Tag Archives: serial killer

Listening in the Dusk: Celia Fremlin

The novels of Celia Fremlin remind me of the intensely psychological crime books written by one of great favourites: Ruth Rendell. In The Hours Before Dawn, a young mother, overwhelmed by her new responsibilities, fails to see the danger close at hand. In Uncle Paul, the inescapable past catches up to three very different sisters. That brings me to Listening in the Dusk, a novel set in a third rate London boarding house, and here the psychological threat is the sensation of ever encroaching danger. Do the walls protect the tenants from the hunter who lurks outside?

I have a soft spot for novels set in boarding houses and hotels as the plots hold the promise of throwing characters together in settings which create relationships which would not exist in other circumstances. This is definitely true in Listening in the Dusk and the boarding house owned by the eccentric Mrs Harman–a woman with a penchant for taking in strays–not cats–stray human beings.

“You’ll like Hetty, Alice, she’s as kind as can be, as I expect you’ve discovered. She just loves people with problems. Do you have a problem, Alice? A real, juicy humdinger of a disaster? If so, you’re in!”

Alice, “a deserted wife, pushing forty,” arrives on Mrs. Harman’s doorstep. Mrs. Harman, “call me Hetty,” is an unconventional, haphazard landlady. Alice has no references and she’s desperate, so she moves in with just a suitcase and a set of Jane Austen novels, to the only space available–a bleak attic room which serves as a storage area for all the other tenants. Somehow, the room which is beyond substandard, seems a perfect place for Alice to heal from her husband’s unexpected betrayal. It matters little that the room is freezing, filthy and full of junk; to Alice it’s a refuge. Maybe the dump just matches her mood.

It had been a good marriage, despite being childless. Or maybe because of being childless, each of them having no one but the other to please. Over the years, they’d had lots of fun together as well as love; indeed, it was the memory of the fun, and the betrayal of it, that hurt even more than the betrayal of love. She felt that she could perhaps have forgiven Rodney’s loving another woman; it was the drying-up of intimate, long-standing jokes that hurt most; the blank uncomprehending stare with which he began to greet her amusing little anecdotes that would once have sent them into fits of shared laughter. This was the real betrayal.

Thanks to Hetty’s unconventional arrangements, Alice finds herself mingling with the other tenants–all other strays in one way or another, all damaged people. But perhaps the biggest puzzle is Mary, a young girl who fends off all attempts at friendship, and who can seem downright hostile when approached.

The novel’s setting and characters are marvelously done. The serial killer aspect was a tad too dramatic for my tastes and the other two Fremlin novels I read, also Women in Peril tales, focused on fear and paranoia. Serial killers within crime novels up-the-stakes and take crime to another level. Still I enjoyed Listening in the Dusk, but it ranks at the bottom of the 3 read so far. If you like Ruth Rendell, and you haven’t tried Celia Fremlin, what are you waiting for?

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The Less Dead: Denise Mina

In Denise Mina’s gritty crime novel, The Less Dead, single Glaswegian doctor Margo, following the death of her adoptive mother, seeks out her birth family, only to collide into a dark world of murder. Margo discovers a cache of letters from her birth mother’s sister but kept from her by her adoptive mother. Margo arranges a meeting with her long-lost relative, and after a few minutes spent in the company of her Aunt Nikki, it would seem that Margo was extremely lucky to have been adopted–even if that situation wasn’t perfect.

When people decide to go hunting for lost friends or relatives, there’s usually some impetus at work, and that is true in both Margo and Nikki’s case. Margo, who has just split for her long-term boyfriend (well, sort of) is pregnant, and with her personal life stagnating, she becomes curious about her past. In Nikki’s case, she wants to enlist Margo’s help in catching the man who murdered Margo’s mother decades earlier, a 19 -year-old sex worker named Susan.

While Margo wants to take the whole reunion thing slowly, and is interested in finding out about her birth mother, she is ill prepared to learn the ugly truth. It’s earth shattering to discover that she was the child of a heroin addict, and that her Aunt Nikki, who seems somewhat unbalanced, was also a heroin user.

