A Most Wicked Conspiracy by Paul Starobin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I should have been a gold miner in the 1900s.

Quick synopsis: The story of how a crooked politician tried to steal the gold right out from miners in Nome, Alaska around 1900.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Gold was literally just sitting around waiting to be found. The process wasn’t necessarily easy, but you didn’t have to dig hundreds of feet into the earth. In fact, you could just go to the beach, literally.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We tend to forget that senators were not always directly elected. Until 1913, they were appointed by state legislatures which, as we clearly know now, is a recipe for corruption.

My Take: This book should have been boring. Ultimately, it is about a scandal which was not widely publicized, involved people we mostly never hear of, and was settled without any murders or other major outbreaks of violence.

And yet, I loved this book.

Starobin does precisely what you should do when writing about a little-known story in history: get on with it. Starobin sets the stage to understand the main characters and the setting of Nome, Alaska and gets to the story. He doesn’t waste time and focuses on the pivotal points of the story. He explains who someone is and then highlights their attributes in the way they act during this episode in history. His pacing makes what could have been a very humdrum story into something you don’t want to stop reading.

He also points out a few scenarios where American politicians, lawyers, and judges did their jobs because they cared about the country. Well I’ll be damned. It did happen once.

Verdict: This is a fun and easy read. It’s a really well written account of a crazy time in American history.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • William Oldfield, Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society

The Imposter (Prime)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is impersonating a good true crime documentary.

Quick synopsis: The disappearance of Nicholas Barclay and the imposter who tried to take his identity.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The imposter, Frederic Bourdin, has impersonated at least 3 actual missing teenagers.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Nicholas Barclay was a 13-year-old American kid with blonde hair and blue eyes. Bourdin was a 20-year-old French guy with brown eyes. Go figure.

My Take: This documentary commits a cardinal sin of the true crime genre (that maybe I just made up) which is that if you are not going to completely solve something then don’t bring it up or make sure the audience knows they will leave with an unsolved mystery. You know, like Unsolved Mysteries. They do it right. It’s right in the name.

The story is very weird and leaves a lot of be desired. As explained in the fun fact for history nerds, Nicholas Barclay looked nothing like Frederic Bourdin. To say they look nothing like each other is a hilarious understatement. Pair that with Bourdin’s very heavy French accent and the whole story gets weirder.

The problem with this documentary is that it builds up to a few possible reveals but then never actually settles anything other than Bourdin being an imposter which we have known since the beginning. It seems like some significant accusations are hurled and never truly explored.  His ruse falls apart relatively quickly but too much runtime is taken up by it. I was left pretty frustrated.

Verdict: There are better crime docs out there (see below). Skip this one.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Holy Hell (Netflix)
  • The Innocence Files (Netflix)
  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)

Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I wouldn’t even do what they did in 1839 today. Forget that.

Quick synopsis: Two guys went into the Jungle and discovered the Mayans were way more legit than anyone gave them credit for.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The archaeological site of Copan, in Honduras, was a treasure trove of ancient Mayan architecture and culture. John Lloyd Stephens bought it for $50. Manhattan all over again.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I cannot stress this enough. Frederick Catherwood’s art is absolutely amazing. When you compare what he did IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE IN 1839 with pictures of the site today, it is utterly unbelievable. It’s as if he took a photograph.

My Take: I never would have been an explorer. Correction: I will never be an explorer.

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood met in London. They read an account of ruins in Honduras and thought, “this will be fun.” I’ll never understand the mindset but thank God people like this exist.

The Maya were not unknown at this point in history, but more unappreciated. What we now know today is they were an extremely complex society which challenged the European views of the world when Stephens and Catherwood “rediscovered” them and highlighted their extensive accomplishments and culture.

It’s also nice that unlike many explorers, they were not absolutely terrible people who treated people like garbage. That’s saying something.

Verdict: A great book for anyone who loves exploration.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Buddy Levy, Labyrinth of Ice
  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Andre Resendez, A Land So Strange
  • Candice Millard, River of Doubt

More Than Miyagi (Amazon)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: He was in a lot more than you remember!

Quick synopsis: The life of actor and comedian Noriyuki “Pat” Morita.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Morita actually had a disease which was supposed to render him unable to walk, but an experimental surgery healed him.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: When he left the hospital after being healed, he headed right for an internment camp.

My Take: Sometimes, documentaries are created because some crazed fans believe someone’s life was way more interesting than people assume. I can confirm that this is not one of those documentaries. This needed to be filmed.

Pat Morita is mostly known as Mr. Miyagi and for good reason. He was the best. But it is so easy to forget, like I did, that he was also in Happy Days, Sanford and Son, and even the original Mulan.

