American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI
By Kate Winkler Dawson. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 336 pages, $27.)
The latest nonfiction page-turner from Kate Winkler Dawson is really two books, one of which is great. Dawson — whose riveting “Death in the Air” tracked a deadly fog that cloaked London in 1952 — looks at Edward Oscar Heinrich, the Californian who pioneered crime investigation techniques that police still use today.
Blood spatter patterns, fingerprinting, stomach content analysis, specifics of decomposition — Heinrich seems to have been at the forefront of all of it, which Dawson demonstrates in case studies that focus on his splashier work, including failed efforts to nail comic actor Fatty Arbuckle for the death of a starlet. (The journalism professor gets credit for acknowledging the times Heinrich fell short.)
Less successful are the biographical details Dawson uses in an attempt to explain why Heinrich was driven to bring criminals to justice. As too many stories pile up about, for instance, Heinrich’s spendthrift son, one can almost hear Dawson’s students at the University of Texas parroting her advice: Edit, edit, edit.
Swimming in the Dark
By Tomasz Jedrowski. (William Morrow, 208 pages, $25.99.)
This lovely debut, weighing in at around 200 pages, has the hallmarks of a restrained mini-classic: In simple, heartfelt prose, Jedrowski sketches a powerfully erotic first love transformed by politics into a romance roiled by risk and ethical ambiguity.
Set in 1980s Poland, when the Soviet-controlled Communist regime faced an existential challenge by the pro-democracy Solidarity movement, the story centers on Ludwik. As a 22-year-old, he crushes on Janusz, a handsome free spirit he meets at a summer camp that features compulsory beet harvesting rather than archery and boating. The two extend their summer with a camping trip in the Polish woods, swimming under moonlight and carrying on like the swooning lovers they are.
It’s an idyll so perfect that it’s bound not to last. Being gay in Poland in that era was more or less unmentionable, a fact that Ludwik resents and Janusz accepts. As the two head in different ideological directions, their love fades and flares. Interestingly, Ludwik comes close to compromising his liberal Western leanings when it comes to getting party approval for his graduate studies in literature.
German-born to Polish parents, Jedrowski writes in English. He remains in admirable control of his story. His lovers are ardent and passionate, not sappy. He avoids the mistakes one often sees in debut novels. The draconian measures used by authorities to discourage homosexuality in Communist Poland are frightful, but not so different from the harsh antigay bias prevalent in America just a few decades earlier.