Des · Carole Baskin · Clark Rockefeller

Plus an award-winning PSA and a vintage John Wilkes Booth doc

Apologies for some email weirdness yesterday, although it’s possible we only see it on our end! If you didn’t get yesterday’s newsletter until close to cocktail hour ET, or you’ve had any other receipt issues, you can reach out to support at substack dot org and let them know — and yesterday’s edition is right here. — SDB


The crime

Dennis Nilsen killed at least twelve young men in London between 1978 and 1983, disposing of their bodies in late-night bonfires, under his floorboards, and down the drains. He wasn’t discovered until human remains blocked up a pipe in his apartment. He confessed immediately on being questioned, leaving police to try and discover the identity of the victims he’d left behind.

The story

A three-part miniseries from ITV, Des opens in 1983 when a call comes into the local police station from a plumber who thinks he’s found human remains. Two detectives take the call, look sideways at the drain, and then wait around for Dennis Nilsen (David Tennant) to get home from work. When they ask him where the body is, he tells them to look in his kitchen cupboard, before correcting them that it’s not one body, it’s “fifteen or sixteen.”

It was blocked plumbing, not dogged investigation or brilliant deduction, that caught Nilsen. He’d been preying on homeless men, picking them up at gay pubs and sometimes right off the street. Not all of his victims died, and at least one tried to report him, only to be ignored by police officers dismissing the incident as a “lover’s tiff gone wrong.”

Any property dealing with the Nilsen case has to address the three defining characteristics of his story. One is the gory details of the killings, including the suggestion of necrophilia. Another is how he got away with it for so long, when the police’s homophobia had created a blindspot so massive that twelve lives were lost. The third was that “Call me Des” Nilsen was notoriously boring. An unremarkable civil servant who didn’t stand out, he was desperately dull, prone to droning on about politics, his record collection, or the details of his crimes like the deadliest version of that windbag from Accounting you’d avoid at office parties.

Des is too squeamish to delve into the horrific details, and it takes pains to avoid becoming a psychological thriller or puzzle-piece procedural. There’s almost no suspense in the narrative, apart from the occasional logistical hurdle that DCI Peter Jay (Daniel Mays), the perpetually rumpled lead detective, runs into as he tries to piece together just what Nilsen did ahead of the trial. He is joined by Brian Masters (Jason Watkins), Nilsen’s self-appointed biographer, who claims he intends to write an entirely objective book about the murders.

Mostly, Jay and Masters take turns interviewing Nilsen, who will chat away about most topics — his tabloid headlines, pet dog, childhood memories — but is cagey on the subject of who his victims were, claiming to not remember any names, until suddenly he does.

As Masters, a poor man’s Capote gone Limey, the show has Watkins scrunch up his face in distaste whenever he’s interviewing Nilsen. It’s intended to register disgust at Nilsen’s crimes, but on repeat it just looks as if he’s discovered that the pâté is off. While he’s the only queer character who warrants a full name, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in what Nilsen’s crimes have to do with being gay in Britain in the eighties. Instead he claims to be working on a “purely objective” analysis of the crimes, which is about as convincing as his stuffed-shirt outrage at Des’s rants.

Which leaves us with Des himself. David Tennant is wildly charismatic as well as being a good actor, good enough to spin some gold from a script bogged down with clichés. He even wrings some black comedy out of Nilsen’s Brocialist tangents on British imperialism (“The only house of horror I know is 24 Downing Street”). This has the unfortunate side effect of making his scenes the most interesting part of the series. Particularly unfortunate because, even as the show hand-waves away police incompetence and is reluctant to deal with the nitty-gritty of investigation, there’s not much space left for the people he killed. 