Given the class divide, the meeting between Margo and Nikki does not go well. Nikki isn’t really interested in Margo as a person, she only wants to enlist her help in the hunt for Susan’s killer. Nikki insists that the murderer is a dirty cop. It’s just all too much for Margo, and she walks away. Naturally over the years, she’d imagined her birth family, but nothing she imagined prepared her for the truth.

Splintered. She imagined all of these alternative selves existed in parade worlds and these other lives have meant so much to her. They fostered possibilities and comforted her when things were miserable at home.

But once Margo is aware of her past, she can’t undo the knowledge, so it’s down the rabbit hole: soon she’s looking at news reports and even graphic crime scene photos. Margo’s interest in the case and her contact with Nikki stirs the slumbering past. Margo was unknowingly protected by class, education and in essence a new identity. All of those protections disappear once she steps into the nightmare of her mother’s murder.

The class divide between Margo and Nikki is well created, and since Margo is the spitting image of her mother, there’s a weird time warp effect as Nikki explains Glasgow’s terrible history of heroin use, and the murders of sex workers who were seen as easy targets by predators. There are parallel realities here: Nikki’s world in which women are slaughtered and no one cares, and Margo’s world where sex workers are far off in the hidden corners of society. There’s some great secondary characters here including author Jack Robertson, whose self-published book. Terror on the Streets argues that the murdered sex workers were victims of a serial killer which is contrary to the police claims. For crime fans, this is an entertaining read. Not gory, and the premise is off the beaten track.

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Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

“How am I to know you’re not some criminal lunatic?”

Ingrid Noll’s Hell Hath No Fury is a darkly funny tale of obsession, murder, and female competition for a worthless man. The tale, told by an insane stalker who sees her actions as perfectly reasonable and granting her a new enthusiasm for life, examines two questions: how far would someone go to get what they want and do they really want it anyway?

52 -year-old dowdy spinster Rosemarie Hirte leads a quiet life; she’s a good, reliable employee, and she’s only had a couple of romantic relationships. After being dumped by a fellow law student in her youth, she never managed to finish her degree, but instead moved into the insurance business. Now she lives in an apartment in Mannheim, and she has a friend, Beate, a woman she first knew in school. Beate, at one point, had everything that Rosemarie didn’t: a husband, a home, a family, and a social life. “Deep down” Rosemarie is “consumed with hostility towards so much sunshine,” but when Beate’s marriage ends, the two women become closer.

Hell hath no fury

Due to Beate’s drive towards self-improvement and new experiences, Rosemarie first sets eyes on middle-aged academic Rainer Witold Engstern. She becomes obsessed with him, has her hair cut, begins wearing clothes that are “romantically frivolous,” and begins stalking him.

Throughout this tale, the figure of Frau Romer, an older woman who works with Rosemarie, flits in and out of the narrative. With significant health issues, she lodges her elderly dog with Rosemarie, and the dog becomes a prop in Rosemarie’s twisted schemes to be with Witold.

Now I had a crazy idea. I thumbed through the telephone directory. Where did my Rainer Witold Engstern live? Or should I just call him Witold? My first flick through produced nothing, but at last I struck oil. R. Engstern, Ladenburg–got him! Good grief, with no rush-hour traffic, I could drive there in fifteen minutes. I even dug out a street plan of Ladenburg and found his street too, a little way outside the old town. The dog was giving me questioning looks. I felt young, thirsting for adventure. I still had a jogging outfit from my last day at the spa in Bad Sassbach, although I never wore it. So, on with that, dog on its lead, down the stairs, into the car and off we go!

