Tag Archives: serial killer

The Beautiful Dead: Belinda Bauer

Belinda Bauer’s crime novel, The Beautiful Dead begins with the brutal slaying of a young female office worker. We don’t know the name of the killer, but we know that he’s driven by dark impulses that won’t be satisfied with one bloody death. Eve Singer, reporter for iWitness News, on the so-called “meat beat,” is so repulsed by the murder scene that she ends up vomiting in the toilet much to the amusement of rival reporter and overall wanker Guy Smith from News 24/7.  

beautiful-dead

Even though Eve has worked on the crime beat for three years, there’s something particularly horrible about this crime, and even Joe, Eve’s cameraman imagines the horror of the victim’s death:

“Seriously,” he said while he checked the light. “Imagine all those people right there, half an inch away through a pane of glass, Christmas shopping. While some sicko is gutting you like a fish.”

One death soon becomes two, and it’s at that point that Eve is contacted by the serial killer who stages spectacular gory deaths and imagines that he and Eve are somehow in this ‘thing’ together:

We’re in the same line of work, you and I. I need people to die in order to live–and so do you. We’re the same. We want the same things.

Eve already doesn’t like her job and feels morally compromised by certain situations when she begins getting special favours from the killer–without giving too much away–she basically gets a ringside seat. In terms of scooping news stories, this is, of course, a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time, giving the killer a voice and an audience may encourage him. So Eve has a moral dilemma: should she use the exclusives the killer gives her?

Belinda Bauer sets the stage to show us Eve’s desperation. Eve has financial concerns, and she’s in a highly competitive career . If she’s too squeamish to use the killer’s news exclusive ‘gifts,’ others are not, so it’s very easy to justify forming this sort of uneasy partnership with the killer. Also Eve’s job in front of the camera has a very definite shelf life; can she afford to be ethical? But on the other hand if she forms this slimy alliance with a psycho, how will she sleep at night?

There’s a lot of backstory (sometimes too much) to this tale and we see Eve’s problematic home life where she has the burden of her father’s care. We see Eve’s day-to-day job where it’s normal for her to intrude on private lives and speculate on the grief of the families of victims. She’s already engaged in behaviour that most of us would avoid when the serial killer decides to be her ‘friend.’

I really enjoyed Belinda Bauer’s The Shut Eye which took a different path in its exploration of crime and psychics. The Shut Eye was not gory, and so I was not really prepared for the amount of gore in these pages.  Readers are best warned before coming to the book that the deaths occur on the page, so to speak. I really liked the character of forensics officer, Veronica Creed who has “the calm detachment of a psychopath, but none of the comforting iron bars between her and the rest of the world,” and I wished we’d seen more of her. Super-serial killers are not my favourite crime sub-genre, so that added to the gore and a Hollywood-style ending all combined into a less than positive reading experience.

But for an entirely different opinion, go to Cleo’s review here.

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The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot: Thomas Maeder

There’s a scene in Gone with the Wind in which Rhett Butler gives Scarlett some advice:

I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the up-building of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the up-building, fast money in the crack-up. Remember my words. Perhaps they may be of use to you some day. 

That quote came to mind as I read the non-fiction book The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot from Thomas Maeder. Marcel Petiot (1897-1946) certainly knew how to cash in on the realities of the German Occupation of France. Of course, he’s not alone in this, but there’s something particularly horrific about this opportunistic, sadistic serial killer who fed off the terror of the Gestapo by promising safe passage to South America to those who could pay his fee. It’s impossible to create a spectrum of cruelty when it comes to murderers, but Dr. Petiot is right up there with the worst–not just for the numbers involved but for the way he capitalized on fear, preying on the most vulnerable people.

unspeakable crimes

The book opens on March 6, 1944 at 21 rue La Sueur in Paris, a three-story nineteenth-century building in the affluent sixteenth arrondissement owned by Dr. Marcel Petiot. A “greasy, foul-smelling smoke began pouring from the chimney,” and by March 11, one of the residents, who could stand it no longer, telephoned the police. Firemen broke into the building, and the police made a macabre discovery next to two coal-burning stoves. A pile of body parts and chunks of flesh,  a large pile of quicklime, rooms “crammed with an incredible assortment of furniture, art objects, chandeliers, and gadgets stored in chaotic piles,” but also a bizarrely constructed triangular room with a fake door and iron rings on the wall. The police on the scene knew that they had stumbled onto a mind-boggling crime scene, but before the case was solved, many questions (not all of which were ever answered) were raised.

