Halloween 2017: Psycho USA by Harold Schechter

Book:  Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of

Author: Harold Schechter

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: True crime will always have a tinge of the odd or bizarre about it for those of us who are definitely not the serial killer type.

Availability: Published by Ballantine Books in 2012, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  Harold Schechter is one of my favorite true crime authors.  I have several of his books covering the crimes of Ed Gein, H.H. Holmes, Jesse Pomeroy and others and one day hope to find myself with time to read some of his fiction.  He writes in a manner that is both intelligent and accessible and manages to speak about the unspeakable without the bombast and disgust that I am sure would mar my writing were I ever to try to write about killers.

So given his skills, I should not have been so smug as to think this book had little to teach me.  I’ve stated on this site before that up until 2000 or so, I knew about almost all serial killers, and I did know quite a bit.  But I certainly knew far less than I thought I did because in this book of more obscure American killers, some of whom are serial killers or mass murderers, I only knew of three killers out of the thirty-one presented.  Among poisoners, sex killers, lonely hearts murderers and family annihilators, I knew of the Smutty Nose Killer, an angry seaman who killed a house full of women for money; Carlyle Harris, a despicable seducer and poisoner; and William Edward Hickman, a kidnapper and mutilator.  I had sort of heard of Andrew Kehoe, having come across his name in reference to school mass murderers, but had never read about him in any depth.

Since I am attempting to write quickly for Halloween, I’m going to write about the two murders I know best, and hope I can give justice to this compendium as I do it.  A lot of the true crime encyclopedias out there are tiresome cash grabs, covering the same ground over and over and discussing intricate and fascinating murders in so little detail that the reader finds herself longing for text at least as comprehensive as Wikipedia.  Not so with Schechter, and even if my discussion doesn’t resonate, you should look into him if his name is new to you. If it doesn’t resonate, it’s probably my fault.

In Heaven Everything Is Fine by Josh Frank with Charlie Buckholtz

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  In Heaven Everything Is Fine:  The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre

Authors: Josh Frank with Charlie Buckholtz

Type of Book:  Non-fiction, biography, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Because it made me feel sorry for Chevy Chase for like a minute or so.

Availability: Published by Soft Skull in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I bought this book in my typical accumulator manner.  I was at the annual New Year’s Day sale at BookPeople and the title caught my eye because like all slightly weird girls in the ’80s I was way into Eraserhead. It took me a couple of years to get around to reading it and I should have read it the moment I brought it home because this is a very readable and entertaining biography-true crime hybrid.  The prologue of this book is one of the funniest things I have ever read.  Ten pages of utter mayhem that should have humbled Chevy Chase forever.  The prologue is the price of admission for this book, the reason you should read it, but after those hilarious, raucous ten pages, the rest of the book is deeply engrossing.

I had never heard of Peter Ivers before this book, which means I also had not heard of New Wave Theatre. He was a man who needed a book to help people like me know who he was and why he was so important and influential, even though his name is not remembered to the degree that his influence should dictate.  The book as a whole is a look at how the Ivy League drama departments and National Lampoon magazine spawned Saturday Night Live, a whole bunch of hilarious 70s films like Caddyshack, and how Peter Ivers was a member of all those specific tribes as well as being a pioneer who introduced punk and new wave music to America on an early cable station.

Peter Ivers was one of those people who was perpetually ahead of the curve, able to know instinctively what was going to be the next big thing. Educated at Harvard, Ivers was primarily a musician and a song writer but his influence spilled over into much of the entertainment industry.  Yet despite having his finger on many pulses, he never really achieved the level of fame his talent and perspicacity deserved. Worse, he was murdered right when it looked like he was about to become as famous as the people in his circles, like Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Chevy Chase. His is a very sad story in so many ways, but at the same time the overwhelming sadness wasn’t apparent to me until I began to write this discussion because this book really is such an engaging, rollicking read that the sheer entertainment value of the book blunted the injustice of Ivers’ murder. That’s not a flaw, either, because eventually the reality of the waste of life hits you, but it’s also a testament to the interesting nature of Ivers’ life and the interesting nature of those around him that this is not a wholly sad book.

It’s actually maddening to realize what an interesting person Ivers was and know that he slipped under my radar for all these years, and the reason he was not even a blip on the mainstream radar is because he was indeed so far ahead of the curve that the public didn’t appreciate his efforts until the moment was gone.  Muddy Waters once said that Ivers, who never missed a chance to jump up on stage and jam with blues men of great renown, was the best blues harmonica player alive, but Ivers’ band’s new wave album was released and received with little fanfare.  However, David Lynch heard Ivers’ album and decided that Ivers’ sound was just what he needed for his bizarre film school effort, Eraserhead.

Typical of Ivers career, being recognized by Lynch and working with the filmmaker didn’t really do much for Ivers’ career, even though Ivers was responsible for one of the most iconic scenes and songs in film history – the mumps-cheeked girl in the radiator singing “In Heaven Everything Is Fine.”

That creepy voice?  That’s Ivers.  How the hell did I not know this all these years?

