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Nowadays, encountering news stories about sexual crimes is a daily occurrence. But in the late 1970s, when the FBI noticed a marked uptick in reported sexual violence, such crimes were considered a strange new trend, which the agency decided they should address by educating all their agents.

However, as Ann Wolbert Burgess explains in her captivating and chilling A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind, there was a major roadblock to the FBI’s mission. “None of the agents had the background or expertise to speak about issues of sexual assault, rape, sexual homicide, or victimology,” Burgess writes.

That’s where she came in. For several years, Burgess—a forensic and psychiatric nurse with a doctorate in nursing science, et al.—had worked on a major study of what was called “rape trauma syndrome.” When Roy Hazelwood, a new agent in the FBI’s nascent serial killer-focused Behavioral Science Unit, caught wind of her work, he asked her to share her methods for analyzing and finding predictive patterns among sexually violent crimes.

Burgess sees her ability to “ground an infinitely complex human trauma into quantifiable data and research” as a hallmark of her work, and she taught FBI agents how to apply her methods in order to establish a reliable foundation for their investigations. For starters, standardized questions for all suspects are key, as well as analyses of perpetrators’ childhood experiences and similarities across crime scenes.

Although the BSU toiled in underground offices without a dedicated staff or budget at first, as the unit employed Burgess’ methods, their successes grew. Delving into the minds of everyone from Son of Sam to the BTK strangler, they solved dozens of cases, eventually garnering press coverage—and subsequent respect via above-ground digs. Their work also sparked the popular fascination with profiling borne out in a seemingly never-ending stream of books, movies, TV shows and podcasts. In fact, Burgess inspired a character in the popular “Mindhunter” Netflix show, which is based on a book by her FBI colleague John Douglas.

With A Killer by Design, Burgess takes center stage at last, offering important, fascinating new context and details about the history of crime-solving in America. It’s an inspiring and meaningful story, too, with its up-close look at people who have dedicated their careers to catching murderers and pushing for justice. As Burgess writes, “My decades studying serial killers weren’t for the game of cat and mouse, nor because I found these killers entertaining. . . . For me, it’s always been about the victims.”

When the FBI noticed a marked uptick in sexual violence in the 1970s, they called on Ann Wolbert Burgess to teach them how to profile—and catch—serial killers.

The history of science and medicine is full of people who have done horrific things—and the bestseller lists are equally full of proof that we’re fascinated by them. Are they simply bad apples? Or are there darker forces at work that turn scientists into monsters? Two new books examine these questions in very different ways.

In The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer, Dean Jobb dives into the life of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, aka the Lambeth Poisoner, who is believed to have killed at least 10 victims, including his own wife and the husband of one of his mistresses, in three different countries. Many of his victims were prostitutes or unmarried working-class women who sought abortions from the sympathetic Dr. Cream but received fatal doses of strychnine instead. Eventually he began stalking the music halls and bordellos of London in search of victims.

Cream was hardly a criminal genius. Tall with a distinctive squint and an equally distinguishing top hat, he had a bad habit of calling attention to his crimes. He nonetheless eluded Scotland Yard for months, primarily because of police indifference to the fate of “fallen women.” 

Raised in a wealthy but strict religious family, Cream seemed to be an archetypal Jekyll/Hyde character—Sunday School teacher and respected physician by day, poisoner by night. It would be easy to paint him as purely evil, but Jobb, a true crime reporter and teacher of creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, creates a nuanced portrait of Cream that’s much more chilling than Mr. Hyde. Yes, Cream was a remorseless killer, but he was also warped by Victorian hypocrisy, misogyny and classism—the same factors that allowed him to hide his crimes while hunting for more victims.

In The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science, Sam Kean takes a more systemic approach to examining why good doctors and scientists go bad. Kean looks at 12 case histories of people in these professions running off the rails: patients needlessly lobotomized, individuals and communities destroyed in the name of research, thousands of prisoners convicted on the basis of fraudulent forensic evidence and worse.

Sometimes the crime was committed by someone who just happened to be a scientist, such as a Harvard anatomist who found a grisly but scientifically sound method of dealing with an annoying creditor. Others, like Thomas Edison, were indifferent to the pain of others in the quest for scientific glory and wealth. In many cases, the crime was the result of the scientist’s fanatical devotion to finding “truth,” no matter the cost. But the worst crimes included here weren’t even recognized as such at the time because society accepted them as normal, even moral. That was how Henry Smeathman, an 18th-century natural historian and abolitionist, became a trader of enslaved people to fund his expeditions.

