Books In Brief // True Crime, A Thriller And Letters

November 25, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEVER ENOUGH Joe McGinniss Simon & Schuster / 358 pages / $25

Joe McGinniss has always been intrigued by the seamy underside of American families, and the Kissel family readily fits that criterion. Gorgeous, vivacious Nancy Kissel, 39, with her svelte, blond looks and ready smile, hardly seems like a murderer. Thus in 2003, when she was arrested for the bludgeoning murder of Robert, her financier husband, who worked for Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch as an investment banker, the expatriate community in Hong Kong - of which the couple was a focal point - was stunned. The couple and their three young children appeared to be the perfect American family. Then police, alerted to a vile smell, found Robert's bloody body in a rolled-up rug. Nancy had drugged him with a pink milkshake served by their young daughter. When Robert passed out in their bed, Nancy bludgeoned him so hard his skull pierced his brain. At her trial, Nancy presented her marriage as abusive, and the murder as a response to that abuse. But was she actually just looking for an out to be with her Vermont lover and her children? During her trial, the children stayed with their uncle Andrew back in the U.S. But Andrew Kissel was being investigated for fraud - and perhaps stealing the millions set aside for the children by Robert and Nancy. While Andrew was at home under house arrest, he was murdered. The Kissels - driven, greedy, ambitious - are the embodiment of the adage that the love of money is the root of all evil. McGinniss tells this page-turning true crime saga with his usual verve.

ZUGZWANG Ronan Bennett Bloomsbury / 288 pages / $24.95

Chess players know that zugzwang is an incapacitating series of moves in which one player becomes a dead man walking. Every move leads closer to his demise, but the player is powerless to stop the trajectory of events. In Ronan Bennett's vivid and complex thriller set in 1914 Russia, a chess master is at the center of a plot to kill the czar while an international chess tournament is held in St. Petersburg. But the city itself is a pawn in a game in which there will be few winners: Political and social chaos is about to be loosed upon the country. Political factionalism is out of hand and revolution is in the air. Radical revolutionaries are biding time in the wings. The novel's narrator, Dr. Otto Spethmann, is a celebrated psychoanalyst - a Russian Freud-type whose high-profile patients figure at the center of the novel (as, of course, does chess). But Spethmann is being investigated in a plot to kill the czar. Is he involved, or is his daughter Catherine, a university student, the actual culprit? Why would Spethmann be at the heart of the plot? And what of Avrom Rozenthal, the Polish Jew expected to win the tournament? What will happen if he withdraws from the game, as Spethmann advises? Jews are scapegoats in this time and place and Spethmann himself is a Jew, if not a practicing one. Echoes of Nabokov's The Luzhin Defense are here, but most of the novel is highly original as it weaves among the various characters and toward a surprising yet inevitable climactic move. Replete with an ongoing chess game and illustrations of featured moves it is immensely entertaining.

THE MITFORDS: LETTERS BETWEEN SIX SISTERS

Edited by Charlotte Mosley

HarperCollins / 832 pages / $39.95

The ease of e-mail has virtually obliterated the art of letter-writing. Fortunately, for readers of the dazzling letters shared between and among the six prolific Mitford sisters - Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah - letter-writing was still high art at their literary peak and one in which they were all well-versed. More than 12,000 letters passed among the sisters over 80 years' time, hundreds of which are reprinted in this collection. Charlotte Mosley, Diana Mitford's daughter-in-law, has culled the most marvelous letters from the war years, retrieving the letters from the only surviving sister, 88-year-old Deborah, duchess of Devonshire. The Mitford sisters are, to a one, brilliant, antic, beautiful, awful and ultimately notorious. Diana divorced a Guinness heir to run off with the British fascist Oswald Mosley while Jessica chose a Communist cousin for her scandal du coeur and Unity was known for her crush on Hitler. There's no topping that for a familial soap opera. The sisters, daughters of the second Baron Redesdale, came of age in the 1920s and 1930s and knew a host of singular characters of their era, including Churchill and Hitler. The letters reveal the wildly disparate politics and passions that propelled the Mitford sisters through their adult lives. The Mitfords is quite simply one of the most sinful guilty pleasures of the season. With insightful commentary by Mosley, as well as photos.

Victoria A. Brownworth teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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