Well, I didn’t know it because Ivers’ influence and talent were often a part of someone else’s dream and goal.

Ivers seems to be best known for his work on New Wave Theater, an early live performance cable show with a format that introduced the public to a number of LA new wave and punk bands and popular comedians.  Peter, the host, played the provocative, Harvard Boy weirdo to many rough-edged bands.  Ivers was a tiny man but never failed in his role, often angering bands, sometimes being threatened by them as he interviewed them.  That he often assumed a slightly homosexual persona only caused some of the more macho bands to channel their sense of unease into potential violence.  However, many bands caught onto what was happening, understood the purpose of Ivers’ veiled jabs and sparkly appearance, and became friends with him, notably members from bands Fear, 45 Grave and The Dead Kennedys.

After a couple of years of hosting New Wave Theater, Ivers began to chafe under the pressure put on him by show producer David Jove, a drug-addled madman who surrounded himself with even madder madmen.  Ivers had found a song-writing partner and together they were creating excellent songs that were selling well, and was poised to take his career in a new direction.  Diana Ross and the Pointer Sisters ended up performing songs he and his partner wrote.  With a blossoming career as a songwriter ahead of him, he eventually gave Jove notice on New Wave Theater.  Shortly after giving notice, Ivers was found in his apartment, bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

The way the police handled the case will leave incredulous anyone with the most basic understanding of crime scene containment and murder investigation.  Before the investigation even began, while the bloody sheets were still on the bed where Ivers died, people were permitted to come into Ivers apartment and rifle through his belongings, take out items, bring in new items and ultimately the police felt that Ivers was just some freak who likely got picked off by one of the punks he hung around with.  The influence of the famous people advocating for Ivers – an ex-girlfriend who was a studio executive and Harold Ramis among them – wasn’t enough to overcome the horrible way the police handled the investigation.  He was killed in 1983 and the most-likely suspect has died of cancer, so there will never be much in the way of justice for Ivers, outside of this book that shows us all how important Ivers was and how was he the sort of guy who anticipated MTV several years in advance, who understood the importance of David Lynch before anyone else, who could walk the talk amongst Harvard graduates, street punks, Hollywood executives, pop stars, blues men, and the cinema avant garde.

The book details all the relationships Ivers had with rich and powerful people, as well as giving the reader a look at his personal and romantic relationships.  The former are pretty interesting, the latter less so (I found his long-term girlfriend so insufferable that I found myself glossing over all passages involving her – she was the sort of woman who considered herself counter-cultural, accepted a job with a major studio in defiance of her personal beliefs, then spent weeks crying about it – bleah), but even the less interesting passages don’t really diminish what an interesting person Ivers was and how interesting this book is.  I sailed through it in two readings.  Seldom do biographies or true crime books demand my attention this way.

The best line in the book:

To Peter, underutilized potential was a tear in the fabric of the cosmos.

The hell of it is, Peter’s potential was never underutilized.  Plenty of people utilized it.  He just didn’t receive much benefit from all that utilization.

This is one of my shorter reviews because the scope of this book is such that one either goes on at length and still barely scratches the surface or one mentions the best parts and still barely scratches the surface.  For once I decided to err on the side of word conservation.

But I cannot emphasize enough how very funny, actually hilarious, the prologue is.  Seriously, I read it out loud to Mr Oddbooks and we both laughed until we could not breathe.  Chevy Chase, in a mohawk wig, trying to host a New Wave Theater-successor while shit-faced drunk, completely unfamiliar with punk culture, screaming at bewildered punks, “IS THERE ANYONE ELSE WHO THINKS THEY CAN TAKE ME DOWN?!” while Cyndi Lauper waits in the wings, presumably wondering if she should fire her manager.  Highly recommended.

Lousy Smarch Weather

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Central Texas is not supposed to be this cold.  Seriously, I used to dream of moving to Maine and White Christmases and other ice-glazed fantasies, but I am rethinking that dream.

The Every Cradle is a Grave discussion will have to wait because I simply cannot get it together.  I am emotionally unable to pull out what it is I want to say.  My mother had a very bad death, one that did not have to happen in a society wherein we understand that it is unacceptable to ask an elderly woman with no higher brain function left due to a hemorrhage, a woman who was terminally ill and close to death before the hemorrhage happened, to starve to death in an irreversible coma because suicide is bad.  I’m a failed suicide.  There is a successful suicide in my family that haunts some of us, and haunted my mother especially in the months before her death.  So yeah, this is an issue carrying a lot of recent and distant emotional baggage for me.

We are having an ashes ceremony for my mother in two weeks and I hope having a ceremonial end to the medically-sanctioned torture that my family endured earlier this year will make it easier for me to complete that discussion.  Not in terms of writing – I’ve written a novel about this book.  My problem is that I want to say everything at once and I need to get some emotional clarity.  Look for it later this month, hopefully.

But before then I have other books I can discuss and will.  Actually, I have a shocking number of books to discuss.  2014 was really a lost year in many regards.

