Monster: "He was a strange boy"
Plus Big Pharma, the McCanns, and carceral retaliation
Breaking news! …Not really; it’s just an administrative update, thank goodness, because I think we’ve all had about as many 64-point true-crime headlines as we can stand this week, and it’s only Thursday!
So next week, we’re switching up our programming a bit. Eve and I get a little break; you guys get 1) a look at previously pay-walled content AND 2) the chance to snag an annual paid sub for just $50. (If you simply can’t wait to subscribe, though, we’re here for you!)
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What you can look forward to:
Mon 9/26: review two-fer // Eve looks at Lifetime’s upcoming Gabby Petito feelm; I’ll also review…something, probably Netflix’s Bling Ring series but if you’ve got suggestions, I’m open! Also: Monday’s edition is usually paywalled, but you’ll get it free next week.
Tue 9/27: project brainstorm // I’ve got a bunch of big ideas for coverage — on-this-date research; true-crime Emmy-winner rundown — and I’d love your input. Any time, really, but especially on the 27th.
Wed 9/28: “vacation” consumption // When you need a holiday from true crime, what do you read/watch?
Thu 9/29: archival field trip // A few pieces from behind the paywall that you may not have seen before (or remember from The Before Time).
Fri 9/30: budget-doc round-up // Our shared story file filled up like 12 hours after Eve cleaned it out last time, so we’ll send you into that weekend with beaucoup reading material — and the monthly bonus review will drop that day as well. But…it’s only for paid subscribers, so hop on that sale; it’s on until 10/1.
In the meantime, it’s business as usz, and also as usz, thank you for reading Best Evidence and for helping us try to survey a massive genre. The more the merrier, so grab a friend and let’s keep going! — SDB
Fraud; malpractice; price-fixing/collusion; criminal negligence; creation of an entire true-crime subgenre, let’s face it.
Gerald Posner is perhaps best known for his JFK-de-crackpotting book Case Closed, and he’s found himself at the center of no small amount of litigation himself — for some of which he hired Mark Lane, of all damn people, to represent him, but if I get into that whole kerfuffle with Harper Lee right now, this issue will not get published until November, so let’s return to Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America, Posner’s 2020 book on Big Pharma’s origins and evolution into the bloodlessly self-interested monster we all know today.
I didn’t know for sure when I started the book — which I’d grabbed with an Audible credit primarily because its narrator, Jacques Roy, absolutely killed it on Graff’s Watergate book — that it belonged in the true-crime lane, but industry shenanigans involving patent medicines started from the jump…
Addictive products are part of the industry’s DNA, from the days when corner drugstores sold morphine, heroin, and cocaine, to the past two decades of dangerously overprescribed opioids.
Pharma also uncovers the real story of the Sacklers, the family that became one of America’s wealthiest from the success of OxyContin, their blockbuster narcotic painkiller at the center of the opioid crisis.
…and ended up creating, and then denying, the opioid epidemic. It’s definitely on-topic for us, then, and Roy’s low-pH rendering of damning footnotes is five-star as always — but do I recommend Pharma?
I gave it five stars on Goodreads, because, while I wouldn’t call the listening experience “pleasurable,” exactly, Roy is the perfect choice for profoundly maddening and dispiriting material. I read Case Closed so long ago that I haven’t retained any particular impression of Posner’s prose, and in any case I tend to find certain writing tics and tendencies less remarkable in either direction on audio — but said audio came in at 23 hours (816 pages in the print edition), and it moved right along1. From a construction and execution standpoint, it’s a LOT of time, but not a waste of it.
From a “this is going to make you want to find a corporate headquarters and burn it to the ground” standpoint, however, you should proceed with caution. Like Dopesick, it may necessitate frequent rage breaks; here’s how I felt about Beth Macy’s book a couple years back:
Before y’all chose Dopesick for me to read, I had already gotten it from the library, but it took me months to finish it because I could only manage a dozen pages at a time before the urgent need to find a Sackler to kick in the nards overtook me.
And my emotional response to a lot of Pharma was the same, what with the price-gouging of AIDS/HIV treatments; the shameless lobbying and glib victim-blaming; and the fact that the “The Coming Pandemic” chapter isn’t about covid, but about dumbshit pharma firms and prescribers let the misuse of antibiotics spiral so far out of control that our next president is probably going to be a MRSA. (Insert joke about our previous president here, I guess.) The blithely insane price point for biologic chemotherapies is, like much of the information in Pharma, not news to me — a family member’s Opdivo bill last year prompted a lot of mordant jokes about loading some wheelbarrows of worthless currency onto the Bristol Myers corporate jet — but it’s still infuriating, not least because the average reader can’t do shit about this specific bootheel of capitalism except learn to love the taste.
In other words, the book is informative and evocative — and that’s quite possibly a problem. I do recommend it, unless the names “Sackler” or “Shkreli” cause a literal elevation in your heart rate, in which case skip Pharma and go lie down with a vintage cookbook or something. — SDB
Madeleine McCann’s parents have lost a court battle going back over a decade. The McCanns, whose daughter notoriously went missing during a family holiday in Portugal in 2007,
argued that Portuguese authorities had breached their right to respect for a private and family life in the way the courts there dealt with their libel claims against Goncalo Amaral.
