Murder By The Book · Aquarius · Mommy Dead And Dearest

Plus, "the biggest event in true crime history," eye-roll emoji!

One of the first true-crime “fads” got a murder blamed on…a book?

The crime

The brutal murder of Lord William Russell seemed to come from nowhere. The 73-year-old minor aristocrat had his throat sliced open in his own bed, while nothing appeared to have been stolen from his room, and there were no signs of forced entry. In 1840, Victorian London’s upper classes had reason to fear that there was potential danger from the workers they surrounded themselves with. Meanwhile, the growing craze for crime stories among the lower classes had led to worries of widespread moral corruption. Lord Russell’s killing became the highest-profile crime of the year, its notoriety increasing when the accused murderer blamed a famous fictional criminal for his inspiration.

The story

The murder of Lord William hit the headlines just months after the bloody Chartist riots among working-class men protesting for voting rights had shaken the establishment. Class uprisings, and the potential of violence from one’s own servants, helped stoke fears in the aristocracy of instability in the old order. It didn’t help that the killing was such a puzzle. The victim had been a harmless old codger without any known enemies, and the crime had no obvious motive. Barely anything seemed to have been stolen from the house, which didn’t show signs of forced entry. While the police presence at the scene was heavy, it would become clear that it was bungled from the start, with a steady stream of people trooping in and out of Lord Russell’s room where the corpse lay for days on end.

But Claire Harman’s Murder By the Book isn’t just a historical whodunnit, though it tries somewhat half-heartedly to keep that ball in play right up to its end. Harman’s real interest is in how the bestselling crime stories of the day became entangled in the Russell murder investigation and the subsequent high-profile trial. At the same time the Russell killing was in every newspaper, the public was enthralled by cheap serialised stories that helped fuel the popularity of true crime-inspired fiction. More or less the Law & Order franchises of their day, these “Newgate novels” took gory records from Newgate prison as storylines, threw in some “flash cant” criminal slang, and heaped on the melodrama.

Not everyone was a fan. Up-and-coming writer William Makepeace Thackeray was among the critics of this “felon literature,” thinking it awoke in its audience morally hazardous cravings for more, and worse, depictions of violence. Thackeray got so worked up over crime fiction’s curdling effect on readers that he wrote his own parody version, Catherine, based on the goriest true story he could find, intended to jolt his audience into genre abstinence. This plan went about as well as you’d imagine and Catherine barely made it into publication. Thackeray’s distaste for the genre led him to take a pop at Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist for having a cast of charismatic criminals whom readers might find sympathetic.

Thackeray’s snippiness couldn’t stop the immense popularity of Dickens’s novel and others like it, which peaked with William Ainsworth Harrison’s Straight Outta Newgate serial Jack Sheppard. Like a Da Vinci Code about East End rapscallions instead of wackadoo Vatican conspiracies, Jack Sheppard was a massive hit that quickly got a popular music-hall adaptation. The craze was so big that it led to fears of copycat crimes among its young working-class fans. That the theatre’s merch items included a DIY lock-picking kit probably didn’t help its reputation.

When Lord Russell’s accused murderer gave the 1840s equivalent of the Twinkie defense by claiming that Jack Sheppard inspired the killing, critics of crime stories had a field day. The main charge against the genre wasn’t the blurring of lines between truth and fiction that gets focussed on these days, but instead the muddying of distinctions between good and evil. As one contemporary writer complained, “Don’t let us have any juggling and thimble-rigging with virtue and vice, so that at the end of three volumes, the bewildered reader shall not know which is which.”

Books called “Murder By the Book” do not get sold on the “book” part of the title, but it’s clear that it’s the literary hullabaloo Harman is much more interested in. She tries to keep up the pace with some twists in the Lord Russell parts of the story, including a stunning mid-trial revelation, but the book only gels when she’s dealing with the writers (she’s the author of several excellent literary biographies). The murder half of the book gets bogged down in I-took-notes-on-this-so-I’m-telling-you extraneous detail about the Russell family’s boringly old-money milieu. Knowing that Lord William’s funeral was held at an Anglo-Norman chapel built by the widow of the first Earl of Bedford didn't do much to turn the pages for me.

But the stuff that works, works well. In one brilliant chapter on a public execution, the author veers between Thackeray and Dickens’s differing perspectives — physically as well as philosophically, as Thackeray stood among the mob while Dickens paid for a view several stories above him. From here the book can survey the attraction of horror across class and gender boundaries, the emerging anti-capital punishment movement, the mechanics of state execution, as well as its entrepreneurial by-products, like popular ballads and wax works. If you thought serial-killer playing cards were tacky, the Victorian trade in death mask replicas could give you an attack of the vapours.

