Murder by the Book

| December 2, 2006

“I’ve explained my mother’s death to boost book sales and raise my media profile…this film is my last public statement on this matter.”
— James Ellroy, author (The Black Dahlia, My Dark Places, L.A. Confidential)
Bestselling noir author James Ellroy’s testimonial concerning his mother’s murder provides an apt launching point for Court TV’s latest program, Murder by the Book. The network, increasingly focused on the more salaciously marketable aspects of American justice since being purchased by Turner Broadcasting System, has added heft with a new twist to their latest true crime program.
Using renowned crime fiction authors Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman and Lisa Scottoline, Murder by the Book uses an individual author to introduce and guide the viewer through a specific murder case that has influenced their work and touched them personally.
Each episode is structured with the writer serving as host and narrator for an hour-long segment using the traditional programmatic montage of interview clips from the involved parties-mostly law enforcement types-and ‘recreated sequences’ of the crime with actors to relate the facts of the case.
The debut episode with James Ellroy must have been startling for those sheltered souls who have never read My Dark Places, about his latter day quest for his mother’s murderer, or observed him speak at a book signing. The uncensored Ellroy in person can be an evolutionary experience. Even though I knew the story quite well, Ellroy reeled me in again.
Jean Ellroy was strangled to death and dumped in an El Monte, California vacant lot in 1958. Her son remained latently haunted by her death. Ellroy’s rise to prominence as a crime fiction author occurred after first blazing a trail of scorched earth through youthful, wayward obsessions including Jack Webb, window peeping, alcoholism, boxing, and Benzedrine inhalers. In 1994, Ellroy enlisted the assistance of a retired L.A. sheriff’s homicide investigator in 1994 and reopened his own investigation of his mother’s unsolved murder.
Although the dogged pursuit of a thirty-six year old murder case with no witnesses is reasonably compelling, the episode has the additional virtue of providing an up-close and personal look at James Ellroy. The view may not be construed as wholesome or even interesting entertainment by all viewers. How many other bestselling writers will dispassionately discuss how they were sexually attracted to their mother and reenact smelling her dress retrieved from a decades old evidence box? The program, mostly narrated in the writer’s karate-chop monotone, provides a fascinating insight on what it is like to be James Ellroy. Time will tell whether Ellroy will actually let the memory of this most personal of murder cases finally take its eternal rest.
While Ellroy might held back little about a story that couldn’t have been more his own, Michael Connelly was relatively taciturn while letting the story of his murder case lead the second program. Connelly, another denizen of L.A.’s noir-stained streets, worked the crime beat for the L.A. Times before becoming the hugely successful author of eighteen crime fiction books and creator of world-weary Detective Harry Bosch.
Christopher Wilder, whose 1984 cross-country trail of mass murder and sexual sadism shocked the nation, made a compelling segment. Wilder was a depraved serial killer whose unslaked blood lust finally ended with his suicide during a final showdown with police in a New Hampshire gas station. Connelly, who covered the story when in Florida, remarked during a candid moment that Wilder’s spree of homicide provided him with continual grist for his fictional mill of killers and miscreants. The story was authentically and compelling. While these programs are clearly for adults, this particular episode that went into minute details about what Wilder did to his female victims with pliers and fire was particularly grisly.
What really struck me about this tale was the apparent impotence of the F.B.I. who inexplicably waited and then waited some more until more bodies of young girls kept appearing before going full tilt in the media to publicly identify Wilder. I found the rationale of the law enforcement officials who were interviewed explaining why they delayed going public about Wilder to be criminally inadequate.
Murder by the Book is a novel approach to a programmatic genre that has received endless television exposure and seemed to be getting played out. Court TV has made it worth a closer look.

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