Archive for January, 2008

Blood Simple

Monday, January 28th, 2008

I saw this interesting item from Wired. A scientist has developed a DNA test that will reveal the race of the donor. The technology has been used to help solve several crimes, or at least narrow the range of suspects. Yet lots of people, including police and prosecutors, feel sort of squeamish about it. A prosecutor from Louisiana who acknowledges that without this DNA test the police likely would not have caught a serial killer he tried still says, “If I could push a button and make this technology disappear, I would.”

I don’t get this at all. How is this different than an eyewitness telling police that the suspect is a member of a certain race? Oh yeah — it’s more reliable. I suppose that one day there might be enough genetic mixing among the races (a situation that might exist now in some places) for the margin of error to grow too large for use as a forensic device. But assuming this test is reliable (the developer got 20 out of 20 right in a blind test), I don’t think it amounts to “profiling.”

It’s not like we’re saying that members of a certain race are more likely to have committed a crime; we’re saying that this particular person committed the crime, and among other characteristics we can tell from a DNA sample (sex, blood type, etc.), the suspect is probably a member of a certain race. Why isn’t it a good idea to have that additional information? Or am I missing something?


Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

Via De Novo, I see that today was “Blog for Choice Day,” an initiative of the group Pro-Choice America. Of course, I already mentioned that today is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Because it’s an election year, I suppose, the folks at Pro-Choice America are asking us what it means to vote pro-choice.

I don’t have a comprehensive answer to this. The decision whether to have an abortion just won’t affect me as directly as it does a woman. For me, I suppose I use abortion as an election shorthand: I assume that candidates who support abortion rights share my feelings about liberty and equality, as that one aspect is a pretty major bellwether. And in converse, candidates who oppose abortion rights tend to have disparate views from my own about sexual freedom, especially women’s sexual freedom. In short, opposition to abortion rights seems to be part and parcel of a broader effort to punish women for their sexuality, and I disagree with that (whether it’s based on paternalism or misogyny). Plus, it bothers me that women in some places have easy access to clinics, and women in others have next to none. That’s really more about federalism and poverty, I guess.

I respect the beliefs of people who think abortion is a tragedy, and I agree that sometimes, though not always, it’s a bad choice. But I still think women should have that choice, and that’s why I support abortion rights.

50 Book Challenge #2: Heartsick

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

Heartsick by Chelsea Cain. (Amazon, B&N, Powell’s) After Entertainment Weekly called this one a “profoundly creepy thriller,” I picked up the audio version (read by Midland, Texas’s own Carolyn McCormick). It was good enough that there were several times when I sat in my car and waited for a scene to end before I could turn it off. So that’s my review: “Heartsick is good enough to make you pollute!”

Now, if I were a clever book reviewer, I would figure out a way to transition from that image to note that the killer terrorizing Portland, Oregon, in Cain’s mystery uses bleach to clean up after his crimes. This guy — dubbed the After School Strangler — kidnaps, rapes, and kills high school girls. So the police convene a task force. Luckily, they already had one together for their previous serial killer, the Beauty Killer, the lovely and evil Gretchen Lowell. Lowell tortured and killed scores before targeting the head of the task force, Archie Sheridan. Lowell kidnaps and tortures Archie, but ends up letting him live and turning herself in. (We learn about her reasons and the after-effects on Archie as the book progresses.) Two years later, Archie is barely functional and addicted to pain medication, but they need him again to catch the After School Strangler.

Our entree into all this is when newbie reporter Susan Ward (who has some issues of her own) is invited to follow the task force for a series in the paper. Susan realizes that the real story is the continuing, bizarre relationship between Archie and Gretchen Lowell. You’ll think this is a gender-flipping Silence of the Lambs ripoff, but Gretchen has no interest in helping Archie catch the new killer.

I’d say that overall, I liked Heartsick. The twist wasn’t jaw-droppingly surprising, but the story was suspenseful, and for the most part, well-told. (Cain does a good job building tension by jumping back and forth between the chase for the After School Killer and Archie’s torture at Gretchen’s hands, but she needs a synonym for “palpable”). It’s really all about the characters, though, and here Heartsick is a winner. The three main characters are fully-formed and fully human. It’s rare to see protagonists so flawed, and with flaws that really are flaws, and not the kind of “flaws” you tell an interviewer you have (“I’m a perfectionist!”). All in all, it’s pretty good — I would compare it favorably to the Michael Connelly I’ve read — and I would recommend it if you’re into serial killer/police thrillers.

(Previous 50 Book Challenge reviews)

50 Book Challenge #1: Then We Came to the End

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. (Amazon, B&N, Powell’s) I’ll admit I was dubious. This book got rave reviews, but I thought, It’s about an advertising agency in the early days of the dot-com bust, circa 2001. Wouldn’t that seem dated? And it’s written in the first-person plural. Wouldn’t that seem gimmicky?

Well, I got over it. Once you get used to the “we” narration, it makes sense. Everyone who has worked in a cube knows the hive mind that can develop. We know something about the boss, but can’t place where we first heard it. We like Benny, we don’t trust Karen, we think Marcia’s haircut is out of style, and we think Jim is an idiot. That kind of thing. Ferris makes it work. We begin to feel the anxieties and confusion and desperation and think, No wonder everyone who works there seems a little (or a lot) crazy in his or her own way.

It’s a funny book, but sometimes funny in an almost painful way because it can feel so real: “Heh — yeah, we were just like that at my old office.” It jumps around in time a bit, and that seems real, too: we still talk about Tom even after he got fired, so it’s okay that we read about the firing first and then get more character development. We know pretty well the people who sat in our offices before we got there because we never stop hearing stories about them.

The book would have been a little disappointing if it had been nothing but that kind of knowing, cynical satire. But it really comes together in the last quarter or so, so it’s worth hanging in for. I closed the book with a big smile on my face. I found it to be a very, very satisfying read. I thought Then We Came to the End would be a funny title to start the 50 Book Challenge with — O the irony! — but now I’m a little worried it will be the best of the bunch, right out of the gate. I certainly recommend it.

(collected 50 Book Challenge reviews)