I’ve been falling down some true crime holes lately (insomnia was killing me last week and insomnia always means finding weird crap online as I restlessly surf on my phone praying for some REM) and I stumbled across this woman’s blog.  Her writing style amuses me and she discusses less-famous murder cases.  The case that landed me on her site, the intensely strange story of Albert Brust (a Nazi-loving, untermensch and middle-aged virgin who became a torture killer and incorporated a dead body into a bathroom remodel), is the weakest entry on the site yet is still very interesting, so if you dislike it, keep reading. If you like my verbose style and appreciate sarcasm set to eleven, you’ll like her blog.

So I plan to plow through some discussions as I wait for my brain to open up for Sarah Perry’s opus.  Let me know what you’ve been reading or any interesting blogs you’ve come across.  (Oh, yeah, I plan to update my favorite sites and writers sidebars soon.  I don’t think I’ve messed with it in four years and it is painfully out of date.)

ETA:  I made a correction above because it looked like I was damning with faint praise the true crime site I linked to.  Not the case, and thanks, reader known as ART, for e-mailing me questions because otherwise it would have gone unnoticed.  Bleah.

The Cult Files by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief

Author: Chris Mikul

Type of Book: Non-fiction, cults, religion, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is very subjective, but as an atheist I find all religious beliefs a bit odd. Extreme cults are therefore all the more odd.

Availability: I read the Metro Books edition, but this book has been released by Amazon for Kindle, and that edition is a better bet:

Comments: This book was in my to-be-discussed pile back in 2011 (yeah, I am still catching up) when Chris Mikul sent me copies of his excellent ‘zine, Biblio Curiosa. We began a friendly correspondence and he gave me some interesting information about this book. Evidently his publisher was concerned that some of the content in the book could lead to a lawsuit and demanded the book be radically edited. Mikul sent me the excised chapters but I am limiting myself to the content in the actual book because it seems unfair to discuss material that my readers won’t be able to read for themselves.

But even though he had to cut out some pretty interesting discussions, The Cult Files remains a very absorbing book. Though I am reasonably well-read on the subject of cults, I found information new to me in this cult anthology. There are some of the usual suspects, like the Branch Davidians and Jonestown, but every other chapter had something completely new to me.  That Mikul discussed one of my “favorite” cults, the Ant Hill Kids, led by the repellent and vile Roch Thériault, just sealed the deal for me. Thériault didn’t get much play in the USA and is one of the most fascinating cult leaders, far more interesting than Charles Manson and, in my opinion, at least as toxic as David Koresh. So that was definitely a point in Mikul’s favor.

To prevent this from becoming an extremely long discussion, I’ll just discuss the chapters in this book I found the most interesting or that were new to me when I read the book.

Before I begin, I need to state that not all of the cults discussed in this book fit my criteria of what makes a cult, but it must also be said that I use a pretty strict measure that requires a single charismatic leader, alienation from family and friends, no financial control for followers, increasingly strict punishments for continually changing “sin” metrics, different rules for those in favor with the leader, an inability for followers to question anything, an inability to leave with impunity and more. Mikul doesn’t define his metric with such exacting specificity, though he does give an idea of what a cult may be and how what defines a toxic cult can vary from person to person and from sect to sect. However, his metric comes pretty close to that espoused by Robert Lifton, who stated three different categories to consider when discussing cults: a charismatic leader who positions himself or herself to become the focus of worship, employing brainwashing or thought control methods, and exploitation of the rank and file cult members by the upper echelons of the cult. Even if the cults Mikul discusses in this book may not meet my stringent standards, they meet Lifton’s, who is far more of an expert.

The book begins by discussing the Thuggee in India, a group of traveling confidence killers who preyed on other travelers. They became associated with the garrote, their most common method of killing. I knew a bit about the Thuggee just from osmosis because of my varied reading habits, but I had not known they were dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Kali, the goddess of death and destruction (among other things). The Thuggee were more or less suppressed and destroyed by the British Raj. Before reading this I had considered the Thuggee to be murderous equivalents of the Irish Travelers, con men and women who just upped the ante in scams via murder. I suspect part of it is because I always think of cults in terms of charismatic leaders, and the Thuggee were not organized in this manner, or at least they weren’t when they were in their heyday. But there are typical cult elements that one commonly sees in cults that allow the Thuggee to qualify as a cult, like an us-versus-them mentality, justifying all behaviors, even that which is illegal, as ordained by elevated or outsider status. I think it was an interesting choice to include the Thuggee in this book.

Cosmic Suicide by Rodney Perkins and Forrest Jackson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Cosmic Suicide: The Tragedy and Transcendence of Heaven’s Gate

Authors: Rodney Perkins and Forrest Jackson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime, cults

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It was a look at the Heaven’s Gate suicide when events were still relatively fresh and mass cult suicide is always a bit strange. The book is also listed as a source in the amazing book Strange Creations by Donna Kossy and would be a honorary odd book on that merit alone.

