Editor's Choice

Black Leopard, Red WolfClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Marlon James


Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: "He has a nose," people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.

As Tracker follows the boy's scent - from one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivers - he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? Why has he been missing for so long? Why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? And perhaps the most important questions of all: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying?

Drawing from African history and mythology and his own rich imagination, Marlon James has written a novel unlike anything that's come before it: a saga of breathtaking adventure that's also an ambitious, involving read. Defying categorization and full of unforgettable characters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is both surprising and profound as it explores the fundamentals of truth, the limits of power, and our need to understand them both.

BookBrowse Review

If you are looking for an indulgent, escapist fantasy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf may not be for you. Marlon James has built quite a world. It is vivid, kaleidoscopic and strange, but it is not for the faint of heart. Instead it is complex, challenging and sometimes downright scary.

If you do choose to embark on this trek, you'll meet Tracker, a man "with a nose." His nose can sniff out anyone, anywhere, whether they be living or dead. Give him a scrap to sniff and he will not rest until he finds whoever it is he is tasked with locating. His talents are widely known and frequently get him into trouble. His latest trouble comes in the form of a job - he is tasked, by a wealthy man, to find a boy who was stolen. Who this boy is, why he was stolen or who took him is a mystery. The details of the story change with every telling of it. Yet Tracker is not alone on his journey. He is joined by a shape-shifting man-leopard, a three-hundred year old witch, an outcast from an ancient race of giants, and two mercenaries. These would-be rescuers are hardly a united front, jealousies and mistrust mark their every step, extreme danger and violence hounds them, yet together they journey through the vast lands of ancient Africa to fulfill their quest.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is not an easy book. In fact, it takes almost one hundred pages to get to the crux of the story. Before that, you are plied with a variety of short, fantastical tales that show you the scope of Tracker's abilities as well as his extreme loneliness. He is a man apart, and not just because of his nose. His family is fractured and dysfunctional, he has a hard time making and keeping friends, and his innate sense of justice leads him into many a violent scuffle. All this is told in Marlon James' tricky, shifting prose, which makes it hard to know who is speaking, who is the hero and who is the villain. It is almost as if the first few chapters are a test to see who is worthy of entrance into the rest of the tale.

Once past this test, however, you are richly rewarded. Drawing deeply on a variety of African myths, Tracker's journey is replete with lands more amazing than any you have ever encountered and monsters that you surely cannot imagine. Each character has a long, often disturbing history that they share, piece by piece, as time goes on. This is truly a story like no other.

Yet the challenge lies not only in the prose. If you do choose to embark on this journey, keep in mind that James explores, with crisp, concise descriptions, many difficult things. Rape, murder, dismemberment are all repeatedly encountered. Not only is this an adults-only book, but it is likely that not every adult will be comfortable with the subject matter.

It is safe to say that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a most unique novel. Challenging and rewarding, beautiful and grotesque, expansive and deeply personal, it is a work of high talent. Marlon James has brought us a world unlike any we have ever seen. If you are a reader of literary fantasy, an aficionado of the horror genre, or someone who does not shy away from a difficult read, this book will really hit the spot.

Book reviewed by Natalie Vaynberg

Beyond the Book:
The Shape-Shifting Monsters of African Lore

Stories of shapeshifters have permeated literature and art from the beginning of civilization. Therianthropy, or the changing of a human into an animal, is perhaps the most commonly known trope of the shapeshifting genre, with illustrations of such changes dating back all the way to 13,000 BC.

ImpunduluIn his novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James brings together many different therianthropy tropes to create an interesting kaleidoscope of the real and the imagined. The shapeshifters in the story can be heroes or monsters, they are sometimes tragic and sometimes terrifying. Beyond all else, they are rich with symbolism and imagination.

There is the Impundulu, the Lightning Bird, common to Zulu and Xhosa legends. The picture to the right is of a hammerkop which is believed by some cultures to be a manifestation of the mythical bird. This creature can call lightning at will and often belongs to a witch or witch doctor. The Impundulu also drinks blood and, by doing so, sometimes infects its prey with its own power.

Then there is the Adze, the vampiric firefly that can turn into human form. In its human body, the Adze consumes human organs and as a firefly it spreads disease. Victims, if not killed, become witches.