This was the beginning of the infamous Dr Petiot case, and although this book could easily be categorized as ‘true crime,’ it’s also a look into the historical realities of the time, for it shows how a diabolically intelligent serial killer could operate by preying on those who were willing to take enormous risks to escape the Gestapo. Jews disappeared every day, and if dozens disappeared after making contact with Petiot, was there anything to report? And who would you report the disappearances to?

One of the fascinating aspects of the Petiot case is the glimpse into the heavily fragmented society which was pieced together under German occupation. Many government officials had heard rumours of an escape network run by a doctor, and while some turned a blind eye, in 1943, the Gestapo investigated an organization that “arranges clandestine crossings of the Spanish border by means of falsified Argentinian passports. ” Yvan Dreyfus, a wealthy Jew in prison awaiting deportation was unknowingly set up as part of the trap to snare Petiot’s escape network–a network which in reality did not exist–unless death is an acceptable escape route. Dreyfus disappeared after meeting Petiot, and a witness later claimed that someone else had seen Dreyfus dead at 21 rue La Sueur.

Ironically the mystery of the disappearance of Yvan Dreyfus led to Petiot’s arrest, torture and incarceration by the Gestapo–all things that unfortunately fed Petiot’s claim that he was a resistance hero, ran a group known as Fly-Tox and that he should be lauded for executing French traitors. Petiot argued that he’d ‘disappeared’ several French criminals who had collaborated with the Germans and then decided to take Petiot’s escape route. These people were just a few of Petiot’s victims, but most of his victims remained unidentified as they were Jews who’d kept their desperate flight secret.

The book covers Petiot’s childhood and his early adult life before this chameleon hoofed it to Paris and formed a niche for himself embezzling the state and eventually turned to murder. There are some very relevant details to be found in the Gestapo files and also in the backgrounds of the non-Jewish victims who took a one way trip to Petiot’s house. Then of course there’s the spectacular trial…But overriding the entire story is the question of just how this man, with multiple scandals in his past, a stay in a mental hospital after being declared insane and the instigator of various criminal acts was able to continually operate freely within society with all the privileges of being a physician.

Throughout the investigation, despite all the facts gathered, the question of just who Petiot was remained unanswered. No image of a human personality emerged, no motive surfaced; one could scarcely even imagine greed or sadism in a person who seemed to exist only as an incredibly dexterous performance. Petiot had fooled the French, the Germans, the Resistants, the courts, the psychiatrists, his friends and his own wife. He had acted as a solitary enigmatic force amidst a world in which he did not participate, and which he regarded only with scorn.

This is the second book I’ve read about Petiot. I’ve also seen the fantastic film Dr. Petiot, and I’ll be watching a documentary soon. For this reading I saw his resistance to Gestapo torture as just more evidence of the man’s arrogance and narcissism.  The most poignant aspect to the story has to be the mountains of suitcases found amongst the loot of the mostly unidentified victims.

Review copy.

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The Z Murders: J. Jefferson Farjeon (1932)

People who snore annoy me, Inspector, but I don’t shoot them.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve recently been reading books from The British Library Crime Classics series. They’ve all been quite different for various reasons, and this brings me to The Z Murders, the story of a serial killer, written by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1883-1955).

The book begins one autumn at the “cold grey hour” in London’s Euston Station. Young Richard Temperley exits the all-night train from Glasgow in a dark mood. We’ve all been trapped in situations with unpleasant fellow travelers, and in Richard’s case, he’s been cursed with the company of an elderly snoring man. Richard, exhausted and hoping for sleep, “elevated his travelling status by transferring to a first-class compartment,” but he was shortly joined by another passenger who turned out to not only be an epic snorer but was “ungracious” to boot. After a very unpleasant journey, Richard is happy to leave the man behind and exit the station.

It’s 5 a.m and Richard had planned to stay with his married sister in Richmond until his own flat, occupied by tenants, becomes vacant in one more week. Due to the hour, he decides to visit a hotel, go to sleep in the smoking room, and then later have a bath and breakfast. Imagine his annoyance when he enters the hotel and discovers that his grumpy fellow traveler from the train is in the smoking room–but perhaps there’s a consolation as Richard takes note of the presence of an attractive young lady he’d noticed also exiting from the Glasgow-London train.

Z murdersWithin a few minutes, the Z Murderer claims the first victim, and Richard is left as a witness to the crime. Strangely the young lady who was in the smoking room at the time of the murder vanishes, and Richard, after talking to the police, goes off in hot pursuit of the mystery woman and becomes embroiled in the case.

Since I already mentioned that this is the story of a serial killer, it should come as no surprise that the body count rises. The killer leaves round tokens bearing the letter Z at each crime scene while creating fear and mayhem across the country. This is essentially a fast paced chase novel with relentless action which takes place over the course of just two days.

