BOOK: The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases by Michael Capuzzo (2011)

This non-fiction book by journalist Michael Capuzzo is about the Vidocq Society, a group of the world’s finest sleuths who meet once a month, coming from all over the place, to try to solve some of the globe’s toughest cold cases — pro bono.  The members come from a variety of professions:  medical examiners, forensic economists, police detectives, and even a sculptor who specializes in recreating the faces of the dead.  (For those who don’t know — and I only know because he was a character in Louis Bayard’s fantastic mystery novel The Black Tower — Eugène Vidocq, for whom the society is named, was a French crook-turned-cop in the late 1700s/early 1800s.  He founded the Sûretéin France and is widely considered to be the first “real” criminalist/detective.)

The main focus of the book are the three founders of the society, an FBI agent turned private eye (William Fleisher), the aforementioned sculptor (Frank Bender), and a tall, thin, chain-smoking genius with no bedside manner whatsoever named Richard Walter, known far and wide as the “living Sherlock Holmes.”  These three established the society when they realized how many unsolved murders simply end up being set aside after a year or two and never pursued again, due to lack of time, funds, and manpower.  So, they began to meet casually to go over cases together, and, as they started to solve a few here and there, more members joined the group and more police departments, frustrated by cases they couldn’t solve, came to them asking for help.

The book tells the stories of several such cases, ranging from Philadelphia’s decades-old “Boy in the Box” murder to the “Butcher of Cleveland,” a serial killer tracked by Elliot Ness in the 1930s, all of which were absolutely fascinating.  But the problem is, riveting as the actual case studies were, this book is an absolute disaster.  For a journalist, Capuzzo is an absolutely terrible writer with no sense whatsoever of how to organize content to make it comprehensible, and the result is a book that reads more like a set of notes for a book than an actual completed project.

Instead of focusing on one case at a time, which would’ve made this a much stronger and more engrossing collection, Capuzzo hacks each homicide up into smaller stories and then mixes them all together, in an attempt, I’m sure, to create suspense and tension (lots of chapters ended with something like, “And he couldn’t believe what he learned next!” with the revelation of that new clue not coming for several more chapters as he switched around his focus — annoying).  When you’re talking about half a dozen or more complicated cases, cases so complicated the cops assigned to solve them had to seek out the Vidocq Society, this technique simply made the whole thing frustratingly hard to follow. Especially when Capuzzo also interspersed long tangents here and there about the society members themselves, some of which he ended up telling us more than once (one more paragraph about Bender’s unorthodox marriage, for example, and I was set to throw the whole damn thing in the trash — okay, we get it!  He loves his wife AND his mistress!  MOVING ON NOW!).

It’s a shame the first book about the Vidocq Society, a truly fascinating organization, had to be such a tremendous mess.  Had it been written by someone more talented, or at least forcefully edited, it could’ve been an absolute non-fiction masterpiece, the subjects were so tremendously intriguing.  That said, I’m glad I read it and got to learn about both this group of dedicated volunteers and some of the biggest cases they managed to solve.  The book mentioned more than once that the idea of making a film about the Vidocq Society has been bantered around a bit for years — here’s hoping they do it, do it soon, and get somebody with some talent to write the script.  The workings of the society could make for a superb film, and I’d be first in line to get a ticket for sure.

True crime fans may still find much to enjoy here, but brace yourselves for a total train wreck, literarily-speaking!


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2 Responses to “BOOK: The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases by Michael Capuzzo (2011)”

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