Reviewer Karen Dahood : Karen lives in Tucson, AZ. After 35 years as a writer for businesses and nonprofits, she has turned to writing mysteries,the subtext of which addresses ageism, unpreparedness for aging, and America's wealth of experience and wisdom. Learn more about eldersleuth Sophie George at the Website Moxie Cosmos; Making Sense of Life Through Writing.
Author: James Ylisela, Jr.
This book will attract readers who love noir murder mysteries, but also feminist historians. An established, award-winning journalist, James Ylisela lays out the facts surrounding the mysterious disappearance of a Chicago heiress and sheds light on a syndicate making fortunes by cheating the newly rich who wanted to be part of the fashionable racehorse breeding scene. Chicago in the 1960s to 1980s (following the opening of the interstate highways and the St. Lawrence Seaway) was a hub of activity, a great place for men and women who were rootless, and some who were unscrupulous, to make wealthy friends and spend their money. Mobsters and con men, two fraudulent strains of the growing economy, came together in the wealthy suburbs to prey on widows like Helen Voorhees Brach.
It was as a coat-checker in a Florida nightclub that Helen Voohees, then 38, caught the eye of Frank Brach, the older man who married her and introduced her to Chicago society. He died in 1970, leaving her his candy fortune, twenty million dollars (equal to $120 million today). At age 57 Helen was eccentric, believed in “spirit writing,” supported animal welfare (though she wore fur coats), and wanted to own horses. Two men became influential in her life: John “Jack” Matlick was her houseman, her driver. Richard Bailey was her boyfriend, a ladies man, with inroads to society and the tentacles of the local mafia wrapped around him. He had an “in” with the Jaynes family, who were (among other things) involved killing horses to collect the insurance. Their success fueled his inventiveness, and in 1975 he and his brother sold Helen three racehorses for $98,000, making an $80,000 profit.
Bailey held Helen Brach in his spell until (maybe) something he said or did tipped her off in 1977. Some people think she was about to turn him in. All we know is that Helen Brach, age 65, went into the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, was discharged, but according to Bailey and Matlick (at first) never made it home. Possibly she went to Florida to meet Bailey and find a new home. Perhaps Matlick, about to lose his job, picked her up at the hospital and killed her at her farm. Some people were sure Bailey had done her in but others thought her houseman was the killer. A third man pleaded guilty but was never charged. The case was stymied because of conflicting theories and no solid evidence, not even a body. Quite likely, the wary horse mob ordered her death to keep her from pulling the plug on their lucrative operations. That leads to the larger story, the failure of law enforcement. The local police clashed with the FBI, leaving us to wonder: Who was bought out? Who was protected? Who was afraid? Ultimately, Bailey went to prison, and since 1997 this author has wanted the case to be reopened, because there are men alive who know the truth, including investigators. (See Ylisela’s recent article: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20141206 (Crain’s Chicago Business).
Fascinating to me, Helen Brach was just one of many women who let charmers seduce them, taking them out of loneliness by appealing to their desire to be classy. This was after a very long period of economic downturn, and at the very dawn of the Feminist Movement, when many women were still confused about what to do when they were left on their own, and especially vulnerable when they had more money than they ever had before. I wonder -- could this happen today? Is that generation of women gone? Or are there always going to be women who think men are smarter than they are?