Review: The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Title: The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir
Author: Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Before Alex Marzano-Lesnevich began working at a law firm, they thought they were staunchly anti-death penalty. But once they heard convicted murderer Ricky Langley speak on his crimes, they realized they wanted him to die. Shocked by the reaction, they dug into the case, finding Langley’s story unsettlingly and uncannily familiar. An intellectual and emotional thriller as well as a murder mystery, The Fact of a Body explores the intersection of violent crime with personal history. It tackles the nature of forgiveness and if a single narrative can ever really contain the truth. It shows how the law is more personal than we like to believe—and the truth more complicated and powerful than we can imagine.


Note: Alex Marzano-Lesnevich identifies as genderqueer and goes by they-them pronouns but didn’t when the book was published.

I thought I knew the plot of this book before I read it. From the summary, I guessed that the murder in question was of Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s relative—an aunt, perhaps—referenced in passing enough that they knew she had died but not really how. And so when they hear the “unsettingly, uncannily familiar” confession of Ricky Langley, it sparks a memory which they follow, learning more about the crime from both the murderer’s perspective as well as their family’s.

But that’s not what happens. Uncovered slowly through dual perspective, The Fact of a Body unfurls both Marzano-Lesnevich’s childhood as a sexual abuse survivor with that of Langley, a sexual abuser. For obvious reasons, it’s a hard story to read, but Marzano-Lesnevich is a brilliant writer, and the story flows easily from the murder and its aftermath to their adolescence, from before Langley was born through his childhood to the internship they accept which ultimately introduces them to Langley’s case.

The Fact of a Body flew under the radar when it was published, most likely because neither Ricky Langley nor his crime is well-known, but I hope more people read it. It reminded me very much of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in that each book focuses on both a crime and the person pursuing that crime and, for both, I wanted to know just as much about the criminal act as I did the person trying to understand the criminal. Marzano-Lesnevich so plainly lays bare their pain and anger that you feel it, too. But they also make room for Langley, for the messy “un-neatness of everything that happened” to him and because of him.

Marzano-Lesnevich opens the book with “a note on source material,” in which they state that The Fact of a Body is “my interpretation of the facts, my rendering, my attempt to piece together this story. As such, this is a book about what happened, yes, but it is also about what we do with what happened.” In an attempt to ask what, the book gives space to both why and how, and we come away better for it.

Review: Mindhunter by John Douglas & Mark Olshaker

Title: Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit
Authors: John Douglas & Mark Olshaker
Rating: ★
Summary: Over 25 years, Special Agent John Douglas became a legendary figure in law enforcement, pursuing some of the most notorious and sadistic serial killers of the 20th century. Using his uncanny ability to become both predator and prey, Douglas examined each crime scene to create the killer’s profile, describing their habits in order to predict their next moves. Mindhunter is the classic, behind-the-scenes chronicle of Douglas’s tenure at the FBI, taking us through some of his most gruesome, fascinating, and challenging cases—and into the darkest recesses of our worst nightmares.


As a true crime fan, I really wanted to like Mindhunter. (Like, really.) It’s one of the more well-known titles of the genre and getting a chance to read about the man who helped solve some of the most recognized criminal cases was something I couldn’t pass up. (Like, John Douglas personally interviewed serial killers! He was the basis for the character of Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs!) Even though this book was originally published in the mid-nineties, I thought that I would still find it interesting.

Except that I didn’t.

Mindhunter isn’t that long, but it still took me over two weeks to finish, as I often put off reading because it just wasn’t compelling enough for me to pick up. Filled with extraneous personal details and a convoluted timeline, the point of John Douglas’s narrative—that he pioneered the FBI’s criminal profiling department!—gets lost. The chapters loosely feature a particular case to further explain the different ways in which Douglas and other criminal profilers work, but they also spend a lot of time not focused on crimes, too. And it’s not just the lack of murder that annoyed me: it’s that the summary hypes this particular type of crime and then veers away from it at multiple points. (Also, who even is Mark Olshaker? Because he did not come up in this book.)

