May 30, 2011
Crime Magazine's Review of True-Crime Books
Identity is a tricky thing. That name, that birthdate, and all those other details allegedly marking you as whom you claim to be are recorded on documents, in files, on cards, and in the archives of every institution from your bank to the church where you were baptized. But we live in a highly mobile society, amid dazzlingly adept technology. In an era when any image can be Photoshopped and even a world leader's birth certificate can be called into question by a large sector of the population, identity becomes a matter of trust. Who are you? Who am I? Why should we believe each other? When it comes to crime, the issue of identity looms large. Countless criminals strive to elude justice under false identities. The subject of one of this column's books, a small-town scammer who passed himself off as a Rockefeller, shifted identities for 30 years before running out of false names and false faces. The killers detailed in another of these books learned hard lessons about identity as their own effluent, left on their victims decades ago, reached out of the past to scream: It was him. It was him.
by Anneli Rufus
The Thames Torso Murders, by M.J. Trow (Wharncliffe, 2011): The great river that bisects London has been many things to many people. To Victorian day-trippers, its upper reaches were all about "endless sunshine, punts, pleasure steamers and cream teas. The dress is swirling parasols and bustles, straw boaters and striped blazers." But in that same era, the river and its banks were also home to seedy taverns, dangerous factories, feculent slaughterhouses — and a large number of female body parts. Who deftly, decisively dismembered these women? Trow has his theories. Jack the Ripper was not Victorian London's only never-identified, much less apprehended, serial killer.
A Siberian Education: Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld, by Nicolai Lilin (W.W. Norton, 2011): Originally published in Italy, where the author now runs a tattoo studio, this riveting memoir unveils a violent yet deeply spiritual and wildly superstitious society that most of us never knew existed. "By the age of 13," Lilin writes, "Siberian boys often have a criminal record" — usually for racketeering, murder or attempted murder: skills they learn from their loving elders. Juvenile-prison stints are "seen as important, even fundamental, to the formation of the individual's character" in a culture where loyalty is all. Lilin's eloquent, gore-streaked saga is lit with startling humor.
DNA Crime Investigations: Solving Murder and Serious Crime Through DNA and Modern Forensics, by Stepen Wade (Wharncliffe, 2009): Sooner or later, science will get you. That's the moral of these nearly two dozen true tales of UK cold cases that DNA evidence reheated to flashpoint. Crime historian Wade brings urgency to his accounts of decades-old puzzlers such as the 1977 World's End killings, the 1975 Lesley Molseed slaying, and the 1980s reign of terror of Yorkshire's trophy-collecting "Shoe Rapist." He relishes adding codas in which traces of body fluids left behind long ago leads to the arrests of gray-haired grandfathers who thought they'd gotten away with murder.
Shattered, by Kathryn Casey (Harper, 2010): Belinda Lucas Temple was a young small-town Texas mother, wife, teacher, daughter, twin. Kind and compassionate, always ready with a hug or a cheer-up joke, Belinda was a firm friend to her colleagues, her students, and her fellow football coaches' wives. Everyone loved Belinda — except her husband, former football star David Temple, who was convicted of the brutal 1999 murder in which a shotgun blast blew off Belinda's face in her own bedroom closet, and also killed the baby to whom she would have given birth within days. Casey brings all the participants in this tragedy, both heroic and villainous, vividly to life.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor, by Mark Seal (Viking, 2011): The square-jawed smoothie lounging in Boston's chichi Algonquin Club: Everyone knew this Yale-grad,Wall Street insider as Clark Rockefeller, of the Rockefellers. Who was he really? As investigators learned after the rip-roaring abduction which with this fascinating book begins, the alleged somebody was actually a nobody, a small-town German immigrant who scammed upper-crust Americans for decades. Christian Gerhartsreiter, aka Christopher Mountbatten Chichester, aka Christopher Crowe, aka Chip Smith, was a man with a plan. Authorities say that plan included a 1985 murder.