A few trips, later spying on Witold’s house, Rosemarie decides the mess in his home is due to his “slovenly bitch” wife, who is conspicuously absent. It’s the appearance of Witold’s wife that sets a macabre chain of events into motion, and as Rosemarie wheedles her way into Witold’s world, the women in his life don’t realize that they have a rival who will stop at nothing to win the prize. Such as it is…

Hell Hath No Fury is brilliantly and unreliably narrated by Rosemarie. She tends to see what she wants to see, and this twisted vision leads down the path to murder. Rosemarie is the sort of woman people don’t notice, a woman defined by her status and not by the bitter, seething, buried cauldron of repressed desire and emotion bubbling away just under the surface. She lives the life of a “martinet,” keeping her spleen to herself when parents wax on about their children and their love lives. Rosemarie loathes the parent-child bond, hates other women, especially if they are attractive and can cook, and she knows she is one of the “leftovers sat on the fringes like fossils.” She’s always been hiding in plain sight, but it’s her desire for Witold that unleashes her true nature.

As the story progresses, Witold is clueless, and being in his self-centered, not particularly bright orbit, Rosemarie begins to wonder if the prize is worth all the effort, but by this point, she’s narcotized by “an addictive urge,” the power of wielding life and death.

The dark humour springs from the incongruity of Rosemarie as a serial killer and the tart, spiteful inner dialogue about the people she socialises with. Most of Witold’s friends include her as a form of kindness which is rather wasted on Rosemarie. Rosemarie’s thought processes seem so very reasonable, but juxtaposed with her actions, the story takes on a macabre comic tone. She toys with the idea of whether or not to kill someone with the lightness of tone that’s more appropriate to deciding which shirt to wear.  At one point she experiments with poison and decides: “No I told myself, poisoning is not my thing.”

And when I arrived at the last page, I laughed out loud.

Highly, highly recommended

Translated by Ian Mitchell

(This is one of my picks for German literature month, and many thanks to Caroline for pointing me towards this author. )

 

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The Lady Killer: Masako Togawa (1963)

Earlier this year I read Masako Togawa’s The Master Key–a rather claustrophobic novel set in a decaying apartment house. Time to try The Lady Killer also from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo line of crime novels. This novel which pivots on revenge concerns a married Lothario whose approach to casual sex and one-night stands assumes nightmarish proportions as a serial killer hunts women in post WWII Tokyo.

Unhappy, overworked, 19 year-old Keiko Obana is not used to bars or drinking alcohol, but one night, with life stagnant and despressing, she makes the fatal error of entering a bar and drinking too much. She’s easy prey for a man who picks her up, has sex with her and then walks out of her life. It’s a simple one-night stand, casual sex with no repercussions, right? IMO casual sex is an oxymoron–not from a moral point of view, but from a consequences (long-term, short-term) viewpoint. Yes I’m sure that many people manage it effectively but other people are far too brittle and Keiko, a virgin, is one of those brittle people.

the lady killer

Fast forward six months and Keiko, pregnant and alone, commits suicide. Meanwhile the man who seduced her, married Ichiro Honda, continues to lead his double life. With his affluent wife safely stashed in Osaka, he lives in hotel rooms and hides his various disguises, all aimed at the seduction of young, lonely women, in a rented apartment.

Honda had a way with women. He had the faculty of penetrating their psychology at the first meeting. Was the woman interested in the arts? Very well, he would be a musician or a painter. 

Honda is a narcissist. He keeps a detailed journal, “The Huntsman’s Log,” of his conquests and he’s adopted the methods of a killer. He stalks women, and then frequently presents himself as a foreigner, faking a coy vulnerability to catch his prey off guard. When some of the women from his past are murdered, Honda, who really wants to think it’s a coincidence, finds out the hard way that his actions have consequences.

The novel’s premise is intriguing: Honda is a predator who thinks what he does is harmless. He gives women what he decides they want by filling a void in their dull lives. He has no clue about the damage he does, and the serial killer seems to deliver the coup de grâce.

The Lady Killer creates two predators: a serial seducer and a serial killer. The author creates similarities between the Modus Operandi of both emphasizing Honda’s calculated approaches such as “drinking the stale blood” of one woman’s “missed romance” and seeing women as “no more than tinplate targets at a shooting gallery in a fair.” The killer is on the heels of the seducer, and Honda is soon in so deep, he can’t see a way out.