Availability: Published by Pentaradial Press in 1997, you can get a copy here:

Comments: When I began reading this book I thought there would not be much that was new to me. I had already read quite a bit about the Heaven’s Gate cult, those strange, asexual computer geeks in California who killed themselves en masse to be able to board the spacecraft they were sure was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. And in a way, I was correct. The book tells very succinctly the story of how two lost souls – Marshall Applewhite and Betty Lu Nettles – met and fed off each other, creating the New Age death cult that became Heaven’s Gate.

All the details that caught the public’s morbid imagination are there. The androgyny of those who took their lives, the voluntary castrations of some of the men, the presence of Nichelle Nichols’ brother among the suicide victims. It all made for very tawdry television.

The case interested me for a couple of reasons, above and beyond the strange details of the suicide and Art Bell phone call that some believe was the genesis for the belief that there was something following behind the Hale-Bopp comet – later interpreted as a space craft by Heaven’s Gate members. By killing themselves, they thought they would meet up on the space craft with Betty Lu Nettles, who had died, and achieve what they called T.E.L.A.H. – The Evolutionary Level Above Human.   All of that was sort of interesting, but strangely bloodless in a way. The way the cult killed themselves was orderly, calm, and without the sort of horror I associate with mass suicides.

The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir

Author: Stephen Elliott

Type of Book: Memoir, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I don’t even know anymore. I finished it months ago and put it in the “Odd – To Be Discussed” pile. It may not be odd but I don’t recommend a normal person with normal interests and a normal constitution read this book, not because it is outre, but because I suspect normal people would have given up within the first few chapters.

Availability: Published by Graywolf Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: You know, I’m gonna go ahead and cop to the fact that this is not going to be a favorable discussion of Elliott’s book. But I also want to make it clear that this is not going to be the full-bore assault I think the book likely deserves. You’ve seen what happens when I really loathe a book. But Elliott’s book discussion comes after the mental assault of discussing a mass murderer’s manifesto. I’m pretty sure I would be kindly disposed to even the biggest pile of crap ever to be released in trade paperback after 1500 pages of bigotry and murder blue prints. So just remember my perspective may be favorably skewed even as I skewer the book.

I bought this book because I found it in the True Crime section at BookPeople. The memoir part didn’t alarm me or seem out of place. James St. JamesParty Monster is a drug memoir and is one of the best true crime novels I have read in years. I think that is what I expected when I picked up this memoir about a man with a drug problem who was writing about what the back cover described as a “notorious San Francisco murder trial” and an “electric exploration of the self.” But the back cover gets it very wrong when it asserts that Elliott “seamlessly weaves them together.” Alas, Elliott is no St. James. The murder trial at times doesn’t even seem like a side story in this book. After reading this novel unless I flip through it again I cannot tell you even the most basic details about the murder. But I can tell you a whole lot about Elliott and, frankly, most of it is devoid of emotional meaning and context.

I don’t intend to demean the power of the addiction or sexual discovery narrative, and I don’t want to demean those who may have found something relevant in Elliott’s narrative. And I fully admit that I may have missed something because I have not read any of Elliott’s other works. I wonder if I would have cared more if I had read his other books. But the fact remains that I did not care much about this book. The narrative was flat and uninvolved. The addiction barely registered as being damaging. The bondage and S&M details were seemingly tossed out with no emotion or attempt to lure the reader into a deeper sense of understanding Elliott. It’s a bizarre condemnation of a memoir to say it was self-absorbed, but that was the problem I had with this book.

How can a memoir be self-absorbed? Well, it’s easy, actually. When someone you find interesting goes on and on about him or herself, your interest trumps the self-absorption. It is subjective, to be sure, but a memoir has to contain content that makes the reader care that they are reading a stranger go on and on about him or herself.  Given the proliferation of it, this flat, disengaged writing style must appeal to someone. But I am not that person. ( Which is odd, in a way, because I am fully aware that my book discussions are utterly self-indulgent, written to please myself as much as to entertain and inform.)

The subject matters of this book – addiction, sexual taboos, a murder trial – should all be interesting. But conveyed through Elliott’s numb prose, it is all unexciting. It’s the literary equivalent of tapioca with a dash of tequila. It’s white bread with a dab of mold on it. It’s a boring man telling boring stories to a barely interested audience. I contrast the content of this book with much more taboo writing, like the non-fiction of Peter Sotos, and it becomes clear why Elliott’s writing did not appeal to me. Sotos, in his extremity, forces the reader to think, or to react at the very least. Elliott’s numb tale was like watching a Warhol movie. As I read this book, a quote from Charles Bukowski came to mind often: “Boring damned people. All over the earth.”

And in the course of any sort of discussion I can have about this book, how can I convey how little it interested me? Discussing the plot is hard – Elliott does drugs, has extreme sex, comes to terms with some of feelings about his family and muses about the murder, the discussion of which ostensibly was the focus of this novel. In a way, this is no different than many other memoirs, but when I consider the emotionally numb and at times alienating manner in which Elliott writes, any structure would be lost behind the veil of ennui his words provoke. At times the meta in this book irritated me, but perhaps some will find it delightful. Perhaps some will also report back to me on what it feels like to snort ketamine and take an icepick to their frontal lobes. Perhaps some will find this book so utterly transcendent they will be forced to leave me half-assed, unintelligible comments to show their indie cred. Perhaps some think I should stop typing entirely until I am in a better mood. Perhaps those people are right, but fuck it, I’m sitting here, computer in my lap, so let’s get this over with.

