Friday, April 3, 2009

Killer Books

by Caitlin Rother

I write about
murder cases day in and day out, and I’m often asked how I keep balance in my life. Readers and friends wonder how I sleep at night. Do I have nightmares? The answer is that I work very hard to relieve stress through exercise and other relaxation techniques—including watching romantic comedies and legal and medical dramas, although I can’t help but watch the occasional crime show as well. They seem to be on 24-7.

But the bottom line is that I am fascinated, not terrified, by these cases. I think many other people are, too, or true crime books wouldn’t sell, and we wouldn’t see so many of these TV shows. It’s just that most people don’t like to admit they like true crime, so they try to hide it as their dirty little secret.

Well, I admit it. It’s a matter of life and death, something we can all relate to, although, thankfully, few of us meet such a tragic end. I think we can all learn from these cases, many of which, as far as I can tell, seem to stem from bad parenting, abuse, and a lack of good role models. Drugs and alcohol often play a role as well.

I was a psychology major at UC Berkeley, and have always been curious to learn how murderers’ minds work. For the same reason I became an investigative reporter, I also love following along as I watch the details of a murder investigation unfold. I’m curious to learn how the killers carried out their plans and how they tripped up so that the investigating detectives could catch them. Watching a good detective at work can be educational as well.

My heart always goes out to the victims and their families, and often, to the killer’s family as well. They’re all losing a loved one, either to death or to prison. So, it’s not that I lack sympathy or empathy—by nature, I’m quite the opposite. But to do this job and to do it well, I have to compartmentalize and neutralize in my mind the actual details of the killing and what the victims must have felt in their last hours, just as any prosecutor, defense attorney, or police officer must have to. That is, until I put it on the page.

Until then, I focus on investigating the back story of the killers, trying to determine what, if anything, happened in their childhood and what in their genetic makeup may have contributed to this violent behavior. That’s because my ultimate goal with these books is to answer the primary question that I believe readers have, the reason they read these books in the first place: What made them commit such a horrible act?

Answering that turns me into an investigator in my own right, so it’s all circular.

Often, the biggest challenge to me is how best to reveal the story behind each case to readers, slowly and in great detail, building suspense and educating them about our justice system and the complex human condition along the way. I do this by using fiction techniques to write non-fiction, an approach I first learned when I worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune. Gradually, as my editors kept wanting shorter and shorter stories, I turned to books so that I could continue to grow as a writer and as a journalist.

So, here I am today, doing it full-time and teaching my students at the University of California San Diego Extension how much fun it is.

For those of you who are interested, here’s a quick run-down of my books:

My first was
Poisoned Love, the true story of the Kristin Rossum murder case, now in its sixth printing and the subject of at least five TV documentary crime shows. Rossum was a pretty toxicologist for the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, who was having three relationships: one with her husband, one with her married boss, and one with methamphetamine, which ultimately won out. High on meth, Rossum poisoned her husband with a lethal dose of fentanyl, an extremely potent narcotic painkiller that she stole from work. She then sprinkled red rose petals over his body and claimed that he committed suicide because he was depressed that she was leaving him.

Naked Addiction, a thriller about sex, drugs and murder set into San Diego beach communities, was my second book. Police detective Ken Goode investigates a series of murders of young beauty school students while faced with his own demons, a troubled but flirtatious witness, and a sister who goes missing. The publishing world isn't easy to break into—it took me 17 years to get this novel published.

Twisted Triangle, released in trade paperback in April, gives a whole new meaning to the term “good cop—bad cop.” This book provides a crazy but factual account of a kidnapping, attempted murder, and lesbian love triangle involving two married FBI agents—Margo and Gene Bennett—and a famous novelist, Patricia Cornwell.

My latest book, Body Parts, takes a psychological look at the life of serial killer Wayne Adam Ford, who killed four women, dismembered two of them, then did the rare deed of turning himself in to authorities to keep from killing again. He also confessed to detectives for several days straight without an attorney, helping to identify his victims.

Where Hope Begins, which I co-authored with TV reporter Alysia Sofios, will be released in September. Sofios risked her entire career by helping several surviving female members of the Marcus Wesson family to recover from a cult-like life of polygamy, incest, abuse, and the murder of nine children. Wesson is on Death Row along with Ford.

I’m currently working on my fifth nonfiction book, about the murder of Jackie and Tom Jackie Hawks, who were tied to an anchor and thrown over the side of their yacht off Newport Beach by a clan of outlaws led by Jennifer and Skylar Deleon.

To learn more about me and my books, or to contact me directly with questions or comments, please check my Web site.

Caitlin Rother is the author of four books and has just finished co-authoring her fifth. A Pulitzer Prize nominee, Rother worked for nearly two decades as an investigative reporter for daily newspapers, and has made numerous TV and radio appearances. She speaks to professional groups and teaches journalism and creative writing.


FleaStiff said...

Been meaning to read that Twisted Triangle for a long time. Thanks for yet another reminder!

>"my ultimate goal ... What made them commit such a horrible act?
Well, "horrible" is a matter of values. Sending that retired couple over the side and stealing the yacht was poorly executed. The perpetrators should certainly have gone to a loan shark and obtained some capital to swing the deal so that they could return to port and look and act like yachtsmen. The power of attorney and bank account stuff was just sheer stupidity but the crime itself is a better choice than leaving corpses where they can be found or doing something where there is a surveillance camera. Stealing a yacht is more profitable and easier than stealing a car. The problem may be that you have moral issues with the couple being drowned without even being knocked out first but not everyone shares the same set of values. The Apaches had fairly high codes of moral conduct, but still tortured their victims. If the so-called child actor had perpetrated the yacht theft in a more intelligent manner, there would be no uproar, no evidence, no leads. Was it bad luck or low intelligence or inexperience? I don't know, but I don't think you should assume there is some sort of universal moral code against piracy. This nation has had a grand tradition of a general acceptance of pirates and piracy. Its only comparatively recently that we've frowned on such things.

Caitlin Rother said...

Hi FleaStiff,

Glad to hear you're in the market for Twisted Triangle. The paperback comes out in the next couple of weeks...

As for the piracy issue, I personally frown on murder, regardless of what method -- by land or by sea -- someone chooses to commit it. I can also think of far less horrible ways to be killed than being tasered, blindfolded, gagged, tied to an anchor and drowned.