While The Master Key examines the lives of spinsters and widows, The Lady Killer takes a cold hard look at the lives of the lonely women who step out into social life. The novel is strongest for its descriptions of Tokyo night life with its tinsel attractions, where “the aroma of Tokyo seemed to be compounded of darkness and neon.” Unfortunately, for this reader, the story became rather lurid and distasteful in its details and concluded with a long exposition which wrapped up the story.

Review copy

Translated by Simon Grove

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The Vanishing: Tim Krabbe

“Smooth as spaceships, the cars full of tourists moved south down the long, wide turnpike. Evening fell over the wavy landscape bordering the Autoroute du Soleil and turned it violet.”

Tim Krabbé’s The Vanishing, made into a film of the same name, is one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, so this novella is recommended if you don’t mind turning the last page and feeling disturbed.

The Vanishing

Rex and Saskia are heading out on their holidays from Holland to France. They have a house booked in Hyères, but it’s a long drive. The drive brings grievances in the relationship to the surface; Rex paid for Saskia’s driving lessons, but she “almost never drove,” and this nettles Rex.

During the past hour their mood had grown prickly. Saskia had to put her knitting aside twice in ten minutes because Rex asked to have an orange peeled and she dropped the second one on the floor.

“Ohh! It fell! Ohh!” she said.

She’s doing that on purpose, Rex thought, but he said nothing.

The car’s fuel gauge isn’t working, and that is a point of contention between the couple. Even though they know they have enough fuel to get to their destination, Rex decides to stop and fill up the car. The broken fuel gauge is a silent reminder of the time when the car ran out of fuel, and Saskia was left alone, terrified, on a dark highway for hours while Rex struck out for petrol.

But the stop lightens the mood. The car is tanked up, and then Saskia decides to step back into the station to get some drinks. Rex waits by the car, and Saskia … never returns. …

The book picks up 8 years later. Rex seems to have moved on and he’s now ready to marry, but the past lingers. He remembers how, as a child, Saskia once dreamt that she was “locked inside a golden egg that flew through the universe. Everything was pitch-black, there weren’t even any stars, she’d have to stay there forever, and she couldn’t even die. There was only one hope. Another golden egg was flying through space. If it collided with her own, both would be destroyed, and everything would be over.” He remembers how when Saskia left his apartment and rode off on her bike, he’d keep her in his sight for as long as he could.

But do you know what the worst thing is? It’s not knowing. Standing by the door with two sodas, and zip, gone! As if someone had decided that her atoms didn’t belong together anymore. To have lost her makes sense, but not this not knowing. That is unbearable. You can play all kinds of mind games. For instance, I am told that she is alive and somewhere and perfectly happy. And I’m given a choice: she goes on living like that, or I get to know everything and she dies. Then I let her die.

The Vanishing, and the term could be a verb or a noun here, shows Rex as someone who cannot move on from Saskia’s disappearance. He harbours guilt, but he also harbours a gnawing feeling of needing to know what happened to Saskia, a vibrant young woman who is spirited away in front of dozens of witnesses. As long as Rex doesn’t know Saskia’s fate, there’s the possibility, however remote, that she could be alive. The author mines this need with the plot which follows Rex’s efforts to go as far as the truth takes him.

It’s been a long time since I saw the film, but the imprint left on my mind is the relationship between Rex and Saskia. For the book, I see a connection between the man responsible for Saskia’s disappearance and Rex: both men want to launch out in an experiment, a compulsion if you will.

A chilling, disturbing read.

Translated from Dutch by Claire Nicolas White.

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The Long Drop: Denise Mina

“He doesn’t say anything compassionate about Isabelle or Anne, two dead seventeen-year-old girls. To him they are no more than skin-covered stage flats in a play about him.”

I knew very little about the murders committed by Scottish serial killer, Peter Manuel, who was hanged for some of his crimes in 1958, and while I tend to avoid fiction written about real people, Denise Mina’s The Long Drop sounded intriguing.

The Long Drop is both a reconstruction and a re-imaging of the case. The book opens in December 1957 with a businessman named William Watt who attends a meeting with career criminal Peter Manuel. The meeting has been brokered by celebrity lawyer Laurence Dowdall who, on the way to the meeting, gives Watt, his client, various pieces of advice about how to handle Manuel. This advice is needed as Peter Manuel is a slippery customer, manipulative, cunning and extremely dangerous.

