Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter

Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)

 

This was my second time reading Helter Skelter. My first time was many (many) years ago when I was twelve. It was this book that made me fascinated with serial killers and true crime non-fiction. This time around was just as fascinating and piqued my curiosity about the Manson family all over again. And I’m not the only one. Helter Skelter has been a best seller since it was released in 1974, and sparked movies, TV shows, and inspired many more works of fiction.

Written by Vincent Bugliosi, the Deputy DA who served as the main prosecutor on the trial against Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten. This book is both an account on that trial as well as Manson’s life and (other) crimes. It tells of the beginning of the Manson family cult and how one man with mental problems, paranoia, distrust of the government and an ego for miles became the driving force behind at least seven and as many as forty brutal murders.

Well written and authoritative, Mr. Bugliosi certainly had an insider’s view of the case and the information presented comes out believable and easy to follow. With a cast of so many characters, it would be easy to lose track of who committed what crime but Mr. Bugliosi manages to give each main player their own identity, personality, and role in the story.

Helter Skelter stands out as THE book on the Manson trial. I searched Charles Manson on Amazon books and there were 786 results. Guess what book was listed first? Then I googled the words Helter Skelter (which we learn was Manson’s “rally cry” which he took from The Beatle’s White Album and understood to mean Armageddon—a race war between the blacks and the whites) Now, The Beatles were a fairly popular band, so one might assume they would rank highly on the Google search. Their Wikipedia page came in second to the Wiki on Bugliosi’s book.

Almost everyone involved in this case wrote a book, and there are just as many versions of what happened, who did what, and who was ultimately to blame. And yet, Helter Skelter remains the go-to for the most accurate story of the Tate/LaBianca murders. Much of the book’s text is taken directly from court transcripts and other legal documents. Now, you could go dig up the 209 volumes of transcripts from the trial itself (made up of 31,716 pages) and read it yourself, but I’ll believe that Bugliosi’s version is a good summary.

I’m not saying that he didn’t paint himself as a bit of a hero in the book. And I do understand the idea of cherry picking the parts of the transcripts that best fit the story he was trying to sell. That may be and I’m sure he pissed off some people in the LAPD and LASO, as well as defense attorneys, judges, media and many, many followers of Manson. Which is not the safest thing to do from what I understand—see Ronald Hughs. But the book has stood the test of time and has continued to sell. It often serves as a reference in other Manson documentaries and Non-fiction. That has to say something.

There are a lot of non-fiction/true-crime books out there and there are many ways to present true crime. A more recent and popular format has been the creative non-fiction genre where you’ll find books like The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter reads less creative and more like an episode of Dateline or Forensic Files. It’s a hefty book coming in at close to 700 pages, but it’s all substance and little fluff. Yet, due to the nature of the crime and the psychology of those involved (including the defense attorneys and judges), you can’t put it down.

Bugliosi has since written several other non-fiction books on OJ Simpson, Bill Clinton (vs. Paula Jones), George W. Bush (vs. Al Gore and one blaming Bush for the deaths of 4,000 soldiers in Iraq), JFK and RFK as well as others on various subjects. As a prosecutor, he has won 105 out of 106 felony trials. He is obviously a competent speaker as well as a writer. To win over a jury, you need to be able to lay the facts out in a concise, organized and easy to understand format and you have to do it charismatically. You can’t talk down to them. Isn’t it the same with readers?

I haven’t read any other books by Bugliosi, and I will grant it that Charles Manson, his families and the Tate/LaBianca murders are fascinating in their pathology, but in the hands of a lesser writer, this book would be buried in the middle of those 786 other versions available on Amazon. Instead it leads the pack and will forever link a Beatle’s song to the senseless, bloody murders of seven innocent human beings.

Misery

Misery

By Stephen King

 

Ah, Misery. Stephen King has always been my favorite author. I love his subtleties and themes. His characters are so lifelike and realistic that I am drawn in by the end of the first page. I know he is a master on a level few will ever obtain but I am going to approach this review in the most honest and unbiased way that I can. Not as his “number one fan” but as a fellow writer who has studied his craft and found both genius and some petty mistakes as well.

