Review: The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins

Paul Collins’ The Murder of the Century was briefly everywhere and I found a cheapo copy when I saw it linked with The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which is a surprisingly engaging piece of non-fiction (I preferred Dead Wake, ftr).

From the back cover:
On Long Island, a farmer finds a duck pond turned red with blood. On the Lower East Side, two boys discover a floating human torso wrapped tightly in oilcloth. Blueberry pickers near Harlem stumble upon neatly severed limbs in an overgrown ditch. The police are baffled: There are no witnesses, no motives, no suspects.
The grisly finds that began on the afternoon of June 26, 1897, plunged detectives headlong into the year’s most perplexing murder mystery. Seized upon by battling media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the case became a publicity circus, as an unlikely trio—a hard-luck cop, a cub reporter, and an eccentric professor—all raced to solve the crime. What emerged was a sensational love triangle and an even more sensational trial.

The inner workings of the media have always been interesting. In our modern rush for clicks on BREAKING NEWS, early versions of articles are posted with little more information than provided by their catchy headlines. Rushing is one thing in 2017 when articles can be amended on the fly anytime, anywhere. But in 1897, rushing involved fleets of bicycles, cut phone cords, and buying out the competition. The Journal vs. World competition is cut-throat, but the means (bikes!) render it quaint, a little funny, and wholly compelling.

Newspapers fight for stories all the time, but what makes this murder story different is that the press was able to take the lead. At times, the police investigation trailed what was being printed. Initially, the police wrote off the washed-up torso as a med-student prank while the press had already mobilized:

It took a Telegram reporter to actually get the first crime scene’s facts right since the patrolman’s report claimed that the bundle included the abdomen but no organs—a patent falsehood to make it sound like a med-lab cut-up. And the police hadn’t done anything since; it was a Herald reporter who had fetched the coroner the night before and escorted him to the morgue, and a World reporter who started knocking on doors even later that night to interview groggy oilcloth dealers around the city. The police hadn’t secured the crime scene at the pier, hadn’t assigned any extra men to the case, hadn’t even admitted it was a murder until the coroner telephoned and insisted they do something. (22)

Though the subject matter is interesting on its face, the reader’s attention is assured via shameless tension builders:

When he examined the headless corpse’s hands, an unnerving sense of recognition crept over him. Those well-muscled arms and smooth fingers—they were like something he’d seen somewhere before.
But where? (23)

Where?? I want to dismiss these kinds of hooks as hacky when they’re overused, but no matter how many inner eye rolls they prompted, it never occurred to me to stop reading. While it may be campy/cheesy, the newspapers themselves are oozing their own sleazy trails. I’m not sure that highfalutin language would work here.

Surprisingly, what begins as a taut story develops mush and road noise as more and more characters are introduced along with their law-enforcement or press affiliations. The interesting factoids about turn-of-the-century printing fade into an impression of dozens of confused people chasing false leads while Collins shouts “Guess what’s next!!” at random intervals. I don’t doubt this mania is true to life, but I expected that Collins, with the benefit of time and careful research, would present the information with better pacing. The red herrings and detours in the investigation are interesting, but not well-incorporated.

Then, finally, on page 147 the trial begins. The book resumes a regular flow, and I felt less disoriented. There’s a tonal shift in the back half of the book as the subject changes. The press may be ridiculous, but the legal system is not (despite one lawyer being a circus show). The trial and its consequences are sobering with none of the playfulness present in the novel’s early pages. The trial isn’t noteworthy just because of the unique body disposal and the love triangle that prompted it; it’s historically significant as well. One of its many turns is the reason we have alternate jurors these days.

Overall: 3.7 (out of 5.0) It’s well-researched, but not terribly well-paced before the trial. Collins is compared with Larson, but this book doesn’t have the same ring of legitimacy as The Devil in the White City or Dead Wake, nor does it showcase Collins as an equally gifted writer/storyteller.

Translation: Read it. If you run out of steam before the trial, go ahead and skip ahead a little.

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