October 3rd, 2010

_The Murder Room_, Michael Capuzzo (kindle)

Subtitled: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases

First: don't buy it. Don't borrow it. Don't read it. If you start it, don't finish it. If only someone would have told me this when I first heard about this book. Or, say, when I was three quarters of the way through.

Second: View with extreme skepticism the opinion of anyone who _does_ recommend this book to you. If they are absolutely obsessed with true crime, criminal profiling, etc., then it's probably just because it's their kind of thing. But if they are a generalist? Yikes. They have the _worst_ taste in prose style and organization.

Third: the author and/or some fraction of his subjects (Fleisher, Walter and Bender) are creepy people. I _like_ reading books about cold cases and medical examiners and so forth -- not all the time, but when a fun one (I cannot believe I just typed that) crosses my path. That's not why I was creeped out by this book. It was all the commentary about homosexuality and/or sadism that really got to me.

What is this book about? It's about some old guys who have been working to solve crimes for a long time who start a club to help them solve crimes for fun, not just because it's their job. They name the club after a criminal turned detective from France (Vidocq). The three guys are an artist (who reconstructs what the unknown dead person looked like, or age progresses someone based on limited photographic evidence or whatever to help a manhunt), a profiler, and a Customs agent. The club specifically goes after murders where the case is a minimum of 2 years old (with some exceptions); they provide advice and counsel to the official investigators/family/etc.

Thus, the book creates biographical sketches of each of the three guys and some other people (including some high profile people they helped nab and/or convict and/or profiled and/or sculpted, and, obviously, some victims). It talks about a variety of the cases they worked on, as professionals, or through their lunch group. It attempts to set forth a theory of criminality. None of these major components of the book are particularly strong.

But the book takes a turn for the silly towards the end, where Walter is described as toting around in a locked aluminum briefcase his profiling stuff, and Capuzzo breathlessly lays out some variation on Keppel and Walter's scholarly work on extending rapist typology to sexually oriented murders and using that typology when assessing a crime scene. On the one hand, ha ha, fits right in with watching _The Mentalist_. On the other hand, the description of "The Helix of Evil" and doors that open in the mind that you walk through and can't turn around and go back out of and Walter actively frightening away would-be proteges is just so foolish.

Actually, it isn't just foolish. That's where the real creep factor enters in.

Step 1 on the Helix, "an inexorably eight-step pattern of increasing depravity that leads to the sadistic killer and beyond, to the very depths of human evil" (hey, don't call it purple prose. That's an insult to purple.): "a self-destructive fetish, such as 'pornography, a lust for women's shoes or teens' underwear, or whatever."

According to Walter through Capuzzo, once you start down this path, you can stop, but you can't turn around. No tourists here, apparently, no chippers.

Step 2: Voyeurism. There's a remark here about specializing. *shrug*

Step 3: frotteurism. The fact that Walter thinks _everyone_ has been a victim of frotteurism means something.

If you're thinking, dude, these all seem kind of harmless and treating them as The Path To Evil perhaps bigotry against sexual minorities, yeah, that's where I went, too.

Step 4: BDSM. If they _called_ it that, it would be a clear case of bigotry. But they avoid the terms of art, and say things like: "approaches the victim with punishing control in mind: dominance, submission, bondage, and discipline". But it is still highly reminiscent of the day when saying that the killer was gay, or black, or whatever more or less removed the need to make the case that the guy was the perp, much less what was perped was all that big a deal (lest you think I am making light of serious crime, don't forget that miscegenation was once a crime).

Step 5: "Picquers derive sexual satisfaction from stabbing, cutting, slicing, rendering human flesh. It's the people who cut leather coats in stores as a second skin, a practice skin."

Seriously? I'll grant that vandalizing someone else's property is a problem. I'll even grant that slicing into someone presents some real ethical dilemmas that are awful tough to get around just by saying, hey, it was consensual. All that aside, I know people who are into this kind of thing as play and have a lot of really healthy rules and make sure there's a referree and so forth going on. I don't see this as a clear-cut evil.

