Rampage is the story of Howard Unruh, a man who, in 1949, would murder thirteen of his neighbors (and people passing through his neighborhood) before returning to his apartment and returning to bed because he’d run out of ammunition. As the killer himself indicated during an interview, he’d have killed a thousand if he’d had sufficient ammunition. Repressed homosexuality, experiences during the conflict of WWII, and assorted petty grievances against his neighbors simmered for years until finally exploding in a cold, meticulous series of killings that would thoroughly destroy the relative peace of Camden, NJ. Considered the face of modern mass murder, Unruh had no apparent interest in committing suicide at the end of his bloody rampage, nor any plan to be killed by the police. He simply wanted to kill the people he perceived as being aligned against him or of having committed one slight or another, and once Unruh started, he didn’t seem interested in stopping until he had no choice but to do so. The descriptions of the murderer’s flat affect and calm demeanor both during the rampage and during the subsequent questioning, while a bullet remained lodged in his thigh, were unnerving in a way I can’t quite put into words. Steven Weber’s narration was as high quality as it has been for the rest of the Bloodlands stories, and I would love to hear him narrating further true crime audiobooks and even documentaries.
The Brick Slayer provides us with an in-depth study of a series of home invasions and killings that transpired in Los Angeles and Chicago in the late 1930s. The title comes from the killer, Robert Nixon, using bricks to incapacitate the victims. As interesting as the crime details might be, the vastly more interesting component of this particular narrative is the focus on the trial and the socioeconomic elements that contributed to the conditions of Robert Nixon’s life. It’s fascinating to think that Richard Wright’s Native Son was largely inspired by the circumstances surrounding Robert Nixon’s admittedly reprehensible acts and the reaction of those in law enforcement and the media to such horrific crimes committed by a young African American man. The barely suppressed racism of 1930s America seemed to be on full display throughout the investigation and subsequent trial, but it’s the more subtle and insidious racism of American culture that may very well have set Nixon down the path he ultimately found himself traveling. Schechter’s insightful case studies are always profoundly interesting, but this one perhaps more so than many others, simply because of the tangential aspects of the society and culture at large during the years when these things took place. Steven Weber’s narration is superb and well-suited to the Style of Schechter’s writing.
Harold Schechter’s The Pied Piper tells the sordid tale of Charles ‘Smitty’ Schmid, Jr., The Pied Piper of Tuscon. A strange, diminutive man, Schmid developed a carefully crafted bad boy image and a demeanor reminiscent of Elvis Presley that aided him in drawing attention and devotion from other loners and outcasts. With the assistance of two of these friends circling in his orbit, Schmid committed his first murder in 1964. He didn’t stop there, murdering two sisters only a little over a year later. Bragging about these killings whenever the occasion arose, he displayed neither shame nor remorse over what he’d done. Schechter’s portrayal of Schmid and his friends is less than flattering, though much of what he shares seems to be descriptions of these people from either Schmid himself or others in his circle or involved with the case. It’s interesting to see so much detail packed into such a short narrative, and it was fascinating to learn more about one of the lesser-known serial killers from the annals of American criminal history. Steven Weber provides terrific narration, proving again to be articulate and eloquent in his delivery of the story.
Harold Schechter’s Panic showcases an early American example of moral panic, mass hysteria, and pattern recognition gone horribly awry. This well-researched narrative begins with details of a tragic event, the result of the sort of irrational, hysterical panic arising in the 1930s surrounding the fear of child rapists and murderers surging across the American landscape. One father’s need to protect his daughters from a danger he perceived as being right around the corner erupts in a disastrous and heartbreaking conclusion. From that awful event, Schechter traces backward to the small number of isolated incidents that had been blown up and made to seem like part of a growing trend. Each of these individual cases was certainly terrible, but they were hardly part of a nationwide surge in that sort of criminal activity. Looking at the world we live in today, one can see that we haven’t grown beyond this sort of outrage-driven crusade where we perceive the boogeyman du jour in every shadow. Steven Weber’s narration is perfectly suited to this gripping non-fiction essay. I’m pleased to see that he continues to narrate other short samples of Schechter’s larger body of work contained in Bloodlands.
Little Slaughterhouse On the Prairie shares the story of the Bender family, contemporaries of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family in Kansas during the late 1800s. A family of serial killers operating an inn in the remote, seemingly endless fields and plains of Kansas, the Benders were responsible for an unknown number of missing persons. Like something out of the fictional Splatter Western tales published by Death’s Head Press, the Benders were a monstrous family. Inviting guests into their inn for dinner and sleeping accommodations, those guests would frequently be greeted with a sledgehammer to the head before being further mutilated, robbed, and disposed of on their sprawling homestead. Men, women, and children alike fell victim to the predations of the Bender clan. The mystery of where the Benders disappeared, and what might have happened to them as they evaded justice was the primary focus of this narrative. Unfortunately, Schechter doesn’t seem to have any answers, even after all of his research. Ultimately, we’re left with more questions as multiple theories are proposed, some more appealing than others. Steven Weber’s narration is, again, fantastic. His delivery of these gruesome, historical details is satisfying and articulate.
