J.D. Chandler suggests an interesting theory; that one can learn about a region's social, political, and cultural history by making a study of its murders. He then proceeds to prove his thesis through this collection of a dozen true tales from a century of Portland's murder files.
Through the crimes and investigations we see the city grow from a pioneer town to a major inland port. With changing times and technology come changes in culture, and we see official discrimination against the Chinese, who were brought over to build the railroads, evolve into official discrimination against southern Blacks, who came north and west to work in the shipyards during WWII. The unwritten laws of the Victorian era get enforced with equal vigor to the official code, justifying violence against women and children.
We see the transformation of Portland's law enforcement from the pioneers who were comfortable on both sides of the badge, to a well-run machine where a little "smile money" could get the law on your side. There are honest cops as well, who before modern forensics - or even the wide acceptance of fingerprint evidence - solved murders with nothing but a sharp mind and a thirst for justice.
But the book is not all politics and history. It is, first and foremost, a true crime book, and the details are all there, both gruesome and titillating. From the hacking to death of the HIll family, and the brutal rape and murder of fourteen-year-old Mamie Walsh, to the travels of mass murderer (and necrophiliac) Earle Nelson. Chandler spares us nothing, even if the newspapers of the day may have euphemized their way to more subtle reporting.
Chandler's writing is crisp, clear, and with just enough dry wit to slyly entertain while still having appropriate respect for his subjects. The book is well-illustrated with period photos. Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon should be of interest to all who like to read about the old west, true crime, or history regardless of whether or not they have a connection to the region.