Nilsen’s victims mainly exist in the story to place obstacles in the way of the investigation. When Detective Jay talks to the survivor whose report was initially disbelieved by police, the scene is treated as a throwaway, as is the revelation that Nilsen was a former cop. Instead there’s some material on Jay’s own bad divorce, while the pictures of the identified bodies slowly build up on a pinboard in the office. When another survivor leaves the court after testifying, he’s faced with homophobic abuse, one the few times that the story acknowledges there might be systemic reasons Nilsen remained at large. But the narrative of Jay doing his best, while Masters overcomes his distaste long enough to write a bestseller, overrides any other interests.

Much like Masters claiming he won’t use adjectives to describe his subject, Des has too many middlebrow aspirations to try to paint its subject as the monster he claims to be. However, it lacks the imagination and empathy needed to make this more than just the story of a boring man who did appalling things. It doesn’t have the courage to tell us anything more than that. — Margaret Howie


Carole Baskin is getting her own show. She and her husband Howard — the current, living one — will be featured in an as-yet-unnamed unscripted property that focuses on the couple as they “work to expose, like never before, those who abuse and take advantage of various animals,” per a statement from the show’s production company, Thinkfactory Media. The show’s still in development, with the pitch process still ahead. Any predictions on where it ends up and what it’s called? Before you start guessing, a snippet of info that might inform your guesses:

The company has previously worked to bring other shows to networks, including, “Mama June: From Not to Hot,” “Gene Simmons Family Jewels” and “Dog and Beth: Fight of Their Lives.”

My prediction: it gets shopped around for a while, then packaged as a two-hour special that Animal Planet dumps in the middle of a holiday weekend. It’s possible Netflix could pick it up to keep it in the family, but that Nic Cage thing ended up at Amazon, so it seems like Netflix has gotten what it needed out of the story and is quitting while it’s ahead? But what I don’t know about how these decisions get made is a lot. Leave your prognostications for (Big) Cat Scratch Fever in the comments! — SDB

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It’s something of a “travel-size” edition this time around; Eve is sick, and the book I co-wrote with esteemed B.E. tipster Tara Ariano — which has nothing to do with crime, unless you count 1) stupid Brandon driving drunk in the first season and/or 2) all the outfits — is out today. Thanks for hanging in with us no matter what the length, and don’t forget, we’re here for your tips and requests! Call, or text, us at 919-75-CRIME.


A “harrowing” PSA won an Emmy for Outstanding Commercial of 2019. I didn’t realize that category existed, to tell you the truth, but last Saturday, the TAAS honored a PSA about school shootings by non-profit Sandy Hook Promise, Smuggler Productions, and BBDO New York. The PSA is below, and while the word “harrowing” is in quotation marks above, that’s because I’m quoting from Sandy Hook Promise’s press release; it isn’t quote harrowing, it’s legitimately harrowing, and may trigger some viewers. Please watch with care for yourselves.

The last ten seconds made me shudder. Truly great work from the actors here; I can’t imagine how one directs children in a narrative like this one, or how children work with that direction so effectively. In any event, well done, albeit awful to watch, and you can find other shorts from SHP on their YouTube channel. — SDB


Been a while since I dipped into the Blotter blog archive, so here’s a review of Mark Seal’s book on Clark “Rockefeller.” Is this another VF article that should have stayed a “mere” longread?

*******

The crime
Christian Gerhartsreiter, a.k.a. Christopher Chichester, a.k.a. Christopher Crowe, a.k.a. Clark Rockefeller…well, I suppose the sentence doesn't need a verb, does it. A German national who arrived in the States in the late '70s, posed as the exchange-student son of a wealthy "industrialist" (one of those words, like "tycoon," that you only seem to find in true-crime accounts or Welles films), and used a scam marriage as a green-card springboard into the upper echelons of California society, Gerhartsreiter has also posed as a financial-instruments salesman, an art expert, a baronet, and of course a Rockefeller.