There is no doubt in my mind that much of Paul Sheldon is King’s fictional alter ego. A prolific and successful writer who wants to dabble outside his designated genre and gets punished for it. And who else could write about the psychological terrors of addiction better than a man going through it himself. I think, when you look at King’s characters, there is often some autobiography in them, which is what makes his ability to turn them into real people so effective.

What King does well is analogy. Sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant his analogies are often both in one. For instance, Paul recalls a time in his childhood when he would go to the beach and watch the tide ebb and flow around wooden pylons. He remembers the ugliness of the portions that become exposed when the tide goes out. Soon, his mind uses these images as a meditation on his pain. As more and more of the pylon in his mind’s eye is exposed, so is his pain. The tide is the relief he receives from his pain meds. Later, as I read on, I wondered if King used those ugly stumps as a foreshadowing of Paul’s amputation at the hands of Annie.

Paul’s mind uses a lot of analogies to help him through his experience. The African bird trapped in a cage, Annie Wilkes as a goddess, immortal, powerful and all knowing, and Scheherazade. Although I do have an issue with the Scheherazade reference because first of all, it was too easy a connection (Scheherazade being the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights who used her storytelling to save her life from the king who planned to kill her) and secondly King used it way too much. Constantly making reference to it until I was so sick of having it shoved in my face I wondered if King thought all his readers were stupid and wouldn’t get it. I got it before he mentioned it and certainly didn’t need it rehashed as a theme over and over. Yeah, obviously Paul is using his revival of Misery Chastain to prolong his own life.

Looking at the book as a whole, I also wondered if the entire tale itself was not an analogy of the task of writing a novel. The pain, the pressure to do it well, distractions, an alter ego that tells you it’s not good enough. Sometimes we need that sort of thing to drive us; that demon on our backs pushing and pushing. Paul ends up with the best book he ever wrote under those conditions. Maybe I should hire a dominatrix to help keep me in check.

Something that I often struggle with in my first draft is description. King is a writer of little sprinkles of it only when necessary and I love that. If you’ve ever read his book On Writing, he discusses that very thing. When I first read Misery, it was before seeing the movie, and it is funny to me that when I reread it again, I still saw the home I concocted in my head the first time I read it and not the movie’s scenes. That maybe why I thought to make this point. I bet those who have seen the movie before reading the book don’t necessarily notice King’s paucity of description. He only describes the things that are absolutely necessary for you to know and the rest he leaves up to your own imagination. So many Stephen King stories in my head took place at the farmhouse my Step-father grew up in. That was a scary place to me and so that’s the home I always saw in my head, the layout and everything. I like that we have a good idea of what Annie looks like, a vague idea of Paul and just a general idea of everything else. Because that’s all we need. We don’t need pages of boring description of the house, the room he is in. Just little details here and there and those almost give a feeling not a look to the room. The guy is a master with this and I think it is a big reason his books are so readable and catch you so quickly.

Now, I did promise you something petty so here it is. There is a scene after Annie takes Paul into the basement to stay and she brings a couple Pepsis and a bottle opener. “There were three bottles of Pepsi on the collapsed TV tray. She opened two of them, using the opener on her keyring, and handed him one.” Bottle opener=glass bottles, right? You wouldn’t need a bottle opener for a plastic bottle with a screw top, would you? But then, two pages later “Annie came back and took a third bottle of Pepsi…She twisted the cap off the bottle and drank deeply.” Ok, so two glass bottles opened with the opener on her keyring and one plastic bottle with a screw cap. A few pages later we are told the bottle is indeed plastic. “She drained her second Pepsi and held the empty plastic bottle…”

I told you, petty stuff, right? But hey, this is Stephen King we’re talking about. He is allowed a dumb mistake here and there. You’d think his editor might have picked that up, but one little thing in a sea of gold, is not all that bad. So, I’ll just end with this shout out to Mr. Stephen King—if you ever want or need a gal like me to hang around and pick out petty mistakes like this feel free to give me a call. I’ll move into your guest room, I’ll read each page as it comes off the printer. I’m a doc too, so I can always offer health related services as needed. Come on, Mr. King, I’m harmless and I just happen to be your biggest fan.

