Crime

L.A.P.D Archives, 1955

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The road to ruin

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking; and from that to incivility and procrastination.

Thomas de Quincey

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The Whitey Bulger book I’d like to read

So Whitey Bulger has been caught, and Boston’s greatest crime story will finally have its denouement. Not climax; we’re long past that. But we’re into the last few pages: a few courtroom scenes, a few loose ends to tie up, then we can close the book. (If you need a crash course on the case, start with these articles by George V. Higgins and Alan Dershowitz.)

But why wait for the ending? Already we seem to have decided how the story will be told: Whitey Bulger will go down as an arch gangster, and his signature achievement will be playing the FBI for fools. That was the story told memorably in Black Mass, the nonfiction account by reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. The theme of informants-run-amok was revisited in “The Departed,” where Jack Nicholson played a gangster “inspired by” Whitey, though Nicholson’s performance was so ridiculous, the rest of the country must have wondered what the hell we Bostonians were so scared of. A second movie is already in the works, this time about Bulger’s murderous Winter Hill Gang, based on a book by its chief thug, John Martorano. We’ll have to wait and see of course, but I’m guessing it’ll be more hard-boiled mobster stuff. John Martorano isn’t exactly the man to write a sensitive, nuanced portrait of his old boss.

I don’t object to any of this. Reducing the story to the familiar shape of a gangster flick is fine, as far as it goes. I love gangster stories as much as anyone. I do have reservations about mythologizing a killer like Whitey, who was exceptionally sadistic even by the standards of his profession. But then, vicious mobsters have inspired great fiction before. Al Capone gave us “Scarface” and “The Untouchables.” Dutch Schultz begat E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, one of the best “literary” crime novels I’ve ever read. New York’s Five Families provided the raw material for The Godfather. These are romanticized versions of the truth, of course, and Whitey will have to be romanticized too, for dramatic reasons. But no one is naive enough to believe that these fictions are intended as accurate portraits. So if writers want to retell Whitey’s story as if it was just another gangster movie — “Scarface” or “Goodfellas” with a Boston accent — I say, more power to ’em. Lord knows, I’ve written similar stuff.

But I hope someone will also step forward to write the real story of Whitey Bulger in the full context of his time and place. Which is to say, I hope someone will write the truth. The story is much more complex than Bulger’s manipulation of his FBI handlers. It sprawls over the whole city of Boston. The Bulger book I want to read might be “literary true crime,” like In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song, or it may be straight literary historical fiction like Doctorow’s Ragtime or Billy Bathgate. Best of all, perhaps it would be a fictionalized biography, like Colum McCann’s wonderful Dancer or Colm Toibin’s The Master, the sort of book that brings the real man to life. Whatever the style, the book would be big and baggy and discursive enough to tell the whole story.

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The lost Vermeer

Vermeer - The Concert

The Concert is a painting of c. 1664 by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990. It is considered the most valuable painting currently stolen. Its value has been estimated at over $200,000,000. It remains missing to this day.” — Wikipedia

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Whitey Bulger, age 23

Whitey Bulger

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Southie reacts to the capture of Whitey Bulger

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Our golden age

homicide rate chart

The U.S. murder rate (homicides per 1,000 people) over time. Contrary to popular perception, ours is among the safest eras in U.S. history. Via Andrew Sullivan.

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Why are we attracted to crime stories?

Why do ordinary readers happily devour crime novels, the sort of stories I write, about violence — murder above all — and every conceivable sort of treachery? Why do housewives and business travelers and grandmothers — people who would not themselves steal a stick of gum — feel drawn to crime stories, fascinated by them?

John le Carré seems to have puzzled over the appeal of spy novels in a similar way. The other day I ran across this quote:

Most of us live in a condition of secrecy: secret desires, secret appetites, secret hatreds, and relationship with the institutions which is extremely intense and uncomfortable. These are, to me, a part of the ordinary human condition. So I don’t think I’m writing about abnormal things.… Artists, in my experience, have very little center. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.

I think le Carré gets that exactly right. We are all spies. We all fake, one way or another, at times. Spies perfectly embody this aspect of human nature.

Are we all criminals, too? Is that why we rush to buy books by Lee Child or Richard Price or Michael Connelly? Is that why the news media cover crime stories with such obvious relish?

Maybe. When asked to explain the attraction of crime stories, I have always fallen back on the phrase “bad men do what good men dream,” which was coined by the psychologist Robert I. Simon (it is the title of Simon’s book). Simon writes,

The basic difference between what are socially considered to be bad and good people is not one of kind, but one of degree, and of the ability of the bad to translate dark impulses into dark actions. Bad men such as serial sexual killers have intense, compulsive, sadistic fantasies that few good men have, but we all have some measure of that hostility, aggression, and sadism. Anyone can become violent, even murderous, under certain circumstances. Our brains are wired for aggression, and can short-circuit into violence.