He's none of those things, of course; he is, historically, quite gifted at sensing when the noose of lies is about to cut off his oxygen, and changing locales (and names and stories) ahead of the law. Eventually he put down roots, though. True, his relationship with his second wife, the almost incomprehensibly passive/willfully naïve Sandra Boss, consisted primarily of remora-ing her considerable executive income while implying to others that she benefited from his impressive inherited wealth. But it's their daughter, Reigh, and Gerhartsreiter's attempt to steal her out of a strict custody arrangement that likely led to his downfall. His feelings for Reigh may be the only true thing he's ever done -- and ironically, his nickname for her, "Snooks," is so flawlessly Upper-East-Side infantile that it may be his most credible work.

Gerhartsreiter is currently incarcerated thanks to a conviction on the kidnapping and related assault (of Reigh's court-appointed minder, during the escape). He's appealing that decision, and preparing to go on trial for murder this month, having allegedly killed and buried Jonathan Sohus, the son of one of his California patrons/exploitees, back in the eighties.

So: it's complicated. But: not for Gerhartsreiter, who is, as far as I know, still maintaining that his name is Clark Rockefeller.

The story (and he's stickin' to it)
Mark Seal's book is very very good. Gerhartsreiter ran enough cons, under enough names, in enough places, that an overview of his case even as of 2011 could have become a repetitive list -- or worse, verged into the melodramatic. The identity con man is sort of like baseball, now that I think about it: a captivating subject whose very allure can lead to sweaty prose if the temptation to metaphorize isn't tightly controlled.

Seal controls it, but his writing isn't dry. Everything is well organized; he doesn't use C-plus sources who don't add anything; the story is crisp and elegant, compulsively readable and authoritative. In non-fiction, the ability to get out of the story's way is a rare talent, and while Seal is not invisible in the text, he knows what he's doing.

He does run into a bit of trouble when he introduces the idea of the Big Lie. I hesitate to nitpick it, because the rest of the text is so well built, but I think that's why it stuck out to me. Very briefly, the Big Lie concept -- a key facet of Nazi propaganda -- states that a big lie has, per Hitler in Mein Kampf, a "force of credibility" that smaller lies do not. The more absurd or easily checkable a fib or a name-drop, the more likely human nature is to accept it as the truth, since who would make up something like that?

It's absolutely pertinent regarding Gerhartsreiter, whose audacious assumption of the eccentric-heir persona convinced actual heirs of his legitimacy for close to 30 years. I absolutely do not think Seal had any kind of agenda in mentioning it, except to address the reader's predictable wonderment at how Gerhartsreiter continued to get over with outrageous falsehoods.

But Seal attributes the theory to Goebbels, who merely paraphrased it; misspells Goebbels's name; and calls him a "German propaganda minister." Gerhartsreiter is German, so citing the Big Idea concept is tricky in that way, because you don't want to collapse one German's personality-disordered aspirations to the American upper class with Nazi (not German) strategies for retailing racial superiority to a mass audience. As I said, that clearly isn't Seal's intent, and I have misspelled "Gerhartsreiter" four different ways already just writing this review; these things happen. I mention it because the rest of the book has such a strong ear for itself and its story that that passage gave me a twitch…and there's probably a longer semantic discussion here that, frankly, I am vastly underqualified to participate in, so let's get back to the praise in 3, 2…

Until Gerhartsreiter's murder trial gets underway (in, I believe, 10 days from this writing), Seal's book is the standard. (And one of the few books converted from a Vanity Fair article that justifies its expansion.) Various true-crime shows have covered the case(s), and it's the subject of a TV movie from a couple years back starring Eric "Will & Grace" McCormack and Sherry "ER" Stringfield that got mildly positive notice. I'll write up the film if I can track it down, but if you want one shot at the case, pick up the Seal. With that one minor exception that probably wouldn't bother anyone else anyway, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is a fast, commanding read, and a good example of why the true-crime genre could stand to get more respect. — SDB, 2/4/13


And here’s another archival piece, this one from Previously.TV, which I think exhausts at last my collection of John Wilkes Boothiana? You’ll find reviews of a couple of books on Booth in the archives; this one’s about a History Channel special on the manhunt for Booth following Lincoln’s murder.