 

The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs

1991 Movie Directed by Jonathon Demme and starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodi Foster

 

Revisiting a movie I have watched at least a thousand times is not a problem, the problem is trying to watch it in the spirit of academic review. With the eye of a critic, I viewed it and found some really amazing things and some not so amazing. It doesn’t change the fact that I absolutely love the movie (not as much as the book of course, but this review is of the movie and I will stick to that only.)

Let’s begin with the beginning of the film. Clarice Starling, a student in the FBI academy is called to the office of Jack Crawford head of the Behavioral Science Unit. This happens to be the department Clarice hopes to someday join. On her way there, multiple scenes show her weaving between the myriad of male recruits all of whom oogle her like nothing more than a piece of meat. She gets on an elevator filled with men who dwarf her into a small meek woman rather than the strong (both physically and emotionally) woman that she truly is.

The first time viewer will not realize that Crawford is lying to her when he describes the job he wants to offer her. He is not, in fact working on a collection of profiles of the country’s most infamous killers but he is sending her in; young, attractive and innocent as a way to bait Hannibal Lecter to aid in their Buffalo Bill investigation. She is being used by the very man she looks up to and strives to be like. A man who would become a father figure to the once orphaned little girl who rose above her “white trash” family history to follow her dreams.

When she arrives at Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, she meets Dr. Chilton who makes a pass at her and again refuses to take her seriously. The FBI recruit can’t catch a break. So far, she has not managed to garner any sort of respect from the men—all professionals—that she has encountered.

Enter Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The introductory scene is effectively creepy as we pan into the plexiglass lined cell to see Lecter standing, hands at his sides, clear blue eyes, and a slight smile on his face. The strange attentive stance tells us everything we need about this psychotic psychiatrist.

Here is a man who immediately accepts Clarice for who and what she is. While occasionally brutally honest, he is never disrespectful to her. He never treats her as if she is beneath him and he never objectifies her (although there was that opener when he did regret that he could not smell her c**t). He makes it clear to her that he knows the real reason she is there and opens her eyes to the truth. He never talks down to her and he gives her puzzles to solve leading her to more clues in the Buffalo Bill case.

Now, given that, I will say this led to several things I just couldn’t buy. For one, Clarice solved the Miss Hester Moffet anagram and the “look inside yourself” pun way too easily and once she did, she was allowed to go investigate on her own—a student, who could have messed up everything, alone. I guess one could argue that in this instance she was treated as an equal, but one could also argue that perhaps again she was only being humored and allowed to run after what they considered a lot of nonsense.

The lack of respect for the female “lead investigator” continues when she is taken along to view the recently found body of a Buffalo Bill victim. Crawford introduces her last, then excludes her from the conversation, leaving her in a room full of male police officers, all of which shamelessly glare at her. Throughout the movie, Starling is forced to guild her loins and keep holding her head up high even when she wants to break down and cry. She only does so once in fact near the beginning, after Miggs throws his jizz into her hair. Watching the girl crumble into sobs at her cheap Pinto, I was reminded of a piece of advice my mother drilled into me my entire life: “Put on a strong face, don’t let them see you’re nervous or scared. Be strong always in public, then when you get home, if you need to fall apart, do it then.” In that moment, I felt for Clarice, I felt her pain, I felt her heart pounding and I felt the unfair feelings of being a “poor, one generation away from white trash” female trying to make it in a professional male’s world.