After disappointing documentaries focused on Richard Ramirez and the Elisa Lam disappearance at the Cecil Hotel, I was hesitant to sit down for another Netflix true-crime documentary. I’m pleased to say The Ripper more than makes up for the frustration of those other two recent documentary series from the streaming service. Gone is the transparent, painful hero-worship of the police involved in the investigation I found so agonizing to sit through during the Ramirez documentary. Similarly missing is the fixation on incompetent, repeatedly detrimental “contributions” from amateur sleuths in the Cecil Hotel documentary. What we’re left with is a straightforward documentary about the crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, the appropriately named Yorkshire Ripper, and the difficulties plaguing those attempting to investigate the crimes (difficulties often produced or amplified by the investigators involved). The most interesting aspect of this documentary is that it showcases just how awful the people leading the investigation were at their jobs. The Yorkshire Ripper title applied to the unknown killer seemed to have intensified a series of biases held by these men, nudging them down dead ends and imaginary lines of inquiry. In the minds of those in charge, this man was simply another prostitute killer like the Whitechapel ripper of a century before…even though there was little to no evidence supporting numerous early victims being associated with prostitution at all…beyond the assertions of the investigators speaking to the press. Latent and widespread misogyny, refusal to look beyond anything that fit a pet theory, and fixation on letters and tapes supplied by someone wasting their time directly and unambiguously led to more murders being committed by Sutcliffe than he would have successfully committed if they’d simply worked with the facts they had in front of them rather than distorting their perception of the facts to fit the preconceived notion of who the killer was and why he was committing these terrible atrocities. It’s fascinating to see this investigation from the outside, in retrospect, because there’s no reason the case couldn’t have been closed years earlier than it ultimately was. Sutcliffe had been interviewed by investigators a total of nine times during the investigation and one of the cops involved was concerned at just how well Sutcliffe matched a sketch of the assailant from one of the attempted murders. Instead, his superiors ignored his report because there was a single-minded fixation on a certain accent the killer was expected to speak with. Where the Ramirez documentary spent so much time praising the superstar detectives involved in bringing The Night Stalker to justice, The Ripper spends a lot of time following the case only to finally display just how botched and bungled the investigation was when they finally had their man in custody. It was a matter of a good cop acting on a hunch–a cop who was not associated with the investigation–that brought Sutcliffe to justice. This one is worth watching. It delves into the lifestyles and living conditions of post-industrial England and the underlying conditions that made it not only possible but perhaps even easy, for Sutcliffe to perpetrate the crimes he committed. Similarly, it provides a fantastic argument against linkage-blindness and confirmation bias in these sorts of investigations.
Normally, when I’m reviewing an audiobook, I wait until the end to comment on the quality of the narration. I have to make an exception here. Mikael Naramore’s narration of Vronsky’s fantastic history of serial killing is perhaps the most perfect match-up I’ve ever witnessed in an audiobook. The most important element is that he so perfectly captures the wry, often sardonic humor of the author. I was disappointed to see that Naramore didn’t further narrate other titles from Vronsky, because there’s no chance in my mind of another narrator embracing and conveying the strange blend of casual discourse and in-depth history lesson to be found in all of Vronsky’s texts. I’ll surely give the other audiobooks a chance, as my significant other and I listen to these while we’re out adventuring, but I feel a sense of disenchantment in advance that is unfair to the other narrators who’ve worked on Vronsky’s books. Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present is a mouthful of a title, to be sure, but it’s a fitting title for such a densely packed deep dive into the history of serial killers throughout recorded civilization. Spending a period focusing on the development of the triune brain, as proposed by evolutionary neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean in the 1960s (which, while oversimplified based on our current knowledge, is still a rather useful tool for understanding the way our brains work and how they sometimes malfunction), Vronsky discusses the four Fs that defined the existence of early man (and still define the existence of most life as we know it). Feeding, Fucking, Fighting, and Fleeing are still the core behavioral motivators underlying our daily lives, but with trappings of civility and leisure tossed into the mix. There’s some analysis of why and how homo sapien became the dominant hominid and the potential role of necrophobia in that success. There’s surely some strong argument in opposition to his theories and hypotheses regarding how and why early man survived while other competing branches of the same evolutionary tree did not, but none of them are any more likely to be valid or accurate. It’s all conjecture and educated guesswork when we’re talking about things like that. From there, we move on to the meat of the book, detailing early records of “lycanthrope” lust murders from early history, evaluating these past instances through the lens of the present, and applying our current understanding to these things. It’s truly fascinating and well worth the time, reading or (in my case) listening to Vronsky’s meticulous considerations of mass murder cases from centuries ago. Arguably, the most rewarding aspect of this book is the author’s discussion of Diabolus In Cultura, the combination of cultural factors and arrangements that contributed to the growing numbers of serial killers and the periods wherein we’ve experienced surges of what we would classify as modern serial killers. It’s never one thing, isolated from other elements, but rather a concatenation of sorts that produces a surge of individuals prone to that sort of behavior. Fair warning, as the end of the book approaches, and Vronsky is discussing the “Golden Age of Serial Killers” here in America, spanning from the mid-1960s through the 1990s, there are some rather long lists involved. They can become more than a little tedious but are essential to capturing a full understanding of what he’s trying to convey. That was the one section of this book where I’d have preferred to be reading rather than listening to the narration.
