AT MOTHER'S REQUEST; A True Story of Money, Murder and Betrayal. By Jonathan Coleman. Atheneum. 624 pp. $19.95. NUTCRACKER; Money, Madness, Murder: A Family Album. By Shana Alexander. Doubleday. 431 pp. $17.95.
EARLY ON the bright Sunday morning of July 23, 1978, Franklin Bradshaw, a penurious, eccentric, 76-year-old Mormon owner of a chain of auto parts stores, was shot to death shortly after his customary arrival at his warehouse in a dilapidated section of Salt Lake City. His body was discovered by longtime customers who knew the work-compulsive Brad0shaw would be at the warehouse, just as he was every single day of the year, ready to put in his regular 16- to 18-hour workday. Dressed in cheap, thriftshop clothing, his pockets turned out, Bradshaw had been shot once in the back and once in the back of the head. It seemed that he'd been the victim of a robbery. But there was much about the death of Franklin Bradshaw that wasn't as it seemed. Despite his shabby clothing, obsessive work habits, tightwaddish attitude and lower-middle-class house, furnishings and approach to life, Franklin Bradshaw was one of Utah's (and the nation's) wealthiest men. His net worth was estimated between $10 million and $400 million -- the amounts differ because much of the estate was invested in oil and gas leases whose values fluctuate. And if his appearance in life was a lie, so was his death. His murderer was his 17-year-old grandson, Marc. His murder had been ordered by his daughter, Frances Schreuder. She was, when arrested four years after the crime, a member of the board of the New York City Ballet, a position of great cultural wealth in Manhattan. Her address couldn't have been more prestigious: 10 Gracie Square.
The newspaper headlines screamed predictably: "NAB MOM AND SON IN DEATH PLOT!" What was equally predictable was that this mingling of money, religion, murder, madness, eccentricity, high society and two sensational trials would attract authors. The publishing world calls these works "True-Crime" books. The death of Franklin Bradshaw has produced two.
Shana Alexander's Nutcracker and Jonathan Coleman's At Mother's Request are scheduled to appear on the bookstore shelves virtually simultaneously. Both books weigh in with heavy advance publicity. One is a Literary Guild selection, the other will be offered by the Book of the Month Club. One is being "developed" into a mini-series by CBS, one by NBC. Each seeks to steal the other's thunder, to be the work that captures the reading public's imagination. The stakes are high: publishers know that readers are drawn readily to such tales; we devour the tales of family strife, tragedy and madness with fascination, much the same way we hesitate and stare at the sight of a wreck on the highway.
At Mother's Request is Jonathan Coleman's first book. A 34-year-old former book editor, he was working at CBS News when he came upon the story of the murder of Franklin Bradshaw. Alexander, author of books on Patricia Hearst and Jean Harris, and their celebrated criminal cases, was brought to the Bradshaw murder story by the sons of her great friend, the late Tommy Thompson of Blood and Money fame. He had initially begun the research into the story when he was felled by cancer. Building upon his notes, Alexander pursued her own vision of the material. Curiously, Coleman's book more closely resembles what Thompson would likely have produced, wealthy in character and detail. Alexander's Nutcracker is uniquely hers, a reflection n part of the empathy she felt for the Bradshaw-Schreuder woman, in part of her own fascination with the mental processes that create crime.
IN THIS CASE, both authors deal with the same facts, the same people, the same situations in the same locations. Both had access to the same legal documents, same psychiatric opinions and same family histories. Both interviewed in excess of 250 people. Pretty much the same people. Alexander managed to obtain an interview with Frances Schreuder that Coleman did not -- but the interview merely served to confirm the author's impressions of her personality, impressions that were widely held. It appears, too, that Alexander interviewed Marc Schreuder, the killer, at length. Coleman reports that Schreuder demanded money for an interview, which the author rejected. Regardless, Coleman had access to a multitude of testimony, letters, recollections and information about Marc Schreuder and his life -- as did Alexander.
