SOME MURDERS are just bigger box office than others, so it's not unusual for several authors to glom onto a truly spectacular crime. It happened in 1969, when two books appeared chronicling the conviction of George Whitmore in the Wylie-Hoffert slayings. The trial of Peter Reilly drew two book-length protests in 1977. And aren't we at this very moment, awaiting three accounts of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Murder?
Many in the publishing industry feel that simultaneous consideration of the same murder case is not a bad thing. Each will feed the other's sales. The reader, we are told, will search the second or third volume in the hope of finding one or more insight, one more fact, one more theory. Such is our fascination with the hideous.
It is true, those who read John V. Grombach's The Great Liquidator will rush to buy Thomas Maeder's The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot, out last month.
Maederhs fascination with cruelty first took a scholarly turn, with his 1978 biography of French dramatist Antonin Artaud. He now turns this fascination and this skill at documentation to Marcel Petiot, a French physician beheaded in 1946 for 26 murders, eight of which he denied. But Petiot boasted a total body count of 63, compiled, he said, in the service of his country. He was a member of the Resistance, he claimed, liquidating members of the Gestapo and informers. Maeder, tracing the movements of many of the doomed prior to their meeting Petiot, proves -- and poignantly -- that this was not so.
Maeder's book, tight as a drum, is filled with interesting sidelights. We learn, for instance, that Madame Georgette Petiot -- Mercel's wife -- had fingerprints which spiralled like no others on file. This, and the fact that she appeared to have had a sixth finger amputated from each hand. Similarly, we meet Commissaire Georges Massu, called to investigate the discovery of the remains of Petiot's victims. Massu, we are told, served as a model for Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. These sidelights also include a great many unanswered and unanswerable questions, but these, in Maeder's hands, merely add to the bizarre appeal of the case. How, for example, did the victims die? We will never know.
A more recent mass murderer, Ted Bundy, has already drawn three journalistic accounts: Ted Bundy: The Killer Next Door by Steven Winn and David Merrill (Bantam, $2.75; reviewed in Daily Book World, January 15, 1980), as well as two more recent accounts, Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me and Richard W. Larsen's Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger . The Bundy case is more frightening than that of Marcel Petiot, in part because the murders took place in the '70s and Bundy is still alive, and in part because his crimes -- perhaps as many as 38 young women bludgeoned and raped, their remains discarded -- are so marked by frenzy.
While there is convincing evidence that greed motivated Petiot, something far deeper, something akin to possession, something both Rule and Larsen admit is inexplicable, drove Bundy.
What's more, while awaiting trial for murder in Colorado, Bundy excaped to kill again in Florida. Convicted of the Florida murders, Bundy is behind bars once more, but still a threat, however distant.
Both Larson and Rule were acquainted with Bundy, but ironically, Rule a proven crime writer, was commissioned to write a book about the murders in the Northwest before she realized that her friend Bundy might be involved. Rule, in fact, was one of those who tipped police that Bundy just might be the killer they sought.
Rule's book is superior to Larsen's, and not merely because her personal ties to Bundy were closer. Her book is structured for greater suspense, and it is thus a more effective account -- scarier, if you will. Also, while Larsen gives us six of the murders back to back, Rule gives us Ted Bundy first, then some of the crimes, Bundy again, more crimes, so that we experience the sense of shock that Ann Rule, herself, must have felt when making the same, awful connections.
But Larsen is able, and his book is good. On a few points, it is even better. Larsen, for instance, sometimes finds fault with the police investigation, while Rule, perhaps because of her prior police work and admitted reliance on police favor for information in her earlier crime writing, does not. Larsen gives us more on Carole Ann Boone, too, the woman whom Bundy married during his Florida trial. He also interviews a woman whom Bundy dated before taking up with Stephanie, then Meg, the two girlfriends Rule illuminates clearly but almost exclusively.
The publishers are right. We want more, more! As though every new scrap of information might tell us why, might help us manage the unmanageable.