So let me give my examples of why this book was terrible so I can move on to something else.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Monster of Florence: A True Story

Authors: Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

Why Did I Read This Book: I have a deep love of the true crime genre. The Monster of Florence serial killings were unknown to me before this book and Amazon also had a copy on sale. So, how could I resist.

Availability: Published in 2008 by Hachette Book Group, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Like I said above, I love accounts of true crime. I also love accounts of miscarriages of justice combined with a healthy dose of vindication. I knew this book was the former when I ordered it but had no idea it was the latter. This book proved an absorbing, infuriating read, all the more because I am a person who takes a keen interest in topics like the belief systems that cause Satanic Panics as well as conspiracies. Most books on those topics get reviewed over on my other site but this book was not an odd book, despite the presence of a decades-long Satanic Panic combined with a pretty profound judicial conspiracy. The line between odd and non-odd is completely arbitrary, I think, but I review this book here mostly because I can see the average person reading this book and finding it very interesting.

There is much to discuss in this book, and strangely, the actual killings, for me, took backseat to the drama that unfolds as Douglas Preston gets sucked not only into telling the tale of the Monster of Florence, but into suspicion of having a role in the supposed conspiracy of Satanists who killed couples along the Florence countryside. The eight killings began in 1968 and ended in 1985. They all involved the killings of couples, most of whom had gone to a wood-like area to park and have sex. The male was generally shot first and the woman shot and/or stabbed, and in five cases, the woman was also mutilated sexually. The cases bear a superficial similarity to the Son of Sam killings in the US, and to my admittedly unexpert eye, the first incident and the last seem very much like they were not done by the same person who committed the other murders because they deviated in some manner from the killer’s MO.

In the course of investigating and then prosecuting men for this crime, the authorities could not have done a worse job had they tried. The first man convicted of the killings, a thoroughly unpleasant man to be sure, eventually had the case against him overturned and was set free by the Italian courts. One Italian police officer even believes evidence was planted to try to prove the case against the innocent man. Though all evidence seems to point to a Sardinian man, whose wife was one of the first victims, the Florence police decided to dive head first off the deep end.

Enter Douglas Preston, American author of popular thrillers, who arrived in Italy to write a book and ended up friends with journalist Mario Spezi, a man with a great interest in the Monster of Florence case. Investigating, they came across all sorts of shocking examples of police failure, investigative misconduct and judicial wrong doing, as well as flat out whacked thinking on the part of Chief Inspector Michele Giuttari, who evidently has a firm belief in the fantastic, and Judge Giuliano Mignini, whose continued presence in the Italian court system after his antics in the Monster of Florence case is baffling.

Investigating the Monster of Florence murders, Preston and and Spezi uncovered all kinds of bizarre information. For example, a lone doctor’s suicide was seen by investigators to be a lynch pin in proving a Satanic cult was behind the murders (the doctor fit several different theories – rich Italians killing for a Satanic sect, a doctor has to be the killer). That theory involved the doctor’s body being fished out of the water, taken to the morgue, swapped with another body, and the fake body was then buried under the doctor’s name.

On April 6, 2002, with the press standing by, the coffin of Francesco Narducci was exhumed and opened. His body was inside, instantly recognizable after seventeen years. A DNA test confirmed it.

This blow to their theories did not stop… Giuttari and the public minister of Perugia. Even in the lack of a substantiated corpse they found evidence. The body was too recognizable for someone who had spent five days in the water and then another seventeen (sic) in a coffin. Giuttari and Mignini promptly concluded that the real body had been substituted again. That’s right –Narducci’s real body, hidden for seventeen years, had been put back in the coffin and the other body removed because the conspirators knew ahead of time that the exhumation was coming.

Then comes Gabriella Carlizzi, a conspiratologist whose ravings make my local hero Alex Jones seem like a rational person of restraint in comparison (a search for Carlizzi’s pro-Satanic Panic blog was of little help but I did find an Italian page that claims she died on August 11, 2010 – I have no idea if this is true). Carlizzi’s theories of Satanic murder, the swapping of the doctor’s body and even more insane theories influenced Giuttari and Mignini, eventually leading to Preston and Spezi finding themselves suspects in the decades-long murders. People warned Preston that Carlizzi was a dangerous person but to those who have dealt with people who are true believers in conspiracy, just the time suck alone of dealing with such people is enough to cause us to want to avoid them. Preston exchanged many e-mails with Carlizzi until he realized his folly and even when he was finished with her, his e-mail box remained clogged by her raving missives. Carlizzi’s theories, crackpot though they seem to us, were taken very seriously by some Italian authorities. In fact, she provided many “links” in the case.

…The investigators also had to show that Narducci had a connection to Pacciani [the man inititally convicted as the Monster who was later released]… and the village of San Casciano, where the satanic cult seemed to be centered.