Samantha Kolesnik’s True Crime is a gritty deep dive into an abusive household and the horrible consequences of that abuse. It’s all the more awful for the plausibility of it. Suzy’s only escape from the horrific emotional, physical, and sexual abuse from her mother–and boyfriend(s)–is reading True Crime magazines that she’s fixated on. Her only allies in the cruel childhood she’s experienced are her older brother, the emotionally detached Lim, and the unseen girl, Alice, held captive in the basement by Suzy’s mother, speaking to Suzy only through the heat registers. Little does she know that she and her older brother, Lim, are soon to create their own story befitting her favorite magazine…as she smashes an ashtray into her monstrous mother’s head…and that is only the beginning. As Suzy evades justice and Lim winds up in prison for the murders no one imagines Suzy could have been involved with, we find ourselves wondering if she can be rehabilitated with a second chance and a clean slate. The animal freakshow scene was deeply upsetting and made me want to attack the spectators as well, and the later scene where Suzy discovers the dogs made me sad too. Acts of cruelty and violence against animals do more to get under my skin than the same sort of violence perpetrated against people. It seems that Suzy and I have that in common. Jennifer Pickens expertly narrates the audiobook edition of the story, capturing the equal measures of naivete and cruelty of Suzy’s first-person narrative.
I grew up in an abusive household in a rural region. This story hits close to home for anyone with that sort of background. While it was my father, rather than my mother, who levied the abuse, it doesn’t change much. That the abuse from my father was physical rather than sexual isn’t much of a difference. The sexual abuse, instead, came from a slightly older girl who lived next door and who saw a six or seven year old boy as a suitable way to learn about the differences between boys and girls.I wanted to include a little warning, in case anyone is triggered by these sorts of things.
Once upon a time, I used to do a great deal of shopping at our local Best Buy…back in the days before I realized just how much money I was wasting buying things there instead of doing so online. There was a sales representative there who frequently struck up conversations with me and we seemed to have fairly similar areas of interest. Admittedly, being not the most social person, I did find this individual a little bit annoying…but he seemed to just be sort of lonely or socially awkward (like I have room to talk), so I didn’t go out of my way to avoid him and the ensuing conversations when I saw that he was working. In addition to those encounters at Best Buy, I began running into him while standing in line for Midnight releases of video games from GameStop. Yes, I was one of those people for quite some time. We chatted when we saw each other there was well, which wasn’t infrequent since we both appear to have wanted a lot of the same video games on release night. Again, refer back to my comment about he and I having similar tastes. A couple of years later, after not running into him at all, a girl I was dating at the time invited me to join her at a friend’s house. This friend happened to be dating the individual in question. Naturally, we recognized one another and chatted a bit more. I wasn’t comfortable there, and I chalked that up to my normal discomfort in other people’s homes. It turned out, as I discovered later, this guy was abusive toward his girlfriend and the household was indeed filled with a good deal of tension. They broke up a short while later and I didn’t see him again. I was not unhappy about that. Another couple of years pass. The next time I see this man is in a photo of him attached to a news story about how a friend of his had hired him and another mutual friend of theirs to murder his girlfriend. They picked her up in their car ostensibly to give her a ride somewhere, and after they were away from civilization, the guy I’d chatted with so many times stabbed his friend’s girlfriend and killed her while the other man held her down. He and the other fellow drove her body out into the Black Hills and buried her before returning to their lives for the following year or so until the story broke. There’s a whole lot more to that story, including the fact that the boyfriend who’d hired the killer(s) then convinced a couple more friends to dig her up and bury her body somewhere more remote, thus making it impossible for the killer(s) to lead authorities to the body if they were so inclined (after he didn’t pay them). I’m not going to delve into it any further than this, it’s been reported in great detail in various South Dakota newspapers and on television news programs. I just thought it was interesting to know that you or I could, at any point, during any interaction, be talking to a person capable of cold-blooded murder.
The idea to write this blog post came from the fact that a friend of mine who works in local television had recently written a story for the station, providing updates on the court case in question.