Readers will sentence investigative journalist Norton's (Perfect Victim, not reviewed) dull true-crime tale to life on the shelf, without parole. Norton gives 1993's Sacramento, Calif., ``Arsenic and Old Lace'' murder trial a thorough if somewhat stuffy and obvious once- over. The case involved 60-ish Dorothea Puente, a pathological liar who bilked aging loners out of their entitlements and then killed and buried them under the well-manicured lawn of her illegal boarding house. Puente, who at various times had passed herself off as a qualified health care giver, took in Alvaro ``Bert'' Montoya, a mentally handicapped man. At first, Bert showed remarkable progress; he ceased to hear voices, and his grooming and appearance improved dramatically. However, when he later disappeared, a police search of Dorothea's home and grounds uncovered several corpses and her crimes were exposed. The strength of this book it that is offers an interesting study of how criminal trials are packaged for mass consumption, often without pause for reflection about the grief of the victim's survivors. Unfortunately, Norton herself repeatedly oversimplifies the proceedings while relying on manipulative character descriptions (``Dorothea, the white-haired granny'' or ``Bert, the loveable and trusting simpleton-turned- victim''). The arrest, the defendant's short lam to LA, subsequent capture, incarceration, and trial are covered in lavish detail; and no sight of a corpse, no sound of a saw buzzing through scalp and skull, or smell of a decomposing body escapes the author's bold gift for description. Yet one gets the feeling that Norton was granted a few substantial interviews with the peripheral characters, and even fewer with the central figures—a suspicion that is supported by footnotes throughout stating many figures' unwillingness to comment. Norton's often humorless style of reporting less visceral events is likely to have readers looking elsewhere in boredom, rather than looking away in horror.
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