Kean is a podcaster with a gift for making science understandable. His writing style is conversational and witty—but he never forgets the real human costs of these crimes. The more powerful science becomes, the more subject it is to abuse, he says. And yet, Kean remains optimistic about the potential of science and medicine to do good, if scientists and nonscientists alike take action. He argues that diverse voices, enforced standards and critical appraisal of scientific assumptions would make crimes like the ones in The Icepick Surgeon more detectable and preventable—and science more trustworthy.

Two nonfiction books delve into nefarious crimes committed in the name of science and medicine.

On July 24, 2014, while experiencing schizophrenic psychosis, 23-year-old Tim Granata murdered his beloved mother. Although Tim’s mental health had been declining for several years, the family’s worry was that Tim would take his own life, not harm others.

Soon afterward, an acquaintance wrote to Tim’s brother, Vince: “I hope you will eventually be able to find some peace and feel whole again, though that might be your life’s work.” Despite the enormity of the task, Vince Granata bravely and lovingly chronicles his family’s story—before, during and after the tragedy—in his riveting memoir, Everything Is Fine

Tim’s illness “began as a whisper” late in high school and during his first year of college, but it slowly took over his life. Repeated hospitalizations and therapy didn’t help, and he refused medication. Because of his background as a champion wrestler in high school, Tim lifted weights to try and calm the cacophony of his increasingly psychotic thoughts.

Granata shut down after his mother’s murder, unable to think of her without remembering her horrific death. Plagued by nightmares, he avoided sleep and turned to caffeine and alcohol. Still, he was wracked by magical thinking, wondering if he might have been able to save his mother had he been present instead of 1,000 miles away tutoring children in the Dominican Republic.

Granata writes with compassion, reflection and unsparing honesty of not only his brother’s metamorphosis but also his own transformation after the crime—how he was finally able to find his way back to his life, memories and love of his brother. Some of the book’s most memorable scenes take place during his visits with Tim in Connecticut’s Whiting Forensic Hospital, where Tim was sent to be “restored to competency” so that he could eventually be tried for his crime.

Anyone trying to better understand the cruel grip of psychosis will learn much from Everything Is Fine. As Granata concludes, “We can only conquer terror when we drag what scares us into the light. We only understand horror when we think about what we know, when we look at all the pieces.”

On July 24, 2014, Vince Granata’s 23-year-old brother, while experiencing schizophrenic psychosis, murdered their beloved mother.

At BookPage HQ, we look at books months before they’re published. So it’s always a delight when something we adored finally hits shelves, and everyone else falls just as head-over-heels in love with it as we did. Here are five recent blockbusters whose climbs up the charts made us cheer.


Mexican Gothic

I have long lamented the waning of the gothic novel. We as a society need more women running around crumbling hallways in giant ballgowns, gripping candelabras as they uncover hideous family secrets. Even if Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel doesn’t kick-start a whole new wave of romantically moody thrillers (though it certainly should), I’m delighted that its success catapulted its very deserving author onto the bestseller lists. Putting a unique and elegant stamp on a genre is Moreno-Garcia’s signature move. She’s written what she called a “fantasy of manners” with The Beautiful Ones and a Jazz Age coming-of-age novel that incorporated Mayan mythology in Gods of Jade and Shadow. So of course her gothic heroine isn’t a timid wallflower. Noemí Taboada is a headstrong and glamorous socialite whose foibles and inner demons make her as interesting as she is heroic. And the ending? Let’s just say it would blow Daphne du Maurier’s hair back. 

—Savanna, Associate Editor 


Just as I Am 

Perspective is a tricky thing to hold onto—the present moment with all its immediate concerns sure makes a lot of noise—but a thoughtful memoir of a long and well-lived life can help you find your center. Cicely Tyson’s autobiography came out earlier this year, two days before the author’s death, and quickly hit bestseller lists. It’s more than a recounting of Tyson’s life as a groundbreaking actor, producer and activist; it’s also an examination of how a person can use their gifts to make a difference and the mindset required to act on that goal. Co-written with Michelle Burford, a founding editor of O, The Oprah Magazine, the memoir is structured chronologically from Tyson’s childhood to later years, revealing how her rise as an actor led to a singular purpose: to use her art “as a force for good, as a place from which to display the full spectrum of our humanity.” Because, as she writes, art must “mirror the times and propel them forward.” 