The Z Murders begins with a very strong start indeed, but ultimately this is my least favourite of the collection so far. While Death of an Airman, for example, allows the reader plenty of opportunity to solve (or try to solve) the mystery, we are clueless as to what is happening in this book. Richard, enamored with the mystery woman, knows that she holds crucial evidence about the case, and yet at the same time, he doesn’t suspect her of the crimes. Richard is chasing the young woman, Sylvia Wynne, and Detective Inspector James chases the pair of them. Richard, with faith that a young woman who is so beautiful couldn’t be bad, has no idea what is going on, but primed by a desire to protect Sylvia, he withholds essential information and evades the police too.

“There was a time when I, like you, rebelled against the idea of coupling crime with beauty, But facts beat us, sir.”

In a sense, Richard’s journey is also the reader’s journey. The essential information pours forth at the end of the book, and it’s a lot of digest all at once.

As I have a fondness for books set, or partially set on trains, I particularly appreciated those scenes. Worthy of specific mention is the book’s most memorable character, the policeman, Dutton, an intrepid master of disguise. He pops up all over the place in various incarnations.

Dutton’s methods were the reverse of soothing. Sometimes he stuck close. Sometimes he pretended to lose himself. His absence was as nerve-racking as his presence, because you could never depend on it. Just when you believed you had shaken him off, you would spot him up a by-street, or find his reflection on a shop-window. he was never disturbed by discovery. He merely smiled or winked.

“You think you’re winning, don’t you?” Richard growled once, as they met on the top of a bus.

“Bound to win, sir,’ he replied. “I’ve got the whole of the law behind me.”

“If only you had the sense to see that I’m not against the law!”

“Then why not join up with the law, sir.”

“We’ve already discussed that.”

The Z Murders is a bit of a curiosity in terms of the evolution of the police. These days Richard would be arrested for obstruction of justice, but in this 1932 novel, Detective Inspector James comes to some sort of gentleman’s agreement with Richard by granting a lack of cooperation for a period of time. At several points in the novel, Dutton laments that Richard doesn’t trust the police, and there’s the implied idea that Richard, as a gentleman, is above the law, or at the very least, must be handled differently.

“Well, it’s a pity some of these nice young chaps with good faith can’t trust a bit more in ours, and fall into line,” observed Dutton, feelingly.

Whereas Death of an Airman, written by Marxist author Christopher St John Sprigg, was refreshingly devoid of class attitudes, class plays an immense role in Farjeon’s novel. Plus then there’s the issue of victims–Farjeon makes them all unpleasant or of no-account–which in one case is a bit distasteful. Obviously we’re not supposed to waste time on sympathy, and as I mentioned, in one case, this reflects the attitudes of the times.

In spite of the novel’s faults, I’ll be trying Farjeon again soon as most of the book was an addictive read. He’s the brother, by the way, of children’s author Eleanor Farjeon, and nearly all of his books (a huge list) are OOP.

Review copy.

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Manhunters: Criminal Profilers and Their Search for the World’s Most Wanted Serial Killers by Colin Wilson

After reading about Victorian Murderesses and the way crime solution was handled in the 19th century, I was ready for another non-fiction on crime detection. That brings me to Manhunters: Criminal Profilers and Their Search for the World’s Most Wanted Serial Killers by Colin Wilson. The book, a reprint from 2007, began very promisingly with a rather chilling introduction about the shifting nature of murder. While compiling his Encyclopedia of Murder, Wilson states that he “noticed a variety of murder” that he was unable to “fit into the old classifications.” This variety, Wilson argues and cites with examples, is the “motiveless murders.” Wilson argues that murder “changes from century to century,” while noting that during the “second half of the nineteenth century a new category of crime began to emerge: sex crime.”  He refers to The Chronicles of Crime or the New Newgate Calendar to bolster his argument, with the fact that of the 500 plus cases mentioned only seven were for rape. Were there statistically less rapes then than now?  Could this be true? Or is it a matter of reporting? We know that the crime of rape historically carries a stigma for its victims, so was the crime just less reported in the nineteenth century?

Casting my mind back over history and various aspects of villainy, did women report when they were raped by the mongol hordes, the Roman legions, marauding pirates or the Vikings?  No, of course not; this is absurd as there was nowhere to ‘report’ the crime–no Bow Street Runners back in those days. Plus there’s the matter of reportage and a lack of media; we do know, however, that Tacitus wrote concerning the rape of Boudica’s daughters by the Romans, and that she took matters into her own hands. …

So were Victorian women not subject to the same sort of sexual assault that is historically known to have occurred or did they simply not report it? Plus then I think about Victorian women in general. Victorian Murderesses argues that the New Women were much more vulnerable to potentially scandalous situations as they began to mingle more freely in society. Arguably, however, the lower classes would have much more vulnerable to rape than the middle and upper classes. After all we know that many women were accompanied by chaperones and were never left alone with men, so by extension, rape victims would have been more likely to be found in the lower classes. Would a maid report her employer? Would a woman report the lord of the manor? Would a poor woman even bother reporting a rape to the police? Would the Victorian police even have paid attention to such a complaint if a barmaid reported she’d been sexually assaulted on the way home?

