June 20, 2011
Crime Magazine's Review of True-Crime Books
At their best, true-crime books are character studies — getting languorously, even microscopically up close and personal with criminals, victims, witnesses, law-enforcement personnel, and whomever else gets swept up into the orbit of a crime. Page by page, we follow these people's paths as they race forward, double back, mark time, loop the loop and intersect. This is one of true crime's secret pleasures: Through reading these books and "meeting" these individuals — many of whom are very unlucky indeed — we marvel at how ordinary they appear to the outside world. As revealed in two of the books detailed this month, savage killers can also be suburban housewives, shuttling their kids to playdates and school. How well do we really know what's going on right now, next door?
by Anneli Rufus
Dancing With Death, by Shanna Hogan (St. Martin's, 2011): By the time she turned 34, Marjorie Orbin had been married seven times: Most were shallow crash-and-burns. Ex-exotic dancer Orbin was a suburban wife and mother by the time her seventh spouse's headless, limbless torso was found in the Arizona desert. Marjorie's arrest surprised many people who thought they knew her. How had she managed to fool so many lovers, alleged friends, and fellow suburbanites? After their jailhouse interviews, Orbin tried to work her con on this book's author. Drawn in at first, Hogan wised up in the nick of time, as she reveals in this jarring look at a relentless sociopath.
Hidden Alcatraz: The Fortress Revealed, edited by Steve Fritz and Deborah Roundtree (University of California Press, 2011): Twisted, rusted razorwire. The skeletal silhouette of a guard tower against the moody sea and sky by night. Gritty sinks and toilets. Notches chiseled into brick. And bars: Row on row of metal bars. Over a four-year period, several photographers were granted unprecedented access to the island prison turned national park, even allowed to stay overnight. The result is this remarkably beautiful collection of a hundred-plus stark, striking images of what might be America's most compelling ruin, complete with original furnishings in its cells, infirmary, rec room and other areas.
Mommy Deadliest, by Michael Benson (Pinnacle, 2011): It took David Castor a long time to die. After his wife force-fed him antifreeze on Saturday, he suffered horrifically all weekend only to finally die on Monday, the chemical having done its slow agonizing damage all the while. Hoping to escape blame, after killing her husband, Stacey Castor then tried to slay her own daughter, pinning the crime on the teenager by forging a suicide note in the girl's handwriting claiming responsibility for David Castor's death. The utterly blank stare in Stacey Castor's mug shot speaks volumes. Benson tells this tale of an ice-cold killer — whom he compares to a monstrous bird that savages its own nest — with vivid compassion for her victims.
Lust for Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror and Violence, by Jeffrey A. Kottler (Prometheus, 2011): In a refreshingly conversational if somewhat meandering tone, a practicing psychologist and professor of counseling offers this treatise on what the Germans call lustmord. Connecting such disparate threads as Twilight, serial-killer fan clubs, and the story of Snow White, Kottler returns again and again to true crime and its fans, speculating that our "lust" for violent death stokes our passion for life. A true-crime coauthor himself, Kottler recounts interviews with several serial killers. A dialogue with "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez about crushing victims' knuckles with pliers is a standout.