AdzeFinally, there are the werehyenas, violent and unpredictable. Just as their fully animal counterparts are rumored to do, they dig up graves, prey on the sick or dying.

Though varied in their form and power, these shapeshifters have several commonalities. First, they are all particularly fond of children. Second, they are all disease-carriers. They are also responsible for hurting and destabilizing large groups of people.

These implications take on a whole new meaning when put into real-life context. There are stories of specific groups of people becoming scapegoats in their community and, as a result, being labeled as shapeshifters. For example, in Ethiopia, blacksmiths were widely believed to be werehyenas. In other areas of Africa, Jews were also labeled as werehyenas and, as such, were feared and shunned.

WerehyenaMarlon James gives us another side to the shapeshifter myth - where they are the heroes of the story. One of the most endearing characters in Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the Leopard. Powerful, charismatic and mysterious, this creature is the epitome of a hero - he swoops in to save lives and often initiates adventures. The Leopard is a powerful figure in African mythology, often associated with rulers. He is revered for his abilities and accepted wherever he goes. So goes the Leopard in our story - he is welcomed and loved by many, though he offers his love to few.

In mythology, shapeshifting happens for many reasons - in some cases it is a punishment or a curse, in others it is an escape or a liberation. In Marlon James' novel, it is both at once. The good and the bad shapeshifters find freedom in their other forms, yet they are also lashed with difficulty, separated from those that loved them as they pursue their opposing goals.

Photo of hammerkop by and (C) 2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man)

That Time I Loved YouClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Carianne Leung


In her "compact gem of a collection" (Globe & Mail), Carrianne Leung enlivens a singular group of characters sharing a shiny new subdivision in 1970s Toronto. Marilyn greets new neighbors with fresh-baked cookies before she starts stealing from them. Stay-at-home-wife Francesca believes passion is just one yard away, only in the arms of another man. And Darren doesn't understand why his mother insists he keep his head down, even though he gets good grades like his white friends. When a series of inexplicable suicides begin to haunt their community, no one is more fascinated by the terrible phenomenon than young June. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she sits hawk-eyed at the center, bearing witness to the truth behind pulled curtains: the affairs, the racism, the hidden abuses.

Leung bursts onto the American literary stage with prose remarkably attuned to the tenuous, and perhaps deceptive, idea of happiness among these picket-fenced lives.

BookBrowse Review

Carrianne Leung was a Toronto Book Award finalist for That Time I Loved You as well as for her debut novel The Wondrous Woo (2014). First published in Canada last year, this linked short story collection marks her U.S. debut. It focuses on a suburban Toronto neighborhood whose mostly immigrant residents are alarmed by a recent rash of suicides. The linked short story format (see Beyond the Book) allows Leung to explore different points of view on the same events and show the changes that take place in a community over the course of several years.

Three of the 10 stories are narrated by June, who is 11 years old at the book's start. Her parents came over from Hong Kong 15 years ago. In the first story, "Grass," June tells of a spate of parental suicides that struck her seemingly idyllic neighborhood in 1979. It all begins with their softball coach, Carolyn Finley's dad, who takes a hunting rifle to the basement. Next Georgie Da Silva's mother swallows bleach in the garage. When class bully Larry Lems's alcoholic father is found dead, it's as much a suicide as the others, if less sudden.

Other stories fill in a kaleidoscopic view of the neighborhood, showing how lonely the residents are – and how segregated along ethnic lines. "Flowers" is about Mrs. Da Silva, who came from a Portuguese fishing village and never integrated into Canadian life. Ashamed of her poor English, she avoids social situations. Leung sums up her situation in a heartbreaking sentence: "There were days when she didn't utter a single word." Add in an abusive husband and her mother's death and it's easy to see why suicide beckoned. Racism is another seemingly insurmountable obstacle in this community. In "Things," Darren's Jamaican mother reminds him to keep his head down, even if a teacher picks on him for no good reason.

In "Fences," Francesca, an Italian newlywed quickly settling into the disappointing routines of a housewife, fantasizes about shaking things up through an affair with her new neighbor. "Treasure" reveals that Marilyn, who has always led the neighborhood women in donating meals to the bereaved, is a taker as much as a giver: in her hobby room she keeps a hoard of trinkets she's stolen from others' houses. Leung often emphasizes such differences between a spotless appearance and the more sordid reality. June's best friend, Josie, also Chinese-Canadian, is a dutiful helper to her ill aunt – but no one else knows that her uncle has been molesting her. "Kiss" tells Josie's story, its cute title ironic given the family's secrets.

