Review of Zodiac, The Case of the Zodiac Killer, by Michael Morford and Michael Ferguson


Zodiac.  Just the mention of it to true crime fans elicits reaction, be it because of the books or the motion picture, the History Channel series, or the rumors and innuendo about the case. Like many people, I got sucked in by Robert Graysmith’s big yellow covered book on Zodiac years ago.  I even listed it on my compilation of best true crime books.  Blaine’s List of True Crime Books  It isn’t perfect, as a true crime author I understand that.  Let’s face it, that book was a gateway drug for all of us into this case.

Zodiac, as a killer, compels us…taunts us.  He was one of those rare serial killers that communicated to the public and toyed with the investigators.  He dared the police to catch him, and thus far, they have failed.  The new DNA sampling techniques and use of hereditary DNA sites may yet net this murderer…but until then, he remains elusive.

One of my publishers (full disclosure here) recently published a book on Zodiac, The Case of the Zodiac Killer – The Complete Transcript and With Additional Commentary, Photographs, and Documents.

I wasn’t sure if I would even like the book because it is the transcripts of a very popular podcast, Criminology.   Would transcripts of a podcast make for a readable book?  I went in with a healthy dose of skepticism. Some podcasts out there would not be able to pull this off, the back and forth banter would make it a train wreck in print.  Not so with Criminology.  The flow of the book is conversational, entertaining, and enough to keep you drawn in.  In fact, this is one of my favorite books on Zodiac in a while (though I have another two on my Amazon wish list.)

Why did I enjoy it?  Quite simply, there are new tid bits and details that the podcasters/authors explored.  I love getting this stuff.  I also liked the fact that the publisher/authors included other audio transcripts to augment this material.  You may think that having a 1960’s reporter’s interview transcribed in a book is meaningless, but in some cases it puts you right there with the investigators at the scenes.  Moreover, this is new data.  In a case as frigid as Zodiac, any new insights or perspectives are appreciated.

The book is not your typical true crime fare.  This is a transcription of a podcast.  It is done well, and Wild Blue Press has broken new ground doing this – creating a new sub-genre or true crime.  I really came to appreciate and enjoy the podcaster’s logic, inquisitiveness, and attention to detail.  It made me want to go back and listen to their podcasts.  Morford and Ferguson have upped the bar for the dozens of other podcasters out there with their depth of research.  This book is innovative and different, with a lot of variation.

Some people are not going to enjoy the conversational format, and that is okay.  Not every true crime book is for the masses.  This book does fill a niche and is well deserving of space on your true crime bookshelf.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.  If you are hooked on the Zodiac case, this is worth picking up.

Review of The Crime of the Century: Richard Speck and the Murders That Shocked a Nation by William J. Martin and Bill Kunkle

Crime of the Century

I had heard of these crimes but only became truly aware when the serial killer Richard Speck died and a video of him in prison was released.  His callous behavior and the fact that he was seemingly enjoying life behind bars appalled me.  I read about his heinous crimes, killing eight young nurses in Chicago in 1966, and I was even more appalled.

When this book came up on my feed on Amazon as a suggested read, I picked it up.  I wanted to read a definitive account of the crimes and the conviction and was hoping this would provide that.  I wanted all of the nuts and bolts detail of what happened that one macabre night when Speck slaughtered eight women, but ignorantly left one alive – one that would, in the end, take him down.  There was almost an Arya Stark (Game of Thrones) story there.

I didn’t want to read the older book, Born to Raise Hell, because I had heard that it was one that seemed to favor the perspective of the criminal.  As a true crime author, I don’t like the criminals being the focus of true crime books.  I know some readers like those…I do not. I wanted not a shred of sorrow for this brutal murderer as I read about the crimes.

This book did not disappoint.

The authors have provided a well-balanced and comprehensive account of the killer, the victims, and a crime that shocked the nation.  This is not a light read, which I embraced.  I have nothing but respect for these authors.  In the pages of Crime of Century, they have recreated the seedy, dingy neighborhoods and characters of 1966 Chicago.  They put you back there as the police stalked a spree-killer through grungy bars and flop-houses.  They masterfully take you on the journey of the surviving nurse, Corazon Amurao, to eventually take the stand against the man that killed her friends and roommates.

Recreating such an old crime is never easy, but the authors have clearly done their homework.  This is one of the better true crime books I have read in recent years and I highly recommend it.  Add this one on your Kindle for your late-summer reading. Five stars and kudos to Martin and Kunkle!

Review of The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror – by James Presley

Phantom Killer

I stumbled across this serial killing spree by a meme posted on Facebook that said that this was an unsolved series of cases in Texarkana.  I made note of it because I write about cold cases, with an emphasis now on serial killings.  I thought this might be worth looking into.

