#28: The Devil’s Gentleman, by Harold Schechter

Begun: 4/02/2011
Finished: 4/11/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4/5

It is sometimes interesting to read two similar books at one time.  I’ve been doing that for a week or so, although the other book is my lunchtime reading so I’m making far slower progress on it.  Both are true-crime books about murders that took place in the last few years of the 19th century.  This one is about Roland Molineux, who lent his name to an often-cited legal statute familiar to viewers of Law & Order (it has to do with the inadmissability of prior bad acts that aren’t part of the indictment before the court) and was tried in 1899 for several poisonings.  The other is The Killer of Little Shepherds, which is about the notorious  French serial killer Vacher, who was killing at almost the exact same time in the French countryside.  That book is about the birth of modern forensic science, but this one is more about society’s reaction to sensationalized criminality.  In essence, it’s about the birth of tabloid journalism and the genesis of what we now accept as the standard conflation of news, information and entertainment.  Schechter asserts that this was the real beginning of the twentieth century, and after reading the book, I find myself agreeing.

Schecter is a well-known writer to aficionados of true crime, and he’s taken his game up a peg with this well-researched and well-written history.  He has a knack of giving a great deal of interest to the biographical details of the key players, building up the crime itself, and setting the stage of the events of the time.  He doesn’t lapse into New Journalism Capote-esque fictionalization, nor does he do much editorializing.  In fact Molineux’s guilt or innocence is never clearly established, and Schechter doesn’t take a position.  The book was very interesting, especially to watch the interplay between the press, the popular opinion, and the actual investigators.  Molineux’s father was a venerated Civil War hero.  His wife was an ambitious socialite.  The world of journalism was changing with both Pulitzer and Hearst’s papers trying to out-yellow each other with sensationalist reporting.  The whole thing was hopelessly partial and ridiculously biased.  Say what you will about our legal system, at least it’s no longer acceptable to use blanket insinuations about men who are possibly gay killing in a “women’s fashion” like poison to bolster one’s defense strategy.

A very accessible and interesting book and a good start for newbies of true crime who don’t want to delve right into the most gruesome books about serial killers. And the book is just as much of interest to those interested in journalism history or legal history.

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