Those reading both Bundy books will be slightly disoriented by the fact that Larsen and Rule use different names for some of the people involved. Larsen notes that he has changed some names "to avoid possible embarrassment to the individual," but Rule, for better or worse, does not.
Michael Mewshaw Life For Death turns to a less widely publicized murder -- Wayne Dresbach's 1961 slaying of Harold and Shirley Dresbach, has adoptive parents.
As in the Bundy books, there is personal involvement here: Mewshaw's family summered on the Chesapeake Bay some blocks from the Dresbach year-round home there. Mewshaw knew Wayne as well as his younger brother, Lee. In fact, the first report of the murders came to Mewshaw, whom Lee telephoned from the very rooms where his bullet-ridden parents lay. Mewshaw's friendship with convicted killer Wayne Dresbach, now paroled, endures unto this day.
But Mewshaw's book, excitingly as it reads, fails where others in the genre -- say Joan Barthel's Death in Canaan or Donald Connery's Guilty Until Proven Innocent , both of which examined Peter Reilly's "guilt" -- succeed. In those works, what the authors believe or at least what they want us to believe, is clear. Mewshaw, however, does not lead us as surely. He shifts ground, implying one thing, then another, then another still. It is as though, perhaps because of his friendship with Wayne, Mewshaw is firmly on Wayne's side; he is just not sure why.
There is a strong suggestion that we are to suspect Wayne's brother, Lee of something -- but of what? Hints that Wayne shouldered the blame for someone else abound. There is another suggestion, that of conspiracy afoot, a cover-up. And still another, that prudery led to bowdlerized testimony. The problem with all of this is that we aren't witnessing Mewshaw growing in awareness, altering his perception of the case as his investigation deepens. No, we're watching Mewshaw juggle: the various theories appear, disappear, reappear throughout.
None of this, certainly, can be due to lack of skill. Mewshaw flawlessly marshalls our sympathies when dealing with the inequities and ineptituded of Wayne Dresbach's trial and incarceration. The slain parents, in all their cruelty and with all their sleazy pastimes, are aptly drawn too. Given this, how is it that Mewshaw, in the crunch, lets us down?
His drifting resolve is all the more maddening because he tells us that he chose the nonfiction format because it would provide the truth, whereas a novel would have offered merely a truth. We don't get either. What we get, inadvertently, is a multiple choice.
Let's consider Truman Capote here, whose 1966 In Cold Blood was billed as a "nonfiction novel," and who, in an interview following the book's publication explained his acceptance of the murderer Perry's own motives. "I could have confused the issue, and indeed the book. I had to make up my mind, and move towards that one view, always." A pity Mewshaw didn't follow suit.
Life for Death also tends toward the novel more than the books on Bundy or Petiot. Mewshaw, a novelist, often uses fictional techniques, sometimes even entering the mind of the victims -- a clear violation of the standards of verity set by, again, Capote. In Cold Blood , despite the care that went into its making, was called by one reviewer an "always synthetic chronicle."
Part of the criticism leveled at Capote centered around, to name one instance, his re-creation of the conversation of the slain Nancy Clutter. Capote's response was that "each time Nancy Clutter appears in the narrative there are witnesses to what she is saying and doing -- phone calls, conversations being overheard," and so on. This is hardly the case with Mewshaw's Harold Dresbach:
"He knew his wife Shirley and a young couple named Darlene and Nick sat in the room behind him, and he was sure they were watching him."
A few pages later, Wayne is dismissed by his mother, Shirley, who "thought relief was written clearly on her face. In fact, she looked bored."
These lapses into out-and-out fiction lessen Life for Death's credibility and thus its impact. And because Mewshaw so adamantly insists that he considered and then discarded the fictional form, these instances are more obvious than they might otherwise be.
Nonetheless, Mewshaw's portrait of the battered and bewildered Wayne Dresbach, as well as his account of "the kind of justice most Americans received in 1961" is well worth reading, and not merely because of the arguments the book will provoke.