I especially liked "Sweets," starring June's grandmother Poh Poh, who has at last come to Canada from Hong Kong after years of immigration complications. Through her eyes we see afresh the stifling nature of this cookie-cutter community: "She wanted to be left alone to think of nothing in this nothing place where you could walk and walk for hours but never arrive anywhere new. There were the same houses, the same colourless faces of the gweilos [Cantonese slang for Westerners], the squat supermarkets."

Leung returns to June's perspective at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, so that we see her growing up and learning how the world works. Hard lessons are in store for her: people are sometimes punished for their differences, and the older generation doesn't have it all figured out. Of Josie and June, Leung writes, "The suicides had rocked their already shaky faith that their parents would know what to do. They knew or were learning fast that the adults were as clueless as the kids." June is a bright and curious girl who keeps asking why, but when it comes to the suicides, these characters will never know the full reasons. Yet we as readers, through the stories' shifting perspectives, are privy to deeper insight.

A couple of the other stories felt less than essential for me (mostly "Rain," about a new girl at school), and I have a feeling that the frequent references to the brands and popular culture of the day may make some readers dismiss the book as dated. Others, though, will enjoy a spot of nostalgic time travel. Suburbia gets a bad rap, but it's where so many of us come from, so it's heartening to see a writer taking it seriously. And although this particular community has more than its fair share of unhappy secrets, the connections that form between unlikely allies – like Poh Poh and June's friend Nav, who's persecuted for his effeminate behavior – are sparks of hope. As June reports, "My father once said that it was never completely dark in the suburbs. Light was always escaping and spilling everywhere."

Book reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Beyond the Book:
Linked Short Stories

Linked short stories, novels in stories, story cycles – these are terms for collections in which the stories are not all discrete pieces with separate worlds and characters. Instead, characters recur, whether subtly or overtly, and multiple stories have the same setting. What makes linked short stories so enjoyable, and what sets them apart from novels? I started by asking Carrianne Leung, author of That Time I Loved You, why she chose this format. "It's the different gazes that really animate the relationships and sense of place for me," she replied. Many in the online book community agree that linked short stories are an excellent way to explore points of view. "I feel [the form] allows a more expansive view of a community and situation," book blogger Eric Anderson of Lonesome Reader adds.

One title came up over and over in my discussions of linked stories: Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. Leung told me it was an inspiration for her, and librarian and book blogger Laila Archer of Big Reading Life hails Strout as "the master of the linked short stories. Seeing how other characters interacted with, thought of, or talked about Olive helped me understand her better." Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal is another example of story-like chapters as windows onto the life of a slippery character – chef Eva Thorvald. Likewise, Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro paints a composite picture of Del Jordan through self-contained chapters set at different points in her life.

In addition to providing perspective on a central character, linked stories can extend the possibilities of the plot. An author is "getting at theme and story from more sides than would be ordinarily allowed," Elizabeth Gonzalez James, an associate editor with Bookmarks magazine, states. "Individual stories gain meaning from the stories around them that they wouldn't have on their own," book blogger David Hebblethwaite of David's Book World notes, making them "more than the sum of their parts." Other books use linked stories to reveal characters' connections across the years, as in Archangel by Andrea Barrett and The Shore by Sara Taylor. In such cases "there's a particular thrill to be had from piecing together the bigger picture," book blogger Blair Rose of Learn This Phrase observes.

Publishers in different countries may differ in their decisions about whether a book is called a novel or a collection of short stories. For instance, Julianne Pachico's linked stories set in Colombia, The Lucky Ones, were published as a novel in the USA but as short stories in the UK. Harper Collins Canada put "Linked stories" on the title page of That Time I Loved You, while U.S. publisher Liveright printed "Stories". Ultimately, the marketing decisions behind such labeling are subtle, Leung acknowledged, or even arbitrary. Few books are explicitly labeled as linked stories. Perhaps that has "something to do with maintaining [an] element of surprise in the links," Zoë Turner, publicist for Comma Press, offers. Whatever the rationale for their categorization, linked short stories are a treat for readers.