They succeeded in this as well. Gabriella Carlizzi made a statement to the police asserting that Francesco Narducci had been intiated into the Order of the Red Rose by his father, who was trying to resolve certain sexual problems in his son – the same diabolical sect, Carlizzi claimed, active for centuries in Florence and its environs. Police and prosecutors seemed to accept Carlizzi’s statements as solid, actionable evidence.

Giuttari had no problem rounding up the town drunks and prostitutes and even a man described as a village idiot and having them recite patently untrue information in order to seek convictions. He never seemed at a loss to find people willing to say whatever it was he needed to be said, using the same people over and over, each time molding their testimony to his ends.

As if on cue, Giuttari and his GIDES squad produced witnesses swearing to have seen Francesco Narducci hanging around San Casciano… It took a while for the identities of these new witnesses to come out. When Spezi first heard the names, he thought it was a bad joke: they were the same… witnesses who had been the surprise witnesses at Pacciani’s appeal so many years before…

The three witnesses had earth-shaking new information to impart, which all of them had forgotten to mention eight years earlier when they had first stunned Italy with their extraordinary testimony.

Giuttari was quite unorthodox in his approach to using evidence to solve crimes. In his eyes, a simple doorstop became “an esoteric object used to communicate between this world and the infernal regions.” He fully embraced the theory that powerful people were behind the Satanic conspiracy to kill. Why would these people kill couples and mutilate dying women? Giuttari’s theory was that a

shadowy cabal of wealthy and powerful people, seemingly beyond reproach, who occupied the highest positions in society, business, law and medicine, had hired Pacciani, Vanni and Lotti to kill people in order to obtain the sex organs of girls for use as the obscene, blasphemous “wafer” in their Black Masses.

How all of this came to pass, all this blaming innocent citizens, so many trials and retrials, the willingness to believe in the unbelievable was summed up by an Italian nobleman who was at one point himself accused by some of being the killer:

“In Italy, the hatred of your enemy is such that he has to be built up, made into the ultimate adversary, responsible for all evil. The investigators in the Monster case know that behind the simple facts hides a satanic cult, its tentacles reaching into the highest levels of society. This is what they will prove, no matter what. Woe to the person… who disputes their theory because that makes him an accomplice. The more vehemently he denies being involved, the stronger is the proof.”

And this is exactly what happened. Preston himself has what is essentially a warrant for his arrest should he ever reenter Italy and Spezi himself was arrested and held without communication for days until saner heads prevailed and he was released. Spezi’s appearance on television and numerous articles he wrote examining the deficiencies of the investigation put him squarely in Giuttari’s cross-hairs. In a search of Spezi’s home, Spezi became angry and mocked the police, showing them his own doorstop, identical to the one that Giuttari had considered an occult object. That doorstop gave Giuttari what he considered physical evidence to link Spezi to one of the murder scenes, resulting eventually in Spezi’s arrest. Judges reviewed the evidence and eventually released Spezi but not before his life was completely upturned.

The final trial in this book ended after the book was published, but Giuttari and Mignini’s Satanic killer was acquitted. And so much of this stemmed from the outrageous claims of a demented woman running a website (her claims about the 9/11 attacks are… interesting.)

If that seems like a hopelessly backward idea, us Yanks need to recall that the Satanic Panic plagued us for years and in some places never went away. The trial of the West Memphis Three was no less filled with lies, misinformation and desperate attempts by law enforcement and the judiciary to spin a wild tale of Satanism to solve a case when the real murderer was far more prosaic, far more familiar. Crazy ideas are never far from hand and books like this serve as a sober reminded that there is no idea outrageous enough that some police, judges, or jurors will not believe it.

For those who followed the Amanda Knox travesty in Italy, it will come as no surprise that mad theories again tainted the court system – Gabriella Carlizzi thinks there was some sort of Satanic, Masonic ritual the girl was supposedly involved in that led to the sexual murder of her roommate. Worse, Judge Mignini presided over her joke of a trial.

In November 2007, Mignini became involved on another sensational case, that of the brutal murder of a British student, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia. Mignini quickly ordered the arrest of American student, Amanda Knox, whom he suspected of involvement in the murder… It appears from press leaks that Mignini is spinning an improbable theory about Knox and two alleged co-conspirators in a dark plan of extreme sex, violence and rape.

Knox was convicted and is in an Italian prison now.

But the Monster of Florence remains unidentified and only innocent people have been harmed in the bizarre quest for justice.

Though it may seem as if I have spoiled this book, believe me, there is so much more -so very much more – than what I chose to excerpt here. This case is a skein of tangled yarn. And even if you know how it ends, the many knots along the way make for fascinating reading. I highly recommend it. Fans of true crime will love the investigation and those of us who like a conspiracy theory will realize that America is not the only country where people believe truly bizarre things.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

Author: Allison Hoover Bartlett

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime, book about books

Why Did I Read This Book: I am a bibliophile who can at times see how I could easily slide into bibliomania. People who go to any length to get books – be they rare or commonplace – interest me greatly.

