Thursday, August 19, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: The Murder Room: The Heirs to Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases, by Michael Capuzzo

Gotham Books
439 pp.

The dustjacket blurb of this book notes that
Three of the world's finest sleuths -- an FBI agent turned private eye, a forensic artist and ladies' man who speaks to the dead, and an eccentric profiler known as "the living Sherlock Holmes" -- invited the greatest collection of ace detectives from around the world on a grand adventure for justice: to track down the killers in the toughest unsolved murders... The Murder Room draws the reader into the secret investigations of the crime-fighting Vidocq Society...
so, one would think that The Murder Room is an examination of the world-famous Vidocq Society as a whole and that its readers are going to be privileged to enter into the inner workings of this entire group.  But although Capuzzo does delve into the history of the Society and does offer a peek into a few of its meetings, the book is really dedicated to the lives of the founders of the Vidocq Society: William Fleisher, Richard Walter and Frank Bender, especially the latter two. The other "ace detectives from around the world," are rarely mentioned and their contributions as Vidocq Society Members (VSMs) are pretty much non-existent here.  Even when Capuzzo relates the events of a typical meeting of the Society, Walter and Bender tend to take center stage.

Frank Bender, an artist, although probably not a household name, has been featured on American television on America's Most Wanted, most famously as the man who recreated what John List might look like years after he had murdered his entire family and walked away to a new life.  Bender's sex life and his interest in women takes up a great deal of space throughout the book (and frankly, I got tired of reading phrases like "Chrissie has the cutest little butt") as does his on-again, off-again bickering with fellow Vidocq society founder and profiler Richard Walter over who should have received credit for List's capture. Walter can best be described as eccentric and arrogant, as well as a talented profiler who, according to the author, seems to be able to solve pretty much any crime tossed his way at the meetings, waiting until the very end to toss back the solution based on his profiling abilities. Capuzzo also notes that Walter is known as the "living Sherlock Holmes." Fleisher, who came up with the idea for the Vidocq society, doesn't get nearly as much air time as the other two, and the author often makes statements like “Bender and Walter were the most astonishing investigative team Fleischer had ever seen.”

There are some good moments here -- the dozen or so cold cases which the group examines and attempts to solve are all really interesting. For example, there's the case of the Cleveland Butcher, left unsolved by detective Eliot Ness in the 1930s, the "Case of the Shoeless Corpse," which had gone cold in 1984, in which a young student was found dead missing her shoes and socks. She had not been molested or robbed, and the crime made no sense. Then there's the "Case of the Prodigal Son," in which a young Texas man simply disappeared, and whose father just knows he was murdered. And most people are aware of the John List case, as well as one of the most famous and ongoing unsolved cases in the US, that of The Boy in the Box.  The problem is that when the author starts to discuss these and other cases, he interrupts them to go on to something else, bouncing about in time (and usually coming back to either Bender or Walter) so that the reader is left dangling until he decides to once again pick up the story's threads. It's often very distracting and the style is at times incoherent.

This book seems to be getting really good reviews, but my take on it is that I felt like the author promised something he didn't deliver -- and that was the workings of the Vidocq society as a whole. And while he notes how the society is able to take up cold cases and manage a pretty good success rate for solving these crimes, there's just way too much extraneous stuff in here that could be weeded out. I mean really, who cares if Bender spent three days on Bondi Beach with "bikinis cut low", discussing "the shark net, the killer riptide, the hermit in the rocky cave, the record number of bikinis" referring to a Guiness record for largest swimsuit photo shoot. And why does Capuzzo need to note how many cigarettes Walter lights over and over again or how often he coughs? It might have been a much tighter and more concise account of a group that does incredibly meaningful work if the author had kept a better focus. But in many ways, imho, he seemed to be a bit all over the map.

Bottom line: I really wanted to love this book, but that didn't happen, although I did enjoy the accounts of the cold cases and how some of their perpetrators were eventually brought to justice.

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