Other linked short story collections recommended by readers and writers I spoke to include Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom, Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, Send Me by Patrick Ryan, Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell, Legend of a Suicide by David Vann, and Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang.

The Pianist from SyriaClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Aeham Ahmad


Aeham Ahmad was born a second-generation refugee - the son of a blind violinist and carpenter who recognized Aeham's talent and taught him how to play piano and love music from an early age.

When his grandparents and father were forced to flee Israel and seek refuge from the Israeli–Palestinian conflict ravaging their home, Aeham's family built a life in Yarmouk, an unofficial camp to more than 160,000 Palestinian refugees in Damascus. They raised a new generation in Syria while waiting for the conflict to be resolved so they could return to their homeland. Instead, another fight overtook their asylum. Their only haven was in music and in each other.

Forced to leave his family behind, Aeham sought out a safe place for them to call home and build a better life, taking solace in the indestructible bond between fathers and sons to keep moving forward. Heart-wrenching yet ultimately full of hope, and told in a raw and poignant voice, The Pianist from Syria is a gripping portrait of one man's search for a peaceful life for his family and of a country being torn apart as the world watches in horror.

BookBrowse Review

Aeham Ahmad became famous as the face of Syrian suffering when a photo of him playing piano in the ruins of his hometown Yarmouk went viral in 2015. The father of two boys, Ahmad, who was just 25 when the picture was taken, later escaped to Germany, leaving his family behind. The Pianist from Syria, he writes, is "the story behind the photo that went around the world, of a man in a green shirt playing the piano amid the rubble. And, as anyone who sees it will know, the photo can never tell you what happened before or what happened after."

Ahmad and his PianoThe book can be divided into three sections, differentiated by theme and focus. In the first section, Ahmad gives readers his history, touching on topics such as his grandparents' exodus from Palestine in 1948, his blind father's love of music (see Beyond the Book to learn about the oud, a musical instrument that Ahmad's father sold in his music store), and how Ahmad evolved from a recalcitrant piano student into a passionate artist. It's a fascinating story and a wonderfully detailed picture of what life was like for a regular family of businessmen before war came to Yarmouk. But the narrative changes substantially when it reaches 2011-2012. In this second section Ahmad relays how the protest movement known as the Arab Spring spread to Syria, ultimately causing a civil war. The armies of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad completely sealed off Yarmouk, believing the city to be a hotbed of unrest. The citizens had no electricity, no medicine, and no food, and many starved to death. It's a tragic story, made all the more heartrending by Ahmad's first-person account as he tells how he and his friends struggled to survive, and how painful it was for him to hear his young son crying for food he couldn't provide. And finally, in the third harrowing section, Ahmad attempts to leave Syria, enduring imprisonment, deprivation, and nearly drowning before ultimately reaching freedom.

Ahmad states that he's a pianist, not a political activist, yet his account, told from the standpoint of an innocent bystander to the conflict, can't help but come down on the side of those who fought against the Syrian regime. He declares: "In those early months of the conflict, the so-called 'neutral' outsiders were in fact on Assad's side. It was like Germany in the 1930s, when everyone outside pretended not to know what was happening." He maintains the government knew the citizens of Yarmouk had nothing to do with the unrest - many were Palestinian refugees and the children of refugees and they were, in fact, grateful for the shelter they'd been given in the country – but the government deliberately emptied out the city so rebels would move in. "That way, they could surround the fighters. They didn't care about the people who still remained there." His concerts in the middle of this war-torn area were an act of defiance:

Whenever we pushed the piano through the deserted streets, we forgot about our empty stomachs. We felt powerful. We weren't alone anymore. This was our revolution. We had a mission: we wanted the world to see what was going here. We wanted to show how Assad was killing us, and that we were standing up to him.

His friends recorded Ahmad's performances and were able to post them to various social media platforms (kluging together an Internet connection that relied on batteries charged by peddling a bicycle). They were eventually seen by Europeans who were eager to help Ahmad tell his story, and although his escape attempt was incredibly risky, he was fortunate to have backers waiting for him in Germany. While life remained difficult for him – he had to reside in a refugee camp for a time and wasn't allowed to earn money for his performances – his German friends helped get him established and eventually were able to bring his wife and sons safely out of Syria. It made me ask myself, what about all the men, women and children who weren't famous, who didn't have talent?