She even once tries to call Crawford out on his treatment of her, but he blows it off and later almost makes a joke of how she got upset when he left her out of the conversation back at the funeral home. Yet, in each interaction with Lecter and make no mistake it is a true interaction, a give and take, a quid pro quo, he treats her both respectfully and equally. He even talks Miggs into swallowing his own tongue after Lecter is humiliated by the way his “guest” was treated by the crazed masturbator.

Although never given full credit, it is Clarice and she alone who solves the Buffalo Bill murders and somehow manages to survive long enough to take him out all by herself. Let’s take a closer look at that as well. Buffalo Bill or Jame Gumb. A man who has taken over the home of a seamstress. Now, I don’t know if the man has a job but he certainly has a lot of “stuff” that makes it easy for him to do what he does. I’ve brought this up before. How do these serial killers have access to all this equipment?

Of course, there is the deep symbolism of the Death’s Head moth pupas placed in the throat of at least one victim. We learn that he has these eggs imported. WITH WHAT MONEY? Not to mention the setup he has in the basement to grow them. The basement is something else too, isn’t it? A complex labyrinth of hallways and rooms so that each one can be devoted to a specific aspect of the killing. There is the autopsy table and dissecting area, the sewing room, the dressing room, the moth farm, the decomposing bathtub, and of course, the convenient well in the floor. Wow, what a great real estate find. Lucky for Buffalo Bill, right? Lucky thing he has those military grade night vision goggles too so he can shut the lights off to pursue the FBI student in the dark.

His only mistake is hesitation in the end. Oh, how many murderers have been taken down in a similar fashion?

But even in the end, Lecter continues to be the shining example of a most decent villain when he telephones Starling to congratulate her on her graduation and wish her well. He assures her that due to his respect for her, he will never come after her.

Don’t get me wrong, Lecter is and always will be one of the creepiest villains I have ever known. I wouldn’t want to find him in my closet. But in review of this movie and in comparison to all the male protagonists in it, he doesn’t look that bad after all.

What’s so Funny about a Spell?

*This is not class related. I just needed to get this out. Sorry, if you are in my class and get a notice on this blog.

Trump Binding Spell

Last night, my friend Kim and I participated in the Trump Binding spell that was performed across the country at the stroke of midnight, all in the hopes of stopping the damage the man is doing to this earth and this country. I’m not a witch, nor is my friend. But I am also not a Christian. I just believe in the power of love and peace and the energy of the Earth, our home, and the place to which all our bodies return one day. I believe in the power of a group of open minded individuals who are working together for the same goal especially when that goal is for good things.

That being said, we studied the spell, we arranged all the supplies as instructed and we stayed up late with open hearts and open minds. We both felt the energy inside us as together, we read the words of the spell asking the universe to hear us. When the ritual was complete, we cleaned up and went to bed, both slept well.

This morning, my Mother-in-Law said nonchalantly (and innocently) that “we all had a good laugh about you girls this morning” and it made me a little upset. Why is that? Why is our ritual so funny? I mean, don’t Christians perform rituals? Communion, Baptism, Advent? Aren’t these all a sort of ritual for believers? Jews have theirs as well. Muslims do too. And no one laughs.

Do you laugh when you see a menorah? Do you laugh when you get an invitation to a baptism or a wedding? Do you laugh when you go to confession and are told to do six Hail Mary’s to absolve your sin? Do you believe that your sins are absolved when you’ve chanted with your beads? If not, but you scoff at a binding ritual, you are a hypocrite.

On Facebook, I see prayer requests every day. Your kid has a fever, your friend is having surgery, you have a job interview, even dogs deserve prayers. And people do. They pray for these things and not a single person laughs and says “that’s so cute that you’d pray for someone to get a job.” It’s a given that “the power of prayer” from your “prayer warriors” will work to change the present conditions. We institute prayer chains because the more voices involved in the prayer the more likely it is God will listen and change the plans he had for this person or animal’s path in life? I don’t know, I’m only asking. I mean, if we believe in God and God’s will, then shouldn’t it be “cute” or “funny” if we think one of our “rituals” can change that? Is it sacrilegious? I don’t know.

