Four Books, Four Countries, One Crime
By Dean Jobb
A doctor’s wife dies a slow, mysterious death in Ireland. Deadly smog claims thousands of lives in London and launches a serial murderer on a new rampage. Death stalks members of a Native American tribe after oil is found on their land and makes them instant millionaires. And Canada’s version of Al Capone wages an underworld battle to control bootlegging and rum-running in the Prohibition era.
Welcome to the world of true crime, as explored in my picks for four of the genre’s best books published in 2017, a list that includes bestsellers and hidden gems.
The journey starts in London. In Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City (Hachette), Kate Winkler Dawson tells the chilling parallel stories of two killers—a murderous psychopath and an environmental disaster.
A suffocating smog engulfed London in a nightmarish gloom in December 1952. Londoners knew the smoke from their coal fires could kill them, but a nation still struggling to recover from the devastation of the Second World War could not afford pollution controls or cleaner fuels. As many as 12,000 died before the weather changed and cleared the air.
The other killer was John Reginald Christie, the “Beast of Rillington Place,” who murdered seven women in his Notting Hill flat. He used cooking gas to render most of his victims unconscious before strangling them. Several were raped, but he killed because he enjoyed killing. “There is a peace about death that soothes me,” was his chilling explanation for his crimes. “A corpse has a beauty and a dignity which a living body could never hold.”
Christie killed four of his victims—including a young mother and her baby, a crime that sent the woman’s wrongly accused husband to the gallows—before 1952. The oppressive, choking smog, Dawson asserts, seemed to trigger something in Christie, launching him on a new killing spree in the weeks that followed.
The link is tenuous and Christie’s story has been told many times, including in a television miniseries in 2016. But Dawson, a documentary producer who teaches journalism at a Texas university, weaves these strands into an absorbing tale of cold-blooded murder and government indifference. The acrid smog becomes a menacing character in its own right—a relentless killer that seeps into homes and lives, bringing misery and death.
Another disaster a century earlier—the famine that claimed up to a million lives and forced another million to flee Ireland in the 1840s—is the backdrop for a macabre case of death and deception.
The Doctor’s Wife Is Dead: The True Story of a Peculiar Marriage, a Suspicious Death, and the Murder Trial that Shocked Ireland by Andrew Tierney (Penguin Ireland) is the story of a little-known murder trial that transfixed and scandalized Victorian society. When Ellen Langley of County Tipperary died in 1849 after a sudden illness, her death was attributed to cholera—another unfortunate victim, it seemed, of Ireland’s great tragedy.
But tongues wagged in the town of Nenagh, near Limerick. Her husband, Dr. Charles Langley, had banished her to the attic of their home before she died. There were rumors of abuse and adultery—and possibly murder. Was she poisoned? Had the local doctors who examined her emaciated body closed ranks to protect one of their own?
Nenagh native Tierney, a distant relative of Ellen Langley and an archaeologist by training, digs into archives and news reports to recreate a story embedded in Ireland’s sectarian and class divisions. And like all great true crime stories, this one exposes the attitudes and prejudices of the time.
A coroner’s jury, suspicious of Langley’s actions and his resistance to “dragging out things that ought to be buried in oblivion,” demanded further investigation. The inquest found enough evidence of abuse and neglect to support a verdict of manslaughter. Further revelations—including a damning letter, written before Ellen’s death, in which the doctor wished she were dead—led to his prosecution for murder.
Langley’s trial created a sensation, exposing his infidelities and a scheme to hire a servant to sleep with his wife, to give him grounds to sue for divorce. Even the judge expressed shock at the “frightful amount of depravity and immorality” presented in his courtroom and repeated in lurid press accounts.
The Doctor’s Wife Is Dead, Tierney’s first book, brings deep research and deft storytelling to a tale worthy of a Gothic horror novel.
David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker, may have missed his calling—any police force would welcome someone with his detective skills. In Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday), a New York Times bestseller shortlisted for the National Book Award and other major prizes, he tackles a forgotten cold case almost a century old.
The systematic murders of members of Oklahoma’s Osage tribe after oil was found on their barren reservation is a haunting—and at times, infuriating—story of racism, injustice, and treachery. More than twenty Osage died in the early 1920s in a rampage of shootings, poisonings, and, in one case, a bombing that obliterated a home and killed the couple inside.
One news report called it “the most baffling series of murders in the annals of crime,” but the motive was simple: greed. The U.S. government appointed prominent white citizens to control the oil wealth accruing to “red millionaires” who were not considered competent to spend their money. It was an invitation to theft, fraud, and murder.
This is also the story of Tom White, the agent with the fledgling Bureau of Investigation—soon to be renamed the FBI—who finally cracked the case. But despite White’s determination to find the truth, only two men were convicted of a single murder.
Grann was convinced there was more to the story. He was right. After combing archival records and interviewing descendants of the victims, he makes a convincing case that the Osage murders continued into the Depression era, “a culture of killing” that may have claimed hundreds of lives.
Killers of the Flower Moon is an engrossing and important story, presented with a perfect balance of drama, passion, and authority. Justice has been served, at least in print.
Dr. Langley, the Beast of Rillington Place, and the Osage killers lurked in the shadows. Not Rocco Perri, Canada’s most notorious underworld figure of the 1920s and 1930s. He grabbed headlines, eliminated rivals, and evaded the law for years as the Ontario-based bootlegging empire he ran with his wife, Bessie, funneled booze into the Prohibition-parched United States.
Trevor Cole’s The Whisky King: The Remarkable True Story of Canada’s Most Infamous Bootlegger and the Undercover Mountie on His Trail (HarperCollins) tells the story of this flamboyant gangster, who diversified into prostitution, gambling, and narcotics. By 1922, Cole writes, “there was no bigger crime boss in Canada.”
In a prepublication review, I described the book as “Boardwalk Empire meets Catch Me If You Can.” It’s a good-guy-versus-bad-guy story, with Perri’s rise to underworld power told in tandem with the efforts of Frank Zaneth, an undercover Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, to bring the kingpin to justice.
Perri, like Al Capone, took care to insulate himself from crimes committed by underlings. Rival gangsters were executed and a policeman making life difficult for his gang was gunned down, all without implicating the boss. He dodged a manslaughter charge after distributing poisoned alcohol that killed more than forty people. When he finally went to jail, it was a short sentence for perjury.
Cole, an award-winning Canadian novelist, has sifted through an enormous cache of police reports, court records, and newspaper accounts for his first foray into true crime. The result is a fast-paced, vivid account of a gangster and his times.
Perri disappeared in 1944, after surviving bombings of his house and car. Did he escape, as some claimed, to start a new life in Mexico? Or was he murdered, the victim of a mob hit? For all his impressive research, not even Cole can say for sure.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception, the story of 1920s Chicago swindler Leo Koretz, and teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Nova Scotia. He is completing a book on Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a Victorian-era serial killer who preyed on women in Canada, Chicago, and London. His website is www.deanjobb.com