Robert Beveridge's Reviews > The Indiana Torture Slaying: Sylvia Likens' Ordeal And Death

The Indiana Torture Slaying by John Dean
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Feb 06, 09

bookshelves: 2008-goal-list, cuy-co-pub-lib, finished
Read in January, 2009

John Dean, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying (St. Martin's, 2008)

I've spent a few years trying to track down the original Beeline Press release of John Dean's The Indiana Torture Slaying, so I was thrilled when I heard St. Martin's was going to re-release the book in 2008 thanks to the interested generated by the films An American Crime and The Girl Next Door. The Indiana Torture Slaying, now retitled House of Evil, has long been touted as the definitive book on the Likens case; not having read it gave me the idea I was missing a great deal. Turns out I was right.

Dean, a newspaper reporter at the time of the crime, covered the court case from right there in the courtroom. As to be expected from true crime books these days, only the first half of the book is actually dedicated to the crime itself; the last half deals with the trial. (Old hat now, but pretty newfangled back then. Dean mentions in his preface that his Beeline editor took one look at his first draft and told him to rewrite the whole thing after reading In Cold Blood. He did.) Details that got left out of other reports, or were deliberately occluded (or excluded) from adaptations, are here in all their glory, and the end result is that the Likens case is a lot muddier in real life than it is in fictional adaptations. Why, exactly, this surprises me I have no idea, but it does.

In case you've been living in a cave for the last forty years, House of Evil: The Indiana Torture Slaying tells the story of, arguably, the single most horrific crime ever committed on American soil: the slow death of Sylvia Likens at the hands of almost a dozen torturers—only one of whom was over the age of eighteen. Thirty-seven-year-old Gertrude Baniszewski (Ban-i-SHEFF-sky—everyone has trouble with it), the mother of half the kids involved, was basically the ringleader, but things got out of hand pretty quick. What makes the crime so shocking is not that a mother got her kids involved in crime; as distressing as that thought is, it does happen on a fairly regular basis—but that neighbor kids got involved, too. Richard Hobbs, often considered the most intriguing character in the case (he was the loose base for the lead character in Ketchum's The Girl Next Door) claimed for the rest of his life that he tortured Sylvia Likens simply because Gertrude Baniszewski told him to. The question is not what happened to Sylvia Likens in that house. We know that. The question is what happened to all the other kids involved. That's a question no one has ever satisfactorily answered, though a number of people have tried.

If you're interested in the Likens case, House of Evil is about as close to primary source as you're going to get without going into newspaper morgues. If you're just interested in true crime in general, it's still worth reading; few books released recently in the genre are as well-written and readable as this one. Definitely recommended. ****

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