But this I do know: laughing at someone for believing that putting energy and time into something can maybe change things for the better isn’t funny at all. It’s rude and it’s ignorant. Believing in God or Allah or the energy of the Earth is all equal or should be. And beliefs that are not hurting or affecting anyone should be respected. (And don’t tell me a binding spell on Trump is hurtful, because then I would have to argue that your prayers for someone to get a job is praying that someone else DOESN’T get the job or that praying for someone seriously injured to make it through is praying that someone else misses an opportunity for a life sustaining transplant. Am I right?).

The point is, a binding ritual is no different than a communion ritual or a few Hail Mary’s for forgiveness. If one is silly and ridiculous, they all are. Meanwhile, I will continue to do whatever it takes to live in a better world where we all learn to love and respect each other in the light of our differences.

Red Dragon

Red Dragon

By Thomas Harris

 

I’ve given a lot of thought to want I want to say about this book. It was not my first time reading it. I remember reading it after I read Silence of the Lambs. Silence of the Lambs terrified me. Hannibal Lector lurked in my closet waiting to bite my face off. So I remember finding Red Dragon and devouring it as well as the subsequent sequels. While I recall that I liked the book Red Dragon, I don’t recall being afraid and the only images I could remember were those of the movies (there were two based on this book. One starring William Peterson called Manhunter from 1986 and one starring Edward Norton in 2002).

Now, I will always be a fan of Lector and therefore, I have to give Harris a lot of credit for bringing this complex madman to life. That says a lot about a writer when he can create a character that will live in infamy forever. You’re doing something right. And without re-reading Silence of the Lambs critically as I have Red Dragon, I only speak to the writing in it.

The writing in this book is flat for me. I wanted to feel more for Will Graham than I did. The story is told in third person and mostly from Will’s POV, but even so, you never get close to him. As for the rest of his cohorts, I couldn’t keep them straight. I knew Jack Crawford from SOTL but the rest all blended together because none of them sounded different or spoke differently enough to tell them apart. How can a man who wrote one of the greatest villains of all time fail to write a standout protagonist (remember, I am talking about this book only)?

One other thing that bothered me was the head-hopping. As I said most of the book was from Will’s POV yet occasionally in the middle of it, there would be a sentence or two thrown in from another character’s POV. Which threw me off and made me stop. Never a good thing, right? Now, when I have a problem with a book, especially a popular novel, I like to read reviews by others to see if anyone else felt the same. I found a review by a person who stated they were too young to have ever seen the movies or read the book when it came out. So, take this for what you want, they made a great point that maybe Harris did the head-hopping to show how Graham’s brain worked; i.e. always trying to see through other’s eyes. Maybe that’s true and if so, I guess I missed that. So, not sure if it’s me that is too dense to get a genius idea or if we’re giving Harris too much credit.

One thing I did notice and found interesting was in the one scene with Lector (yeah, the book that advertises itself as the book that introduces Hannibal Lector has one scene with him in it), whenever Harris gives a description of Lector, he does it in present tense. It ups the creep factor. Hannibal is not Hannibal was.

Speaking of creep-factor, how about that Mr. D? Very creepy, yes. Sad though, because we learn about his traumatic childhood and if that isn’t sympathy-inducing enough, we also learn that he is struggling in the end when he finally finds someone like Reba to love him unconditionally. By then, he is too far gone. It’s easy to forget what he did to the Leeds and Jacobis. It’s hard not to root for him at least to survive. I knew and cared more about Dolarhyde than I did Graham. I got hints at Graham’s past but never enough of his internal thoughts or memories to care.

The story was good, although perhaps cliché (especially the “twist” at the end. Oh no, the killer isn’t dead? I didn’t see that coming when he died with three chapters left in the book) Still, I enjoyed watching Graham figure it all out and Dolarhyde struggle with his inner dragon. I liked the book, I read it quickly. But could it have been better, sure maybe even a lot better. But the tale should come first, the fancy shit is just the icing on the cake.