He claimed in a book, TV documentary and newspaper interview that the McCanns were involved in their daughter Madeleine’s disappearance.
This is ancillary to the actual disappearance, but evidently that’s still a going concern in still a third jurisdiction (the McCanns are British).
Earlier this year German investigators found new evidence against the prime suspect in her disappearance, a prosecutor revealed in an interview on Portuguese television.
Convicted sex offender Christian Brueckner was declared a suspect in the case by Portuguese officials in April as a 15-year legal deadline approached, and he has been under investigation by German officials for two years.
For more on the Brueckner development, and “how [the case] became a national obsession” in the UK, try this Guardian audio longread from 2020. — SDB
Keri Blakinger has a guest post at Substance about the aftermath of a Texas jailbreak for other prisoners in the state. Pandemic conditions in Texas state prisons were, it probably goes without saying, not great, with both sides turning blind eyes to various infractions and code violations —
[M]en with contraband cell phones began sending [Blakinger] videos of other prisoners who’d broken out of their cells and begun fighting in the common areas, or popping into their friends’ cells to get high. In the midst of the pandemic, desperate prisoners were getting bolder, and covid-fearing guards less inclined to intervene.
but various other “disturbances,” including hostage situations, paled beside the escape of Mexican mafioso Gonzalo Lopez in May of this year. It does seem like word of Lopez’s prison-bus hijacking would have reached my ears, but as Blakinger explains, a couple of other things had the national attention when Lopez
slipped out of his hand cuffs and hijacked the bus on an empty rural road, ultimately stabbing one of the guards before vanishing into the woods. He spent three weeks on the run, then murdered five people before police killed him in a shoot-out south of San Antonio. The escape and killings made national news – but only briefly, sandwiched between coverage of Uvalde and the fall of Roe.
Blakinger quotes at length from a source inside who says they knew the minute Lopez took off that they’d have to pay for his sins — and that the murders he committed would make the retaliation more severe. A snip:
First, they locked us all down – a statewide lockdown, before they found him. And they started feeding us terribly. The food was spoiled. The peanut butter [in the sandwiches] started coming watered down. I know they said they were understaffed because of the escape, but the thing about that is that the inmates are the ones that cook the food so you don’t really need that much manpower. My only conclusion was that they was just going to make us suffer.
It’s a gripping, almost anxiety-inducing read; Blakinger, the author of Corrections in Ink, knows when to stand in front with interesting background information, and when to stand back and let others talk. — SDB
Jeffrey “The Milwaukee Cannibal” Dahmer’s grisly series of crimes likely needs no introduction. He committed nearly 20 murders between 1978 and 1991, when he was finally apprehended after Tracy Edwards escaped his clutches.
I’ve watched the first two episodes of DAHMER: Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story — or however we’re meant to style the title; they ought probably to have just named it The Netflix Dahmer Thing since that’s likely what everyone’s going to call it — and I still do not quite have a handle on whether it’s succeeding at what it’s trying.
The acting, unsurprisingly, is very good. Evan Peters as Dahmer is threading a needle with a very tiny eye, trying to give us a sense of a person and a set of motivations that, as I’ve said many times re: serial killers, we civilians can’t fully grasp — but without seeming in the performance to apologize for or rationalize Dahmer’s monstrous actions. Richard Jenkins as Lionel Dahmer, Michael Beach as a detective, and particularly Shaun J. Brown as Tracy in the first episode do nice work with truly rough material.
But the painstaking pace is not working for me so far. It’s fine to go back over well-known ground and move the light over different parts of a case; it’s more than fine to center victims in that way. But with this case, it’s nearly impossible not to cross the line between testifying to the terror Dahmer’s targets must have experienced and trying somehow to honor their awful deaths, and cataloging the inscrutable fetishes of a ghoul. Brown does outstanding work with minimal indicating as Tracy’s mind races through possible escape options — but is the tension that creates in the viewer instructive? Does it create empathy? Or is it just tension?
I think I can safely assert that Ryan Murphy and co. don’t have cynical intentions in their storytelling here. I imagine Monster is trying also to point up the way homophobia let certain killers — Gacy; Last Call’s prime suspect; Andrew Cunanan — operate far longer than they should have; the “are we gonna catch anything” scene in Episode 2 makes it clear that Milwaukee PD had no interest in solving or preventing what law enforcement used to call “homo-cides.” The question is, given that this fact is already in evidence in any number of other properties — including in Murphy’s wrenching and innovative second installment of American Crime Story — whether the gnarly adrenalized horrors you have to endure en route to work ACS and Elon Green already did is worth it.
My answer for y’all is: not quite. I will continue watching, because I want to see how it gets where it’s going and why it went with its chosen route. It isn’t a waste of your time and it isn’t a cheap thrill. But I do feel like maybe this needed a different, more elliptical structure whose inventiveness would justify rehashing the horror, as ACS’s did.
Planning to give it a look this weekend — or not? Want to see what other readers say before you try it? You know what to do. — SDB
Friday on Best Evidence: The Bachelor, sigh.
Helped in part by my customary playback setting of 1.2x speed. There’s only so much time, folks.