All these questions were running through my mind as I read the first chapter.

manhuntersInitially the book started very well, and began by giving me the sort of information I’d hoped for–the first time the term “serial killer” was used for example (FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler, 1977, if interested). The first chapter covers the history of criminal profiling which the author argues “for all practical purposes, this began on 1950 with a series of explosions in New York City attributed to the “Mad Bomber.” Frustrated with no leads in the case, the police consulted psychiatrist Dr. James A Brussel, a man who’d spent a great deal of his career working with the criminally insane. The Mad Bomber helped out by sending a flurry of letters, and Dr Brussel was able to provide the police with, as it turned out, a remarkably accurate profile of the bomber. Brussel was also called in on the Boston Strangler murders, and this chapter explains some of the controversies surrounding that case and how Brussel’s argument that all the crimes were committed by one killer, and not two as other experts argued, won the day.

Chapter 2 details the establishment of the FBI Academy of Quantico and draws in some big figures in the history of 20th century crime detection–instructors: Howard Teten, Robert K Ressler,  Patrick J. Mullany, and LAPD detective Pierce Brook. Brooks, as a LA detective who caught a serial killer based on hours and hours of pouring through files and newspaper clippings argued for a computer system in which crimes “solved and unsolved” were logged. This system was eventually developed as the VICAP (Violent Crimes Apprehension Program). This chapter also covers the “first serial killer to be caught with the aid of the FBI’s new investigative technique.” Chapter 5: The Behavioural Science Unit covers how the “Hoover old Guard” stymied innovative changes to crime solution (The Criminal Personality Research Project), and that for the younger agents, it was a matter of waiting for some people to retire until they could solve serial murders by adopting new approaches.  Chapter six includes a section on “organized versus disorganized” serial killers. Fascinating stuff if you’re into this.

The remainder of the book covers some of the most heinous cases in the history of serial killing and include: Manson, Bundy, Gacy, Dean Arnold Corll, the Hillside Stranglers, the Zodiac, the Atlanta Child Murders, Andrea Chikatilo, and The Night Stalker. Another chapter details Profiling in Britain. Some of the chapters were disappointing as profiling was subsumed by gruesome details of the cases themselves, so that it wasn’t profiling under examination so much as piles of corpses with the killers being caught not due to profiling as much as by mistakes, body parts & carelessness. If you’re familiar with the cases at all, you may be disappointed by the grim rehashing of details instead of the emphasis on profiling.

On a final note, when people, writers, detectives, psychiatrists, sociologists, study these serial killers, there’s an obsessive component to it. Perhaps even a fascination. I just finished watching True Detective, and I’d say that the character of Russ Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey shows that sort of obsessive fascination whereas his partner, Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) does not. Does that obsessive-fascination make Cohle the better detective? And if so when does that obsessive fascination go too far? A few of these killers mentioned in the book, once incarcerated, took to publishing  their “insights” (Ian Brady) or fiction (“sadistic sex killer” George Schaefer’s Killer Fiction). Author Colin Wilson describes the publication process with Brady and acknowledges that it was “wishful thinking” that Brady could ever see himself “objectively.” According to Wilson, these books are “interesting solely as an insight into the mind of a sadistic killer,” but IMO it’s frankly immoral, and misguided, to publish such stuff in which the killer either justifies these crimes or details violent sex porn fantasies.

Review copy

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Joyland by Stephen King

First the disclaimer: I am not a Stephen King fan, and that’s mainly because I’m not a reader of horror fiction, but Joyland is a Hard Case Crime title, and I’m Hard Case fan. I mention not being a Stephen King fan because he is a popular author and while I’m sure that Joyland is going to attract new readers, I can’t say how this book compares to his other work. While I’d never read a Stephen King novel, I’ll admit to a mild curiosity due to the fact that I have watched and enjoyed a number of films based on his work. The films I’ve seen frequently explore the themes of innocence vs evil, youth and the loss of innocence, the layers beneath small town American life, and, all this of course, often laced with the supernatural.