It is a powerful, frightening idea. But even if it is true — even if we are all criminals with secret dark instincts, however faintly we feel them, however well we master them — it still does not explain the precise nature of our attraction to crime stories. When we read crime novels, are we indulging this secret urge to violence, acting out fantasies? Are we good men (people) dreaming of doing bad things? Our favorite criminals — Hannibal Lecter, Michael Corleone — do have an undeniable glamor.

On the other hand, maybe we read crime stories to relieve the anxiety that we will become victims. Maybe the pleasure is in the experience of control over these demons. Most crime stories end with the villain’s defeat, after all. Justice tends to triumph in fiction more often than it does in real life. Surely that is no accident.

Or perhaps we enjoy crime stories for the same reason we go to horror movies and roller coasters: to feel the thrill of fear. To get the adrenaline rush of a dangerous situation without the risk of actual danger.

I suspect that the precise nature of our attraction to crime stories is murkier than le Carré’s theory about spy novels. We may indeed all be spies, but we are not all criminals — not just criminals, anyway. We are good and bad, cops and robbers, heroes and villains, at different times. As a crime novelist, that strikes me as good news. Novels thrive in the murk of human emotions.

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Face of the Day

Mug shot - Alice Cooke

Alice Adeline Cooke, criminal record number 565LB, 30 December 1922. State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay, New South Wales…. Convicted of bigamy and theft. By the age of 24 Alice Cooke had amassed an impressive number of aliases and at least two husbands. Described by police as ‘rather good looking,’ Cooke was a habitual thief and a convicted bigamist. Aged 24. Part of an archive of forensic photography created by the NSW Police between 1912 and 1964.” Source: Mug Shots of Australian Criminals (via).

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Auden: Murder is unique

Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.

W.H. Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage” (via)

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A Hangman’s Metaphysics

We no longer have any sympathy today with the concept of “free will.” We know only too well what it is — the most infamous of all the arts of the theologian for making mankind “accountable” in his sense of the word, that is to say for making mankind dependent on him…. I give here only the psychology of making men accountable. Everywhere accountability is sought, it is usually the instinct for punishing and judging which seeks it. One has deprived becoming of its innocence if being in this or that state is traced back to will, to intentions, to accountable acts: the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty. The whole of the old-style psychology, the psychology of will, has as its precondition the desire of its authors — the priests at the head of the ancient communities — to create for themselves a right to ordain punishments, or their desire to create for God a right to do so…. Men were thought of as “free” so that they could become guilty; consequently, every action had to be thought of as willed, the origin of every action as lying in the consciousness (whereby the most fundamental falsification in psychologicis was made into the very principle of psychology)…. Today, when we have started to move in the reverse direction, when we immoralists especially are trying with all our might to remove the concept of guilt and the concept of punishment from the world and to purge psychology, history, nature, the social institutions, and sanctions of them, there is in our eyes no more radical opposition than that of the theologians, who continue to infect the innocence of becoming with “punishment” and “guilt” by means of the concept of the “moral world order.” Christianity is a hangman’s metaphysics.

— Frederick Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1889 (via)

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The Murder Gene

Last September in Italy, a man convicted of what would, in this country, be called second-degree murder or manslaughter had his 9-year sentence reduced on appeal on the grounds that he exhibited

abnormalities in brain-imaging scans and in five genes that have been linked to violent behaviour — including the gene encoding the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA). … Giving his verdict, [the judge] said he had found the MAOA evidence particularly compelling.

The ruling marks the first time a defense based on behavioral genetics — the argument that a defendant’s genes caused him to commit the crime — has affected the outcome of a criminal case in any European court. To my knowledge, no defendant has ever succeeded with this argument in America, either, though many have tried.

I have written before about the implications of behavioral genetics for criminal law, which is built on the assumption that we are generally responsible for our own actions. Surely this is an issue the criminal courts will have to face: some people may indeed be genetically hard-wired for violence. But this decision comes as a surprise to me because the science does not seem to justify it, not yet. We simply don’t know that a single gene like MAOA causes specific behaviors, even in very specific gene-environment interactions. It is a bad decision but a telling one: as the science of behavioral genetics advances, at some point the courts will find it impossible ignore. (To learn more, a great scholarly article by law professor Owen D. Jones is here.)