*******

Compelling Subject

5/10

Don't care about the Lincoln assassination/think coverage of it is uniformly portentous and lachrymose? Valid opinion, and you can take a break. I myself am...not preoccupied, but...nagged at, I guess, by how such a floridly annoying drama queen and his Keystone Bigotz operation managed to change the course of American history by murdering one of our secular saints. So I was cautiously psyched for The Hunt For John Wilkes Booth.

I also find manhunts interesting, manhunts and the prison breaks that tend to inspire them. The art in "escape artist," the ice water in the veins -- I just think that process-y stuff is neat.

A+ C.V.

7/10

Surprisingly solid. It's based on Michael Kauffman's American Brutus, which I quite liked, and written/directed by Tom Jennings, who has produced Frontlines, various Lost Tapes TV docus, True Crime With Aphrodite Joneses, and a Biography on...Satan. Hee.

And the talking-head lineup is pretty strong as well, although one does get the sense at this late date in TV history that you don't even have to say the entire word "documentary" before Doris Kearns Goodwin is settling happily into the makeup chair. "Wait, it's about the Japanese bottled-water industry? ...Fuggit, I can give you a coupla grafs. Roll tape."

Doin' Your Homework

2/10

Relative to most documentaries and specials of History Channel provenance, The Hunt moves along nicely, not too repetitive at the ad breaks, not too much hand-holding about the basic facts. I always appreciate it when a documentary assumes my interest in the subject implies a certain depth of knowledge, and doesn't do a Wiki review of the basics.

On the contrary, The Hunt is studded with facts I didn't already have, and while I wish they'd gone into some of them more -- and been more withering about Booth, who really put the "ass" in "assassin" -- it's not dry or laborious.

Great Depression

3/10

In the sense that many of us wonder how things might have turned out if Lincoln hadn't been killed -- or even hadn't had a man many consider the worst president in the nation's history succeeding him -- it's sad, especially when you factor in what became of poor high-strung Mrs. Lincoln. But this is not fresh grief.

It's An Outrage!

3/10

The black-humored joy I derive from teasing my thespian husband with Booth's entire actor-bullshit existence aside? See above. It was tragic, but it was a very long time ago.

(On a side note, and this doesn't rise to the level of an outrage, but I don't think I knew that "sic semper tyrannis" was "and remains" Virginia's official motto. I don't want to tell the Commonwealth its business, but doesn't that seem like something you want to change? Is that not burnt beyond saving, that phrase? And if Booth didn't ruin it for everyone, didn't goddamn Timothy McVeigh?)

Intrusive Filmmaker Agenda

1/10

None that I could discern, unless it was to pack in as much new intel about that fortnight in American public life as possible, in which case, sustained.

Exclusive Footage/Materials

1/10

Not that I could see, or that the docu alludes to. Hat tip for postponing my annoyance at seeing the same half-dozen woodcuts of Booth and his vainglorious mustache until the second half, I guess.

Talking Heads

5/10

Jokes aside, Goodwin does know what she's on about. I also liked John Clark a great deal; he's a retired Marshal, brought on to talk about the logistical side of the manhunt, and the idea that manhunts really haven't changed a whole lot in the intervening generations.

Further Research

7/10

What did happen to Boston Corbett, the man who shot Booth at the barn; lost his mind; then disappeared from a sanitarium? (There's a book from 2015; anyone read it?) Why wasn't the president's valet, Charles Forbes, called to testify? Why does the documentary ignore the fact, mentioned by literally every other commentator on the assassination plot, that David Herold suffered from obvious developmental delays, a defense that was attempted on his behalf? What became of the mobs who hunted down and beat/killed people who even looked like Booth in the days after Lincoln's murder?

So many follow-up questions, which is the sign of a well-built 90 minutes. — SDB, 1/13/16


Wednesday on Best Evidence: A clean bill of health for my esteemed publisher, one hopes — and perhaps a review round-up!


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