But in spite of all this similarity the two books read very differently. Coleman's book is cast in the traditional mold of "true-crime" works. His is a masterwork of reporting: it seems that there is no one with even the most ancillary or tangential connection to the case that he hasn't touched. His book builds solidly, relying on detail after detail, quotation after quotation, treating the murder of Franklin Bradshaw almost as a mathematical equation, then showing all the variables, all the factors that added up to two shots fired into an old man's back and two trials that resulted in convictions. He shows precisely how the crime was committed, solved and then resolved. He uses the steady accumulation of facts to propel his story forward, until, eventually, the entirety of this bizarre case is fascinatingly exposed.
Alexander is less interested in this procedural approach. Her book treats the murder less as a "case" than as a Chekhovian family tragedy. The scope of her investigation is decidedly psychological. The greatest part of her book focuses on Frances Schreuder and her bizarre, clearly deranged, life. The vagaries of Frances Schreuder's life become the thread of the story. She was twice divorced. She lived in an upperclass style, buying $40,000 earrings at Tiffany's, then bouncing checks to pay her children's tuition. Diagnosed by a succession of psychiatrists as paranoid/schizophrenic, sociopathic, and finally manic/depressive, she was adept at verbal, emotional and physical abuse of her children and her parents.
As she takes form, so does the book. Alexander's compelling narrative builds in intensity around this uniquely twisted woman and the methods she employed to ruin those around her. Alexander's bravura portrayal of this woman makes us shudder at the resourcefulness of the psychological horrors Frances Schreuder performed.
To oversimplify: Coleman shows how the crime came to be, while Alexander shows why. Where Coleman takes us step-by-step through the olice investigation, capturing their frustraton and hard work, Alexander delves into the complicated artistic and political workings of the New York City Ballet and why membership in this elite was so critical to Frances Schreuder. There are virtues in both approaches as well as flaws. And this is not to say that Coleman's book lacks insight, or that Alexander's lacks detail. Both contain much of each. There is, however, a great difference in approach: Coleman is exhaustive and complete, in his ferreting out of information, Alexander is distinctive in her portrayal of madness.
Alexander, though, is often guilty of prose excess, as in her ballet descriptions (in particular the book's saccharine opening). She is also given to an occasional clunking pronouncement: in her introduction she describes meeting Frances Schreuder during the jury selection for the woman's trial. "Quite properly, the press was barred from these voir dire proceedings," she wrote. Quite properly in whose eyes? The conflict between first amendment and sixth amendment, the public's right to be informed versus the accused's right to an impartial jury, is complex and crucial. To have it dismissed in such a fashion is jarring.
Near the end of the book, she writes: "The story of the Bradshaws pierces our thin skin of sanity and bares the madness in us all. We are helpless in our madness and blind in our sanity." What? I think Alexander overstrides here. The facts of Frances Schreuder's madness and the murder of her father are about as unique as one could conceivably imagine. I think Alexander does her own work a disservice by striving for universality.
SIMILARLY, Coleman at the end of his book suddenly launches into Freud, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and contemporary thinkers such as psychoanalyst Alice Miller and Louise Kaplan. After reading hundreds of pages about the murdered Mormon and his distinctive family, to have it neatly summed up in quasisychological or literary terms is awkward. Coleman would have been far wiser to work these themes in through the course of his narrative, rather than tacking them on at the end. He sometimes reconstructs scenes, reproduces dialogue, describes events, in excess, slowing down the flow of this book. It appears sometimes that he gave both the crucial and the unimportant the same weight. Through such an emotional, legal and psychological tangle as that created by the murder of Franklin Bradshaw, the reader needs a discriminating guide.
Coleman, too, has the irritating habit, through much of the book, of adding cryptic, ominous phrases to his descriptions ("all his self-discipline would ultimately not be enough to alter his fate").
Criticisms notwithstanding, both At Mother's Request and Nutcracker are fine books and excellent examples of the genre. Both, are well written, well researched and well presented -- though they choose such different routes to tell their stories. They pose a dilemma for the book buyer, for both will occupy the shelves at the same time.
But choosing between the two is really a matter of reflecting the individual approaches each author pursued. If I were purchasing a book for a logical friend, it would be Coleman's At Mother's Request. But if I were seeking a book for a creative friend, it would be Alexander's Nutcracker.