For now, though, the idea of a “murder gene” is the stuff of novels, not science. My own next novel takes up this very issue. It involves a man named Andy Barber, who descends from a long line of violent men and whose teenage son Jacob is accused of murdering a classmate. Jacob, it turns out, also carries the MAOA gene variant — sometimes called the “warrior gene.” Preparing for his son’s murder trial, Andy says,

The legal question we discussed most … was the relevance of Jacob’s violent bloodline. We referred to this issue as the “murder gene” to express our contempt for the idea, for its backwardness, for the way it warped the real science of DNA and the genetic component of behavior, and overlaid it with the junk science of sleazy lawyers, the cynical science-lite language whose actual purpose was to manipulate juries, to fool them with the sheen of scientific certainty. The murder gene was a lie. It was also a deeply subversive idea. It undercut the whole premise of the criminal law. In court, the thing we punish is the criminal intention — the mens rea, the guilty mind. There is an ancient rule: actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea — “the act does not create guilt unless the mind is also guilty.” This is why we do not convict children, drunks, and schizophrenics: they are incapable of deciding to commit their crimes, not with a true understanding of the significance of their actions. Free will is as important to the law as it is to religion or any other code of morality. We do not punish the leopard for its wildness. But that is the argument Logiudice [the prosecutor] would make if he had the chance: born bad. He would whisper it in the jury’s ear, like a gossip passing a secret. We were determined to stop him, to give Jacob a fair chance.

The murder gene may indeed be junk science, for now at least, but it is a haunting idea. We are quite comfortable with the idea that certain benign traits may inherited — musical talent, athleticism. Why not a talent for violence?

Image: Bryan Christie, “Pharmaceutical Brain”

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The issue is inequality, not total wealth

“On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. … This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence — murder, in particular — that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality — within a country, within states and even within cities.”

— A review in the Guardian of The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

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Life Magazine Photos of Boston’s Strangler Days

Rickerby - Boston Stranglings

A trove of remarkable photographs of Boston during the Strangler siege. The photos, which are eerie and beautiful, were taken by Arthur Rickerby for Life Magazine. View the whole collection here. Above: A woman wears a hatpin in her sleeve to defend herself against the Strangler, 1963. (Another here.)

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Angiulo, Barboza and fictionalizing the Boston Mob

The animating idea of The Strangler was to recreate Strangler-era Boston, to bring the lost city to life so convincingly that readers would have the immersive three-dimensional experience of actually being there, walking the streets, brushing shoulders with the people. Period authenticity was important: the original working title of the book was The Year of the Strangler.

Of course reanimating the actual city required that a few prominent Bostonians appear undisguised, or nearly so, including gangsters, cops, and politicians. In the original draft, these characters were accurately named and described. The mob boss Capobianco, for example, was called by his real name, Gennaro Angiulo. The historical Gerry Angiulo ran the Boston mob during my childhood in the 1970s. In 1963 and ’64, when The Strangler takes place, he was just consolidating his power.

Gennaro Angiulo, 1967

Gennaro Angiulo, 1967

On the eve of the book’s publication, I got a call from a lawyer at Random House asking about some of these historical figures, including Angiulo. “Is he still alive?” the lawyer wanted to know. Apparently libel laws are stricter when the subject is living. Angiulo was 87 years old then, but still alive in a federal prison. So his name had to be changed. To further insulate the book from a libel charge, Angiulo had to be mentioned by name in the book so we could plausibly deny that my character Capobianco was an Angiulo stand-in. After all, we could argue, there is Angiulo standing next to Capobianco — how could they be the same person? All this sensitivity about the man’s reputation seemed a little ridiculous to me. How was it possible to libel a murderer and convicted mafioso like Gerry Angiulo? But I did not insist, and shortly before publication the character was rechristened Charlie Capobianco. Still the facts remain: the novel’s description of a “born bookie” who became a mob boss — his physical appearance, his biography, his North End headquarters, his bookmaking operation — all are meticulously faithful to the life of Gerry Angiulo. (The libel issue is moot now. Gerry Angiulo died at the end of August, at age 90. His funeral procession required a flatbed truck to carry the 190 bouquets of flowers.)

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Biocriminology

“There’s certainly a brain basis to crime … the brains of violent criminals are physically and functionally different from the rest of us.”
— Adrian Raine

A burgeoning science suggests that crime is caused in part by biological factors, that is, by traits inherited through DNA or by the brain malfunctioning in very specific ways. Adrian Raine, a “neurocriminologist” and chair of the criminology department at the University of Pennsylvania, says,

“Seventy-five percent of us have had homicidal thoughts. What stops most of us from acting out these feelings is the prefrontal cortex…. When the prefrontal cortex is not functioning too well, maybe an individual, when angry, is more likely to pick up a knife and stab someone or pick up a gun.”

Some criminals, it seems, are biologically different from us.

