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

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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

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Smart hopes that sharing her story might help heal the scars of others, though the book is focused on what she suffered...


The inspirational and ultimately redemptive story of a teenage girl’s descent into hell, framed as a parable of faith.

The disappearance of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002 made national headlines, turning an entire country into a search party; it seemed like something of a miracle when she reappeared, rescued almost by happenstance, nine months later. As the author suggests, it was something of a mystery that her ordeal lasted that long, since there were many times when she was close to being discovered. Her captors, a self-proclaimed religious prophet whose sacraments included alcohol, pornography and promiscuous sex, and his wife and accomplice, jealous of this “second wife” he had taken, weren’t exactly criminal masterminds. In fact, his master plan was for similar kidnappings to give him seven wives in all, though Elizabeth’s abduction was the only successful one. She didn’t write her account for another nine years, at which point she had a more mature perspective on the ordeal, and with what one suspects was considerable assistance from co-author Stewart, who helps frame her story and fill in some gaps. Though the account thankfully spares readers the graphic details, Smart tells of the abuse and degradation she suffered, of the fear for her family’s safety that kept her from escaping and of the faith that fueled her determination to survive. “Anyone who suggests that I became a victim of Stockholm syndrome by developing any feelings of sympathy for my captors simply has no idea what was going on inside my head,” she writes. “I never once—not for a single moment—developed a shred of affection or empathy for either of them….The only thing there ever was was fear.”

Smart hopes that sharing her story might help heal the scars of others, though the book is focused on what she suffered rather than how she recovered.

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-250-04015-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

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