NEW YORK -- Charles Spicer spends more time contemplating murder than anyone this side of a professional hit man. Energetic and engaging, the St. Martin's Press editor has carved out a unique specialty: Others may publish better true-crime books, but no one publishes them faster.
Three months ago, Spicer was reading the New York Times at his Upper West Side subway station. Splashed across the front page was a story about part-time landscaper and full-time loser Joel Rifkin, stopped by police early the previous morning for a routine traffic violation. In the back of Rifkin's pickup was a rotting body, one of more than a dozen prostitutes he promptly confessed to killing.
"Here we go again," thought Spicer.
He had just finished rushing a true-crime book about David Koresh to publication, and he was tired. "I figured I'd have a little breathing space until the next one came along." He laughs good-humoredly. "But crime waits for no man."
Neither does the 38-year-old Spicer. When he got to the office that day, he called Maria Eftimiades, who covers Long Island for People magazine. She had already written two instant books for Spicer in the past year: "Lethal Lolita" (about teen prostitute and wife-shooter Amy Fisher) and "My Name Is Katherine" (the sad story of Katie Beers, the little girl who was kept in an underground dungeon). She had seven weeks to write the former; four weeks, with a co-writer, for the latter.
This time Eftimiades had to do it all alone in four. "I'll tell you a secret," she says. "It's not that hard." There were two weeks of research, two of writing, accompanied by cases of Diet Pepsi and cartons of junk food. "Not a healthy scene," she confesses.
Eftimiades handed in the manuscript Aug. 2, several hours late. Spicer did the editing within 24 hours, she did a bit of rewrite, the lawyers did their bit, it went into production. By Sept. 7, 150,000 copies of "Garden of Graves: The Shocking True Story of Long Island Serial Killer Joel Rifkin" were being shipped to supermarkets and malls. If any competing publishers are planning to tell Rifkin's tale, they'll be eating St. Martin's dust, which is exactly the way the editor planned it.
Spicer's office in the Flatiron Building resembles a cell: small, with narrow windows and purely functional decor. Evian water is on the desk, a Matisse poster on the wall. He talks very fast, glasses bobbing on his round face. Rifkin is already history. Spicer's combing the pages of the paper, looking for his next killer.
"I regret not having gotten someone to do the Menendez brothers," he says, referring to the two young men in Los Angeles on trial for murdering their parents. "It has the making of a good story, a terrific story. Here was this family that epitomized success. The father was a Cuban refugee who had made a huge amount of money and had two stunningly handsome sons. But if we're to believe the defendants, behind the facade he was committing unimaginable acts."
It's too late for the brothers, however. The trial is already taking place, so a book writer would have to be already at work to capitalize properly on the cresting media attention. It's practically a science, deciding when to devote a book to which killer. Screw it up and the book will languish on the shelves. Screw it up too often and you're fired.
The New York Times anointed St. Martin's -- which does one true-crime paperback a month, most of them non-instants -- "the leader in true-crime books" in April. Literary agent Jane Dystel credits this to two of Spicer's qualities: "Not only is he very savvy, but he's the most decisive editor I deal with. That gives him an edge."
A certain zest for the material helps as well. "There's this book I'm doing about two twins," Spicer says, talking fast, smiling wickedly. "I loved it because it was Southern and Gothic and steamy. One twin was married to a rich guy, and she basically got her sister to help her kill her husband. My pitch is, if Scarlett O'Hara had a twin, and they were both psychopaths ... "
Yet quiz him closely, and he points out that he also edits fiction and biographies with nary a murder in them. True crime is not a way of life for him, he insists; it's just a job. "I'm not," he says, "the Marquis de Sade."
His colleague, St. Martin's editor Bob Weil, agrees. "I imagine you could find some true-crime editors who would be very creepy. That's not Charlie. He separates his work from his life."
Another potential problem: All this talk of murder may sound callous. True, it's calculations based on the sufferings of others. But Spicer at least makes an effort not to wallow in this stuff.
