Adam Walsh · R. Kelly · Don’t F**k With Cats

Plus: Phishing in India

A legendary case finally sees a solution...and some bright-purple prose. Is Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America worth adding to your Goodreads roster?

The crime

“Shortly after lunch on what seemed an ordinary summer afternoon, a young South Florida housewife set out on a shopping trip with her six-year-old son in tow. It was the sort of outing that millions of other mothers all across the country might have taken on any given day.” But, as you’ve likely figured out from the title, the outing changed everything for everyone, because the six-year-old was Adam Walsh. Adam’s disappearance completed the change to parenting that Etan Patz’s disappearance a few years prior had started. Adam’s father, John, went on to change law enforcement and true crime with America’s Most Wanted.

Seemingly nothing would change the Hollywood, FL police department’s refusal to admit that it bungled the case from the get.

The story

(Spoilers ahead.)

Bringing Adam Home is the kind of book that occupies the Platonic cave of true crime: it’s about a famous case; the writing, not content to lay out the facts in an order, wades into context paragraphs about early-1980s south Florida with sentences like “Crockett and Tubbs donned unstructured suits and chased swarthy miscreants in cigarette boats and Ferraris.” It’s the kind of book I started nearly a decade ago to review, honestly – the kind of book the rest of the culture dismissed as lurid rubbernecking without having read it, but that a certain breed of 11-year-old would never forget reading one rainy summer.

And that’s what it’s for: taking out of the library or plucking off the shelves at the vacation rental when the wifi’s out. Co-author Les Standiford is a creative-writing professor and crime novelist, and the pressure to do right by this case, this child, and the other author – Joe Matthews, who proved what everyone had long suspected via independent investigation – leads to some ponderously damp locutions early on. The “swarthy miscreants”-type stuff settles down after a while, fortunately, but then Standiford tacks back a bit too far in the other direction when…well, the crux of the narrative here is that Ottis Toole, now accepted as the murderer, confessed to the kidnapping and killing six ways from Sunday, and then six ways more, and for various reasons the police felt these confessions weren’t credible. Given how many of them involved Henry Lee Lucas also, that’s a legit point of view, but numerous lay-up leads weren’t followed, and it’s Joe Matthews who’s contracted to chase them down decades later and put a period on the story. But Bringing Adam Home doesn’t stint on the content of the confessions, and Standiford could do a bit more to prepare the reader for Toole’s…unvarnished account of congress with Adam Walsh’s head.

But then, later on, when the key piece of evidence is finally developed (literally), the writing is extremely coy for pages and pages about what luminol photos of Toole’s Cadillac revealed had been stored there, like, we know Toole kept Adam Walsh’s head, and you’ve just made several references to the Shroud of Turin – do you want people to put the book down, Google what you found, and decide they don’t need to keep going? Or do you want to spit it out already? (I’ll save you the trouble; it’s the notorious “face print” of Adam, in blood. I did Google it, and it isn’t gory, but it is grievous nevertheless.)

With all of that said, while I wouldn’t tell you to bump Bringing Adam Home to the top of your to-read list for 2020, it’s a pretty good read. It’s paced well, with the exceptions I’ve noted; Standiford and Matthews include the occasional almost-throwaway insight into procedure and shoe-leather investigating; much of the case detail is hard to stomach, but it…should be. These things really happened to real people. The book isn’t essential, but it’s a solid addition to your library hold list and won’t take you long to get through. – SDB

Don’t forget to vote on the first bonus book-review topic of the new year! The last time we checked, the vote was tied, so your ballot could make all the difference. Here’s the poll, make your pick today!

Surviving R. Kelly is back. The second season of the show — which is widely credited with Kelly’s prosecution for multiple alleged sex offenses — dropped its first two episodes Thursday night, under the moniker Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning. Sarah wrote about the show for Primetimer; here’s a snip:

The Reckoning takes care to explain, via interviews with a range of clinical experts, why it can take so long for public opinion to turn, and how predators learn to take advantage of their seemingly unassailable positions -- and our discomfort and reluctance to accuse them -- to continue victimizing women and/or children. The Reckoning seems to include these analyses for two reasons: to unpack for its critics, in small words, their own denial about Kelly's actions; and to explain to those of us who do believe Surviving R. Kelly's on-camera participants why so many people don't, or won't.

You can read Sarah’s full report on the show here, and watch the first two eps here. Sarah and Mark Blankenship will be talking about the show in Episode 127 of the podcast. — EB

People are really divided about Don’t Fuck With Cats. In my Google alerts for buzzy true-crime shows (you guys, my notifications are bonkers), I’ve definitely seen more pro and con arguments for the Netflix show on Luka Magnotta, a homicidal Canadian you may or may not have heard of before the profanely-named docuseries.

A lot of the ire seems to bring truth to the show’s title, which suggests that Magnotta was brought to justice as much for his crimes against animals as his crimes against humans. I certainly can’t judge this — I love horror movies with massive body counts, but have turned off flicks where a dog appears to be endangered. Knowing that about myself (and having been warned about its depiction of animal torture by Best Evidence reader Margaret Howie), I took a pass on the show. But reading items like this Screen Rant piece damning the series piques my interest. From the critique:

What made Don’t F**k With Cats feel so misguided was its attempt to course-correct from exploitation to ethical grandstanding. It gave into the most lurid and questionable aspects of the true crime genre, and then tried to chastise its audience for being interested in such things. Whatever point the documentary wanted to make by asking the viewer to consider how complicit they may have been in elevating Luka Magnotta to celebrity status fell seriously short when coupled with how giddy the film-makers seemed to be with showing footage of his crimes, and massaging his reputation as a criminal mastermind. By trying to prove how much better it was than all those other exploitative true crime documentaries, Don’t F**k With Cats merely further exposed its many problems and reinforced the issues of the genre as a whole.

Who here has watched Don’t Fuck With Cats and can take on this assertion? I wan to know more. — EB

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A new Netflix series focuses on the phishing capital of India. I don’t know about you guys, but I love internet scams in all of its forms, from social engineering hacks to plain old catfishing of the “I am not as conventionally attractive as you believe me to be” variety. That’s why I’m super-psyched for Jamtara—Sabka Number Ayega, a dramatic adaptation of true crime yarns out of Jharkhand, India’s epicenter of phishing. (This is a for-real thing, here’s a great India Today report from 2017 on how pervasive the issue is.)

Via press release, director Soumendra Padhi says, “The issue of phishing is so common and yet so underrepresented in the media. I’ve been to Jamtara and spoken to multiple people about how these scams are pulled off -- the stories are so real and yet so unbelievable that I knew I had to share them with the world. Based on true-crime incidents, the series required a great deal of research and detailing to bring to life various characters and motives. I’m so excited to collaborate with Netflix to take this story from a small town in India to audiences around the world.” Sure, that’s PR bullshit, but even through the marketing jargon, they’re speaking my language: Small-town scams, underrepresented larceny, and research. The series drops on January 10. — EB

Monday, on Best Evidence: More archival delights!

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