Morita’s life was very interesting, and he seemed to be a genuinely good person who was also a raging alcoholic. His humor was a way to deal with pain and awkward situations. Such as when one of his first stand up gigs was for Pearl Harbor survivors. His first joke, “Sorry about your harbor.” They laughed.

This is very worth watching.

Also, there is further confirmation that Henry Winkler is the nicest human being on earth. It is not up for debate.

Verdict: This was a really enjoyable watch. Put it on your list.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
  • Class Action Park

Crucible of Hell by Saul David

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Kind of puts The Karate Kid in a whole new light.

Quick synopsis: Story of the battle of Okinawa in World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The movie Hacksaw Ridge is based on an actual action during the Battle of Okinawa.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I mean, not “fun,” but Lieutenant General Buckner, who was killed during the battle, was the highest-ranking U.S. officer to die in World War II in combat.

My Take: This book is about the Battle of Okinawa, but it could also be a book about why we dropped the atomic bombs on mainland Japan afterwards.

The Pacific Theater of World War II is very often overlooked when history is taught or dramatized. I get it, it’s much better talking about killing Nazis. However, this view of thinking greatly underestimates the fanaticism of the Japanese Imperial Army. No one was safe, including their own soldiers and civilians.

Okinawa was not just a land battle. There were significant smaller battles at sea and in the air as Japan was preparing for the final phase of the war. Kamikaze and other suicide attacks became the norm. Saul David hammers home the desperation of the Japanese Army but also how the entire country of Japan was conditioned to think dying to protect Japan was not just preferred but required.

I appreciate David’s very clear thoughts on the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end. I don’t like opinion in my history books unless the facts are there to support it.

Verdict: A great book that truly captures the horror of the battle and also makes a few strong points along the way.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mark Obmascik, The Storm on Our Shores
  • Stephen Ambrose, D-Day
  • Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies
  • Lynne Olson, Last Hope Island
  • Michael Korda, With Wings Like Eagles
  • James M. Scott, Rampage

Night Stalker (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: How do you get 19 death sentences and then not get put to death? Oh, California.

Quick synopsis: A documentary on Richard Ramirez, also known as the Night Stalker, who killed 13 people in California.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: A woman married Ramirez after he was convicted. She left him when she found out he was a pedophile BECAUSE APPARENTLY THE 13 MURDERS WERE NOT A DEAL BREAKER.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: During the trial, one of the jurors was found dead in her apartment. Everyone was terrified but it turns out it was just her boyfriend who killed her and then committed suicide. Holy hell.

My Take: True crime is murder porn. Let’s just be honest with ourselves here. Very often, the murderer is the main focus for obvious reasons and the victims get very little screen time (with the exception of the very well-done American Murder).

Night Stalker goes a bit differently. The people with the most screen time are two detectives who helped track down the Night Stalker. Also, the victims’ families are given more time than usual to tell their side of the story to the cameras. Ultimately, this is still true crime, but with what seems like a lot more effort put towards telling the whole story.

You know, until they track down the apparently foul-smelling killer who women immediately fell in love with because let’s not forget that society has always been a mess.

There are some very explicit crime scene photos which are being complained about on the interwebs. I don’t think they are much worse than anything you may see on IDHD, but if you are new to the genre…..don’t eat anything while watching.

Verdict: If true crime is your thing, it’s a must watch.

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)

The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Great, now I’m afraid of hospitals, too.

Quick synopsis: The story of Charles Cullen who might be the most prolific serial killer ever.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Hospitals are very careful about their drugs… assuming they have street value. Otherwise, go right ahead, killer nurse!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Cullen ended up donating a kidney from jail to his ex-girlfriend’s brother.

My Take: Well, this is disconcerting. I’m dating a nurse and I may need to dump her after this book.

Charles Cullen is a serial killer and for a very long time was… actually kind of a good nurse? When he wasn’t killing people. There are two major aspects of his story which make it extremely unsettling even for true crime.

First, Cullen did not seem to enjoy his crimes like most serial killers. Usually, there is some sexual component, or revenge, or something. Cullen seemed to just kill people like most people choose something at McDonald’s. “Yes, the small fry and I’ll kill that guy with digoxin.” He doesn’t seem to be seeking fame and he’s not even sure how many people he killed. Literally, he did it so much he’s not sure. It could be as many as 400 people which would make him the worst serial killer in recorded history (non-Nazi division).

Second, he was able to be this prolific over 16 years of nursing! At multiple hospitals! Why? How can this be? Basically, like this: “Hey we think the Cullen guy is killing people. No, we can’t prove it. Let’s just fire him for another reason and then not tell anyone including other hospitals. Glad we agree.” This happened at more than 5 medical facilities. I literally lost count of how many did this. This only stopped because a nurse and pharmacist finally put an end to it.