By far one of the best memoirs I've read, The Pianist from Syria is relevant and timely, a story specific to Ahmad and his family while at the same time raising awareness of what must be an experience shared by many refugees from war-torn areas. I highly recommend it for anyone seeking a better understanding of the refugee experience in general and the Syrian conflict in particular. It would also be an excellent book group selection.

Ahmad playing his piano in Syria

Book reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Beyond the Book:
The Oud

OudIn previous "beyond the book" articles we've looked at different aspects of contemporary Syria - such as its culture and the refugee crisis. Now, we take a look at its music through a close up look at one of the Muslim world's most popular instruments.

Aeham Ahmad, author of The Pianist from Syria, owned a music store with his father that, among other endeavors, manufactured and sold musical instruments, the most important and profitable of which was a lute-like instrument called an oud.

In Arabic, the name "al oud" literally means "the wood," and may refer to the thin strips of wood that are glued together to make the instrument's gourd-like back. The name may also have served to differentiate it from earlier musical instruments that used a stretched animal skin for their faces. Known as the "king of instruments" in the Arab world, the oud is highly popular in all forms of music, from traditional to pop.

The oud's strings are strung in pairs known as "courses" similar to the configuration of those on a mandolin, and it generally has five courses plus one solo bass string that's used to set a rhythm throughout a piece. It's usually played with a small, flat, triangular-shaped pick called a plectrum. Ouds are also characterized by a short, fretless neck capped by a peg-box set at an angle, from which the strings are tuned. The fact that it has no frets allows performers to easily slide their fingers along the strings, "bending" the frequency of notes and add vibrato, giving songs a characteristic middle-eastern tonality.

The origin of the oud (rhymes with food) is lost in antiquity. Legend has it that the first instrument was created by the Biblical figure Lamak (or Lamech) a son of Cain and grandson of Adam, upon the death of his young son. Out of grief Lamak supposedly hung the boy's corpse in a tree until nothing was left but bone, and then he fashioned the remains into what is now known as the oud (the angle of the peg-box to the neck is supposed to call to mind the child's foot dangling from his leg).

Based mostly on early works of art, it's believed that the first true oud dates from between 224 CE and 651 CE and arose in pre-Islamic Iran. The pear-shaped instrument was most likely brought to Europe via the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century CE. The Al-Andalus caliphate seems to have cultivated an atmosphere conducive to artistic expression and promoted the use of the oud. A palace musician named Zyriab (789 – 857 CE) established the first music conservatory in Spain and improved the instrument, adding the fifth set of strings. Eventually it was adopted into European culture as the lute.

Today's oud may vary by region, but there are three main types being manufactured: Arabic, Turkish and Persian. The Arabic ouds (the type manufactured by Ahmad's family), subdivided into Syrian, Iraqi and Egyptian models, are generally larger with a darker timbre. The Turkish ouds are smaller with a brighter sound and higher pitch and are particularly popular in Greece. The Persian model, also called a barbat, is tuned differently than the Arabic oud. It's slightly smaller with a lighter sound than the Turkish ouds.

The Smiling ManClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Joseph Knox


Aidan Waits is back on the night shift, the Manchester PD dumping ground for those too screwed-up for more glamorous work. But the monotony of petty crimes and lonesome nights is shattered when he and his partner are called to investigate a break-in at The Palace, an immense, empty hotel in the center of the city.

There they find the body of a man. He is dead. The tags have been cut from his clothes, his teeth have been filed down, and even his fingertips have been replaced…

And he is smiling.

But as Waits begins to unravel the mystery of the smiling man, he becomes a target. Someone wants very badly to make this case disappear, and as their threats escalate, Aidan realizes that the answers may lie not only with the wealthy families and organized criminals connected to the Palace, but with a far greater evil from his own past.

To discover the smiling man's identity, he must finally confront his own.

BookBrowse Review

Joseph Knox's latest turns on a simple premise: an unidentified and unidentifiable murdered man is discovered in the fourth floor suite of an abandoned hotel in Manchester. This ought to be enough drama for night shift partners Detective Constable Aiden Waits and his superior, DI Peter Sutcliffe (Sutty). But then Knox throws in an unconscious hotel security guard, soon-to-be-divorced hotel co-owners battling over custody of the classic building, a string of dustbin fires, and a right wing media type who secretly videos his numerous liaisons. And that's just for starters.

