Monday, August 30, 2010

Off Topic and New---Cold Cases And The Ninth Level of Dante's Inferno

The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases, Michael Capuzzo, Gotham Publishing, 448 pages, $26.95

I've read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I've read Arthur Conan Doyle's biography. I've read enough of the history of crime detection to know who Eugene Francois Vidocq was. So I'm not in the center of this author's target audience. The book may have been written for a much wider audience. And during middle school, I read lots of Readers' Digest condensed novels. If I was still reading RD's condensed novels I would have been satisfied with Michael Capuzzo's effort to tell the story of the Vidocq Society, which come to think of it he really doesn't do. The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases, is really a greatest hits [excuse the pun] of the Vidocq Society.

I have been trained as an historian and am sensitive to issues of chronology, cause and effect, and unsupported generalizations. Somehow the word 'hoopla hoops' and the 'serial killers' search for authentic self-expression' are in the same sentence that attempts to describe the 1950s. The initial chapters come across as being interview notes poorly knit together. Paragraph transitions must have been written by fictional detective Philip Marlowe created by Raymond Chandler during the 1930s, 1940s and the 1950s. At times Capuzzo inserts his own character into the story and I began to wonder how accurately he transcribed the interviews he made with the three leading characters.

On the other had the murder stories are compelling as are William Fleisher, Frank Bender and Richard Walter, the prime movers of the Vidocq Society. Fortunately the subtitle of the book is wrong. The Vidocq Society members are not the 'heirs of Sherlock Holmes'. They are real people who are brilliant, hardworking, intuitive and possibly flawed individuals. In a stunning monologue detective Richard Walter, having reading the classics of Western Civilization, graphically describes how the descent of serial killers' personality corresponds to Dante's levels of hell. The cases covered in The Murder Room are at times heartrending and horrific. Other cases are mundane and presented in a fashion which encourages the reader believe that local police detectives at times are lazy, uncreative and out of touch with their profession.

Compelling stories are told without suspense in The Murder Room. A newspaper journalist and I read the book during the same week. Though debating some merits of Capuzzo's style and organization, we both agreed that there are currently too many unemployed book editors and proofreaders. What is the difference between a benefactor and a beneficiary? Capuzzo needed a professional editor/proofreader. There are no footnotes, although there is a long bibliography. In the acknowlegements Capuzzo states that he did more than 1,000 hours worth of interviews with the three investigators he upon which he focuses. He also cites many other interviewees.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, but not as a model for style, organization or clarity. The substance of the stories is compelling even if the handling of the material by the author is not.

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