Bodies count: a real murder guide True Crime Books

December 06, 1998|By ELSBETH L. BOTHE | ELSBETH L. BOTHE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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