Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Murder Room

Photo: Book's cover, from my Goodreads page

For a writer like me (whatever that means), this is a great book, a source of story and book ideas for years to come.

It's also a great book for its content alone.  Capuzzo's writing took some getting used to, and I really didn't like how he sometimes jumped around, sometimes didn't (It reminded me of a recent time when I told someone that someone else we knew wasn't even predictable in her unpredictability), but the content is so compelling, and the cases so interesting, that you'll read on anyway, as I did.  The writing finally grounded itself about three-fourths of the way through, so that finally became a strength as well.

If you like this stuff--and I mean: investigations, tracking down killers, solving cases, profiling, cold cases, etc.--then this is a must-read.  If you don't, I don't know, because there's a lot of that here, even more than usual for books like this.  Much of it is grisly, and if you didn't have a healthy distrust of strangers before this, you will after this.  (Which is ironic, because the old adage is true in this book: 90% of all murder victims knew their killers well.)  If you can't handle the grisliness and sadness inherent in books like this, don't read this.  (The case of The Boy in the Box will especially haunt.)

The book, which is nonfiction, is about the Vidocq Society, a members-only group of the world's best investigators, morticians, detectives, profilers, crime scene analysts, and everyone else you can imagine associated with tracking down killers and serial killers.  (You need to read this if you don't know the difference between them.)  The group was started by three guys, all of them profiled (pardon the pun) here.

Frank Bender is (or, was, as he's died since publication) a bust-making artist of unparalleled excellence.  He could make a plaster bust of a face where one didn't exist.  He first specialized in time-lapse facial reconstruction.  What would a killer on the lam for 20 years look like since his last photo?  Bender made a cast of the guy's face, using a very old photo and a lot of whim, guessing, and innate talent, and the day after it was shown on America's Most Wanted, the guy was turned in.  Even more impressive: a skull is found with the face completely bashed in.  Using lots of research and a guess at what the partial sinus cavity would've looked like, and therefore the nose, etc., he made a bust that the murdered woman's mom saw and recognized immediately.  Fascinating.  He also had an open marriage and an insatiable drive and desire, not all of it artistic.  In essence, a whirlwind of energy you wish you had, used in ways you wish you could use it.  Bender was a very interesting, knowledgeable and, possibly, clairvoyant guy.  He said he could see and hear dead people in his dreams, and that he could feel the universe flow.  Read this book before you call that crazy.

Richard Walter is a profiler like no other.  Police departments take cold cases to him--and I mean, freezing, like over 50 years old--and he tells them where they went wrong, how they went wrong, and who the killer is.  The book makes it seem like he did this quicker than possible--he has to read case files over 1,000 pages long--but he soaks all the information in and somehow sees through all the wrong turns right away.  I've read a few myself, and I can't keep all the facts, wrong facts, suspects, wrongful suspects, theories, wrong theories, evidence, wrong evidence, and everything else straight in my head, or on paper.  He reads it, disects it, and tells you everything when he's done.  And he's always right.  BTW, the killer has over 90% of the time been questioned by police already, often several times.  Much of the time, the killer is who the police knows him (or, glaringly in this book, her) to be, but they can't prove it.  Often, Bender and Walter tell the police what they need to know so they, the police, can say it to the killer and get a confession.

William Fleisher put these guys together and started the group officially.  He's a well-respected investigator and a very well-liked and well-connected guy.  Elected the group's first president, he seems to be the glue that holds everything, and everybody, together.  He started the group with just these three guys, and now manages 82 (one for every year of its namesake's life) and hundreds of associate members.

As the society's website says, "The Vidocq Society is named for Eugène François Vidocq, the ground-breaking 19th century French detective who helped police by using the psychology of the criminal to solve "cold case" homicides. Vidocq was a former criminal himself, and used his knowledge of the criminal mind to look at murder from the psychological perspective of the perpetrator."  Bender was a former criminal as well.

Some of the many cases covered here are:

The Boy in the Box.  (Warning: This one is very depressing and disturbing.)

A robbery that was actually a planned murder.

A skull without a face.

A psychopathic murderess who worked as a waitress.

A guy who brings his case to the Society at their meeting, and is profiled as the murderer.

A young woman from Phoenix whose remains were found in Colorado.

Three cases over 50 years old.

There's so much going on in this book that it may need a second reading.  As engrossing as it was, I read some parts and I thought, "Yup, I can use that," several times.  So get past the scattered writing at first and you'll be taken for an interesting, chilly, intelligent, unbelievable, and--finally--well-written ride.

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