Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Crime Clutter

by Kathryn Casey

Ever wonder what a crime writer keeps in her office? Awhile back, I spent the day going through piles of books and stacks of files, trying to whittle down. My husband constructed four sturdy wire shelves in my office closet – a converted bedroom – and I was determined to stow what I need and get rid of the clutter covering every possible surface, including the upright piano I had to have and still don’t know how to play. (It is a great place for stacking books though. The keyboard is just the right width. And maybe someday, if I retire…)

Anyway, all went well until I dug into the wire mesh office organizer I bought at The Container Store about 12 years ago. The theory at the time was that this would help clear up the debris by allowing me to categorize everything in hanging folders. Instead, it’s beneath three feet of newspaper clippings. At one point or another, it seems, I thought knowing about Stonehenge, jet propulsion and tooth bacteria would all help me write mysteries and true crime. Don’t ask. I haven’t the foggiest.

Those were quick throw-outs.

The harder articles to part with are those that offer intriguing theories. For instance, there’s an August 2, 2002 Chicago Tribune article by Ronald Kotulak with the headline: “Scientists ID gene linked to violence.” (A later study at Florida State labeled it the Warrior Gene and linked it to gang membership.) The Chicago Tribune article quoted a report published in the journal Science citing evidence that both genetic and environmental factors influence human behavior. We already suspected this, right? It’s that old thing about how our urges or tendencies are hard-wired, but we may or may not act on them depending on whether or not experience flips the switch, like the serial killer who’s abused as a child. (Of course, then how do we explain serial killers who aren’t abused as children?)

My question: If they found this d**n gene in 2002, why haven’t they found a way to fix it and rewired all of the monsters for us?

Then there's the April, 22, 2007 article "Study of brain may show link to violent acts," by Houston Chronicle reporter Todd Ackerman. Charles Whitman (photo right), the University of Texas UT Tower sniper, had a brain tumor, and, according to the article, Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, showed evidence of a brain-abnormality-induced psychosis. The theory is that when the frontal lobe is damaged it can disconnect the part of the brain that censors impulses. A March 2007 study published in Nature suggests that injuries and abnormalities behind the forehead, two inches into the brain, affect moral judgment in life or death situations, and that those who suffer this type of injury can be more inclined to kill or harm one person to save the life of another. One Houston doc, Pamela Blake, a Memorial Hermann neurologist, released a study in 2004 of Death Row inmates that concluded 40 percent had a frontal lobe injury or impairment. Hmmm. Makes you think, doesn't it? I've got to admit, however, that whenever theories like these pop up I recall the double Y chromosome theory.

You know the one: about four decades ago they tested a sample of the male prison population and found a percentage with an extra Y chromosome, XYY instead of XY. It was suspected at the time that the extra male chromosome increased testosterone levels and made these men more prone to violence, landing them in the slammer. The theory fell apart when other studies discovered XYYers have normal testosterone levels and that men in the general population have approximately the same instance of the XYY pattern. Ah, well.

Okay, back to my stash of articles going into the to-be-kept file.

This final article I couldn’t throw out simply because of the title: “Local ‘Polka King’ goes missing.” The Polka King is 48-year-old Bobby Jones, who was last seen on the night of June 22, 2007. He didn’t show up in El Campo, Texas, for a radio station emcee gig. He’d been acting unusually sad and, according to the article, no foul play was suspected, so maybe there’s no crime to write about. A while later, his car's license plate was found in the Colorado River. But the guy left his accordion behind. Would a Polka King do that? Sounds fishy to me

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