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Bodies count: a real murder guide True Crime Books


What are murderers made of? Nothing very nice. Who wants to read about fictitiously good people when we can vicariously engage the lives and deeds of that aberrant few who are capable of committing ultimate sin?

There exists an unsatiable urge to push and probe into the psyches of killers, their means, methods and motives, their backgrounds, relationships and trials both in and out of court, from birth to death - most dramatically by execution in retaliation for ending the lives of uncelebrated victims.

The crueler the killing, the higher the body count, or the greater the prominence of a single victim, the larger the output of books elevating a murderer to the worth of biography. Well-selling full-length books on murderers include five on Ted Bundy; four each on John Wayne Gacy and Edward Gein; six on Jeffrey Dahmer; 12 on Charles Manson. Books exclusively devoted to the assassination of President Kennedy (excluding the Warren Commission's 26 volumes and books centered on Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby) overwhelm biographies of the president's life by a ratio of 70-to-17.

Attempted murderers, even of heads-of-state, are biographical blips to whom writers pay about as much attention as to failed presidential candidates. For them there is no speculation about wide-ranging conspiracies or possible innocence. John Hinckley's book-length attention is not for shooting President Reagan, but for getting off on an insanity verdict.

Despite the many with motive to shoot George Wallace, Arthur Bremer's lone and arbitrary act stands without investigation. Meanwhile, in the face of overwhelming evidence, including James Earl Ray's erstwhile admissions and guilty plea, controversy still boils over responsibility for the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Just this year, three decades later, Gerald Posner's well-written and reasoned "Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr." successfully challenged William F. Pepper and Dexter Scott King's "Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr." The latter gains no added credibility from being co-authored by King's son, who goes over to the side of the enemy rather than accept that a crude, demented, white racist could be solely responsible for committing an act of such enormous significance.

Enough of assassinations where killers are limited to one life apiece and often have to share credit with undeserving others. ++ Lots more attention is being paid to serial murderers, who are defined by the quantity, rather than the quality of their victims.

Describing their feats in detection of serial murders has become the preoccupation of all manner of self-proclaimed forensic experts from psychiatrists and pathologists to detectives whose profiles" come perilously close to reviving the discredited 19th century notion that criminals and clean-living people can be readily distinguished by their physical appearances.

The detective profilers (as in "Silence of the Lambs") mostly generate from the FBI's Investigative Support Unit in Quantico, Va. Best-known are Robert Ressler, who wrote "I Have Lived in the Monster" (1998) and "Whoever Fights Monsters" (1994); and John Douglas, the author of "Mindhunters" (1996) and "Journey Into Darkness" (1997). Under the guise of instructive research into the history and habits of notorious killers, these textbooks are as enthralling as a visit to a house of horrors. Veteran investigator Russell Vorpagel is the latest entry to the genre with "Profiles in Murder: An FBI Legend Dissects Killers and Their Crimes." Presented in the Q and A format of a classroom, Vorpagel comes up with some especially bizarre examples such as the vampire rapist who complemented his sexual pleasures by sucking and drinking her blood through a pipe. What kind of "profile" does that present?

Dorothy Otnow Lewis has never seen a murderer who lacks a mitigating mental condition. In "Guilty by Reason of Insanity: A Psychiatrist Explores the Minds of Killers" (Fawcett Columbine/ Ballantine, 301 pages, $25), she writes about numerous serial murderers, looking to discover obscure brain damage for those grasping to escape the death penalty. In a highly publicized case where her shortcomings were embarrassingly exposed, Lewis blames the lawyers. An accurate appraisal of her testimony on that occasion can be found in Jack Olsen's gripping book, "The Misbegotten Son: A Serial Killer and His Victims: The True Story of Arthur J. Shawcross" (1993).

For a highly professional, hence dull comparison with Lewis, there is another new book: Drew Ross' "Looking Into the Eyes of a Killer: A Psychiatrist's Journey Through the Murderer's World" (Plenum, 275 pages, $26.95).

Long before his own son became a killer, Carlton Stowers was an established author of several excellent books on true murder cases. "Sins of the Son" (Hyperion, 233 pages, $22.95) is Stowers' admirably honest effort to chronicle very personal history into an objective structure. This engaging and engrossing work should prove a disappointment to the mental health experts and police prophets who think they have developed valid formulas for predicting criminal behavior. A different view from the homefront appears in "A Stranger in the Family: A True Story of Murder, Madness and Unconditional Love" (Onyx Books, 400 pages, $24.95) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Joe-College "Danny" Starrett emerges from a seemingly stable middle-class family, job and marriage to become the weird, super-serial rapist who terrorized and killed at least one of his many victims. Extensive quotes from Danny's fanciful diary reveal serious cracks in his smooth surface but don't show how they got there. In the end, it takes a plea-bargain rather than a psychiatrist to keep Danny off death row.

Does membership in a rich and influential family help or hurt prospects for being accused of murder? A recent book indicts Ethel Kennedy's nephew, Michael Skakel, for the "unsolved" 1975 murder of the teen-age daughter from the neighboring estate. Mark Fuhrman (of the "N" word and "Murder in Brentwood") produced "Murder in Greenwich: Who Killed Martha Moxley?" Fuhrman chose his subject at the suggestion of society crime-writer Dominick Dunne, who has been long convinced of a coverup in the Moxley murder.

Despite its provenance, the book, though dryly written like a police report, seems sound. Another new book on the same case DTC is Timothy Dumas' "Murder and Mystery in Greenwich, America's Wealthiest Community." It is more description than detection.

A closing look at this happy outpouring of quality true-crime writing finds it getting honest with itself. No more apologies or phony exhortations to painful enlightenment. One can at last freely indulge an innate fascination for real crime and criminals without justification or plain-paper wrapping.

(All listed titles are in print and can be found through any book shop's catalog system.)

Elsbeth Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after spending 18 years as a judge trying capital cases. She does occasionally still sit on the bench. As a lawyer Bothe represented a number of death row inmates. An active member of the Society of Connoisseurs for 40 years, Bothe has been collecting books on crime (mostly murder) since age 10, accumulating a considerable collection.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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