I did find a book on the case, The Phantom Killer, so I picked it up.  Wow.  I went from not knowing anything about these murders to being immersed not just in the cases, but in the culture and period of the crimes. The internet meme was wrong (I know, misinformation on the internet?  I was stunned too – NOT!)  The killer was known, but never fully brought to justice.

Taking place in 1946, the Phantom Killer killed five people and wounded three.  The victims were in pairs, which resonated with me after writing about the Colonial Parkway Murders.  The author, James Presley, is a master-historian, taking you back in time to Texarkana in 1946, putting you on the streets of his hometown in that era.

This was a ruthless killer in an age long before DNA testing and modern police investigatory techniques.  Today, this killer would have gone to jail much earlier.  Instead, the murderer hid in the folds of history, concealed by police incompetence or lack of skills we now take for granted.  The stories of the victims are recreated in painstaking detail.  Kudos to the author for what had to be difficult research after all of these years.

The books brings you a cast of characters that are right out of central casting – including a wily Texas Ranger that is bigger than life.

This is not a true cold case though.  The police caught Youell Swinney, a car thief, whose wife implicated him in the murders.  While the case was largely circumstantial, I feel confident that Swinney was indeed the killer.

What follows though is the legal twists and turns as to how Swinney dodged ever being tried as the Phantom Killer.  This is a book that leaves you wondering at the very end if the decisions by the authorities was the right course of action.  Yes, the killer spent years in jail, but never for his most heinous crimes.

James Presley is a great writer.  I found the book compelling and written with the care needed to take us back to the crime scenes.  He weaves a stirring tale of a serial killer in an era far before that label existed.  I devoured the book on a business trip, unable to put it down.

Well worth picking up – I recommend highly The Phantom Killer.

True Crime Book Review – The Shawcross Letters – My Journey Into the Mind of Evil By John Paul Fay


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.


Review Time-Life’s Killer Cults – Inside the Mind of Charles Manson and Other Cult Leaders

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If nothing else, this made me question, “what is a cult?” 

As a true crime author it is impossible for me to walk past a magazine with Charles Manson on the cover.  I’m weak that way.  After all, one of the books that drew me into writing TC was Helter Skelter.  Also, I just finished watching Waco on Paramount network, so I was compelled to pick this up.

Time-Life has put out of few of these magazines focused on true crime. Lavish in photos, they don’t go into much depth. If you are looking for shocking revelations or new information, generally these are not where you go.  This issue, I have to admit, they did provide some new bit of information I was unaware of – hence my taking the time (pun intended) for a review.

Half of the 96 pages of this magazine are dedicated to Manson.  There are some photos I have not seen before, plucked from Life’s archives no-doubt.   When it comes to new information, there’s not a lot here, but there are some nuggets that were interesting – especially about Manson’s life behind bars.

The remainder of the article focused on the Jonestown massacre, the Branch Davidians, the Heaven’s Gate suicides, and the terror attacks of Aum Shinrikyo.  There’s not a lot of depth here on these other groups, only the basic information.  I have to admit, I knew almost nothing about, Aum Shinrikyo which made it most interesting chapter to me.  It surprised me that this organization had such a strong following in Russia.  You just don’t associate cults with Russia, at least I don’t.

I probably could just end the review right here and say it was three out of five starts.  Mildly entertaining, but not a lot that is new.  It was worth looking at for some of the photos.  I can’t just let it go that easily.  What this relatively simple magazine does is make you wonder and question, “what is a cult?”

Time-Life seems to concentrate on any group of people led by a charismatic leader; where the leader exerts control over these people to some extent.  “Cult” is a word that has a negative connotation to it, but in this case it makes you wonder what Time-Life’s criteria was for inclusion.  I understand the arguments for most of these cases, but in the case of the Branch Davidians I am wondering if they were truly a cult.  I think David Koresh had a strong influence over his people, but from accounts I have read from the survivors, they also opted to stay with him on their own accord based on their beliefs.

Were the Branch Davidians simply a deeply devoted group of followers of a religious lifestyle, or were they a cult?  I’m not sure I can make that call, but the fact is, this book helped me consider that question says quite a bit.

Overall this is a three out of five stars.


Review of My Brother’s Keeper – By Chris Russo Blackwood


I purchased a copy of this book because of the theme.  This is not just an off-the-shelf true crime.  It has a potent twist.  It is a story of the sibling of a victim and his dogged pursuit of his brother’s killers for three decades. That angle is potent and intriguing and makes this book stand out.

I won’t ruin the plot much for you in this review.  My Brother’s Keeper is a gnarly story of a typical entrepreneur who collides with the wrong people – heinous individuals out to rob and murder him.  It is more than that though.  The brother of the victim, Ted Kergan, finds himself thrust into the role of private investigator.  He doesn’t just accumulate information about his brother’s untimely demise, but takes a hands-on role with the pursuit of the killers.

