After his December 2003 arrest, registered nurse Charlie Cullen was quickly dubbed “The Angel of Death” by the media. But Cullen was no mercy killer, nor was he a simple monster. He was a favorite son, husband, beloved father, best friend, and celebrated caregiver. Implicated in the deaths of as many as 300 patients, he was also perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history.
Books like THE GOOD NURSE aren't really designed to give you a warm and fuzzy feeling about any health service. Particularly one that seems to be motivated by profit and avoidance of lawsuits, programmed to just move a problem on, and avoid looking too hard at anything that might be slightly amiss.
This is really a chilling story, looking closely at the career (nursing and killing) of registered nurse Charlie Cullen. Particularly chilling as there was nothing merciful or even understandable about the killing spree that led Cullen to kill patients. Randomly choosing his victims, even hands off killing by injecting drugs into random, unallocated IV bags, Cullen's motivation for his actions seem to be wrapped up in his own severe psychological problems. Unfortunately Cullen himself isn't particularly forthcoming about his childhood or his background so there are points at which the narrative is at a loss, the author is at a loss, everyone is at a loss to explain why this man did what he did.
What's even less able to be explained is a medical system that refused to see what was happening. Either wilfully or stupidly, the reader is left speechless by the seemingly incomprehensible reaction of authorities, particularly once a couple of very dedicated policemen get onto his trail, and a dedicated and caring colleague steps up to assist the investigation.
To be brutally frank, whilst what Cullen was doing is horrifying, what was even more horrifying were the actions of the hospital administrators, lawyers and management who worked overtime at cover up. Their actions were criminal, and whilst it's some relief to know that some families were able to take legal action, there's absolutely no excuse, no justification, no reason on this earth that any of them should not have been hauled to account by authorities.
A GOOD NURSE is a really uncomfortable read as it's definitely truth being considerably more frightening than fiction. Whilst Cullen was ultimately convicted of a very minor number of the deaths for which he is responsible, and there is some feel good factor in the way that some dedicated policework and ethical behaviour from a single nurse prevailed, the rest of the system comes out looking underwhelming to say the least.
LIKE CLOCKWORK - Margie Orford
When a beautiful young woman is found murdered on Cape Town's Seapoint promenade, police profiler Dr Clare Hart is drawn into the web of a brutal serial killer. As more bodies are discovered, Clare is forced to revisit memories of the horrific rape of her twin sister and the gang ties that bind the city's crime rings. Are the murders really linked to human trafficking, or is the killer just playing sick games with her?
Margie Orford lists, among many other activities, that she does Advocacy work for a Rape Crisis group in South Africa, so it's not very surprising LIKE CLOCKWORK looks very closely at the horrific consequences of rape and extreme violence against women. Because of that there's nothing particularly easy about reading this book, but it definitely fulfils one of my major preferences in crime fiction - which is to inform the reader. No matter how uncomfortable that information can sometimes be.
Dr Clare Hart is a police profiler who lives on Cape Town's Seapoint promenade, so the discovery of a young girl's body at that location has a very close, discomforting feel for her. There's something very brutal about the way that this girl died, and something oddly ritualistic about the way that the body was disposed of. The discovery of more young girls - all very similar in appearance - make for the sobering realisation that there is a serial sex killer in Cape Town. A city that's not unused to violence and, in particular sexual violence, as Clare and her twin sister are all too aware.
One of LIKE CLOCKWORK's strengths is the glimpse that the reader is given of the living victim - in this case Clare's sister and a young victim of gang rape and violence that Clare steps in to save. The other strength is the strong characters. Clare Hart is an interesting woman - dour, somewhat humourless, more than a little obsessive, she's working on a documentary set in Africa, but she also freelances as a police profiler (although there's not a lot of detail as to how she got that job or what her background is). The main police character - Riedwaan Faizal has enough twists on the standard scruffy, lone wolf policeman to make him just that little bit unexpected. He's a Muslim, alcoholic, dissolute, and a loner. Clare and Riedwaan share a good working relationship (which seems to be about the only one that they each have), as well as a somewhat uninspiring sexual relationship. As unappealing as they both would seem, they were both great characters - real, imperfect and quite human. There is, however, some sort of backstory between these two which was hinted at, but not really fleshed out in this book. But it is Clare and Riedwaan who carry the interest in the book, supported well by a cast of supporting characters including the state pathologist; the nasty brother of one of the victim's and the refugee chef's assistant in a sushi restaurant. As does the glimpses of Cape Town. A beautiful place, with seafront views and a comfortable lifestyle, where a dangerous killer is disposing of his victims. A modern city entertainment area, full of trendy bars and partying people, side by side with sexual exploitation and sleaze.
