Review: Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime

Alex Blum grew up in the Denver suburbs dreaming of being a soldier--a special operations Army Ranger. Among his large extended family, he was always the God-and-country, high-and-tight straight arrow of his generation. His cousin Ben Blum was a precocious math nerd. When playing together, Ben observes, "In the fields where Alex saw darting commie guerillas, I saw fractally branching ferns, Fiboncacci-spiraling pinecones, self-intersecting manifolds of swallows." They went their separate ways. Alex signed his Airborne Rangers contract before he graduated from high school. Ben went off to Stanford at age 17 "with a suitcase full of Nine Inch Nails T-shirts and combat boots." He graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in computer science and began cranking algorithms for government research grants before walking away and enrolling in the MFA writing program at New York University.

Just before Alex was scheduled to ship out for his first deployment in Iraq, however, he drove four other Rangers to a Tacoma Bank of America branch outside Fort Lewis. Brandishing AK-47s, they robbed the place. Alex was the wheelman. Within a few short days, the five were captured and locked up for trial. The Blum family was shocked. Ben decided to investigate how his cousin went off the rails. Ranger Games is memoir, biography, military history, heist caper, courtroom drama, whodunit and family saga rolled together.

As family, Ben had access to everyone connected with Alex's military training, legal defense and psychological evaluations. He talked extensively with Alex's father, Norm, whom he knew only from annual Fourth of July family barbecues where he watched "my father and uncles hurl, pound, swing, bat, and kick Norm's vast array of athletic gear around the yard like hairy-chested mammals in some kind of toy-rich zoo enclosure." He corresponded with the robbery crew's charismatic Canadian-born and Iraq War veteran ringleader, Luke Elliott Sommer. Sitting in defense team meetings, Ben was privy to the court documents and strategy of Alex's father, lawyer Jeff Robinson and investigator Amanda Lee, a "genius researcher and former honest-to-god rocket scientist."

The meat of Ranger Games is in the conversations and correspondence between Ben and Alex. Was Alex a "hapless criminal accomplice" as he claimed--duped by the higher-ranking Sommer--or was he in on the whole thing for the thrill of pulling off a "mission?" Did Norm manipulate Robinson and Lee to get Alex off with a time-served sentence? Was the army trying to cover up embarrassing publicity about their most elite unit? Ben keeps probing and pulling loose threads until the mystery of Alex's crime unfolds into a fitting denouement. Ranger Games is a hell of a story. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: With diligent research and persistence, Ben Blum investigates how his straight-arrow Army Ranger cousin wound up driving the getaway car in an armed bank robbery.

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