The Sculptor

The Sculptor

Or as I like to call it: The Sculptor vs The Pretty Protagonist

 

When I pick up a piece of fiction to read, I have entered into a contract with the author; I agree to suspend my disbelief and they, in turn, tell me a good story that I can completely lose myself in. Like most contracts, there are usually benefits above and beyond the main clause—things like suspense and scares and thought-provoking commentary woven seamlessly into the tale. I think few books manage to meet all our individual requirements. Most are read once, put on the shelf and forgotten, a few are so bad we can’t even finish and then there are those special ones that we read over and over, recommend to all our friends and list as our favorites.

The Sculptor sits in the middle of the bell curve I just described. It was an easy read, had an interesting plot, and your basic expected but not unsatisfying finish. It wasn’t bad, but for me, there were just too many problems and irritants that I never found myself fully involved. The writing is fine, everyone has their motives, the action is enough to keep you turning the pages, so sure, it was a decent book. I like my psychos to be intelligent and calculating. I like when they have a purpose to their madness beyond the clichéd “I hate all women” or “I am gay but hate myself for it so I kill gays”. And I have a confession: I liked Dan Brown’s books because I am an art and a history buff so if you can weave those into your plot and make it a puzzle as well, I’m on board.

Here’s the problem with The Sculptor: Christian Bach is just too perfect to be believed. He is genius level smart, independently wealthy, has access to all the equipment he needs (without ever drawing suspicion to himself for all the stuff he must be ordering in bulk), can expertly replicate a master artist (meaning on top of all these things, he has innate/natural artistic talent), he is unnaturally strong, manages to work nonstop/around the clock for days-weeks on end while also caring for his invalid father who also requires round-the-clock care, and is apparently immune to chemical burns and explosions. If he has a flaw, it’s his ever-changing underlying motive for his killings and his years-long obsession with Dr. Cathy Hildebrandt that he quickly gets over in the end.

When we first meet The Sculptor, we’re given the impression that he is killing to make a statement to the world—to “wake them from their slumber” and his obsession with Dr. Hildebrandt stems from his belief that only she understands his genius, only she can help interpret his message. He wants the world to know her and read her book and have their eyes opened. Later, we learn that The Roma Pieta was originally planned to be his debut piece rather than the Bacchus statue he started with. (his attention to detail was so precise except, we learn, that he used the wrong marble for Bacchus because he already had the other stuff lying around for use with the Pieta. Don’t think that was lost on me, Funaro—either this guy is hardcore OCD about his work or he isn’t). The Pieta, we come to discover has this whole weird incestuous meaning for The Sculptor dating back to his childhood and relationship with his mom. So now, we are to believe that this is his true motive and Hildebrandt just happened to write a book that gave him some helpful ideas.

Do we learn these motive revelations through The Sculptor’s point of view? Sort of, but it is spelled out for us by the also perfect, unbelievably intuitive Sherlock Markham, I mean Agent Sam Markham who, using the talented but more importantly pretty Dr. Hildebrandt as a sounding board, keys in on the Sculptor’s deepest thoughts and symbolism and pretty much his entire subconscious. This is the guy they should have sent to talk to Lector in Silence of the Lambs, he thinks on the deepest level and would have caught all of Lector’s inferences (with the aid of his trusty but more importantly pretty sidekick; the lovesick Dr. Hildy—who, have I mentioned is pretty and has Korean eyes?). Basically, Dr. Hildebrandt reads passages from her book to him, sometimes even having to explain what she means and then it is Markham who extrapolates it to the killer, not Dr. Hildebrandt. In this way, he remains the star, the hero.