I was hooked at the dead man. When Waits and Sutty find the victim he is seated, facing a window that overlooks Europe's busiest bus route, his lips peeled back in a grotesque rictus. Sutty is quick to sardonically dub him "the smiling man" because there are no clues to his identity. There is no wallet, credit card, phone or clothing label. Furthermore, there is clear evidence that the man has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal his identity. That includes altering both his dental records with filed down, capped teeth, and modifying his fingerprints.

Knox brings more than just complex plotting to the noir table, he also has a decided knack for dark humor and trenchant characterizations. One character is described as "starting to look and smell like the larval stage for something else," while others have "an almost invisible little paper-cut for a mouth," or "raw, exit-wound eyes."

Before leaving the hotel, Sutty, whom the police superintendent comically refers to as "the Elephant Man's ball-sack," is only too happy to turn the bulk of the murder investigation over to the younger man. Theirs is a partnership forged at a portal to hell. Aiden explains that those assigned to permanent night duty must fulfill one of two requirements – they either have no life or no future. He fulfills both. He is a recovering drug abuser, evidence thief (drugs) and now a thorn in the department's side ever since returning to work after getting clean. And so, adding insult (Sutty) to injury (his own dark and broken past), Aiden is commonly both irritated, and irritating to those around him.

With each chapter Knox plunges deeper into the depths of noir. Whether it's a heretofore-unparalleled heat wave, a squalid bar, people who aren't what they seem, or children brutally abused by a person that, "had no internal life...outside of cruelty, he ceased to exist," just when you think things can't get any darker, they do. Much of the story takes place at night, a factor that further highlights the complexities of a protagonist steeped in pain and cynicism.

The Scandinavians may be currently producing what's considered the golden standard of noir, but The Smiling Man offers something a little different. It is steeped in a sweat-drenched heatwave rather than snowy cold, and trades Nordic brooding nihilism for British wit. I enjoyed the pace and the ricocheting plot twists that kept me guessing from one page to the next.

Book reviewed by Donna Chavez

Beyond the Book:
Fingerprint Alteration

Mugshot of notorious gangster John DillingerIn Joseph Knox's noir thriller The Smiling Man, the police can't identify the murder victim because the man had gone to extremes in order to conceal his identity. Clearly a person in an occupation that required anonymity, he had resorted to perhaps the ultimate means of operating under the radar of law enforcement authorities. He had modified one sure method of identification – his fingerprints.

It is commonly accepted that fingerprints are unique to each individual and that it is nearly impossible to change them. While the former is certainly true, the latter is up for some debate, depending upon the depth of a person's pockets and/or their pain threshold. Motivation, or shall we say, desperation also plays a part.

In the 1930s Theodore "Handsome Jack" Klutas, the leader of a notorious Illinois gang of criminals referred to as The College Kidnappers (known for abducting mobsters and holding them for ransom), sought anonymity by trying to file down the ridges of his fingertips. However, he did not evade capture for long, and was shot to death by police during a raid. In that same era, two members of Kate "Ma" Barker's gang (which terrorized the Midwest for decades in the early 20th century) decided to try plastic surgery, a fairly new medical phenomenon at the time. The gangland physician they hired to do the job was drunk, and essentially botched the procedure. Legendary gangster John Dillinger turned to acid to burn his fingerprints off with some success. Sadly (or not) it did him little good, since he was still caught and killed shortly thereafter.

The internet abounds with advice for the novice fingerprint eradicator, ranging from the choice of Knox's "smiling man"—grafting skin from elsewhere on one's own body or from a donor—to "shaving" the ridges down a little at a time, to burning fingertips with strong chemicals or fire, perhaps with a soldering iron or kitchen range top. However, each procedure comes with its own list of potential dangers, and the FBI has begun instituting countermeasures to track the identities of individuals who have attempted to change their prints. In a 2014 study, the FBI noted 412 instances of "deliberate print alteration," and as such, law enforcement is now instructed to carefully examine a suspect's fingers before taking prints, and to report any anomalies to the Bureau.

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