Seventeen years ago, David Simon, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, spent a year shadowing a homicide squad to write Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. • The book became a crime classic, was the basis for a critically acclaimed NBC series and launched a new career for Simon (HBO's The Wire, The Corner, Treme). Homicide was street-level and gritty in a time when a homicide detective could count on one hand how many of his cases were solved in the crime lab. Cases then were solved on the streets and in the interrogation room. • Solving crimes has changed significantly since that year in Baltimore, as forensic science and psychological profiling emerged and the search for killers became much more brainy. • What Homicide was to that era, The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo is to modern murder solving. It's an exhilarating read with complex characters, devastating cases and breathtaking breaks and turns. Don't be surprised if it also becomes the basis of a TV show or film.
Its title refers to a building in Philadelphia where many of the best murder investigators in the world meet once a month to dine on fine food and discuss unsolved murders. The exclusive club is called the Vidocq Society, after Eugene Francois Vidocq, the French detective who is considered the grandfather of police investigation and was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.
The group, which began meeting 20 years ago, was formed by three men who couldn't be more different than the grunts from Simon's Baltimore.
There's William Fleischer, a former federal agent and teddy bear whose greatest ability is to get people — including the criminals he's chasing — to like him. Fleischer's primary role, it seems, is to keep the other two members of the Vidocq triumvirate — Frank Bender and Richard Walter — from killing each other.
Bender, an artist whose ability to sculpt clay models of the faces of homicide victims or missing fugitives has solved a number of high-profile cases, is portrayed as a sex-addicted psychic who literally sees dead people. In fact, in one case he sculpts the face of an unidentified victim whose decomposed body was missing a face. The bust helped solve the murder and identify the victim, who, as it turned out, looked precisely like Bender's bust.
Walter, on the other hand, is single and married to his profession. He is a chain-smoking whisper of a man who studied the most violent people as a prison psychologist, then used that knowledge to become a brilliant criminal profiler. While helping to catch fugitive killers who had been on the lam for decades, Walter's psychological profiles correctly predicted what jobs they would hold, how they would groom and, in one case, what kind of car the fugitive killer would drive.
With the help of other members of the society, these three men tackle a number of unsolved deaths, some of them quite famous, including the Boy in the Box case in Philadelphia and the case of John List, who murdered his New Jersey family and was at large for 18 years before Bender and Walter helped capture him.
Some cases they solve, others they don't. Sometimes they can't get the local authorities interested in arresting the person they know is responsible.
In one memorable scene near the beginning of the book, the friend of a murder victim makes a presentation to the society asking for help with the case. Just like that, Walter accuses the man of being the murderer — and of being a twisted psychopath who not only enjoyed the killing, but now is gaining pleasure from trying to fool the detectives.
The scene would seem as silly as the unmasking of a Scooby-Doo villain if it weren't, you know, real.
Capuzzo, a former reporter with the Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer, unravels the book and the stories of the individual cases with astonishing detail and a buzzsaw pace. His access to the society — especially the three leaders — must have been exceptional.
Capuzzo told a similarly chilling story in Close to Shore, his widely praised 2001 book about a series of shark attacks off New Jersey in 1916. Those attacks became the inspiration for Peter Benchley's Jaws, but Capuzzo's retelling of actual attacks proved fact more fascinating than fiction.
Upon finishing The Murder Room, I couldn't help but compare it — and its characters — to Simon's Homicide, a book I have read four times and adore.
The more modern detectives dine on pork and wild duck sausage while examining the cases in front of them. The detectives from Baltimore went on beer benders into the early morning hours.
The new detectives rely on art, creativity, scholarship and intellect to solve their cases. Those street detectives ran on pure instinct — perhaps most memorably the detective who told the fingerprint examiners to closely dust any glasses left in the kitchen sink at the scene of one murder. It was a hot night, the detective reasoned, and the killer probably was thirsty. The hunch paid off with the killer's print.
Both authors spend pages talking about the nobility of the homicide detective. The city detectives seemed shy to talk about that subject, perhaps because despite all their shoe leather, many of their cases went unsolved.
The Philadelphia group embraces the nobility notion. Then again, if people are flying in from around the world to dine on gourmet food while looking at bloody crime scene photos — that is pretty darn noble.
One footnote: For a couple of pages deep into The Murder Room, Capuzzo writes about a local case that I know quite intimately, having been the first reporter on the scene of that crime. Capuzzo has made, according to my memory of the case, a couple of fact errors in the short description of the investigation. Did it give me pause about the veracity of the rest of the book, considering he has details that make you wonder how on earth he ever got them? Yes.
Did I end up giving Capuzzo the benefit of the doubt? Sure.