November 29, 2010
Crime Magazine's Review of True-Crime Books
Have history's best-known true-crime cases become "classics," their real-life supervillains now elevated to "legend" status? It's hard to choose the right words for actions that are so very, very wrong. Several volumes in this latest column revisit killers and cases that have received so much press over the years — Ed Gein, the Washington D.C. sniper, Roman Polanski, John Wilkes Booth — that, in any other realm or genre, they would be defined as landmarks, milestones, or classics. Maybe we could say "milestones in misery." I'd be okay with that.
by Anneli Rufus
In the Arms of Evil, by Carlton Smith (St. Martin's, 2010): Nancy Jean Siegel was a gambling addict. Seeking a stooge to pay her debts, she attached herself to a not-very-bright, much older man. Stealing his nest egg and his house without his knowledge, she then murdered him, opened lines of credit in his name, and cashed his government checks for years before being caught. Smith's latest is a page-turner, largely because it's so psychological: Can non-substance addiction really be so strong as to spark murder? And how would it feel to stride, smiling, into banks and cash the checks of someone whose corpse you ditched on a roadside, in a trunk?
Blood Frenzy, by Robert Scott (Pinnacle, 2010): David Gerard couldn't handle being broken up with. Nobody welcomes rejection, but the true-crime archives are rife with stories of lethally sore losers such as Gerard, who burned one would-be ex to death and exterminated others before clubbing Frankie Cochran multiple times in the head with a hammer, breaking loose a fist-sized chunk of her skull. He left her for dead, but luckily for Cochran — and for any other females who might later have fallen in (and fallen out) with Gerard — she lived, defying doctors' predictions. Scott's book is a heartfelt testament to her courage.
Scared Silent, by Mildred Muhammad (Strebor, 2009): He left his wife for her; he married her; he had children with her; he converted to Islam with her; then he became the Washington D.C. sniper. In a grueling memoir, John Muhammad's ex-wife recounts her years of frustration and suspicion — and her horror at learning of her husband’s arrest. Imagine having to tell your teenage son that his dad is a suspected serial killer. But as Muhammad remains a devout Nation of Islam adherent, her memoir does double duty as an endorsement of Islam, Allah, and the Quran, right through to its final page.
Serial Killers: Butchers and Cannibals, by Nigel Blundell (Wharncliffe, 2010): From 16th-century "Lady Dracula" Elisabeth Bathory to 21st-century Russian cannibal Alexander Puchishkin, this slender compendium revisits 28 serial killers who also mutilated or ate their victims' corpses. Most included here are quite familiar: Henry Lee Lucas, Dean Corll, Ed Gein, and more.
Murder at Yale, by Stella Sands (St. Martin's, 2010): If only it were fiction, this book would be one heck of a thriller. Beautiful grad student slain in her lab shortly before what would have been her wedding day. Sadly, it's nonfiction: Annie Le was a Yale doctoral student; lab technician Raymond Clark really did strangle her and stuff her tiny body behind a wall panel. Sands covers the crime and investigation adeptly, but — even more intriguingly — she also captures the media frenzy that this case sparked. "What was it about the disappearance and death of Annie Le that captivated so many?" Sands asks, then offers: "The story had everything: youth, privilege, beauty, romance, sex, and depravity."
The Best American Crime Reporting, edited by Stephen J. Dubner, Otto Penzler, and Thomas H. Cook (Ecco, 2010): Every year, true-crime fans look forward to the latest volume in this annual series, which brings together long, previously published articles that embody this genre at its most insightful and articulate. That said, this year's TBACR is a bit disappointing, compared to previous years'. In this edition, the articles are too few — and too many of them concern long-ago cases: the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz, the the 1977 arrest of Roman Polanski, the 1878 slaying of Abraham Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth. And as if one Polanski story wasn't enough — this book has two.