JoylandJoyland is narrated by a man in his 60s who recalls events that took place forty years earlier. There’s a great deal of nostalgia in the telling of this tale–not just for lost youth, but also for lost love, lost ideals, and even for a lost America. This is a quintessential American novel, and by that I mean that you can’t read it and imagine that it is taking place anywhere else. At the same time, King presents an America that never really existed. The story is set in a small seaside town called Heaven’s Bay. It’s 1973 and 21-year-old virgin, Devin Jones, takes a job working at a carnival, Joyland for the summer:

1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edwin G. Robinson and Noel Coward died.

See what I mean about the nostalgia? It’s hard these days to imagine a time when anyone imagined that politicians were anything other than ____, ____, _____, ____ (fill in the blanks), but back in the day, a number of people were genuinely shocked about Watergate. Notice how the author weaves in several issues is that little sentence: petrol rationing, concerns about energy, unrest in the Middle East, political crookery, and rather interestingly, the death of one of the acting greats who immortalized the portrayal of gangsters on the screen.

So our protagonist, Devin, separated from his long-time girlfriend for the summer, takes a job at Joyland–a low rent seaside carnival, owned by an old-school idealistic owner who believes in treating his employees and customers well, and here’s his pep talk for employees:

This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don’t already know that will come to know it. Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun. In exchange for the hard-earned dollars of your customers, you will parcel out happiness. Children will go home and dream of what they saw here and what they did here.

King is not a subtle writer, but then again I think many of the moves he makes here are very deliberate. The place names are so obvious, you trip over them: Joyland, Heaven’s  Bay, Heaven Beach, but these very obvious elements to the story are matched by elements that are not so screamingly obvious. The carnival workers, for example, are a motley bunch, and no one seems to be quite who they say they are.

Devin, that clean-cut American boy, so clean-cut that he’s a virgin and drinks milk, takes a room at  Mrs Shoplaw’s Beachside Accomodations. She’s an interesting woman who is generous, kind, and welcoming to her summer lodgers–again there’s that sense of a world that doesn’t exist. It’s Mrs. Shoplaw who tells Devin about the ghost that haunts Joyland’s Horror House, the ghost of a girl who was brutally murdered on the ride–her throat slit and her body dumped beside the tracks. The murder was never solved. There’s  something very innocent about Devin, and sometimes innocence is a protection and at other times it’s a liability. Devin, of course, becomes involved in the old murder case while also losing that innocence and finally accepting some truths about his life.

Joyland is an unusual title for Hard Case Crime. It’s not hard-boiled, but crimes are committed, and because this is, after all, Stephen King, there’s a supernatural element to the tale. I’ve read reviews of the book that call it a masterpiece, and while I wouldn’t go that far, nonetheless, I’m glad I read it. After watching many Stephen King film adaptations, Joyland is about what I expected with its theme of the power of the good against the power of evil. The transition to adulthood is a dodgy period in which an individual can make any number of bad choices, but in Devin’s case, he repeatedly does good deeds and takes a definite stand against evil. The penultimate scene is presaged by Devin’s actions within the park, and incidents in which he doesn’t think, he acts. Each of these incidents are seemingly unconnected, but in reality, in a mystical sort of way, Devin is repeatedly tested by fate and with each incident, his aura of goodness strengthens for the moment of his final battle. As odd as this may sound, I thought about King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and how the knights had to sally forth on quests that basically became the moral measure of each man. The story’s nostalgia is nicely conveyed with Devin still not quite come to terms with the people he met and lost, so consequently the story is laced with a patina of loss and sadness.

Review copy.

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The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook

“The road to moral horror is never direct. There are always ramps and stairs, corridors, and tunnels, the secret chamber forever concealed from those who would be appalled by what they found there.”

I get a lot of snooty looks when people ask me what I am reading and I reply ‘crime fiction.’ That’s not the only type of novel I read, but it seems inevitable that I have a crime novel in my hand when someone asks me that question. I also get a range of snotty replies which range from: “oh … I don’t like wasting my time on that sort of book,” (like I’m reading porno) to “You should read something worthwhile. I wouldn’t waste my time on something like that.” Whatever. Up Yours. I read what I want to read.

But once in a while, I come across a fellow crime reader and we have a nice little chat about our favourite sort of crime novels. After all, there’s no such thing as an ‘average’ crime novel–that’s a huge umbrella term. Crime novels run the gamut from cozies set in picturesque, quaint English villages to very violent, heavily detailed novels about predators and their sick pastimes. I don’t care for cozy mysteries but neither do I like to wallow in torture details. Give me a crime novel that teaches me something and stretches the genre into something special, and that brings me to The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook. Is this a crime novel? Well the word is in the title, so crime is definitely part of the equation, but the novel is much, much more than that. It’s also an exploration of the nature of guilt, and on a larger scale, a treatise on the basest aspects of human nature. Thomas H. Cook has a reputation for writing cerebral crime novels with a strong psychological component, and that description is certainly well-deserved in The Crime of Julian Wells.

