Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Books – Queen City Notorious by JT Townsend

I really enjoyed Townsend’s first book, Queen City Gothic, delving into Cincinnati’s most infamous unsolved cases (for my interview with the author about these books and other famous murder cases, see Part 1 here and Part 2 here). I think I like Notorious even better than Gothic, just for the closure. Queen City Gothic is a riveting read, but the frustration of either not knowing or not catching the perpetrators was aggravating as all hell. Here, Townsend peels back the mysteries and exposes these fascinating murder cases to light. As he put it himself, this one is “about justice.”  

Queen City Notorious is the perfect mix of crimes and time periods throughout the 20th Century. For each case, Townsend describes what happened and puts the case in historical context with other major events occurring around the world. He then describes the players in each drama, what happened and why. For some crimes in the book, though ostensibly solved, there are still major facts or actions that are unknown. Townsend expertly speculates what may have happened and who probably was—and wasn’t—involved.

The first case is one of the most horrific—in 1910, Alice Van Zandt is roasted to death over a gas oven by her husband, left to die while their small child tottled around in the next room. The most outright shocking case was failed businessman Vinton Perin shooting his wealthy mother-in-law Frances Rawson in her Clifton mansion in 1924. Today that case would cause a national sensation and rock every tabloid on the market. It’s almost funny how local papers didn’t know how to report the case of Betty Butler, a black lesbian, drowning her love rival Evelyn Clark after strangling her in Cincinnati’s Sharon Woods. They couldn’t report many aspects of the story in “family” papers in 1952.  

One of the outright strangest stories is when all-American college athlete Jack Rauss slew Goldie Cunningham and her disabled husband James in 1961. It seems he went to visit them and Goldie said something bad about his mother, her close friend, which Jack couldn’t abide. He killed her in a crime of passion, then murdered James because he was a witness. After serving ten years in prison and becoming a prison trustee, he was released on parole and never committed another crime. Bizarre.

There’s even a bad-boy/girlfriend love triangle murder. Bobby Abbot was going with Alice Ewing in 1964, but he tricked nursing student Wanda Cook into coming to his room at the old Sheraton Gibson Hotel. When she wouldn’t succumb to his desires, he killed her. Alice helped him put the body in a trunk and ship it cross-country. It got as far as Columbus when it was discovered and Bobby and Alice were arrested. They couldn’t blame each other fast enough. Bobby went to maximum security, but Alice was convicted as an accessory and didn’t do much jail time. She’s still alive and lives in Northern KY. And she doesn’t like to talk about the past.

Townsend ends the book with another odd passion crime: the murder of Dr. Jane Shutt by her adopted daughter Barbara. This one is fascinating—Dr. Shutt was married to a much older man, and was having an affair. When Barbara learned her adopted parents were separating and she would have to move out and make her own way, she lost her mind and murdered her mother most viciously. Then she tried to cover it up and did a sloppy job of it. She was convicted, did time in prison, was eventually released and, as Townsend puts it, never got so much as a traffic ticket for the rest of her life.

You don’t have to be from Cincinnati to marvel at these crimes of passion and gain—you can enjoy the sharp police work and seeing the bad guys get what’s coming regardless of where these crimes happened. Townsend unfolds each story layer by layer, unraveling the mystery into a just, if not always satisfying, conclusion. Once you get your teeth into one of these stories you won’t be able to stop reading them all.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

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