Summer of Sam? Fuggedaboudit. If you want to scare a New Yorker of a certain age, evoke the Mad Bomber, the subject of this taut true-crime whodunit.
George Metesky, as former New York Times editor Cannell (The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, 2011, etc.) writes, was known for a span of two decades only as the Mad Bomber. Injured in a boiler explosion at a power plant and denied workers’ compensation on tedious but technical grounds, Metesky came to harbor a maniacal grudge against Consolidated Edison. From 1940 to 1956, he planted more than 30 pipe bombs around New York, which, as Cannell shrewdly notes, “brought into being a culture of fear more than four decades before terrorism became an American fixation.” But that culture of fear was just one result. As the author documents, the NYPD’s quest to find the serial bomber introduced a couple of modernizations, supplanting at least some of the police culture of the corrupt, thuggish precinct cops of yore with a cadre of college-trained technicians, their avatar a lab scientist named Howard Finney, who had three graduate degrees and wartime service in military intelligence and who could read a crime scene from the tiniest of clues. Pair such technicians with psychiatrists, and you have the recipe for what Cannell calls a “new breed of cop” and, indeed, a new era of policing. This new culture also took pains to involve the community in looking for clues, with sometimes bizarre results. As the author writes, one informant urged that a certain kind of person be rounded up (“check brown-eyed people, they’re no good”), while psychics and psychotics alike volunteered their services. In the end, catching Metesky involved the labors of many, from beat cops to techies, and the story holds its tension from start to finish through all those twists and turns.
A fascinating study not just of a historical crime and its consequences, but also its unintended effects.