Availability: Published by Riverhead Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book engrossed me for reasons I did not anticipate when I started reading it. The story of this particular book thief is not as interesting as some other book thieves of whom I have read. John Gilkey, who remains unrepentant concerning his thefts of rare books from dealers, may one day become a man who steals rare books from libraries, as the book indicates he may be doing right now, but his thefts were more prosaic: He stole credit card numbers during his job as a retail clerk and used the stolen numbers to purchase books. He had an element of brazenness about him as he would go into the stores after calling in an order, posing as the “friend” of the purchaser, and pick up the books, but overall, his thefts lacked the sort of derring-do of those who steal from archives and libraries. How he did what he did and how he got caught are not the most interesting parts of this book.

What is interesting, and what Bartlett shows the best, is the world of the book lover, from the rare book shops to those who become obsessed with books and obtain them at all costs. Any lover of books will salivate over Bartlett’s descriptions of what she saw at trade shows, most especially a handwritten manuscript by Proust. She describes a book with a fore-edge painting, something I had not heard of, and it sent me rushing to the Internet so I could see some examples. It’s pure magic, such a thing of beauty. I am not one for whom old or pretty books mean much aside from the content, but I now want such a book. I am not even sure if I can explain why I want it. I just do. I feel like there is nothing I would not give up to be able to afford a book like that and I can give no adequate reason other than that I… I guess I need it? It’s hard to explain how something you did not even know existed can suddenly become a minor obsession.

This book addresses beautifully one of my greatest puzzlements: Why do I love books instead of jewelry or nice cars? Why will I spend whatever I must to get a book I want to read but will never visit a spa or get a manicure. Of course it boils down to personality, but a certain element of it is that books show a lot about me. When you walk into my home, you immediately know what I am about. And that was what prodded John Gilkey into becoming a book thief. He wanted to amass a collection of books that would wow anyone who saw them. He wanted books to define who he is and what makes him special.

Of course, being a thief meant his books could never really be on display (and keeping stolen books close to him was part of his eventual undoing), but the fantasy of people walking into his home and seeing all those old, rare, beautiful books fed the idea of identity that he wanted to share about himself with others. Us book lovers like to believe that we are often above it all in terms of acquisition, because we eschew more common consumer goods in favor of books but the end result is that our loves and desires craft a tangible identity that we convey to others, which is one of the most basic elements of consumerism.

Many matchmaking and social networking sites offer a place for members to list what they’re reading just for this reason: books can reveal a lot about a person. This is particularly true of the collector, for whom the bookshelf is a reflection not just of what he has read but profoundly of what he is: “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they can live in him; it is he who comes alive in them,” wrote cultural critic Walter Benjamin.

However, Gilkey, while he clearly loves books, really sees books as a means to an end and not something that satisfies a deep longing for the item in question:

…he was not dedicated to one author or one period or one subject. As soon as he’d snagged a twentieth-century American mystery, he was on to a nineteenth-century English novel. He thieved across genres the way a distracted reader might peruse shelves in a library, running his finger along the spines, stopping at whatever caught his eye, then moving on.

I’m sure you can imagine how close to home this description hit for a woman who runs a site called I Read Everything.

Gilkey, however, despite his desire to have books, is not like any collector I was aware of, honorable or not, before reading this book. He often did not know a thing about the books he stole, simply wanting to amass a collection of first edition Modern Library Top 100 Books, going after first editions from authors he had not even read. Moreover, his sense of entitlement is baffling to the average person – Gilkey (and most of us) could not afford the books he wanted, therefore dealers were to blame for having such high prices and there was no harm done if he stole from them. As anyone knows who has ever sold books, from dealers to Amazon Merchants to people who work as clerks in bookstores, the margins in book sales are slim. Razor thin. But much of what Gilkey thinks in this book is not based in reality but rather his attempts to justify his thefts. Assigning a Robin Hood morality to what he did likely helps him sleep at night, or gives him further justification.

But through his thefts, Gilkey really was redefining himself. With an impressive book collection, he could reinvent himself into a gentleman as opposed to the impecunious grifter he is:

…he kept his mind on his collection, imagining how it would elevate his position in society. Gilkey would be regarded as a man of culture and erudition, just like the woman in the wealth management advertisement I had seen who was pictured leaving a rare book shop. Everywhere he looked–movies, television, books, advertisements, clothing catalogs–were images that confirmed our culture’s reverence not for literature, per se, but for an accumulation of books as a sign that you belonged among gentility. Through his collection, Gilkey would occupy a revered place in an envied world.

I have not really ever analyzed my own love of books in terms of what this habit says about me. I have longed to own books I cannot afford, and in a sense, I am very proud of the books I do have that are “rare” or collectible. But like most book collectors and accumulators, I am broke. I am sure there are some top dogs out there whose pocketbooks allow them to own whatever they want but for the most part, every book lover I know is like me – constrained by our bank accounts, and willing to do without most cultural markers of affluence in order to have what may seem to others like a quaint gentility. In my world, books equal being broke.

