On the night of Wednesday, July 23, 1980, as this book describes in stark detail, Helen Hagnes Mintiks, a 30-year-old violinst, left her place in the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera House for a routine break and never returned. Eleven hours later her naked and bound body was found within the building at the bottom of a fan shaft.
Almost immediately, Mintiks' family and friends were eliminated as suspects in the killing. And the brutal death of the talented young woman, along with the suggested romance of the setting, provided the public and the press with a seductive "Phantom of the Opera" mystery.
For weeks after, New York police detectives Mike Struk and Jerry Giorgio were united in an uneasy and often competitive partnership as they questioned hundreds of opera house employes and went over the evidence relentlessly. By the end of the summer, they had arrested a 21-year-old stagehand, Craig Crimmins.
As the book explains, Crimmins, a stage carpenter, lived in a very different world from that of the musicians who performed for the Met's enormous audiences. And the grotesque connection of violinist and stagehand in this ghastly crime provides the book's major selling point. If you remember all the headlines about the murder at the Met in 1980, then you may want to know the whole story. Based on "the exclusive accounts" of officers Struk and Giorgio, the book focuses on the investigation that led to Crimmins' arrest, and on the trial that followed, in which the question of correct police procedure became crucial.
The main protagonists are the policemen themselves, and we come to know and understand them -- their backgrounds, their families, their dedication to their work, their rivalry with and distrust of each other. Ultimately they win each other's respect and they win the respect of the reader also. They are as interesting as they are real, and the arrest and prosecution of Crimmins make for suspenseful and engrossing reading.
But what is missing from this book is victim Helen Hagnes Mintiks. We learn so little about her background, her personality, her possible dreams and ambitions, that she is nothing more than a starting point for the investigation. And we are shown little of the inevitable effect of her loss upon her friends, family and fellow musicians.
The situation with convicted killer Craig Crimmins is not much better. We learn more about him than we do about Mintiks, but we are offered almost no psychological insight into his personality or motives.
Of course, an author has the esthetic and moral right to structure his book the way he chooses. He is the one who determines its scope and its priorities. But this book is titled "Murder at the Met" and enormous curiosity about Mintiks and Crimmins is inevitable. The neglect throughout of Mintiks is particularly chilling. In the absence of any real knowledge of her character, the descriptions of her last hours, of her corpse and of the autopsy that followed come across as exploitative and downright vulgar.
Brilliant "true crime" accounts such as Thomas Thompson's "Blood and Money" or Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" suggest that the genre achieves its most edifying and profound effects when the victim is made painfully real in all his or her particularity and universality. To know the victim is to feel his or her loss, the real horror that is death by violence. To know the killer is to try to contain, if not understand, his seeming inhumanity. The full tale of crime and punishment in which all elements are examined can be as cathartic as great literary tragedy. It can relieve the tension created in us by the act of the murder. It can impose order upon chaos.
"Murder at the Met" never achieves this kind of power, and it is unclear whether it attempts to achieve it. It offers a good story, but ultimately a shallow one. It's half the book it could have been.