Gail's Reviews > The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases

The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo
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Nov 06, 2010

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Read in October, 2010

The Murder Room is a work of nonfiction about the Vidocq Society, a group of detectives, law enforcement professionals, and crime experts who meet in Philadelphia and re-examine cold cases. It centers especially on three men who helped create the organization: Bill Fleischer, a federal agent; Richard Walter, a psychologist and profiler; and Frank Bender, a forensic artist. Though there are many more members of the Society, and many of them are mentioned, this book is mostly about the three men named above.

I picked this book up after my boss mentioned it to me. There was a double murder several years back in Hudson, the town where I grew up, and the Vidocq Society examined the case and helped lead to its resolution. In fact, the book's prologue is about the Hudson case, but the resolution doesn't come until almost the end of the book. I know how it came out, of course, but still was interested in what the book would say. And it certainly provided a good hook in the prologue:

The profiler studied the case file and chatted with the police for three hours before narrowing the eleven suspects to one. "It's the priest," he told the police. "Of course, I know you don't want it to be the priest. Nonetheless, it's the priest."

Other than the case I was personally interested in, the book also focuses on other cases: an unidentified murdered child found in Philadelphia in the 1950s, a young man killed by his girlfriend in Texas, a college student murdered at school whose shoes were missing, a girl found murdered in a church, and many others. It makes for grim, if fascinating, reading. Though, frankly, I think the most grim thing about the book was the number of crimes that people get away with. Sometimes they discover the killer too late to bring them to justice, sometimes there isn't enough evidence, and sometimes local law enforcement or the DA are uninterested.

The book's narrative style bothered me a little bit, as sometimes happens with works like this. There is a lot of dialogue, a lot of conversations, that surely weren't recorded at the time, and I have to assume that the author recreated them based on what the participants later told him. Doubtless they are more or less correct, but still it always sets off little alarms in my head, thinking: Really? How do you know, word for word, what was said in a conversation 15 or 20 years ago? It's probably a minor thing, but it always jerks me out of the enjoyment of a work of nonfiction when I have to wonder how much of it is fabricated. The author also repeats things too much, like reminding us of what happened in a case we read about a few chapters earlier. Yes, I read the book. Yes, I remember that. No, you don't need to tell me again. And he has an irritating of habit of rarely using Walter's name, instead describing him again and again as 'the thin man.' I felt like at any moment we were going to step into a comedy featuring a rich drunk, a pretty airheaded bimbo, and a small dog. It doesn't irritate readers when an author calls characters by their name, but it can be irritating to readers when they try to think of ways to avoid calling characters by their name.

I was also struck by the way the local case was portrayed, which led me to wonder about the accuracy of the other stories. The account isn't substantially wrong, but there were problems: the town isn't as small as described, the local newspaper's name was wrong, and he relocated Wisconsin to place it west of Minnesota. Plenty was left out, there are broad generalizations that weren't entirely accurate--it's not exactly wrong, but also not exactly right. I understand that the author is more interested in a brief, entertaining chapter in a larger work than an in-depth exploration of this particular event, but it just seemed a little sloppy.

The Hudson chapter is near the end, and then we revisit a couple more cases the author had talked about earlier in the book, and the final chapter is very soppy and sentimental. (Ick, ick, ick.) However, though I see that in this review I have mostly expressed reservations about the work, it is still pretty readable and quite interesting. I don't actually believe the author's portrayal of Richard as always right and Bender as psychic, but I enjoyed it anyway.

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