The weaker side of the book is the plot, which is a little disjointed. Perhaps the author has understandably tried to build in as many examples of the violence and exploitation experienced by women in particular. There's absolutely no doubt that these women's stories (including that of Clare's sister) are told gently and respectfully - there's no voyeuristic or sensationalist descriptions of appalling violence here, but, whilst that is happening the focus (and tension) of a serial killer stalking young women dissipates. Which leads to a final flurry of activity to expose him and save a young girl before it's too late.
Despite those plot inconsistencies, LIKE CLOCKWORK really gives the reader a feeling for Clare and Riedwaan's Cape Town - from it's physical beauty through to the gang violence that plagues the society. It also gives the reader glimpses into the diverse society that exists in South Africa. It certainly tempted me enough to order other books by this author.
THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS - Matt Beynon Rees
From the Book: Omar Yussef is a school master in Bethlehem. When a favourite former pupil, George Saba, is arrested for murder, Omar is convinced that George has been framed and is determined to uncover the truth behind his arrest. But in the process he falls foul of his headmaster and the local police-chief, and time begins to run out for this teacher-turned-detective. His classroom is bombed and members of his family are threatened. But with no one else willing to stand up for the truth, it is up to Omar to act, even as bloodshed and heartbreak surround him.
As implausible as it sounds Omar Yussef is a man in the middle of an awful situation that you want to meet. Spend some time with. Drink some sa'ada coffee. Talk to about his Bethlehem. Omar brings a unique perspective to murder, to power games and to fanaticism whilst simultaneously providing a human and humane view of life in his Bethlehem. That Bethlehem is a world of conflict within and from without his own society; and the tension that changed viewpoints between generations brings. Where once he intermixed happily with all people in the town, now there's a very different feeling and he's horrified by what he sees happening around him.
Yussef is an opinionated, "difficult" teacher in a refugee camp, he says what he thinks, he likes his pupils to think and to be challenged and he genuinely loves and cares for them - even if he's a bit grumpy with them sometimes. So when an ex-student and friend of his, George Saba is accused of collaborating with the Israelis - a crime punishable by death - and nobody else seems to want to do anything to help, Yussef turns from teaching to detecting. Of course, this isn't going to be quite as big a relief as the UN appointed head of his school thinks - he's been hoping Yussef will retire for years - but he really should have been more careful about cultural sensitivity when he starts putting words into Yussef's mouth.
Mind you, Yussef is not exactly perfect. He is prone to grumpiness, he can be acerbic, he hates anointed authority, he used to have a drinking problem and he's a Muslim in a society made up of the devout and the not so devout of many religions. But he also lives in a very complicated Palestinian society - divided between factions, religions, clans, power bases and the good and the bad. So his complicated nature seems almost tame sometimes by comparison. And that complication is one of the great strengths of THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS. Incorporated alongside a complicated and complex character, there's a complex society and a series of deaths which are stark, appalling and desperately sad. Yussef is also a character that the author has allowed to make mistakes - and he forces Yussef to face those mistakes.
The interesting balancing act in THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS surely has to be that the book tells a story of Palestinian society which has such a realistic feel to it, that really gives the reader insights into the nature of day to day life in Yussef's world, but at the same time, it provides a real plot and it moves forward through the story of Yussef and of George Saba and his family - and all the other families that are dragged into what seems like day to day violence. And under it all there's a message that fanaticism comes in all sorts of different forms - and sometimes it's not directed outwards.