The book begins with the suicide of middle-aged American author Julian Wells. He leaves no note–no clues as to why he chose to kill himself on this day, in this fashion, and as is usually the case with suicides, family and friends are left to put together the pieces as they try to understand what happened and whether or not they failed in some way.

Julian, a writer with a respectable reputation occasionally lived at Montauk with his widowed sister, Loretta. The rest of the time, he spent either travelling the world researching his non-fiction books and articles or writing in a rented garret in Pigalle. Loretta, and Julian’s friend, literary critic Philip are the two people Julian left behind. After talking about Julian’s last weeks, Loretta and Philip identify a few peculiarities in his behaviour: a cancelled trip, unusual agitation, and a circled place on a map–the Argentinian village of Clara Vista right next to the border with Paraguay. Stunned by Julian’s death, Philip begins to question all of his memories and conversations with Julian. He is drawn to solving the mystery behind Julian’s suicide which he begins to believe is somehow connected to a month-long trip the two men took to Argentina thirty years previously.

Philip questions whether Julian committed suicide due to his prolonged exposure to depressing subjects. After all, he’d spent a lifetime delving into the darkest deeds of humankind.  With each book, Julian immersed himself in the crimes under consideration, and according to Loretta, “he was like a man in a locked room, trying to get out.”  Julian’s books never followed a template. His first book was The Tortures of Cuenca (about afabled injusticethat took place in Spain 1911), and there was also a study of Gille de Rais, The Terror, and a book about the crimes of Countess Bathory, The Tigress. Julian also wrote about serial killer, Henri Landru, the crimes of Paul Voulet, and the horrendous massacre at Oradour in 1944. Julian’s latest book, six years in the making and to be published posthumously, is The Commissar, the story of Russian serial killer Chikatilo. Loretta feels Julian’s constant exposure to some of the worst human behaviour cost her brother dearly and that “each book was like a nail in his coffin.” And our narrator agrees:

I thought of how he’d spent his last six years following the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo’s path through countless dismal towns, sleeping in the same railway stations, eating black bread and cheese, eying the vagabond children who had been Chikatilo’s prey, becoming him, as Julian always seemed to do while writing about such villains.

Philip’s father, a retired state department official, doesn’t believe that Julian was ‘tainted’ by his work, but rather that he had “morbid” tendencies. Was Julian’s suicide the result of 30 years of researching the lives of psychopaths and their victims? In the end, was all that darkness too much for Julian to absorb? Or was there something behind Julian’s obsession with the many faces of evil and his very particular interest in disguise and deceit? There seemed to be some desperate need behind Julian’s work to explore and understand cruelty that had nothing to do with his writing career or selling novels. Julian’s work seemed integral to his character: 

The deeds that drew him were the darkest that we know, and he’d pursued them with the urgency of a lover.

The Crime of Julian Wells takes us to Pigalle, London, Moscow, and Argentina as Philip retraces Julian’s career, but all roads lead back to Argentina and Philip and Julian’s vacation during the years of that country’s Dirty War. Along the way, we meet some very Graham Greenesque characters from Julian’s shady underworld: a hearty but suspicious former KGB agent, and René, Julian’s liason in France.

The Crime of Julian Wells narrowly misses being sublime, and its one, fault, and I hesitate to write that word as I enjoyed the novel a great deal, can be found in the character of Philip. He’s Julian’s doppelgänger, and yet he’s also a blank slate in many ways. While he’s necessary to the plot’s structure and revelations, he’s not that interesting a character in his own right, and so he acts as a device that folds back the layers of the past. In spite of this, The Crime of Julian Wells is a wonderful crime novel for many reasons. For all the anti-crime novel snobs out there, with allusions to Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, author Thomas H. Cook shows just how serious and philosophical a crime novel can be. The characters aren’t solving crimes as much as they try to find the answers to haunting questions concerning the nature of guilt, the utter randomness of cruelty, how some people can sleep well, eat, and laugh after horrendous acts of cruelty while others can never expiate their guilt, and how easy it is for someone to simply disappear….

For here was Julian’s sense of life’s cruel randomness, life a lottery upon whose uncontrollable outcome everything depended, how because this streetcar stopped on this particular corner at this particular moment, nothing for this particular human being would ever be the same again.

Review copy.

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The Retribution by Val McDermid

“I won’t deny that the people who do this kind of thing fascinate me. The more disturbed they are, the more I want to figure out what makes them tick.”