And so, I come to the famous and also pretty Dr. Catherine Hildebrandt. Our first description of Cathy comes from her own inner thoughts: “Although she was an attractive woman, Cathy could not deny that she had been a nerd all her life.” And thus begins a pattern for Dr. Hildy who is always pretty BUT has this one snag of also being smart. Throughout the entire book, she is presented this way through every character’s eyes. First a physical description about her level of attractiveness followed by her intellectual traits that are always presented as a kind of footnote. When we see her through the Sculptor’s eyes, he opens her book (the one he has used as his textbook for his life’s work, mind you), flips to the back jacket flap where her picture is, notices that her hair was shorter then, and thinks “looked a little heavier” and notes that perhaps it is her glasses, “yes, the black frames she wears now look much better on her than those old wire rims”. Special Agent in Charge, Bill Burrell is constantly reminded of his Korean wife when he sees Dr. Hildebrandt (no, I will not stop referring to her as Dr. Hildebrandt instead of Cathy, someone has to give her the respect that is due.).

“Turning, Burrell’s gaze fell upon a petite, attractive young woman shivering beside the Quantico profiler. He right away pegged the eyes behind the black-rimmed glasses to be Korean—same as his wife’s.”

Someone please give this academic, intelligent, expert on Michaelangelo some credit beyond her looks! My god, look at this passage and tell me what kind of image this projects? She is shivering? Petite and attractive and shivering beside THE QUANTICO PROFILER. Thank god for the big strong, non-shivering man. (who, by the way is described by his profession and not his looks in this passage). Dr. Hildebrandt, in fact is referred to as “the pretty art professor” no less than four times in the second half of the book (well beyond the initial description telling us she is attractive and one of those times it was from the point of view of a priest! But don’t take it personally, Dr. Hildebrandt, you aren’t the only professional woman objectified by her looks in this book. Our introduction to Special Agent Rachel Sullivan is “blonde, early thirties, with chiseled features that Cathy envied.” And when Markham is thinking about the death of his wife, the first picture we get of her is through the confession of her killer who recalls seeing “the pretty, twenty-six year old ‘scientist lady’”.

I’m not saying we don’t get similar descriptions of other male characters, we do. But when we do it is 1. Through Cathy’s lovesick eyes and/or mentioned once and then not referred to again and certainly not used as an adjective before their profession. We don’t read “The Muscular Sculptor” or “The handsome Agent Markham” do we? And for a professor of Dr. Hildebrandt’s esteem, who also happens to be the object of a serial killer’s obsession, her thoughts are almost always occupied by love, her worry about Markham’s reciprocated feelings for her, her worry about having to be away from him and so on. She is never focused on the task she is consulted on, she is focused on her personal life. So much so that at the beginning of Chapter twenty, two words from Markham are able to soothe her of the loss of her life’s work.

“What’s bothering you, Cathy?”…

               “My life” Cathy whispered suddenly. “My whole life has been dedicated to the work of Michelangelo. And now, I’ll never be able to look at his statues, teach a class—will never be able to even think about him the same way again—I mean without thinking about…”

               Cathy trailed off into a silent stream of tears…Markham reached out his hand for hers. She let him take it—felt her fingers melt into his.

               “I’m sorry,” was all the FBI agent said.

               But for Cathy Hildebrandt, it was enough….Cathy realized her tears had dried.

 

               For the love of god, really? Ok, I have to move on, but I could seriously write an entire thesis on the sexism displayed in the subtext of this book. Now, those of you who know my reviews from the previous RIG know that I am a stickler for believable stories. I can only suspend my belief so far. If you put me in a world like mine with human characters, then I have certain expectations.

Funaro started this book with a killer obsessed with Dr. Cathy Hildebrandt. His entire M.O. was based on her text. He wanted her to see what he was doing, he even used her ex-husband for his second (but really most important) tableau. Then he discovers she is on to him (and of course she is, he did everything he could to get her attention, leading the reader to believe he was planning on her being around to see the murders through til the end and then likely become a victim herself.) and once he decides that she is getting close, he just determines to put a bullet in her head. Really? That’s it? Just shoot her? If I hadn’t had to read this book for this class, I probably would have shut it then and there.