I loved this book. For people looking for a gripping true crime yarn, this will not fit the bill. It is rather a look at a strange thief and the love of books. And anyone who loves books about books will find themselves making notes of other books to read on the topic – of course I already have Basbanes but Bartlett’s careful research threw a few new names my way. This book is accessible, entertaining, and raises questions in the minds of book people about why they have their particular quirk and what it says about them.

The Postcard Killer by Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Postcard Killer: The True Story of J. Frank Hickey

Author: Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime

Why Did I Read This Book: I have a weakness for true crime. There was once a time when I could have told you the name and victim count of every serial killer from recorded time to present but I have since lost that ability as serial and mass murder became sort of commonplace in the Internet and on television and I lost interest via excessive immersion. However, I still appreciate a good true crime yarn, especially about a killer I have never heard of before.

Availability: Published by Thunder’s Mouth Press in 2006, you can get a copy here:

Comments: The case of J. Frank Hickey was a fascinating read. Though I disagree with the assertion the author makes, that Hickey was the first man ever captured as a result of profiling, that does not render this book any the less absorbing and hard to put down.

Because I discuss books in depth, there is no way for me to discuss elements of this book that would not spoil elements of it for some readers. I think this is a book worth reading, and if you think my many words will ruin aspects of the book, stop reading now. Just go buy the book. It’s not going to be a book that inspires a lot of thought or cause much internal contemplation – it is simply telling the tale of a sadistic man who killed 100 years ago, and as true crime goes, it is better than most.

J. Frank Hickey was a man who confessed to three murders, and if contemporary knowledge of serial killers is of any use, then it is very likely he killed far more than those he confessed to. As a young man, he killed an older drunk whom he feared might take his job, and a couple of decades later, he killed a newsboy. The book focuses, however, mainly on the murder of Joey Joseph in Lackawanna, New York. In 1911, Hickey lured the seven-year-old boy with a trip to a candy store, then took him into a multi-seat outhouse outside a saloon and strangled and raped the child. He then threw the boy’s body down one of the outhouse seats into the latrine below and went back into the saloon and drank. No one ever suspected him and he very well might have gotten away with the murder had he not overplayed his hand: He began to send taunting postcards to the family.

This is where I contend that Hickey was not caught by profiling. He was caught because newspapers ran copies of the postcards he sent in the hopes that someone would recognize the handwriting, which is exactly what happened. Two separate men recognized Hickey’s handwriting and it was downhill for the police from there. It was a capture due to police exercising certain procedural discretion, not because of profiling.

Three things stand out the most for me in this book. First is that Hickey, likely needing the thrill that finding the body would cause, became frustrated when the local police chief failed to find the boy. He sent a postcard to the chief of police telling him point blank that Joey Joseph was in a cesspit, giving the exact location. He did this within a month of the murder. The police chief sent a couple of cops to check out the outhouse and they peered into the filth below, unable to see much. They did not drain the cesspit, they just looked. Had the police performed even the most casual due-diligence, Joey’s body would have been found sooner. But the chief of police patted himself on the back, finding a silver lining in his cloud of incompetence: Had they found Joey’s body sooner, Hickey would not have written more postcards and they might not have caught him. It took over a year for Joey’s body to be recovered once the police finally pumped the cesspit and found him.

Second is how Hickey toyed with the family. Not even Jack the Ripper or the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, letter writers both, taunted directly the victims of their killings. Neither did the Zodiac Killer, who remains uncaught to this day. But Hickey did. His postcards were not as horrific as the letters sent by Albert Fish to the family of his victim, Grace Budd, whom he tortured and then ate, but they were upsetting enough. He said that since Joey’s mother was known as a nervous, unstable woman, he could not bear the torture she was undergoing and hoped his letters to the family, confessing the murder, would lead to finding the boy’s body. More likely, he did not receive the catharsis he needed when Joey’s body failed to be retrieved from the muck and needed some release via upsetting the Joseph family. However, if that was his goal, it backfired for a long while as the elder Joseph did not initially turn the letters over to the police, hoping against hope the letters were hoaxes and his son was alive somewhere. But he also sat on the letters because he feared that if the police knew his son was murdered, they might stop looking for the boy.

Third, I had no idea the life of a newsboy was as horrible as it was until I read this book. Young children in urban areas, sent out to sell papers by families barely scraping by, were of course open prey for pedophiles. Some even became prostitutes, selling themselves for meals and sometimes just the price for admission to a cinema, to be in out of the cold. Joey Joseph was not a newsboy but one of Hickey’s admitted victims was, and reading about the terrible life these children faced, the poverty, the potential victimization and similar, has made me want to read more about the topic. Newsboys seem a romanticized part of history in many large American cities and it was appalling and interesting to see how that romance crumbles under the most casual scrutiny. It seems to me, on many levels, that kids selling the news have always been natural victims. From newsboys to boys abducted as they delivered newspapers on their bike routes in more modern times, it seems odd that the technological advance that so many fear imperils children helped stopped one of the perils – the lone child peddling the news.

All in all, a very interesting, well-written book.