Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI by Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman

25561483FBI veteran and ex-Army CID colonel Robert Ressler learned how to identify the unknown monsters who walk among us–and put them behind bars. Now the man who coined the phrase “serial killer” shows how he is able to track down some of today’s most brutal murderers.

From the victims they choose, to the way they kill, to the often grotesque souvenirs they take with them–Ressler unlocks the identities of these vicious killers. With his discovery that serial killers share certain violent behaviors, Ressler’s gone behind prison walls to hear the bizarre first-hand stories countless convicted murderers. Join Ressler as he takes you on the hunt for toady’s most dangerous psychopaths. It is a terrifying journey you will not forget.

Review:

Here’s what I wanted when I read Incendiary – a look into the mind of a repeat criminal. Ressler is a pioneer in the field of profiling and uses cases, both famous and not, to explore the minds of serial killers.  I learned a lot – organized vs. disorganized killers, what may push someone to their first murder, and what drives them to repeat the crime again and again.

While informative and interesting several things put me off, though.  First, the victims are minimized, often reduced to clues to analyze the mind of the killer.  The criminals’ thought process, and the men who work to understand it, are prioritized above all else.  The upcoming book Dead Girls address this point really well – watch this space for a review on release day.

Also, Ressler is full of himself and it grates.  What’s the line… ‘may the lord grant me the confidence of a straight white man’?  That’s Ressler.  He quotes letters of commendation while he humble brags about every little thing.  He tells stories about bending the rules for the sake of the investigation and always comes out squeaky clean.  It’s goddamn annoying but also maybe expected from a G-man of his era. (Note: expected does not equal excused.)

I listened on audio and have no complaints about the narrator or production. While nowhere near perfect, Whoever Fights Monsters provides a foundation to build my Serial Killer Summer on.

…yeah, I’m making it a thing. Heaven help me.

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Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell

31451258Grand Central, Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall―for almost two decades, no place was safe from the man who signed his anonymous letters “FP” and left his lethal devices in phone booths, storage lockers, even tucked into the plush seats of movie theaters. His victims were left cruelly maimed. Tabloids called him “the greatest individual menace New York City ever faced.”

In desperation, Police Captain Howard Finney sought the help of a little known psychiatrist, Dr. James Brussel, whose expertise was the criminal mind. Examining crime scene evidence and the strange wording in the bomber’s letters, he compiled a portrait of the suspect down to the cut of his jacket. But how to put a name to the description? Seymour Berkson―publisher of the tabloid The Journal-American―joined in pursuit of the Mad Bomber. The three men hatched a brilliant scheme to catch him at his own game. Together, they would capture a monster and change the face of American law enforcement.

Review:

I feel a true crime binge coming on and I started with this book because hey, “the invention of criminal profiling”.  It makes you think the how of profiling would be discussed.

But no.

Don’t get me wrong – this is a good account about the “Mad Bomber of New York” who set off pipe bombs in the city for the better part of two decades.  He started small, putting bombs in out of the way places, and got more adventurous as time went on.  The NYPD was getting criticized for allowing him to continue unfettered for years.  Desperate, they asked a psychiatrist for help.

This is the part I was waiting for – how did Dr. Brussel come up with a profile?  What medical knowledge did he draw on to arrive at the picture of a killer?

Sadly we don’t know.  Cannell sticks close to the police so we see Brussel make a prophecy (a Slavic guy in a double breasted suit, probably living with female relatives) and that’s about it.

I desperately wanted more info on the invention and process of profiling (see title) so I was disappointed.  If you’re a fan of true crime there’s a good story here, just expect more ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ than ‘hows’.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

32191677The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate—there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.

A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America—a land half gutted before the fires even began.

Review:

I went into this book blind, knowing nothing about the Accomack fires, and Hesse is a surefooted and well-spoken guide.  She spent months living on the Eastern Shore and it shows in the way she paints the community and pulls us into the crime.  While the culprit is pointed out early on the whydunit aspects kept me reading – what would drive someone to do this?  What does it mean when you’ll do literally anything for someone?

The reporting and particulars of the case are handled exceptionally well, with the crimes, apprehension, interrogation, and court aspects carrying equal weight.  However, I was hoping that Hesse would spend more time digging into the social and economic trends that led to Ammomack’s fall in the first place.  Many factors are briefly touched on – the importance of the railroad, the rise of chicken farming – but it never gets to the point of an overarching theme.

Even though I was hoping for more thematic heft American Fire is a fascinating look at what happens when you find an arsonist in your midst.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

24399756On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man is shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of the thousands of black Americans murdered that year. His assailant runs down the street, jumps into an SUV, and vanishes, hoping to join the scores of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes.

But as soon as the case is assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shift.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

Review:

I’ve made the mistake of not writing this review right away so particulars have flown out of my brain, gah. Check out Doing Dewey’s review for a more proper look but let me give you my overall impression – wow.

Leovy’s writing is outstanding and is just as amazing on audiobook as I imagine it is on the page. She weaves background and context into the story of a single murder so that we understand not just what happened in one case, but in South Central LA over the course of decades.

The only thing that gives me pause is there is a whiff of white savior narrative going on, though Leovy does her best to squash the impression. And looking at Goodreads there isn’t a single person of color (as gleaned from avatars) in the top page of reviews, which makes me wonder what I’m missing. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is going on my TBR to make sure I get another perspective.

Even so, this book – part police procedural, part court drama, part whodunit – is narrative nonfiction at its best.