I found myself glued to the text, unable to put the last five or so chapters down.  This is not a book where you are wondering who did it – but instead you see the victim through his brother’s memories, intertwined with the gritty detective work that Ted undertook to bring the killers to justice.

As a true crime author I interact with family members who carry the mantle of memories of their lost family members. Many cradle a box of reports and newspaper clippings, or printouts of emails from would-be tipsters.  Only a rarified few go to the extent that Ted Kergan did bring murderers into the light of justice.  In this respect, the book rang true to me as few true crime books do.

I found myself angered and frustrated that the killers were not tried decades earlier.  The evidence that was in the hands of police was staggering, right down to diary entries and maps.  This is a classic example of where justice damn-near failed. I found myself re-reading the chapter where they were let go, just so I was sure I fully understood the reasoning. It was a decision that drove this case into the frigid icebox of cold cases, almost forgotten, except by a handful of people.

My Brother’s Keeper is not a remarkable crime, not one that tattoos itself into your memory.  The killers were not stunningly cunning in their evasion of law enforcement.  What makes this book stand out is the relationship between Ted and Gary Kergan and the extent which Ted rolled up his sleeves and stalked the killers, ensuring they went to prison.  While it is not a crime that you will remember, it is a book you cannot ignore or put down – especially near the end. Chris Blackwood is an author to watch.

You can purchase the book on Amazon here


Review of Sidetracked: The Betrayal And Murder Of Anna Kithcart, a true crime book by Richard Cahill


Fair disclosure, I was provided this book by Wild Blue Press for review.  Richard and I both write for the same publisher.  This review is my own with no influence from the publisher.  I wanted to read his latest book.

I first read Richard Cahill’s work in Hauptmann’s Ladder: A Step-by-Step Analysis of the Lindbergh Kidnapping and gave it a strong review…Review . Tackling one of the most publicized kidnapping and murder cases in US history was a massive undertaking.  I wondered where Mr. Cahill could go from the top of the proverbial heap.  With Sidetracked, we learn that he went to his roots with a bizarre story that has something for everyone – racism, necrophilia, brutal murder and strange if not twisted characters.

I often tell people that every murder is a tragedy but not every tragedy is worthy of a book.  Cahill chose wisely in his subject matter.  This is a 1980’s murder, one of stark brutality and senselessness.  He masterfully weave in the backdrop of this crime – the Tawana Brawley case and Reverend Al Sharpton’s insertion into the murder of Anna Kithcart.  It was a tightrope act to address Mr. Sharpton’s claims and the reality of the case, and the author does so quite masterfully without miring the book in political climate of the time. I have never heard of the murder of Ana Kithcart before this book, but now I feel I know it well.

Mr. Cahill twists the knot of this crime tightly with secret wiretappings, half-confessions, and a questionable parade of characters tied to this crime.  Having consulted in Kingston in my career, I was familiar with the area and Cahill does a great job of putting the reader there, in that small city in the era.  Every city has its dark side and Mr. Cahill takes us there, despite our reservations.

The book leverages the court transcripts heavily and Cahill does an admirable job of getting us through a tale where we are not entirely sure, even by the end of the book, of what exactly happened to the victim.  As a writer, I know how hard it can be to mesh conflicting accounts and contradictory versions of events.  Mr. Cahill took the high road and we are all better for it.

Sidetracked is a welcome addition to any true crime reading list and I strongly encourage you to pick it up.  My only regret is that my daughter and I write about crimes in the 1980’s, and now it appears we will have some stiff competition.  Damn!

Link to Sidetracked on Amazon


Review of Ruby Ridge – The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family by Jess Walter


This is one of those books that is a true crime and a true tragedy, both at the same time.  We all vaguely remember the story that the media put in front of us.  A family of white separatist lawbreakers huddled up on a mountain stood off against the FBI.  Memories blur for most of us.  Before reading this book I remembered that some of them were shot.  I remembered there being some horrible mistakes on the part of the federal authorities as well.

Reading this book however brought clarity to all of this.  In these times where we find ourselves where labels like “white separatists” are tossed about on the news so liberally, it is important to go back and study Ruby Ridge.

Jess Walter did an outstanding job of laying out the facts to process this seemingly innocent crime that escalated to cold-blooded murder.  The author does an outstanding job of cutting through the myths around this story and dealing with the people and what occurred.  It is no small task, given that the federal accounts do not even agree with each other.

Randy Weaver was and is his own man. He did commit some crimes.  He did nothing that warranted what happened to him and his family however.  This is a story about the government living up to its own darkest ideals.  The author gives the appropriate trail of breadcrumbs to lead the reader up the trail where what should have been a routine criminal prosecution turned into butchery.  When you frame this against the events in Waco against the Branch Davidians and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Office Building; you find yourself as a reader asking yourself, “could this happen again?”

