If you read my reviews, you know by now I tend to be pretty fair. Now and then I will simply pass on doing a review rather than write a bad review and risk injuring an author’s reputation. I try and be nice because I expect the same from my peers. I struggled with this review for two weeks, wondering if I should do it. My publisher encouraged me, despite my reservations.
I write for the same publisher as this book and requested a copy for review. It came with a warning from my publisher, “this book is not for everyone.” I am sure there are some fans of the genre that are bound to be drawn to this book…possibly for all of the wrong reasons. I think readers should know what they are getting into first.
I can’t say this is the worst true crime book I have ever read, but I cannot recommend it – not to the general fans of genre. It is disturbing on so many levels that it reminds me of an auto accident. You drive by, knowing the scene is potentially gruesome, but slow down to look regardless.
Trust me, with this book, the scene is gruesome indeed.
The book is about the author, John Paul Fay, who corresponds with Arthur Shawcross, a renowned serial killer. The book flip flops between the story of Fay’s life and the letters he receives from Shawcross. Fay is far from being a sympathetic character in this twisted saga. He is a person that collects and sells mementos from well-known serial killers. I have never understood that entire bizarre underground market. Why would anyone want Charles Manson’s autograph? I will never understand this kind of collecting. Worse yet, through this book, you get a glimpse into how convicted murderers make money on these sales.
Fay’s life is not the “boy next door” story. His father has abused him, he suffers from addiction, and was even involved in some abuse of a woman…which he claims he doesn’t fully remember. It is hard to form any sort of emotional bond with this character, he is damaged and so far removed from the world I live in, I cannot recognize him. Yet in this book he is oddly baring all of his flaws. I wanted to sympathize with him, but never found that common ground. You may feel very differently. I kept on reading though – searching for that connection to Fay that slipped through my fingers.
One image that bothered me was that he sent photos to Shawcross of his pregnant cousin, further feeding the serial murderer’s fantasies. What kind of person does something like that? One gets the feeling that Fay saw Shawcross as possibly his only real friend in the world…and that such actions were necessary to keep those ties alive.
The letters from Shawcross are sick, vulgar, disconcerting, and horrific. In some respects, reading his letters is like watching an episode of Mindhunter, only darker and without the balance of morality. You see this killer for what he was, a slice of evil that preyed on people for the sheer thrill it gave him. There is nothing redeeming about this man. The fact that he was able to make money and have sexual visitors did nothing to help my impression of our prison system. The best part of this book was the knowledge that Shawcross was dead.
Trying to figure out which sub-genre of true crime this book fits in is impossible. It is not a true serial killer book, because the vast majority of the book is about Fay’s lifelong journey. It is not a psychological thriller because it is far more troubling than that. It doesn’t reveal anything new about Shawcross or his crimes. In fact, crime plays little role in the disquieting relationship between Fay and Shawcross.
It is the only true crime book I have ever read that I deleted from my Kindle afterwards. Some of that was embarrassment. This is something in the genre I write in. Another reason was I didn’t ever see myself going back to this book. Some images are burned into my memory.
This book is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. On one hand, it is the only book of its kind in true crime. It is not the kind of book that should be read at night or when you are alone. It is not a book for the “typical” true crime reader. One should wade into this book carefully, with trepidation, fully prepared for the stark and sometimes sickening shock factor you are about to embrace.