In preparation for my "Year of Crime" reading theme for next year, I've been looking for some books on true crimes. I saw an ad for "Ranger Games" in The Atlantic and picked it up on a whim. Ben Blum immediately swept me up into his narrative and ended up delivering one of my favorite reads of the year. In Ranger Games, we follow Ben as he devotes a decade of his life to investigating and coming to terms with a Tacoma bank robbery that his cousin, Army Ranger Alex Blum, committed. Ben takes us on a far-ranging adventure as he peels back layers of lies, family, crime, media distortion, psychology, and military culture in his struggle to understand why the kind and caring cousin he grew up with helped rob a bank.
The contrast between the cousins is stark. Alex is a hockey guy entranced by his grandfather's exploits in WWII. Ben is an intellectual overachiever who studied physics and got a PhD in computer science from Berkeley. But after Alex's inexplicable crime, an investigative obsession siezes Ben and derails his life as well. As his own life falls apart, Ben relentlessly tracks down the key players in Alex's drama - fellow Rangers, family members, psychologists, lawyers, minor criminals, and his commanding officer - the enigmatic Luke Elliott Sommer. (In retrospect, Sommer seems to play a "Judge" character in the style of "Blood Meridian")
Ben can't help but get cerebral. He immerses himself in all sort of psychology reading to try to understand what was going on in his brother's head. Ben dives into the literature on brainwashing, psychopathy, and authority psychology - even going so far as to convince famous Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo to testify on his cousin's behalf. If you're looking for a good follow-on book, I'd recommend "The Psychopath Test" exploring Bob Hare's "Psychopathy Checklist" which is mentioned several times in this book.
Alex's story was fascinating, but what really impressed me was how Ben told it. The pacing was nearly perfect and Ben structures the story so that we feel his frustration and his excitement as he gradually unravels a web of lies, hostile military culture, explosive family dynamics, and globe-trotting criminal activity. Ben documents the facts logically and methodically, but not lifelessly. The process of writing the book itself works a sort of transformation upon Ben himself as he reinvents himself as a writer rather than a scientist. Ultimately, Ranger Games is just as much about Ben and Alex coming to terms with themselves and each other as it is about a bank robbery. Ben pulls it off nearly perfectly - and as a first-time author too. Really well done.