Step 6: "full-blown sadism". It's hard to understand how such an innocuous term has come to be associated with such awful things: full-blown AIDS. Full-blown sadism. Step 6 is ritualistic killing after having taken health classes to avoid catching a disease from the victim, and to make sure the victim is kept alive for all the killer's plans, etc. It's not clear whether the next steps are distinct: taking souvenirs, necrophilia, drinking human blood, cannibalism. It's also unclear how the drinking human blood and eating human flesh is compatible with the health classes to avoid catching a disease. Seriously.

I have two major and unending minor complaints with this theory. The first major complaint is the vicious slandering of sexual minorities: treating everything from pornography and sexual fetishes and voyeurism to BDSM and so forth as steps on a one-way trip to the Depths of Human Depravity is vicious and uncalled for. The second major complaint is identifying the choices that sexual minorities make with the very real problem of isolation. I'm inclined to think Walter (and many other theories of criminality) is right when he is directing attention to the inability of the proto-Master of Evil to bond emotionally with anyone. That is a problem. If it goes on for long enough, emotional isolation can lead people to do scary and awful things to themselves and anyone unlucky enough to be around them.

The unending minor complaints are not worth boring anyone with.

Again. Don't read it. Don't buy it. Don't borrow it. Don't finish it if you started it. This thing is much worse than a waste of your time. It might screw with your head and turn you into Evil Incarnate. Especially of you read that dangerous knowledge at the end, about the Helix.

ETA: Oh, yeah. At various points in the book, bald assertions are made that there were way more serious/serial/sex murders after the middle of the 20th century and/or that this kind of depravity is more likely in a democracy. I find that infuriating, in part because there's a whole lot of reason to believe it is the opposite of true. This is right up there with attempts to cover up priest sex abuse by claiming it was a result of the US loosening up on sexual morality. Yeah, right.

innumeracy strikes again

Once again, h/t all of this stuff to The Digital Reader. Brilliant blogger. Okay, now to the embedded stuff.


That's interesting. The biggest bummer I see in selling it exclusively over at OR is the difficulty of assessing the book via a reviews mechanism such as the one I am accustomed to over at Amazon. There are problems with Amazon reviews, but that's a devil I've known a long time. OTOH, Rushkoff is a relatively well known quantity, and the ebook being sold is readable on the kindle and DRM free -- that's damn fine, no matter how you look at it. Loss of curation, also an issue. Sort of a push; I haven't bought the book, but I might. Rushkoff's statements are not obviously flawed.


That didn't stop this blogger, however, from taking issue with the amazing statement by Rushkoff:

"Well, most books sell more electronic versions than print ones anyway, and Amazon already sells more of most books than all real-world retailers combined."

Evil's response is just innumerate.

"If ebooks outsold "most" print books in the numbers that Rushkoff is claiming, then they should have a much larger marketshare than 6-8%."

For all I know, the collective total market share of most print books is sub sub sub 1%, and the collective total market share of that same collection of e-titles is a bit more. Books are a classic long-tail plus bestseller arena. A million distinct titles might sell a total of 1000 copies. That same million distinct titles might sell a total of 2000 e-copies (2 e-copies for each print copy). And then there'd be the hundred or so other titles that sold millions and millions of copies in print, and somewhat fewer e-copies. Rushkoff could be right. I'm not saying he is; I'm just saying he could be right.

Evil adds:

"Amazon is the biggest North American bookseller, but they do not sell more books than "all real-world retailers combined."" Er. That's wasn't the claim. The claim was that they sell more of _most_ books than all real-world retailers combined. I would bet just about anything (not a person, of course) that this statement is true, and Evil has mistaken selling "more of most books" for "most books". Again with the innumeracy.

It has become increasingly clear to me that a lot of my blogging is complaining about bad rhetoric: stupid rhetoric, incorrect rhetoric, immoral rhetoric, bigoted rhetoric. There's a lot of stuff out there that I don't agree with, but I don't really blog about it. I blog about the stuff that gets presented badly.

I must be a very shallow person. (Altho I feel compelled to point out that in addition to this being sarcastic and not true, it also does not follow from the preceding paragraph. This is a really tough reflex to suppress.)