I’m going to go work out so there is no reason for me to go to a hospital anytime soon.

Verdict: Great true crime. It reads like a novel.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial
  • John Carryrou, Bad Blood
  • Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown
  • Maureen Callahan, American Predator
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing

I Love You, Now Die (HBO Max)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I’m already afraid of my daughter becoming a teenager one day and this documentary does not help at all.

Quick synopsis: The suicide of Conrad Roy and whether or not his girlfriend, Michelle Carter, was culpable.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Teenagers are the worst.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Seriously, they are the worst.

My Take: This is one of the rare documentaries where a high-profile case that everyone knew about is shown in a whole new light.

Conrad Roy killed himself in his car. Michelle Carter had badgered him into finally doing what he said he wanted to do which was commit suicide. She’s the devil and everyone wanted her punished, but is telling someone to commit suicide actually a crime? That’s the story.

Except it was not the whole story. Conrad Roy was not merely a sad kid who ended up killing himself because Michelle Carter said to. Michelle and Conrad’s relationship was anything but a one way street of awfulness. Roy had tried to kill himself before. Michelle had tried to discourage it before.

One of the most uncomfortable I have ever been watching a documentary is during Carter’s trial where Michelle’s classmates are called to testify. The state’s line of questioning was intended to show that Carter was desperate for attention. What becomes clear is that Carter was neither liked nor disliked. No one seemed to really care about her. They didn’t torture her or ignore her, but they did make sure not to spend time with her. It is a tough watch.

In the end, this case was much more complex than I originally thought. By the end, I’m not sure how I felt about any of it anymore.

Verdict: A must watch.

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)
  • Holy Hell (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Doctors playing God and being arrogant about it. Shocking.

Quick synopsis: A full investigation of Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The most heartwarming part of the story is when a bunch of hillbillies show up with their boats to help out and promptly start doing it their own way. Sure, you make fun of them 364 days of the year, but that one time you need them….

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Fink’s entire epilogue is about how we really have not solved the problem with large medical emergencies. In fact, she speaks often about lack of ventilators. New York even procured a bunch of extra ones when they did a test run for a disaster. This book was written in 2013.

My Take: Sheri Fink does an absolutely amazing story trying to report the facts straight down the middle. She somehow juggles dozens of people, clearly articulates their thoughts and feelings, and puts everything in perspective in what I felt was extremely fair. As an author, she trusts the reader to make their own judgement based on the circumstances and actions taken.

I am left enraged by the actions of some of the staff at Memorial. While Fink clearly details the stress and uncertainty the entire hospital face, she also points out how other hospitals fared under the same conditions. Some were better, some were worse.

Euthanasia, triaging, and how to allocate scarce resources are the main themes running throughout. There is also the overall theme of being unprepared when things go completely sideways. When you don’t have enough equipment, who lives and who dies?

Without spoiling any more of the details, I will say that I believe people were murdered at Memorial Hospital in the days after Katrina. Read this book and make your own decision.

Verdict: A must read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • John Carryrou, Bad Blood

Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults (HBO Max)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: A crazy cult came out of the 70s? Get out of town.

Quick synopsis: The rise and….rise? of the Heaven’s Gate cult.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: There are still 2 members walking around right now! The website is up to date!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I remember this vividly but always thought the cult was relatively new. Nope, this thing started in 1974.

My Take: This is not your normal cult documentary.

Generally speaking, cults follow a very specific script. They start as a positive force in people’s lives. People join, do their part, and it all seems very wholesome. Then, there is usually some weird jump in logic where a few people decide to hit the bricks, but others don’t think it’s so bad. Fast forward and the cult leader says he/she is God, people lose all their money, and the weird sex stuff comes to light. Cue the FBI and drop the curtain.

Heaven’s Gate didn’t go that way. First, the leader, Marshall Applewhite didn’t live in splendor and have sex with anything that walked. He may have been a closeted gay man, but it didn’t factor much into the cult. And while you may say these people were brainwashed, it is really hard to see how they were. It wasn’t run like the cults where they try and destroy you when they leave. People were cut off when they did, but the viciousness associated with leaving a cult didn’t exist.

Then again…. they did all kill themselves. Yup, cult.

Verdict: This is not nearly as salacious as a lot of other cult documentaries, but if you like cults and a deep dive into them, this is pretty good.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mommy Dead and Dearest (HBO Max)
  • I Love You, Now Die (HBO Max)
  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Holy Hell (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)