Wambaugh at his most waspishly funny, on the unlikely subjects of a murdered Pennsylvania family of three, a double murder, some flimflamming Sears robberies, a $750,000 life-insurance seam, shoplifting—and a generally impotent Don Juan sworn to chastity. The Main Line Murder Case began in early summer 1979 and was carried forward by a team of police investigators who worked on it and it alone until early summer 1986—the longest single investigation in the history of American law enforcement. The case lasted so long that Sergeant Joseph VanNort of the Pennsylvania State Police, who masterminded it, died midway through. The mordant hilarity arises at the plot's boxes within boxes within a labyrinth and at the stunning illogicality of people whose minds spring from "an eggbeater held together with Krazy glue." One point of entry to the staggering story is the disintegration of Jay C. Smith and his family. Smith, an Army Reserve colonel with 27 years service, was also principal of Upper Merion Senior High and known among the faculty as the Prince of Darkness. He had fabulously repulsive eyes, containing layer upon layer of depravity, and as the case broadens, he earns every shiver of the reader's full-blown distaste. The despised Smith, some thought, "looked like an obscene phone call." Chemically dependent on something, he loved to switch on the school intercom and wooze out a fogbound fireside chat that might take up two class periods. His druggy daughter accused him of chemically inciting his wife's extremely rapid cancer. Then the daughter and her husband disappeared—maybe into Daddy's acid bath of his trash bags—and have not been seen since. Meanwhile, William Bradfield, an amorous English teacher with a crush on Ezra Pound, had so many women in his life, all of whom he balanced against each other, that his only way out seemed to be to murder one of them for profit. Aided by a miserable crew who revered him as a magnetic polymath, he enlisted Jay Smith as his major accomplice and together they murdered one mistress and her two kids—Bradfield was sole beneficiary of her gigantic insurance policy. Much of the actual dirty deeds are still hidden in mist, with no confessions and four bodies still unrecovered. Wambaugh charges ahead masterfully at 90 miles an hour and even manages to trim the lengthy trial proceedings to a lively pace.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 1986

ISBN: 0553269321

Page Count: 405

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1986

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


"There's got to be something wrong with somebody who'd do a thing like that." This is Perry Edward Smith, talking about himself. "Deal me out, baby...I'm a normal." This is Richard Eugene Hickock, talking about himself. They're as sick a pair as Leopold and Loeb and together they killed a mother, a father, a pretty 17-year-old and her brother, none of whom they'd seen before, in cold blood. A couple of days before they had bought a 100 foot rope to garrote them—enough for ten people if necessary. This small pogrom took place in Holcomb, Kansas, a lonesome town on a flat, limitless landscape: a depot, a store, a cafe, two filling stations, 270 inhabitants. The natives refer to it as "out there." It occurred in 1959 and Capote has spent five years, almost all of the time which has since elapsed, in following up this crime which made no sense, had no motive, left few clues—just a footprint and a remembered conversation. Capote's alternating dossier Shifts from the victims, the Clutter family, to the boy who had loved Nancy Clutter, and her best friend, to the neighbors, and to the recently paroled perpetrators: Perry, with a stunted child's legs and a changeling's face, and Dick, who had one squinting eye but a "smile that works." They had been cellmates at the Kansas State Penitentiary where another prisoner had told them about the Clutters—he'd hired out once on Mr. Clutter's farm and thought that Mr. Clutter was perhaps rich. And this is the lead which finally broke the case after Perry and Dick had drifted down to Mexico, back to the midwest, been seen in Kansas City, and were finally picked up in Las Vegas. The last, even more terrible chapters, deal with their confessions, the law man who wanted to see them hanged, back to back, the trial begun in 1960, the post-ponements of the execution, and finally the walk to "The Corner" and Perry's soft-spoken words—"It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize." It's a magnificent job—this American tragedy—with the incomparable Capote touches throughout. There may never have been a perfect crime, but if there ever has been a perfect reconstruction of one, surely this must be it.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 1965

ISBN: 0375507906

Page Count: 343

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1965

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

At times slow-going, but the riveting period detail and dramatic flair eventually render this tale an animated history...


A murder that transfixed the world and the invention that made possible the chase for its perpetrator combine in this fitfully thrilling real-life mystery.

Using the same formula that propelled Devil in the White City (2003), Larson pairs the story of a groundbreaking advance with a pulpy murder drama to limn the sociological particulars of its pre-WWI setting. While White City featured the Chicago World’s Fair and America’s first serial killer, this combines the fascinating case of Dr. Hawley Crippen with the much less gripping tale of Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of radio. (Larson draws out the twin narratives for a long while before showing how they intersect.) Undeniably brilliant, Marconi came to fame at a young age, during a time when scientific discoveries held mass appeal and were demonstrated before awed crowds with circus-like theatricality. Marconi’s radio sets, with their accompanying explosions of light and noise, were tailor-made for such showcases. By the early-20th century, however, the Italian was fighting with rival wireless companies to maintain his competitive edge. The event that would bring his invention back into the limelight was the first great crime story of the century. A mild-mannered doctor from Michigan who had married a tempestuously demanding actress and moved to London, Crippen became the eye of a media storm in 1910 when, after his wife’s “disappearance” (he had buried her body in the basement), he set off with a younger woman on an ocean-liner bound for America. The ship’s captain, who soon discerned the couple’s identity, updated Scotland Yard (and the world) on the ship’s progress—by wireless. The chase that ends this story makes up for some tedious early stretches regarding Marconi’s business struggles.

At times slow-going, but the riveting period detail and dramatic flair eventually render this tale an animated history lesson.

Pub Date: Oct. 24, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-8066-5

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2006

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet