At their best, books about the real-life murderers of the past captivate us by spinning tales of both crimes and their times. Two new historical true-crime books tackle this double mission with mixed results.
One book, the high-profile if overrated "Death in the City of Light," uncovers the horrors lurking unseen under the piercing eyes of Nazi occupiers. The other, "Murder of the Century," is a rollicking read about about how a craven public and overheated media combine to turn a 19th-century murder case upside down.
Here's a look at both books:
Big Story in the Big Apple:
At first, the gruesome discovery in the East River didn't raise an eyebrow. It would be destined for the New York City morgue – "that horrible place – God!" as novelist Theodore Dreiser described it – and then a potter's field. End of story, or -30-, as the reporters for the city's countless newspapers might have put it in the arcane language of the hacks who specialized in hot type and cold comfort.
But this would be no ordinary find. And it would spawn no ordinary case, not for the cops or the public or the press of 1897. As Oregon writer Paul Collins reveals in The Murder of the Century, his page-turner of a crime book, a murderer was afoot and the whole city wanted to know whodunnit. More than a few of them would play roles in helping the police find the killer – or killers.
Collins, who's previously written about William Shakespeare and Thomas Paine, has a novelist's touch and an eye for the absurd. And there's plenty of absurdity on display here, lightening the grimness of the story and turning this into an unlikely delight of a book. If you're a fan of well-spun tales of history and crime, don't miss this one.
In Paris, a Doctor of Death:
Picture this: Horror erupts in the dark corners of a great city in an extraordinary time. Sound familiar? It's the story of "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness in the Fair that Changed America," the runaway bestseller and top true-crime book of the 2000s.
Another serial killer is at work, this time in Nazi-occupied Paris.
Reviewers are agog over the book, which has received starred reviews in several publishing industry trade journals. It's definitely an intriguing tale, highlighted by an intrepid French detective and courtroom drama.
But "Death in the City of Light" occasionally gets bogged down in minutiae and is unrelentingly grim. Written in a matter-of-fact style, it's best for readers who want to understand how a society under great stress dealt with a man who became a monster.
If you're a crime buff looking for great readers, check my 2010 list of the top historical true-crime books of the past decade.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.
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