Task number 19 of this year’s Read Harder Challenge has participants reading a book of nonviolent true crime. Titles under this heading include stories of forgeries and thefts carried out by individuals, as well as accounts of large-scale malfeasance committed by multi-national corporations.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a memoir by literary forger Lee Israel. Melissa McCarthy starred in the movie version. Israel was a highly-esteemed author, earning top dollar for her work. But as she entered middle age, one big publication flop marked the beginning of the end of her literary career. Desperate for an income, she turned to forging letters, purportedly by famous authors of the past. The book is a quick read and focuses a lot on the process of creating the forgeries, which involved a ton of research, it turns out. While the author takes full responsibility for her own behavior, her account also sheds a light on some the unsavory parts of both publishing and autograph collecting, as well as our culture of celebrity.
Kirk W. Johnson’s book, “The Feather Thief,” examines a heist tied into a very specific subculture, that of salmon fly-tying enthusiasts, who are extremely into exotic feathers for use in their fishing lures. It so happens the British Natural History Museum owned a lot of them, albeit still attached to bird skins that had been collected in the 18th century. In 2009, a young man named Edwin Rist managed to make off with 299 of these skins. Johnson explores the crime, the history of the collection and the cultural drivers that created a huge demand for bird feathers.
On a global scale, “The Panama Papers” uncovers the methods employed by some of the world’s richest people to hide money and avoid paying their taxes, among other financial misdeeds. Bastion Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, with the assistance of hundreds of journalists in dozens of countries, investigated 214,000 shell companies all tied to one Panamanian law firm. What they found implicated politicians, actors, athletes, international sports organizations, executives of multi-national corporations and more. Names are named.
Speaking of large-scale malfeasance — foreclosure fraud. Several years back, it came to light that the mortgage industry in the U.S. was kind of a mess. Some folks were losing their homes, despite having made all of their payments. “Chain of Title” by David Dayen discusses how “a cancer nurse, a car dealership worker, and an insurance fraud specialist helped uncover the largest consumer crime in American history.” All three of the people mentioned were victims of foreclosure themselves. Eventually, they found each other and teamed up to expose the dirty dealings within the mortgage business.