“The Fact of a Body” Made Me Pro-Death Penalty, Whoops…Plus “American Fire” and “Killers of a Flower Moon”

By | December 31, 2017

Quick book reviews of three very different crime books…

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich…Lesnevich was an anti-death penalty advocate who found herself surprised that she wanted child-murderer Ricky Langley to die. The more she digs into the case, the more she begins to sympathize with Langley, but the opposite was true for this reviewer. I want to be brutally honest and say that Lesnevich’s attempts to link her own abuse (her grandfather molested her) to Langley’s childhood seem like a farrrrr-reach, and (at worst) unintentionally navel-gazing since her chapters (the even-numbered ones) take up almost as much of the book as Langley’s story does, even though it’s safe to say few readers will be as involved in her tale as they are Langley’s. But what emerges of Langley–to me–isn’t someone who is remotely sympathetic or even haunted by his crimes, but makes up elaborate excuses to make you feel sorry for him (like this courtroom bullshit about him being haunted by his dead brother despite having no history at all of mental problems), and manipulate the legal system. Case in point: even though Langley is white his lawyer uses a bizarre technicality (his jury is all-white, even though he technically should’ve had a diverse jury, an anti-Jim Crow statute no white person had used before) to get him a re-trial. Then he convinces the mother of the little boy he senselessly murdered to testify against the death penalty, but she does this on the stipulation that Langley won’t try to get off on an insanity plea. But, of course, he double-crosses her after she delivers her testimony.

I always thought I was against the death penalty—and certainly the way its used as a weapon to coerce people out of a trial, so that people on death row may be more likely to be innocent than those in prison for life—but the book starts with a graphic and senseless child murder (the book’s best writing and worthy of “In Cold Blood” comparisons), a manhunt even though the body is in the neighbor’s house (the mother even talks to Langley while the search is happening), and nothing Langley does afterwards suggests he’s reformed or remorseful. The argument you hear is that life in jail without parole is as bad as the death penalty, and perhaps even crueler, but if that’s true, then why does Langley and his well-meaning, grandstanding British attorney seem so hell-bent on getting him life in prison? Grade: C

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage County Murders…A fascinating true-crime story that most people have probably never heard of before this book. Grade: B

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanshing Land by Monica Hesse…A fantastic book that skillfully blends thrilling true-crime (detailing hundreds of arsons in rural Virginia), hometown suspicion as the neighbors begin to suspect one another, and a character portrait of two lovers up against it. It’s bizarre, occasionally hilarious, and I couldn’t put it down. One of the year’s absolute best books–Don’t miss it. Grade: A

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