Lulu's Reviews > Murder in Little Egypt

Murder in Little Egypt by Darcy O'Brien
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Aug 21, 11

bookshelves: nonfiction, true-crime, middle-america
Read from July 11 to 30, 2011

If there's anything that reading true crime will teach you, it's that monsters are real. They may come in the form of a charming, disarming serial killer who catches flies with honey. Or a seemingly unsolvable mystery in the media forces us to wonder what horrors could lay around each street corner. Perhaps a night of horror leads us to feel unsafe in our own homes, with our sweet sleeping families. What happens, then, when the monster comes from within - and fools everyone on the outside?

The late Darcy O'Brien tells us that monsters can wreak havoc on their families for decades. That's what happened to the wife and sons of Dr. John Dale Cavaness, the two-sided villain in Murder in Little Egypt. This book doesn't grace the shelves of your average bookstore; I found it through Amazon's recommendation service. Sometimes Amazon's pretty off, but it knew here, somehow, that my love for titles like In Cold Blood meant that I would relish this obscure small-town tale of filicide.

Amazon, you mensch. This is the kind of story lost to history (and, it turns out, People magazine archives) without someone like O'Brien to recognize how bizarre and special it is. Part of this specialness derives from the setting; "Little Egypt" comprises the Southern part of Illinois - Southern in the sense that it's at the bottom of the state, and also in the sense that it's a lot like Kentucky: white gangsters, family feuds, plenty of guns, and a blind trust for institutions. The latter becomes a real problem for the family of "the Doc," as O'Brien calls him. Cavaness, a semi-adequate doctor and a horrendous businessman, fosters a good reputation throughout Egypt by making house calls, letting patients get by on partial payments, and exuding a caring persona.

That persona disappeared when Dr. Cavaness went home. He abused his devoted wife, Marian, both verbally and physically. He all but ignored his sons, who grew up desperate for his attention and love. But two of those sons never reached far past adulthood - first Mark was found brutally shot in a field, his body nearly eaten away by animals - then, years later, Mark's murder still unsolved, the youngest, Sean, a troubled alcoholic on the path to redemption, was found shot in the head by a road outside of St. Louis. The public outcry over the trial wasn't what you would expect. Dr. Cavaness' supporters could not believe their beloved hero would kill his own sons - despite the coincidences, his eventual divorce from Marian, and endless evidence of motive. O'Brien weaves not a whodunit but instead chilling story of how well one man can trick a community into believing his good (or presentable) side is his only side - not that there's an evil Hyde hiding underneath.

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