I’ve been reading Val McDermid for several years now, and that makes me a fan. I first came across this versatile author through the book The Mermaids Singing which was, as it turned out, the first in a new series. This series teamed together psychologist Tony Hill with DI Carol Jordan, and these books then formed the basis for a television series, Wire in the Blood. I use the term versatile when describing McDermid because while she’s a prolific writer who sticks to crime, she’s capable of seismic shifts while still keeping within the perimeters of the genre. She’s written a number of stand-alone psychological novels ( A Darker Domain, A Place of Execution) which are comparable to the best psychological novels written by Ruth Rendell, and in 2011 she wrote the crime novel Trick of the Dark which featured a lesbian detective. This novel that may well herald a new series character. There’s also the Kate Brannigan seriesa series which features a Manchester PI –much lighter fare for McDermid, and the Lindsay Gordon series. It’s all a matter of taste of course, but I think McDermid’s stand-alone psychological crime novels are her finest work.

The Retribution is the seventh novel in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. Since a series detective novel covers the personal life of its main character(s), The Retribution is no exception. Life is marching on for both Carol and Tony. She has just taken a new job in West Mercia and so she’s on the verge of moving out of Bradford when two things stop her in her tracks:

1) A serial killer stalks the streets of Bradford picking up prostitutes, torturing and killing them

2) The bold prison escape of Jacko Vance who’s hell-bent on revenge against Tony and Carol.

Jacko Vance appeared in the second novel in the Hill/Jordan series, Wire in the Blood. While he savagely murdered seventeen teenage girls and a police officer, only one charge stuck, but it’s a life sentence, nonetheless. The novel begins with Jacko Vance’s intricate escape plan from the lower security prison he’s managed to fanangle his way into, and then smoothly segues into the discovery of the corpse of the third victim of Bradford’s newest serial killer.

The novel includes tidbits of forensic information for crime groupies as well as revealing the complexities of the inner-thoughts of two homicidal maniacs. Jacko Vance is a good-looking, manipulative former TV personality who was at one time an athlete until an accident left him with just one arm. Vance is also extremely intelligent:

Escapology was like magic. The secret lay in misdirection. Some escapes were accomplished by creating an illusion through careful planning; others were genuine feats of strength, daring and flexibility, both mental and physical; and some were mixtures of both. But whatever the methods, the element of misdirection always played a crucial role. And when it came to misdirection, he called no man his master.

Best of all was the misdirection that the onlooker didn’t even know was happening. To accomplish that you had to make your diversion blend into the spectrum of normal.

Makes me think of the way Ted Bundy wore a fake sling or a cast in order to sway his victims into seeing him as potentially harmless and in need of help.

 As an evil creation, Jacko Vance strains the bounds of believability at times. This is always a danger when writing this type of novel, and while serial killers can be brilliant, cunning, and athletic all in one, at times Jacko seems more suited for an X-man villain than anything else. While The Retribution is a page-turner, no argument here, the details are gruesome. The novel is certainly concerned with the why, but the how also plays no small role. The term ‘crime novel’ covers such a vast range of material, and those who like cozies will keel over if they read this. No comforting tea and crumpets, no bloodless crimes that occur off the page. Some pages are like reading a crime scene report, so be prepared.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley.

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Filed under Fiction, McDermid, Val

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Occupied Paris by David King

The soldier remembered one conversation about the morality of theft, Petiot arguing that it was perfectly natural:

 “How do you think that the great fortunes and colonies have been made? By theft, war, and conquest.”

“Then morality does not exist?”

“No,” Petiot answered, “it is the law of the jungle, always. Morality has been created for those who possess so that you do not retake the things gained from their own rapines.”

A few years ago, I came across the French film Doctor Petiot. I’d never heard of this man before, but after watching the film, I knew I’d never forget him. I also vowed that one day I’d read a non-fiction account of Petiot and his crimes. Well ‘one day’ arrived recently with the publication of David King’s well-researched book, Death in the City of Light.

Death in the City of Light begins on March 11, 1944 with a fire at a house located at 21 Rue Le Soeur. To the numerous bystanders it appeared as though the house’s chimney was on fire. The fire department arrived on the scene, broke in and discovered a slaughter house with dismembered body parts strewn about the floor. But this was nothing compared to the contents of the basement: personal items which clearly belonged to dozens of people, jars filled with human genitals, a lime pit which contained even more body parts, and an ad-hoc surgery area for dismemberment, scalping, and the removal of internal organs. Obviously French police had a serial killer on their hands. Or did they?

