The headquarters of the Vidocq Society were housed in a Victorian brownstone in Philadelphia. I know this because author Michael Capuzzo reminds the reader at least four times throughout the 426 pages of The Murder Room, so he must think it’s pretty significant. This is a minor complaint about a book that is rife with problems.
I picked this book up with high hopes, drawn in by what I think is a fascinating subject. The Murder Room is a work of non-fiction about a real-life investigative society made up of former police officers, FBI agents, and profilers, who gather monthly to study, advise upon, and often solve cold-case murders. It’s got murder, psychopaths, justice, and detectives to rival the creations of Poe and Conan Doyle. Can you blame me for having high hopes? The disappointment was shattering.
So where did this book go wrong? First of all, the writing is filled with the most overbearing prose of the “It was a dark and stormy night” variety. Here’s an example that I found flipping through the book at random: “The mansion in the remote Pennsylvania Appalachians was filled with the gloaming of twilight, except for the lamp in the parlor where the thin man lounged on an eighteenth-century Italian divan, a king Kool perched in two fingers haughtily aloft.” This is a published work of non-fiction, mind you, not a creative writing student’s attempt to sound like Mickey Spillane. The “thin man” mentioned is Richard Walter, who along with Frank Bender and William Fleisher comprise the founding members of the Vidocq Society. Capuzzo likes to point out that Walter is thin and smokes Kools almost as much as he likes to talk about Victorian brownstones.
While we are on the subject of writing, the dialogue in this book is fairly unbelievable, which I would venture is even more of a problem in non-fiction than it is in fiction. Richard Walter, when he’s not being thin and smoking Kools, likes to say “my dear boy” quite often. Really? A grown man talks like this? I didn’t believe it when Professor Quirrell said it to Harry Potter, and I’m certainly not going to believe it when a hardened profiler says it to a criminal or to a colleague. But, okay, maybe he really does talk like that, in which case it’s not the author’s fault. But as the author, he needs to make it sound plausible, if only by nodding to the reader on the side (“Reader, can you believe a grown man actually talks like this?”).
The next problem is this book has no real focus. I can’t tell you if this book is supposed to be about the formation of the Society, the relationships between the individuals involved, or the actual murders. The author tries to make it about all of those things, with the result that the story is all over the place. Personally, I wanted to read about the cold cases and how they were solved, so every time I had to endure another description of Frank Bender’s mistresses and the unique agreement he has with his wife over them, I rolled my eyes and plowed through to the next chapter.
In the end, what we have here is an author that doesn’t believe enough in his subject matter to tell the story in a straight-forward, factual way, something I would want if he were describing the brutal murder of someone I knew. This could have been an interesting book had it gone through a heavy edit and major reorganization. It reads like the publisher went to print with the first draft, which is unfortunate. If you are really interested in cold case murders, The Murder Room does contain some interesting stories, and it might be enough to hold your interest. Just know that you have to slog through pages upon pages of purple prose to get to the real subject matter.