—Cat, Deputy Editor


Catch and Kill 

The world has had more than its fair share of breaking news this past year, so it feels somewhat nostalgic to revisit newsworthy reporting from the bygone era of 2019. Ronan Farrow’s explosively investigated book Catch and Kill delivers on every one of its subtitle’s promises: “lies, spies and a conspiracy to protect predators.” As journalist Farrow began looking into decades of allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, ranging from verbal harassment to sexual abuse, his life began to get tricky. His employer, NBC, got more and more antsy about the story. He received a rash of threatening anonymous messages on Instagram. And through it all, he had the distinct feeling that he was being followed. This book’s pacing is breathless, the twists increasingly twisty. At times it reads like a spy thriller, except better—because by the end of this electric story, real women who have suffered in silence for years are finally heard, believed and vindicated. 

—Christy, Associate Editor 


The Poet X 

Once in a blue moon, a YA book earns universal critical acclaim and achieves great commercial success. The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel in verse, was one such book. It won just about every award that exists to honor YA literature, including the National Book Award and the Michael L. Printz Award, and spent more than 20 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. You’ll understand why as soon as you begin reading it. The story of Xiomara, a Dominican American teen who discovers the light of poetry burning within her and reckons with the forces in her life that would see it extinguished, will set your heart on fire. I especially recommend the audiobook for your first read, since Acevedo’s narration draws out the meter and musicality of her accessible, conversational verses. I’m usually wary of sweeping statements, but in this case, one is merited: The Poet X is a perfect book that everyone should read. 

—Stephanie, Associate Editor 


Beach Read 

I picked up Emily Henry’s Beach Read last spring, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no travel plans on the horizon, a vicarious getaway to the shores of Lake Michigan was appealing, and during what were repeatedly referred to as “uncertain times,” the anticipated beats of a rom-com sounded especially soothing. Why not read about two authors trying out each other’s genres to beat writer’s block, and reluctantly falling in love? Beach Read hit these marks and then surpassed them to become one of my favorite types of reading experiences: a diversion with depth. The screwball vibe and snappy dialogue I had been looking for are there on the page. But as Augustus and January slowly open up to one another, the lighter threads of the story are woven into an honest exploration of grief, trust and the healing power of art. It’s a connection-affirming, generous novel that deserves its status as a word-of-mouth bestseller. 

—Trisha, Publisher

Here are five recent blockbusters whose climbs up the charts made us cheer.

Tori Telfer reflects on the fine line between herself and the dazzling con artists she profiles in her raucous romp, Confident Women.


I spent most of 2019 perched on a stool in a coffee shop, “writing.” I was supposed to be writing a book about con women—con women in the court of Marie Antoinette and con women in Olympic-mad Beijing and con women who came down from Canada to wreak havoc on the tender hearts of Cleveland’s finest businessmen. But there were times when I clutched my almond croissant like a woman possessed and just sat there, staring into space, consumed by one burning question:

Have I ever been conned?

I had a mercenary reason for asking myself this question. I had been struggling with the introduction to my book, trying to cram every single thing there was to say about cons and women into a few punchy pages, and the resulting introduction read like a Google Drive document that was being edited by 10 people at once. I needed a better way in. I needed an anecdote—something to start the book off with a bang. And wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if the anecdote involved me being conned?

If I could just dredge up some suppressed memory about being cheated by a crook or swindled by a spiritualist, the introduction would practically write itself. Sure, I knew on an intellectual level that being conned was not something to wish for. The victims in my book were seriously damaged by their run-ins with con women. They were broke, despairing, ashamed, traumatized. Some of them were even dead. But I couldn’t help trawling through my memories anyway, searching for con artists at every turn, asking myself, Wait, was she a con artist? Was he?


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Tori Telfer’s Confident Women.


There was the roommate who lied to me about . . . well, everything. She told me, for example, that she’d been given the phone number of the lead singer from Dashboard Confessional while sunbathing on an abandoned beach.

There was the man who convinced me that he needed money for a tow truck to come and get his broken-down truck. He sat with me on the curb, chatting about his tattoos, as my boyfriend took $40 out of an ATM behind us. We were entirely convinced that he was going to come back in the morning and repay us. He was even in costume as a construction worker. It was as though we had attended a piece of interactive theater, not a petty fleecing.