The Long Drop

Dowdall, trying to hang onto professional integrity leaves Watt and Manuel alone. But why are Manuel and Watt meeting? For those (like me) who know very little about Manuel’s bloody, violent career, he was accused of, convicted and hanged for (as the book’s title suggests) murder. Watt’s wife, sister-in-law and daughter were three of the victims. They were shot in the Watt home, and initially Watt was the main suspect. The meeting between Manuel and Watt, brokered by Watt’s lawyer, is ostensibly for Watt to ascertain specific, secret information Manuel has regarding the murders.

The meeting morphs into a nightlong pub crawl with Manuel and Watt hitting many dingy, dank pubs of Glasgow. At this point, I put the book down. Could this have really happened? If you suspected that a man murdered your wife, daughter and sister-in-law, could you spend a whole night with him, buying him drinks? Truth is stranger than fiction. In the case of the Speed Freak Killers, for example, a large sum of money was promised to the killers in exchange of information about buried bodies. It’s possible that if you were desperate for information, you could put your personal feelings aside and make a pact with the devil. Possible if you had great personal restraint.

And William Watt was a desperate man. Although he was on holiday the night his family members were murdered, he’d taken the family’s dog, his wife’s dog with him–something he’d never done before, and eyewitnesses (who were later discredited) placed him on the road traveling back to Glasgow in the wee hours. Plus Watt had a mistress and his wife was an invalid. There was a lot at stake for Watt who was initially arrested but later released without charge.

Back to the book….

The Long Drop goes back and forth from the night (11 hours) in 1957 when Watt and Manuel went on an epic pub crawl to the trial of Peter Manuel in 1958. The night Watt and Manuel spend together reveals the dark side of a long vanished Glasgow. The smoke filled pubs habituated by the underworld in a city that will be renovated:

The coal smog is heavy and damp here, it swirls at ankle height. This dank world is peopled with tramps and whores from Glasgow Green and clapped out street fighters. A burning brazier lights men with fight-flattened noses slumped against a crumbling black wall.

Although this is a long dead case, with a terminal solution, Denise Mina brings the story to life while raising some intriguing questions both about the night Watt and Manuel spent together and about subjects raised during the trial. While Watt, who decides to “turn detective,” is seen as out-of-his-depth, a bit of a bumbler, Peter Manuel “is in a very different film. His would be European, black and white, directed by Clouzot or Melville, printed on poor stock and shown in art-house cinemas to an adults-only audience. There wouldn’t be violence or gore in the movie, this is not an era of squibs or guts-on-screen, but the implication of threat is always there.” 

Manuel is a sly, cunning psychopath and we see the various sides of the man. There’s the Manuel he’d like to be: a writer, a man about town, the man who’s courteous with women, but then there’s the sexually frustrated, violent son who intimidates his mother, and then there’s the charmer who tries to project his charisma and intelligence to the unbelieving jury. Manuel is a fantasist, a psychopath whose narcissism leads him to fire his defense counsel and conduct his own defense. We see Manuel’s staggering misreadings in the courtroom–evidence of his stunted emotional projection.

Peter Manuel does not know how other people feel. He has never known that. He can guess. He can read a face and see signs that tell him if someone is frightened or laughing. But there is no reciprocation. He feels no small echo of what his listener is feeling.

There’s a reimagining here–a fiction element of the novel which I cannot address fully without spoilers.  I understand why the author became so obsessed with this case, and why The Long Drop was created. For this reader, Denise Mina offered a possible explanation in a fill-in-the-blank way. As a work of fiction, it’s an excellent read, but while the author’s version is plausible, there’s an ethical position to this imagining. Those involved cannot challenge the book.

I follow the reviews written by fellow crime addict reader Cleo, and she also reviewed Denise Mina’s book, The Long Drop favourably.

Review copy

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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.

Review copy

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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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Filed under Farjeon J. Jefferson, Fiction

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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Filed under Non Fiction, Wilson Colin