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Book review

'Outlaw Arizona' entertains with true-crime stories

"There's always a Tucson connection." Every time some oddball national story came up in the Tucson Citizen newsroom, someone inevitably would say that or, at the very least, "There's always an Arizona connection." There often would be.

Now, best-selling true crime author Ron Franscell has cast his eye on crime in his former home state with the latest in his six-volume series, "Crime Buff's Guide to Outlaw Arizona" (Angel Fire Press).

Earlier this year, he published the "Crime Buff's Guide to Outlaw New Mexico," which may also interest Arizona readers. Franscell is a Texas-based author whose best-selling book, "The Darkest Night," was favorably compared to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."

Franscell's "Crime Buff's Guide" series are quick glances at notorious crimes within states. "Outlaw Arizona" has the usual suspects: Dillinger, Winnie Ruth Judd, Warren Jeffs, the Earps and the Clantons (Tombstone has its own chapter). Some of the crimes were subjects of articles I wrote for the Tucson Citizen and other publications during my reporting days.

Each brief entry brings out the elements of the crime that make it unique and worthy of retelling. A veteran journalist himself, Franscell says he wants seasoned crime writers in each state to get to be surprised by some of the stories. He accomplishes that with "Outlaw Arizona," to be sure.

For instance, who knew that a few of the "Black Sox" players came to play baseball in Arizona? While the gambling and bribes took place elsewhere, a few of the banished players came to play for the Copper League's Douglas Blues.

Likewise, a woman who lived quietly in Sun City named Edna Milton Chadwell was once the famous madam of the "best little whorehouse in Texas." (When I worked at the Sun City paper in the '80s, it was accepted that some of the residents were famous or infamous, but everyone just left them alone.)

And when you think of notorious Arizona serial killers, the Baseline Killer comes to mind, but the Crackhead Killer? Not so much.

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Then there are tales that are seldom told these days, such as the "Prodigal Evangelist," Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, who disappeared one day in May 1926 in Los Angeles and turned up a month later near Douglas, claiming to have been kidnapped by Mexican bandits. She said she escaped and walked 13 hours under the desert sun to Agua Prieta. Nobody really believed her story because her shoes didn't show the wear they should have and she disappeared while going for a swim — yet showed up fully dressed, including wearing a corset.

Some believe she was covering up an affair. Crime or just passion?

Franscell has thoroughly researched his subjects – down to the very location. Each entry is accompanied by a GPS number of some kind, whether it's the Scottsdale apartment in which actor Bob Crane was murdered, the burial site of the "Lady Bandit" Pearl Hart or the Hanging Trees of Vulture City. Franscell helpfully notes whether the site is on private property or hard to reach. In some places, he notes where the reader can go to get more details on particular cases.

Franscell does a great job of covering the state from end to end. There is barely an area that goes unscathed, with a fair mixture of historic and contemporary crimes. He doesn't get bogged down in details, but gives enough to give the reader a full picture. It's a breezy, guilty-pleasure read — perfect for summer vacations because you can put it down and pick it up without losing your place (but you won't want to put it down). For those of us who seek true-crime stories, it's a fascinating look at the dark side of our state.

A.J. Flick is an experienced criminal justice reporter, author of a book to be published next year on notorious Arizona crimes and a member of the steering committee for the Coalition of Arizonans to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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