I also found Douglas to be a bit, shall we say, over-enthusiastic to avoid mentioning how incredibly lucky he was to be an FBI agent during the 1970s and 80s, coming into a new department that he ultimately had a hand in shaping. Like, does the fact that Douglas (1) had the ability to tailor a federal program to his specifications, (2) use well-known individuals for his case studies, and (3) the chance to personally interview them really not warrant a mention? If any one of those hadn’t been true, would Douglas have succeeded to the degree he did? Would criminal profiling be what it is today? 🤷‍♀️

I’m not saying that Douglas doesn’t deserve credit for all of the work he pioneered and skill he brought to his job, but Mindhunter doesn’t really adequately express any humility, to the point where I just got annoyed with him for being a blowhard. Like, he very casually throws this into the mix (bolded for emphasis):

Eventually, I would come up with the term signature to describe this unique element and personal compulsion, which remained static. And I would use it as distinguishable from the traditional concept of modus operandi, which is fluid and can change. This became the core of what we do in the Investigative Support Unit… I had come up with an insight that was to become critical in my law enforcement career, simply by betting on raindrops.

🙄

Would I have enjoyed this book if I’d read it when it was first published? Maybe. I found the introduction, written in 2017, the most interesting section, but was this because it was the most current or because it acknowledges that the world has changed in the intervening 22 years? I can no longer read a book without interpreting it through a 2019 gaze—and that’s great! It means that my reading life is more diverse and more enriching than it’s ever been. But it also means that I couldn’t read Mindhunter and forget it’s pub date or ignore the privileges of its author—something the book really needed me to do.

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Title: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
Author: Michelle McNamara
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area. Three decades later, true crime journalist Michelle McNamara was determined to find the violent psychopath by poring over police reports, interviewing victims, and embedding herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth.


I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is one of only a handful of true-crime books to pop into the public consciousness*: perhaps because its author, Michelle McNamara, passed away while writing it, but also because a task force arrested their Golden State Killer suspect in April 2018 and now, four months later, he still seems like The One. The book is, on one hand, a straight-forward work of true crime, detailing the then-distinct crime sprees of the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, and, on the other, McNamara’s five-year journey to uncover the man she renames the Golden State Killer.

Although McNamara’s skill at writing shines through her facts thoroughly researched, her transitions and anecdotes and compassion there among the heinous crimes referenced throughout I found myself reading in fits and starts. The book engrossing one afternoon and then forgotten for the next several. Only on the third week of reading did I settle on some kind of answer: once I finished I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, my journey with Michelle would be over. Realizing in hindsight how close she came to answers, noticing how similar her methods of discovery were to what actually happened… the expectation of failure was almost worse than the actual crimes.

Knowing that Michelle would ultimately fail, that she would get so close and still come up short… that’s what hit me most after reading. Not the ten plus people the Golden State Killer murdered. Not the fifty-plus rapes or sexual assaults he perpetrated. Not the almost forty years of silence. It’s the irony of the thing; that McNamara almost became a victim of the Golden State Killer herself.

Note: McNamara’s website, True Crime Diary, is still available for perusal, as is her article for Los Angeles Magazine, “In the Footsteps of a Killer.” The New York Times also wrote an op-ed prior to the book’s release that’s worth a read.

* Others include The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson), Helter Skelter (Vincent Buglilosi), In Cold Blood (Truman Capote), Killers of the Flower Moon (David Grann), and The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule.

Review: Incendiary by Michael Cannell

Title: Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
Author: Michael Cannell
Rating: ★★
Summary: Long before the specter of terrorism haunted the public imagination, a serial bomber stalked the streets of 1950s New York. The race to catch him would give birth to a new science called criminal profiling.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

The most interesting chapter of Incendiary was its epilogue, when author Michael Cannell finally pulled all of his interweaving threads together to tell a concise ending to his story. In my opinion, he spends far too many words on the Mad Bomber and the NYC police department and too little concretely connecting them to the psychologist who used reverse psychology to catch said bomber. This could have been a great magazine article, stripped of its fat and zeroed in on just how revolutionary a case it was. As is, I got too bored trying to wade through the minutiae to make that connection myself.

Interested in more true crime? These sound much more interesting.