Friday, July 29, 2016


Looking back at one of the most gruesome crime stories of the century
By Don Stradley

Albert DeSalvo didn’t fit the image created by investigators searching for the Boston Strangler – they’d wanted a  super criminal, a glowering brute who could talk his way into a woman’s apartment, snuff her out with his bare hands (or with a knife, or a silk stocking around the neck), and escape into the shadows like a phantom, or as the police expected, a mother-hating homosexual – but he seemed to know a lot about the 13 killings that terrified the city between 1962 and 1964. The problem was that investigators had wanted a madman who howled at the moon and slept on a bed of nails. Instead, they got a sex-crazed loser who blamed his actions on an unhappy marriage. Gerold Frank’s classic The Boston Strangler (now available as a Kindle edition) not only captured DeSalvo in his disturbed glory, but was a kind of master class in how to write a true crime story. Published in 1966, Frank’s template was just as influential on the  genre as the other great title of that year, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. For that matter, all modern serial killers seem linked to DeSalvo in that they’re never horror movie villains, just seedy little dirtbags.

Frank nails the frenzied paranoia of the time, writing “it was not the stranglings that shook Boston so much; it was the abhorrent sexual aspect that summoned to mind in Bostonians deep lurking fears of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Indeed, the city’s buttoned-up bookstores wouldn’t carry copies of Lolita, yet the local newspapers were suddenly overloaded with grisly stories about single women found dead in their bedrooms, with hints of sickening violations, nudity, and rape. Frank sensed correctly that criminals are far more interesting than cops, so much of the book’s glowing energy comes from the various suspects. The degenerates brought in for questioning ranged from gigantic mental patients to stammering perverts; when you add in the cavalcade of old ladies convinced that one of their neighbors was the strangler, the story feels like a David Lynch movie where everybody seems guilty of something.

DeSalvo, too, was a gift for any crime writer. At times a hatchet-faced sex-maniac right out of True Detective magazine, at others a pathetic figure so desperate for attention that many thought his confession was a ruse, he was a typical small-time hood who habitually lied to make himself seem like a big shot. An entire cottage industry of books sprang up in the ensuing years, spearheaded by skeptics who didn’t buy DeSalvo as the strangler. Indeed, there are many compelling arguments that could be made in favor of other suspects, and Frank actually touched on them long before it became fashionable to disregard DeSalvo. Still, many decades after the book’s publication and DeSalvo’s death, a DNA sample put DeSalvo at the scene of the strangler’s final murder. You could almost hear him mumbling from beyond the grave, I told you it was me, but you didn’t want to believe me…

Frank, who’d been a war correspondent and contributor at The New Yorker before ghostwriting for the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor and Diana Barrymore, is particularly strong when describing the poor victims in their final moments, how one is writing a letter to her fiancé, while another listens to classical music on her record player, and another is last seen doing her laundry, each unaware that death was near. The small details we learn about each woman - one was still unpacking, as she'd just moved into the apartment where she'd be killed - create an aura of melancholy that follows the hopelessly square detectives in their Kennedy-era raincoats, stoic men skulking through drizzly old Boston, searching for an evil they can’t comprehend, taking tips from crackpot psychics and ESP specialists, hoping some useful leads would be spat from their newfangled computer system, anything that could help solve this most fiendish of puzzles.

Movie critic James Agee once wrote that D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was less about the Civil War than it was “a realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like..." Similarly, Gerold Frank's The Boston Strangler depicted the collective dream of a city choked by fear, which is more interesting than what we read in modern crime coverage, where goggled technicians examine pubic hairs and sperm samples, catching the devil not in a dark alley, but under the dispassionate glare of a forensics lab.

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