"Garden of Graves" is relatively tasteful, or at least as tasteful as you can get when writing about a serial killer. Furthermore, Eftimiades went to great lengths to write about the sad lives of the victims. She doesn't dwell on the dismemberment process any more than, say, the Times did.
Glamour and Gut
Tales of true crime have been popular ever since the Book of Genesis reported how "Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him." Spicer explains the subject's continuing appeal by dividing it into two categories: glamour and gut.
"With glamour," he says, "you have stories like the gorgeous Maryland debutante who arranged to have her much-traveled, very well-to-do parents murdered, or the New York socialite who convinced her son to murder her father, his grandfather, for money. People are curious about the rich, and these books give them access."
Another, less wholesome reason for glamour's appeal: People like to see the rich humbled. The moral that wealth doesn't bring happiness is eternally popular.
Gut, on the other hand, is where most of the instants come in. It's primal horror, like a husband shooting his pregnant wife and then wounding himself to make himself look like a victim (the Charles Stuart case, the subject of one of Spicer's instants) or a young woman making her teenage lover kill her husband (the Pam Smart case, another instant). Maladjusted young men who turn their homes into slaughterhouses are prime gut (in addition to Rifkin, there have been instants on Jeffrey Dahmer and Gary Heidnik, the Philadelphia cannibal who kept women chained in his basement).
Glamour and gut have this in common: Somewhere in the tale, there's a dead body. "I get a lot of proposals for books that don't involve murder, and I'm really not that interested. They're about bilking someone out of money, kidnapping, fraud or, the one I happen to hate, art theft. That really puts me to sleep."
Murder wakes him up. It puts an ending on the story, gives it the sense of an ultimate. Kidnapping someone is pretty bad, but it's still one step removed from The Worst.
So the tale of Harvey Weinstein, the New York apparel magnate buried alive for 12 days in August, won't soon be a St. Martin's book?
"It's a fascinating magazine story, a moving, moving story, but not enough to translate into a book."
What if he had been killed?
"Probably more likely, I hate to say."
This also explains why Lorena Bobbitt, the Prince William woman who cut off her husband's penis, didn't appeal to Spicer.
"Like everyone else, I read about it crossing and uncrossing my legs, but it's a magazine story, not a book."
There are exceptions. Neither the Amy Fisher case nor the Katie Beers kidnapping came equipped with a dead body, but the former had such vivid characters it has practically turned into a cult, while the latter ... well, that book hasn't done as well as some of the others, which underlines Spicer's point.
He gets about 20 proposals a week from writers and agents for true-crime books, most of them non-instants. Usually it's a crime that has captured the attention of a city or a region. The trouble is, for people who don't live there, there's no extra dimension, no resonance.
A truly skilled writer can make a superior book out of unlikely material. After all, the ingredients that make up "In Cold Blood" aren't particularly promising: The two murderers were losers who mistakenly thought their victims had large amounts of cash at home. Yet out of this slender thread, Truman Capote created a classic. Unfortunately, few have his gifts.
A lot of murders get weeded out at this point. Spicer recently turned down a book about the racist in Chicago who was stalking cosmetic surgeons, one of whom he killed. Not enough of a story, he says again -- "just a nut case." And he turned down a book about a case in Florida.
"It was actually quite chilling. An Ohio woman and her two daughters went to Tampa, and a guy offered to take them on a tour of the bay. He raped and murdered and drowned them. I turned it down because my reaction was, 'It was random.' It's like trying to make a book out of a car crash."
Yet didn't Joel Rifkin select his prostitute victims at random? True, says Spicer. The thing that made him fit for a book was quantity. If he had just killed one prostitute, there wouldn't be a "Garden of Graves."
How about two?
"No. I'd say it would have to be around 10. At that point, it approaches horrendous levels."
Eftimiades takes a slightly different view here. The writer figures, "It didn't matter whether it was four or 40 women; it was the label 'serial killer' that made him a book. There are a lot of people who want to read about serial killers."
And so many serial killers available to be written about.
"I hate to say it," says Spicer with a giggle, "but they always seem to pop up."