Although it seems fairly clear-cut that the human remains found at the house at La Rue de Soeur were the result of a maniac, things immediately became murky. The house belonged to French physician, Marcel Petiot, a collector of fine art, a very wealthy man who also had a reputation for helping the poor and drug addicts. Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu of the Homicide Squad was in charge of the case (for Simenon fans, Massu served as inspiration for Inspector Maigret), and initially he suspected that the police had stumbled on a house used by the Gestapo. The La Soeur house was just around the corner from a Gestapo building and this combined with the flagrant brutality and sheer number of the victims made Gestapo involvement likely:

A swastika had flown over the building across from Petiot’s property. The garage at No. 22 had been appropriated by Albert Speer’s Organization Todt, a vast supply company that supervised German construction projects in Occupied Europe.

If the murders at Petiot’s house had indeed been committed by the Gestapo, this created a very delicate situation for Massu since “the French police, of course, had no authority over the Gestapo or any of its activities.” I’ve often thought that wartime creates a fertile opportunity to mask other crimes, and the possibilities expands exponentially with the idea of an occupation. The author takes the time to clarify both Massu’s uncertainty and the chaos of the times–people were disappearing daily. Some were swallowed up by prison, others were tortured and tossed out dead somewhere, and still others were shipped off to concentration camps. Massu’s initial feeling that Petiot’s building was a Gestapo torture house did not pan out, however, for a couple of reasons. Massu was not warned off of the investigation by the Gestapo, and there were no Gestapo personnel on site when the grisly discovery was made. Moreover, shortly after the fire began, a mystery man appeared on a bicycle. Grabbing the attention of the patrolmen, the mystery man said that the corpses inside the house “are the bodies of Germans and traitors to our country.” 

As Massu tries to capture Petiot and identify some of the remains in the La Soeur house, the question of whether or not Petiot was indeed an agent of the Gestapo or a member of the Resistance emerges repeatedly. Author David King takes both possible scenarios and deconstructs the myths which surround both stories. Tracing Petiot’s chequered career, a portrait of Petiot begins to emerge–a troubled childhood, “signs of imbalance,” various stays in mental asylums, a political career fraught with scandal, kleptomania and corruption, and also various charges that he supplied a legion of drug addicts with a steady supply. And then there are the many instances of people disappearing when they stood in Petiot’s way….

Author David King follows Massu’s investigation as he tries to discover just who Petiot really was, and the investigation, naturally, in the absence of the culprit, expands into the identity of the victims. Evidence mounts that Petiot claimed to run an underground railroad for wealthy Jews who were attempting to escape the Nazis, but the bones in the basement argue that these travellers arrived at Petiot’s home but did not leave. The case was further complicated by the fact that Petiot had been arrested and held by the Gestapo for a considerable number of months, and also by the fact that the Gestapo had tried to infiltrate the underground escape route by sending a young Jewish man, whose freedom had been bought by his family through bribes, into Petiot’s operation. Naturally he disappeared. King also throughly investigates Petiot’s possible ties to the Gestapo and also his relationship with the Carlingue. It’s quite a task to unravel all the possibilities here, but King does his job masterfully–tying in Petiot with the darkest segments of the Paris underworld.

While I throughly enjoyed the visually stunning film Dr. Petiot, the complexities of this case were largely absent, and the film portrayed Petiot as a maniac, who treated his patients for free, while luring wealthy Jews to their doom. Death in the City of Light makes it clear that Petiot, a dangerous chameleon, did not have a philanthropic bone in his sick little body, and that so-called free treatment was just a way of embezzling the state. Furthermore, the book explores the intricacies of Petiot’s relationship with Henri Lafont and the Carlingue, and this link certainly explains just why Petiot operated so freely for so long.  A large portion of the book concentrates on Petiot’s trial, and at this point, Petiot, who’d managed to hide some of his egomaniacal tendencies, went wild in the spotlight–even making anti-semitic slips at some points. The trial turned into a media and social event with many spectators enjoying Petiot’s performance, and the testimony was spiced up considerably by the appearance of Rudolphina Kahan who “looked like a spy on the Orient Express.” Petiot seemed to nurse a crush on this woman who served as one of his many scouts. Petiot’s show-off performance was reminiscent of the trial of Lacenaire, and there are indeed some similarities between the two men–although Petiot’s murderous rampage far exceeded Lacenaire’s.

The film portayed Petiot as a ghoulish figure who rode his bicycle through the streets of Paris at night, and physically the dark rings under Petiot’s eyes reminded me of Cesare from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I was delighted to see this same connection made in the book by a journalist who attended the trial. Death in the City of Light includes many photographs, and Petiot really looks like a nut-job.

There are several names in the book: Adrian the Basque, Jo the Boxer, Henri Lafont, Pierre Bony, Francois the Corsican, Zé. I’m still looking for a book (in English) on the subject of the Carlingue, so if anyone knows a source, please let me know.

(my copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on my kindle)

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Filed under King David, Non Fiction