Buffalo News crime reporter Gryta (The Real Teflon Don, 2012) presents an exhaustive history of the .22 Caliber Killer, who, for four months in 1980, terrorized the city of Buffalo, New York, with a racially motivated killing spree.
After the death of his father, Joseph Christopher snapped. The 25-year-old high school dropout sawed off the end of his father’s rifle, walked to a supermarket parking lot and shot a teenager in the head. It was the first of 17 assaults, most of them deadly and all against African-American men. As Christopher’s attacks became crueler—he cut out the hearts of two cab drivers and later strangled the first black patient he could find at a hospital—racial tensions in western New York began to boil. Gryta, who covered these murders as a reporter, demonstrates a great fidelity to the facts. His account never approaches melodrama, nor does he wantonly psychoanalyze those involved. Instead, he allows readers to draw their own conclusions about Christopher’s sanity and motivations. That said, the book could have benefited from a little more color at times; it often reads like a protracted history textbook, albeit a lurid one. The author chronicles every legal appeal and the many battles over Christopher’s psychological evaluations in meticulous, beat-by-beat detail, but readers may be left wanting juicier information, such as Christopher’s exact movements during a 14-hour span in which he shot two men. Later, Gryta writes at length about how a special investigative team was constructed, yet he shies away from detailing the members’ individual personalities. As a result, there are no heroes for readers to root for. The book’s best section is a conversation between Christopher and a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Russell W. Barton, which retells the murder spree from Christopher’s point of view, making it newly terrifying. In a bid to get ruled insane, Christopher tells Barton that the devil told him to kill and that he was at war with his victims. It’s a riveting sequence, and more of such action, rather than exposition, would have made this book a more forceful read.
A portrait of a fascinating case that gets bogged down in its details.