Monday, 16 April 2012

The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins

“No writer better articulates ourinterest in the confluence of hope, eccentricity, and the timelessness of the bold and strange than Paul Collins.”—DAVE EGGERS

On Long Island, a farmer finds a duck pond turned red with blood. On the Lower East Side, two boys playing at a pier discover a floating human torso wrapped tightly in oilcloth. Blueberry pickers near Harlem stumble upon neatly severed limbs in an overgrown ditch. Clues to a horrifying crime are turning up all over New York, but the police are baffled: There are no witnesses, no motives, no suspects.

The grisly finds that began on the afternoon of June 26, 1897, plunged detectives
headlong into the era’s most baffling murder mystery. Seized upon by battling media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the case became a publicity circus. Reenactments of the murder were staged in Times Square, armed reporters lurked in the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in pursuit of suspects, and an unlikely trio—a hard-luck cop, a cub reporter, and an eccentric professor—all raced to solve the crime.

What emerged was a sensational love triangle and an even more sensational trial: an unprecedented capital case hinging on circumstantial evidence around a victim whom the police couldn’t identify with certainty, and who the defense claimed wasn’t even dead. The Murder of the Century is a rollicking tale—a rich evocation of America during the Gilded Age and a colorful re-creation of the tabloid wars that have dominated media to this day.
I'm not always a huge fan of true crime as a lot of it seems to simply be sensationalist rubbish. By contrast this book details the story of not only a horrific murder but how it came to be sensationalised and how the tabloids' fascination with murder and murderers was born in the supposedly more genteel era of 19th century America. 20th century sensationalist reporting started here, at the behest of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
The story begins on a sultry summer's afternoon on the East River. Crowds are flocking to the opening of a new pier and a group of ragamuffins from the tenements are escaping the throngs by relaxing on one of the docks and swimming in the river. A package bobbing gently on the water catches their attention and they drag it to the shore and cut it open, hoping to find something exciting. what they find both horrifies and thrills them and it puts them at the centre of one of New York's most interesting murder mysteries.
The writer is as interested in the way the World and the Journal competed to sensationalise and even solve the crime as he is in who the headless body belongs to and who the murderers are and he weaves a fascinating tale of Hearst's men outflanking Pulitzer's at every turn as the protege (Hearst learnt the newspaper business in Pulitzer's newsroom) overtakes the master and establishes himself as the true king of 'yellow journalism'.
The cut-throat world of tabloid journalism will be strikingly familiat to modern readers and yet at the same time it will seem like something from another world. Even with today's sometimes suspiciously close relationships between press and police you can't imagine a squad of reporters on bikes chasing down and arresting the prime suspect in a murder or renting out the apartment of one of the arrested parties and posting guards so that their reporters can search it alongside the police while keeping rival journalists as far away as possible.
While neither Hearst not Pulitzer emerge from this story as paragons of virtue it is also clear that without the intervention of the warring newspapers (and their smaller rivals) the police would never have solved this crime, indeed it's doubtful they would even have recognised it as a crime if the papers hadn't stoked a demand for justice in the way they did.
The book is very well written and fast-paced and I enjoyed every moment of it. If you're interested in the history of journalism or in crime and investigation then I hearily recommend this book.
VERDICT 5 out of 5

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