“People who are psychopaths or who have antisocial personality disorder are literally cold-blooded. They have lower heart rates.  When they’re stressed, they don’t sweat as much as the rest of us. They don’t have this anticipatory fear that the rest of us have.”

Obviously I am not qualified to judge the science. But if it is true, as seems increasingly likely, that “freedom of will is not as free as you think,” as Professor Raine puts it, that fact would undercut the entire philosophy of our criminal law, which is that we punish the guilty mind, the mens rea — the conscious, purposeful decision to commit a crime. Where the defendant’s free will or judgment is compromised, because he is drunk or insane or a child, for example, generally the law attaches a lesser degree of culpability, sometimes no culpability at all (the proper finding for an insane defendant is “not guilty by reason of insanity,” not “guilty but insane”).

My third novel, to be published in February 2012, turns on just these sorts of questions. The story involves a father whose teenage son is accused of a murder, a crime that may have been triggered by the boy’s genetic inheritance — a “murder gene.” How should we think of such a criminal? It is not simply a question about crime or criminal law. It is the fundamental subject of crime novels, it is the reason we read them, to ask: What does crime tell us about ourselves and our nature? Modern neuroscience and genetics are beginning to provide answers Dostoyevsky could never have imagined.

Here is Professor Raine on the legal and ethical implications of neurocriminology:

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Why the Strangler?

A reader suggests that I use this blog to share a little about how my books develop from initial concept to final draft. I’ll try, but readers should understand that a strange sort of apathy descends as soon as a project is finished. When I am writing, I am obsessed with the book being drafted, absolutely submerged in it. Robert Penn Warren once likened this feeling to having a new baby: you want to check on it constantly, feed it, pat it on the head. But the moment the book is finished, I lose all interest. (Do all novelists feel this way? Any writers out there?) Already, my last book seems a distant memory — which often comes as a surprise to new readers, whose experience of the book is necessarily fresher and more vivid than my own. With that said, here is something I wrote a couple of years ago, when my novel The Strangler was first published, about what drew me to the case and to Boston during the Strangler days and why I thought there might be a novel in it.

Years ago, back when I was a prosecutor, I first heard a rumor that Albert DeSalvo might not actually have been the Boston Strangler. At the time, no one outside law enforcement (and precious few inside it) took the suggestion seriously. The campaign to reopen the Strangler investigation rarely made the news, and when it did, the stories often had a smart-alecky tone — as if we all knew better, and only a crank would really believe it.

To my mother’s generation, who were young adults when the case broke, the idea was plainly ridiculous. After all, they’d lived through it. They’d felt besieged during the murder spree and relieved afterward. Then they’d read Gerold Frank’s best-selling book, and even watched Tony Curtis play DeSalvo as a mincing, menacing Boston Strangler in the movie. Now, twenty or thirty years later, DeSalvo was innocent?

As readers of my novel will know, I don’t delve too deeply into the DeSalvo case, let alone pretend to solve it. Like a lot of historical novels that ask “what if?” (Robert Harris’s Fatherland, for example), I simply take it as a jumping-off point for the story: What if DeSalvo really was the wrong man?

What fascinated me about the idea was not the case itself but what it suggested about this city. In Chinatown, screenwriter Robert Towne fictionalized an actual historical scandal involving real estate and the water supply in Los Angeles. In that scandal, Towne obviously saw something emblematic, something revealing about L.A. The Strangler story gave me a comparable shiver of recognition. It seemed to suggest all sorts of things about Boston — at least about Boston in those years when the city was evolving into its current incarnation. My city, too, had a secret history.

But what did the Strangler case say about this place, exactly? That it was brutal? Corrupt? Close-mouthed? Why did the Strangler controversy seem to me a quintessentially Boston story? I don’t have definitive answers, even now, having long finished writing the book. The signature Boston crime stories of my day (I am 43) [ed: 45 now] often involve secrecy and corruption — rot — in the city’s most trusted, impenetrable institutions: the Catholic church in the case of pedophile priests, the FBI in the Whitey Bulger case. From a distance, the DeSalvo case certainly looks like a close cousin to these — another sinister secret deal, another conspiracy of silence. True Boston.

Or is it? You’ll have to decide for yourself. I don’t pretend to know. I think of novel-writing as a way to explore the world, not to pontificate about it. It is a mistake to assume novelists are intellectuals, or reporters bringing the news (about Boston, about DeSalvo, about crime, about anything). We are just storytellers. And the storyteller’s job is to follow his vision, to bring it to life. Whether there is any truth in what he sees … well, that’s up to the audience — you.

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The economics of dealing crack

At TED in 2004, Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist and co-author of Freakonomics, analyzes the economics of the street-corner crack trade. Contrary to popular belief, the “corner boys” make less than minimum wage — for a job with a higher mortality rate than death row.

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