Ruby Ridge (the book) is a cautionary tale for all of us in these politically charged times where the rights of individuals are clashing with political correctness.  I found the book made me sit and think about current affairs, yet clearly it was written years before our current climate.  Any book that make you think, that compels you to contemplate the role of your government is destined to be a good book.

I’m glad I waited to read it – and moreover, I’m glad I finally did.


Review of Unsolved No More – A Cold Cast Detective’s Fight for Justice by Kenneth Mains

Unsolved No More

When I started reading Kenneth Main’s book Unsolved No More, I thought I was going to get stories of cold cases that he has resolved.  The book starts as his autobiography, and I wondered if I made a good choice.  I write about cold cases, so that was what I wanted.  Then I hit his chapter on why cases go cold.  That chapter alone should make this book required reading for law enforcement professionals.  He confirmed what Victoria and I have encountered in our own cold case research for books.  One word – “wow!”  I actually re-read portions of that chapter twice because it resonated with me so well.  I have seen the tunnel-vision of some investigators at the expense of the survivors and the victims getting resolution.

Mains knows his stuff, that much is true.  His autobiography portion of the book is there for two reasons.  One is to establish his credibility.  Done!  Two, explaining why he became drawn to the twilight world of cold cases.  Done again.  In fact, looking back at that portion of the book, it was masterfully done to achieve these goals.  “I see what you’ve done there Detective Mains – well played…”

The absolute best portion of this book is the actual cold cases themselves that he worked on.  Kenneth Mains is a law enforcement equivalent of a surgeon of cold cases…he diagnoses the issues and, working with precision, dissects the cases with consummate skill and care.  There is no flowery language here, these are written with the icy calculated care of a professional.

The case stories Mains has written about are beyond gripping, they draw you in and hold you tight as he puts you in his shoes in looking at them. These are not the kind of cases you see on Discovery ID, they are more of the gritty real-world cases.  Not all of them have the kind of red ribbon tied to them at the end that you might expect with a perfect resolution.  I was caught off guard by some of the resolutions, and as a reader, that’s a good thing.

The true crime genre is in its infancy when it comes to the subgenre of cold cases. I highly recommend this wonderful book if you want to understand the cold case investigatory process or if you want to dive into some cases that are filled with twists, turns, and more than a few surprises.  Pick up Unsolved No More, you won’t be disappointed.

#truecrime #coldcases

Review of Bureau 39 by Jeffrey Miller (Spoiler Free)


I don’t generally read political action thrillers.  I met Tom Clancy once when his Hunt for Red October had just come out.  I met him at a gaming event where he was playing Harpoon.  True story.  Clancy was approachable but what stunned me was his off-the-cuff depth of knowledge about naval warfare and ship details.  I read a lot of his books over the years but once he became a franchise/factory, I just dropped out of that genre.  Sadly, with his demise, I just felt it would be hard for anyone to fill his boots.

I broke my streak this spring when I finally broke down and read a Jack Reacher novel.  I liked it, despite constantly picturing Tom Cruise saying all of the lines.  Honestly, I didn’t want to like it, but I found myself liking the witty dialogue and Reacher’s unique brand of thinking.  Suddenly I was back reading political thrillers.

When I saw the cover for Jeffrey Miller’s Bureau 39, it kind of pulled me in. Don’t kid yourself, we’ve all bought novels because of a good cover…admit it.  The synopsis grabbed me too.  A mysterious North Korean Bureau that was covertly plying the drug trade to help secure ICBM’s with nuclear capability.  I purchased it a few months ago and had no idea how timely the subject matter was going to be.

Actually – it’s eerie how accurate this book feels.  Makes me wonder, does Miller have some sort of inside track we’re unaware of?

I won’t ruin the plot or story for you.  Suffice it to say, it is a solid plot.  Two things stood out for me.  One was the dialogue of the characters.  They were distinct voices in the story, and were not cheesy one-liners but carefully crafted phrases.  There were times I chuckled at some of the references.  Miller doesn’t waste scenes or character time with things that don’t propel the plot forward – and that is something that is both rare and worthy of respect.  Good dialogue ensures good believable characters.  Miller is masterful in this aspect of his art.

My favorite part of the book is that the author puts you there, in Korea.  This is not blatant, but subtle.  You are given a fantastic geopolitical and geography lesson throughout the smooth flow of this book.  There are wonderful little details that I ended up Googling only to find that Miller was dead-on with his facts.  This added sense of realism in the setting makes Bureau 39 a welcome addition to any political thriller bookshelf.

Given the current tensions between US and North Korea, this book couldn’t be timelier and adds to a captivating story and strong characters.  This is a solid five out of five stars.