[singlepic id=407 w=400 h=300 float=left]I confess: I’m fascinated by serial killers. It’s certainly not because I feel any affinity for monsters disguised as humans; far from it. I abhor murderers, and mass murderers many times so.
What I find amazing is the fact that so many serial killers – like Gary Ridgway, Robert Yates and the notoriously affable Ted Bundy – seem so NORMAL if not downright likable to unsuspecting friends, neighbors and coworkers. In fact, I once overheard an elderly man in Tacoma say that Bundy – who admitted to kidnapping, raping and murdering 36 women – had been one of his son’s friends, had been a guest at their home on many occasions and was the nicest boy you ever met. The old fart declared that when Bundy was executed in 1986, “I didn’t believe he killed all those women then, and I STILL don’t think he did it.”
Hopefully, most of our kids won’t be inviting violent psychopaths over for dinner anytime soon. All the same, it’s pretty horrifying when a serial murderer strikes close to home – or even close to one’s former home. I’m thinking of the so-called Long Island Serial Killer, a nut job who has been dumping corpses among the cattails about 20 minutes from where I grew up. Even the name “Long Island Serial Killer” shows how incomprehensible that is: With more than 7.5 million people, Long Island is more populous than 37 of the 50 states and Puerto Rico; yet no one talks about the “Washington State Serial Killer” (um, which one?), the “Wisconsin Serial Killer” or even the “Utah Serial Killer.” Who could imagine such a horror in a place that can still provide shooting locations for “Our Town,” “The Great Gatsby” (the setting of which was Long Island’s north shore), “American Graffiti” and, well, even “Jaws”? For me, detached from my Long Island boyhood by decades and the width of a continent, these murders cast an ugly pall over the idyllic seascapes of my past – even more so than if a monster great white shark really were preying on swimmers in the Great South Bay. I can’t help wondering how the discovery of those bodies must affect the sense of security of those who now live along that otherwise postcard-perfect shore – and, infinitely worse, those closest to the victims?
No community expects a serial murderer to crop up in their midst, like measles or Scotch broom. Yet, it happens more than most of us are aware, in places few would expect. (I was living in Japan in 1989 when Tsutomu Miyazaki, the “Otaku Murderer,” was apprehended after killing and dismembering four preadolescent girls.) Is this the product of a more explicit, more permissive media-driven popular culture – or are we just getting better at recognizing an evil that has been with us all along; that has naturally increased with population growth and demographic shifts; that has made use of technology – from automobiles to surveillance equipment to computers – to better perpetrate their atrocities; and that are more effectively detected with advanced forensic and law enforcement procedures, notably DNA analysis? I’m inclined to think the latter: What medieval folklorists called werewolves and vampires, former FBI criminal profiler Robert Ressler divides into “organized” and “disorganized” serial killers.
None of this should make us rest easier. Which is why I gave Nigel Blundell’s “Serial Killers: The World’s Most Evil” (Barnesley, U.K.: Wharncliffe, 2010; hardcover, 190 pp.) a real close read even while asking myself: Do we really need another quick rundown on a couple of dozen exceptional horrible crazies? What’s to be learned from this?
For one thing, what you can learn from “Serial Killers: The World’s Most Evil” may be as much in spite of the author as because of him. If you search “Nigel Blundell” in Amazon’s “Books” category, you’ll find that he has authored or co-authored a number of other books about serial killers (“Serial Killers: Murder Without Mercy,” “Serial Killers: Butchers and Cannibals,” “Encyclopedia of Serial Killers”); he is, in effect, a serial serial-murder writer. I hope his other works are better than “Serial Killers: The World’s Most Evil,” seems a slapdash effort, as if he was hurrying to complete the manuscript on deadline. Worse, he offers up nothing new about serial murderers, merely seizing on others’ ideas or regurgitating well-known facts. Anyone who can spell “Google” can do that.
Blundell starts out talking about the “Most Evil Scale” that Columbia University professor of psychiatry Michael Stone came up with, as if this would be an authoritative basis for addressing the subjects in “Serial Killers.” Unfortunately, Dr. Stone’s “scale” is a lot of completely subjective baloney concocted for media consumption, based as it is on criteria like number of victims, premeditation, the nature of the sexual acts performed, the amount of pain inflicted, etc., with bonus points for stuff like cannibalism and necrophilia. Talk about pedantic: Stone actually defines 22 levels of evil – like he’s trying to outdo Dante or something! According to Stone’s scale, John Wayne Gacy, Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, and Jeffrey Dahmer get a big “22” from the judges because torture, not even murder, was the primary motivation; Gary Ridgway gets a “19” because murder was his real motive and any torture inflicted was not prolonged; Ted Bundy gets only a “17” because rape was the motive and the murders were perpetrated only to hide the bodies; and Wisconsin ghoul, cannibal and human skin fashionista Ed Gein – who Norman Bates (“Psycho”), Buffalo Bill (“The Silence of the Lambs”), and Leatherface (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) were all based on – gets a piddling “13” because he had an “inadequate” personality, with rage, not sex or the desire to kill, being his driving urge.
Thanks, Professor, I feel better already!
Seriously, how is such a scale in any way helpful – and to whom?
What’s more, I got all of this I got online; it’s really just glossed over by Blundell, who doesn’t really apply the dubious “Most Evil Scale” to anything once he introduces it. (Is there an editor in the house?) Then he launches into descriptions of an international selection of apprehended serial murderers and their crimes are cursory at best, with an occasional error (for example, the University of Puget Sound, which Ted Bundy briefly attended, is in Tacoma, not Seattle). How he chose these individuals is not clear: Why Dennis Rader (“BTK”) and not the more prolific Gary Ridgway (the “Green River Killer”)? Why Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi (the “Hillside Stranglers”) and not Richard Ramirez (the “Night Stalker”)? Who knows? Watch for Blundell’s next book …
In fairness, what I did get from Blundell, who is British, was a more cosmopolitan look at serial murderers: After all, we Americans are so preoccupied with our own homegrown maniacs that we forget that the Brits, the French, the Belgians, the Italians – even the Russians – have their own crazies to contend with. Some of the accounts in “Serial Killers” also give a sense of how good police work and the attentiveness of ordinary citizens have led to the capture of some serial murderers – and how investigative screw-ups and the failure of witnesses to come forward have allowed some predators to continue to run amuck.
“Serial Killers: The World’s Most Evil” is not a great book, but for the above reasons, it may be a worthwhile read for newcomers to the subject who have fairly strong stomachs. True-crime aficionados already familiar with the cases will find nothing new in these pages.
My advice to the author: Organize future compendiums by more specific themes (era, location, the specific nature of the crimes) and do some original investigation or at least original expert interviews, rather than just cannibalizing, so to speak, other sources.
And please leave the “Most Evil Scale” to the cheesier cable TV crime reenactment shows.