And then there was the time I chatted with a known con artist on Facebook Messenger. I had been researching her cons but ultimately decided not to include her in my book after our interaction. She told me that Roman Polanski wanted to make a movie about her life. I decided to leave her story up to him.

But none of these interactions felt compelling enough to make it into my book. Instead of the stuff of great introductions, they felt like the stuff of . . . life. Who among us hasn’t been lied to on Facebook Messenger, or had trouble with a roommate, or given money to someone who may have been pulling the wool over our eyes? Instead, I found a fantastic article from the 1970s about a con artist named Barbara St. James who changed her hair color a lot and used her as my opening anecdote. But afterward I was left with all those small stories from my past—those microswindles, if you will—wondering what to do with them.

“The world of the microswindle is not as clear-cut as one might hope.”

As much as the microswindles irritated me, I had to admit that I was a bit of a microswindler myself. I have lied more times than I care to admit. (Ask me about the time I made up the story of my first kiss.) In living rooms and on Facebook Messenger and while sitting on plenty of curbs, I have pretended to be a little bit different than the person I truly am. It didn’t seem fair, then, to interpret the interactions I’d had with microswindlers as examples of Me Being Good (or at least naive) and Other People Being Bad. I started thinking of them less as moral and more as transactional. They were a sort of payment, I thought—payment for the privilege of trusting other people.

If I am going to trust most of the people I interact with, then yes, every now and then I will have to fork over $40 for something shady or listen to an anecdote about Dashboard Confessional or Roman Polanski that probably isn’t true. And the payment isn’t entirely one-sided, either. I only chatted with the con artist on Facebook Messenger because I was thinking about writing about her—thinking about absorbing her life story into my book, like some sort of soul-sucking spirit. And as far as my old roommate and my friend on the curb? I have used them as anecdotes in conversation again and again. I am using them now. The world of the microswindle is not as clear-cut as one might hope.

The macroswindles that made it into my book were more clear-cut. After opening my book with Barbara St. James, I lined up the rest of my chapters—the woman from Beijing, the woman from Versailles, the woman from Canada and all the rest—and the resulting cast of characters was big, fascinating, compelling. Their tales were twisted and bizarre and sometimes confusing, but there was often some clarifying moment: a trial, say, or a prison sentence. Their stories were special, for lack of a better word—special enough to be worthy of a book. But their stories were just bigger, not other. They were still on the same spectrum as the woman on Facebook, as the guy on the curb, as my old roommate, as me.

 

Author headshot © Charlie Kirchen

Tori Telfer reflects on the fine line between herself and the dazzling con artists she profiles in her raucous romp, Confident Women.

A serial killer in New York City sounds like an atrocity that would dominate the headlines. Men were disappearing; days later, their body parts would be found in trash bags outside the city. These were grisly deaths. Yet because Richard Rogers, known as the Last Call Killer, murdered gay men in the 1980s and ’90s, during the height of the AIDS crisis, you may not have heard of him or his victims.

In Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York, author Elon Green recounts this particularly frightening chapter in New York, contextualizing it within the city’s history of anti-queer violence. Weaving together multiple histories and jumping back and forth in time can be hit-or-miss as a narrative structure, but Last Call does it well, thanks to Green’s original reporting conducted with law enforcement, politicians, victims’ families and patrons at gay bars where Rogers lurked.

True crime too often focuses on the “bad guys,” as if repeatedly mulling over their motives may eventually explain evil. In Last Call, Green instead foregrounds Rogers’ known victims. He shows us the people they were and the lives they left behind. Their lives mattered, and Last Call is a testament to how homophobia shaped these men’s lives and, eventually, their deaths.

Readers should be aware that there’s a lot of gore in Last Call; after all, Rogers dismembered his victims. Regular readers of true crime may not find the violence unexpected, but the cultural context of the AIDS panic adds additional weight to this brutality. To his credit, Green never lets us forget the amplified threats that existed for gay men during this era. However, because Last Call shows how the passage of time often changes culture for the better, it’s ultimately uplifting—if a book about a serial killer could, in any way, be called “uplifting.”

In Last Call, Elon Green foregrounds the Last Call Killer's known victims, showing us the people they were and the lives they left behind.

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