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The Annals of Unsolved Crime

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Tuesday Apr 2, 2013
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How often does a book appear which is both exceptionally important and splendidly fun to read? Such is veteran investigative reporter Edward Jay Epstein’s new book "The Annals of Unsolved Crime."

As much a pleasure to thumb through as a particularly lively styles section in Vanity Fair, a magazine for which the author used to write, it is hugely significant in its revelations and its conclusions.

Composed as a series of brief summaries of 35 of the most famous true-life mysteries of all time, it’s paced like a thriller. Typical is this opening from an iconoclastic account of one of the numerous assassinations the book examines:

Olof Plame was the young, dynamic and charismatic prime minister of Sweden with a radical foreign policy that had attracted the world’s attention - and concern. His assassination in 1986 bedeviled, divided and haunted the country for over a decade.

On February 28, 1986 at 11:21 p.m., while walking home with his wife from the Grand Cinema on Sveavagen Street in Stockholm, Prime Minister Palme was fatally shot from behind at close range as he neared a subway station. His wife, Lisbet, was then shot by the assassin and critically wounded, but she survived. Palme had no bodyguards or escorts, and no one witnessed the shooting. By the time Lisbet turned in his direction, the shooter, wearing a heavy overcoat, was calmly jogging away...

In this account, as so many in this collection, the author persuasively presents a striking and controversial interpretation of events. His conclusion? The schizophrenic Swede who was accused and convicted of the crime was innocent and the actual perpetrators of the murder were secret agents of South Africa’s apartheid government acting to prevent Palme from providing military aid to the anti-apartheid African National Congress, then a guerrilla group.

A former Professor at MIT, Harvard and UCLA, Epstein is not a crackpot, and he adduces evidence for this thesis from testimony that came out before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- as well as by pointing out the many large holes that exist in the case against the madman convicted of the shooting, inconsistencies that led to his eventual release.

The delight in the book comes as much from its sheer readability as from the author’s brief, off-beat and interesting takes on the deaths of such genuinely legendary figures as Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy, the disappearances of Jimmy Hoffa and a possible CIA mole and famous crimes like those of the Zodiac Killer and the Reichstag fire.

Its special importance arises from its extended analysis of two recent mysteries involving the governments of Russia and France. Here Epstein builds on research he first presented in articles he wrote for The New York Review of Books and The New York Sun, respectively. The first offers compelling evidence that Russia’s government was most likely not behind the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the one-time Russian KGB agent who died in London in 2006 from Polonium-210 poisoning. Rather, Epstein shows that Litvinenko was mixed up with nuclear arms smugglers and most likely accidentally poisoned himself.

Conversely, in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Epstein builds an overwhelming case that Strauss committed no rape in a New York hotel in 2011 but rather that Nicolas Sarkozy’s government was spying on and plotting against him and that it conspired to manipulate the Manhattan prosecutor’s office to believe that he molested a maid in the midtown hotel he was staying in.

These are, of course, conclusions with serious implications in terms of American relations with a presumed foe and an important ally.

Anyone fond of a good mystery story or thriller or interested in conspiracies will greatly enjoy reading this "The Annals of Unsolved Crime" as it can be read in short, drama-filled snippets.

But its findings and its stories are not trivial.

I confess that I only picked it up on the recommendation of a friend of the author. Epstein is one who does not immediately attribute fortuitous happenings to chance, though this was just that. Perhaps others, upon reading this review, will prove equally lucky.

The Annals Of Unsolved Crime
Edward Jay Epstein
$26.00
Melville House

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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