Alas, I continued and stumbled upon the clichéd ending of the man being injured, the woman brutalized and chased and she almost gets away and then the killer catches up. Just when we think she is a goner, the injured man finds the strength to come in and save the day. Please, of course I wouldn’t expect Funaro to give the win to the female lead, not when she is just a “pretty art history professor”. Additionally, as a physician, I would be remiss if I didn’t add that a man who is shot several times resulting in a shattered shoulder, a punctured lung, and having a chunk out of his leg would not be crawling up the basement stairs, leaving the house, traversing the lawn, climbing the stairs to the second floor to leap down upon the bad guy!! No Way In Hell. I don’t care how much adrenaline you have in your system. You must have oxygen to make muscles work and you must have muscle to move bone. Same for Dr. Hildebrandt. She was shot with a chunk taken out of her arm. So one would assume in a petite, pretty girl, that chunk would include muscle. So how she managed to pull her now unconscious boyfriend into the van without arm muscle I don’t know.

I hated the end of this book. I wanted something more and I suspected it from someone who obviously did some major research on his idea. And if I don’t stop this review, my readers will hate me too.

The Church of Dead Girls

The Church of Dead Girls

Stephen Dobyns

 

What can I say about this book? I have read other reviews and they are either hot or cold. I am in the middle. While this story is not about a psycho nor is it about the dead girls the title alludes to, it is a wonderful examination of the behavior of a small town when a killer is one of their own.

I was disappointed of course since the opening chapter led me to believe it would be focused on the psycho and Dobyns’ strange choice to use first person made the reader question the narrator the entire time. The thing about the first-person choice was that it made the book seem so unreal. I mean I have never read a first person omnipotent (although maybe one could argue The Lovely Bones was written in that way) but that is how this book was presented. The narrator told us things that happened outside his presence, he told us how people felt and what they were thinking. He knew everyone’s secrets or at least it seemed that way.

Perhaps the book would have worked better if written in the style of a true crime or as a rough draft as a book written by Franklin complete with notes and journal entries which would give us more of an overview of people and would give us a more believable tale as well as an more enjoyable read. We are trained to show not tell. Its drilled into our beings, if by making us read this book we were supposed to see how terribly boring an entire book of telling is, then this was a success. There was no showing in this book because it is presented as a tale told in first person by a minor character of the story.

When telling occurs and the cast of characters grow immense as in this book, another obstacle the reader faces is finding empathy for any characters. You never really get to know anyone and so you don’t care about anyone. And when the characters are all so two dimensional, the reveal of the killer felt like a Deus ex Machina which is also frowned upon.

Let’s also talk about the reveal of the killer (I won’t say his name and ruin it for anyone in case you want to read this book for yourselves). His behavior at the end during his confession scene (can anyone say cliché to the max?) was so erratic that it was hard to believe he’d lived this way most of his life (that’s what he alluded to in his confession) and yet held it together enough to maintain his position in the town and his professional status. How had his family (who seemed close) not noticed or even considered him as a possible suspect? I don’t know. You can’t spend an entire book focusing on a few possible suspects and then make the killer be a character you only mentioned a couple times. I hate that.

Lastly, I was truly taken aback by the last chapter involving the narrator’s confession. The book seemed to have an underlying theme of the consequences of sex and homosexuality. Both of which were shown in a light which made them appear a bad thing or a dirty thing. At first, I thought “this theme is coming from the small town hive mind” and the author is weaving it through the story well, but then the end made me wonder if Mr. Dobsyn himself is saying something about homosexuality. Does he believe they are all perverted weirdos? I don’t know but I can tell you that there really was no need for that last chapter. It added nothing except a sense of unreliability to the entire story.

So what I am trying to say here is that the big picture—that of the paranoia and ugliness that flows through a small town when a crime occurs within its boundaries was presented well. If that was Mr. Dobsyns’ plan, then he succeeded. But the story, when broken down into its pieces was weak and cheaply made. Have you ever seen the movie The Money Pit? This book is like that house. On the whole, it was a great presentation but when you got inside and really looked, it all fell apart.