded everything that was done. The takeaway from the entire episode, however, is that the scientists and surveyors performed some of the most important work done in the time period.

The book is great for anyone. It’s interesting even for non-nerds.

Verdict: It’s Nathaniel Philbrick. Of course, it’s good.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye
  • Julie Fenster, Jefferson’s America
  • Peter Stark, Astoria
  • Scott Ridley, Morning of Fire

God’s Traitors by Jessie Childs

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: (Looks toward England. Raises middle finger.)

Quick synopsis: Another story about how England is the devil. This time, it focuses on the Catholic Vaux family in Elizabethan England.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: There were places built into homes to hide clergy during the time of Catholic persecution. They were called a “priest hole.” Yeah, I know.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: To this day, you still cannot be Catholic and King of England. We don’t want it anyway.

My Take: The set-up for this book is rife with opportunity for a thriller. Families hiding their faith and secreting away priests while being hunted.

This book does tackle that but in a more scholastic way. It focuses on the Vaux family during the time where it was illegal to be Catholic in England. Yes, that was a long time. Yes, I am still salty about it. Being of Irish heritage as well does not help. Some may say, “But Brendan, the Catholic Church killed a lot of people back then,” and I would say, “Well, I’m not reviewing a book about that right now so shut up, jerk.”

I digress. Jessie Childs book is well researched and eminently readable. However, it is a failure of mine that I expected something more up-tempo. There are many close calls which are documented but they do not make up the bulk of the narrative. This is a great book if your expectations are set properly.

The title is badass, though.

Verdict: This is a well-done book, but it is written for history nerds and not thriller fans.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Antonia Fraser, The King and the Catholics
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Catholicism_in_the_United_Kingdom

Blood Royal by Eric Jager

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I wonder how many less murders we would have if people kept it in their pants?

Quick synopsis: The murder of the Duke of Orleans, Louis I, in 1407.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This murder wasn’t very straightforward because a lot of people wanted to kill Louis. Mostly because he had a penchant for sleeping with people’s wives.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Oh, one of those wives he might have been sleeping with? His brother’s wife, Queen Isabeau.

My Take: Historical true crime is always an interesting subject. However, Blood Royal is the first book that highlighted something which is common sense, but you don’t think about.

Medieval cities used to get really dark at night. There is no light, and you can’t have a fire going because you would easily burn down all of the buildings which were made primarily of wood. Finally, there is no police force as we know it today. If you went out after dark, you probably wouldn’t even see your murderer coming. On top of that, no one would be investigating in any meaningful way.

With that backdrop, here comes the story of the king’s brother being murdered after leaving from seeing the queen. At night. Louis had a lot of lovers and it made for a lot of potential killers.

The chief of police, Guillaume de Tignonville, is tasked with finding the murderer. Jager shows just how far from today’s methods 1407 was and yet, Tignonville ends up being pretty effective considering the circumstances. The ending is pretty straightforward but not without drama.

Verdict: A really fun book. If you like historical true crime, then this is right up your alley.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Eric Jager, The Last Duel
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight
  • Joel Harrington, The Faithful Executioner
  • Holly Tucker, City of Light, City of Poison

Mystery on the Isle of Shoals by J. Dennis Robinson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It’s actually not a mystery who did it, but people like conspiracies.

Quick synopsis: The murder of Karen and Anethe Christensen on the isolated Smuttynose Island in 1873.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Smuttynose Island got its name from sailors who felt the seaweed on the island made it look like a “smutty nose.” It has no sexual connotation, you perverts.

Oh, Blackbeard had his honeymoon there.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Celia Thaxter, a famous poet of the 1800s, lived on the Island of Shoals off and on throughout her life and wrote “A Memorable Murder” about the murders.

My Take: It’s better when you take your time.

Robinson’s book is very evenly paced but he also takes his time to make the reader understand the setting of the Isle of Shoals. The prologue takes up much more room than usual, but I personally believe it makes the murder and subsequent events more vivid. The Isle of Shoals has a rich history which needs to be explained and Robinson takes the time to do that.

The murder is very straightforward for the most part but still very compelling to read. The twist is actually the lack of a twist. People to this day think something else happened. Read and make the decision for yourself.

Verdict: I loved it. It does not move as fast as most true crime novels but if you care about understanding a setting, then this is the book for you.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals
  • Miriam Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans

Maniac by Harold Schechter

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Always pay attention to people buying a lot of explosives.

Quick synopsis: The Bath School disaster in 1927. Andrew Kehoe bombed the local Michigan grade school out of revenge for perceived slights and holy hell he didn’t stop there.

Fun Fact for Non-History People Will Like: This is still the worst school massacre in U.S. history even though most of us never heard of it before.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Kehoe blamed the school for his inability to pay off his debts. It was estimated at his death that he could have sold his property and paid everything off.

My Take: I don’t necessarily “enjoy” true crime, per se. I appreciate a well written story and when it helps the reader understand a little more about human nature than just recounting a story.

Schechter does two things. He slowly shows the deterioration of Andrew Kehoe including documenting the perceived slights which led him to do what he did. Even with this detailed walk-through, the ending is shocking. Kehoe didn’t just set a bomb at a school. He enacted a multi-step plan of revenge that spared no one except through good luck.

The other theme which Schechter tackles intermittently, but very effectively, is why most people have no knowledge of the Bath School disaster even with how amazingly sad it was. I won’t spoil it.

You are not going to feel good at the end of this book, but there is no way to tell this story.

Verdict: A brutal read but a vivid account of a psycho and how he came to do what he did. A must read for true crime readers.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Miriam C. Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Sinclair McKay, The Lady in the Cellar
  • Rich Cohen, The Last Pirate of New York