For a short book, there’s a lot in here, and in classic Victorian fashion, some of it’s too much. Alas, just when you think you can get through an entire book on a Victorian London murder without the phrase “Jack the Ripper,” it’s crowbarred in for an unecessary bit of speculation towards the end. But under all the extra details and sidebars, there’s a satisfying story of how the cultural unease over crime stories has long co-existed with our fascination with them. — Margaret Howie


Speaking of book reviews, it’s time to vote on my “assigned” book for March! Not much suspense as of this writing, but if you haven’t voted yet, now’s the time!


Hey, remember when David “History’s Greatest Acting Robot” Duchovny played an L.A. cop trying to bust up the Manson Family? Seems like another life. I think only I stuck around for the duration of Aquarius, but I also think it was underrated, particularly Gethin Anthony’s lived-in performance as Charles Manson. Here’s my New Show Fact Sheet on the show from Previously.tv.

What is this thing?

Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) is a decorated World War II vet and homicide police in 1967 Los Angeles. Asked by an old GF (Michaela McManus) to bring home her runaway 16-year-old daughter off the books, he teams with undercover vice detective Brian Shafe (Grey Damon, True Blood) to infiltrate the "sea of hippies" young Emma has disappeared into.

Complicating matters: Emma (Emma Dumont, Bunheads) has fallen in with Charlie Manson (Gethin Anthony, Game Of Thrones); Emma's father, Ken (Brian O'Byrne), was Manson's lawyer (and maybe more); it's the late sixties, and everyone's over it with law enforcement, especially the Nation Of Islam, represented here with on-point asperity by Bunchy Carter (Gaius Charles, Friday Night Lights); and Hodiak is estranged from his boozy wife Opal, who faked some kind of family-emergency letter to get their son Walt to go AWOL from Vietnam.

Iiiiiit's a lot.

When is it on?

All the time! ...Okay: it will have a regular timeslot Thursdays at 9 PM on NBC, but after tonight's debut, NBC's dropping the entire season on Hulu, so you can watch it any way you like.

Why now?

It's summer (Aquarius got pushed back a couple times, if I recall correctly, after originally getting slated for a fall-2014 premiere), and it pairs well with Hannibal, sort of. And execs seldom say no to a rumination on Los Angeles's race dysfunction, regardless of the era -- but with Mad Men just having ended, this late-sixties period piece is fortuitously timed.

What's its pedigree?

The acting pedigree, outlined above, is solid. Creator John McNamara is something of a well-regarded, early-cancelled-series cottage industry (JerichoProfit) and also exec-produced In Plain Sight and the U.S. Prime Suspect, which I liked even though it should have just left it out with the remake elements.

...And?

It's good! Particularly given the number of by-numbers elements in play, including but not limited to the oil-and-water new partners; Everyone Learns Something About Race; cops Taking! It! Personally!; the possible rekindling of the old flame; the lingo of the era, specifically Manson's guru-speak, and the name-checking of specific events in this work of "historical fiction" (there's a running gag about the Miranda warning that's a little too pleased with itself).

But Duchovny is having a great time, and as written, Hodiak and Shafe are both pretty cool and smart, but occasionally short-sighted and dicky enough that they're relatable. The procedural part of the show is paced well, particularly in the first half of the premiere, as Hodiak and Shafe fit together the pieces of why Emma left the party, with whom, Charlie's last name, why didn't her father admit Charlie is a client, and so on.

Manson is also written and portrayed perfectly. Using the actual guy and his actual Family does pose problems, from a fact-checking standpoint but also because, at this distance, it's somewhat difficult to understand how this sawed-off little striver gathered any followers at all, much less made them into human weapons of his destruction and enthralled a nation with the terror they wreaked. The guy IRL is tiny and full of shit, and you read Helter Skelter and you wonder why some biker or rule-breaker cop didn't just kill him, if only to shut him the fuck up for five minutes. "I don't look at you -- but I see you"? Blech.

But Anthony puts that across really well. You see why Manson's patter both appeals to and appalls Emma, though we roll our eyes at it today, and it helps that the show seems to hold him in the same baffled contempt I do.

Duchovny's very appealing here, maybe a little overwritten so he's not too square for Shafe to even deal with, but obviously enjoying himself and lines about smoking pot like, "You kids, you think you invented everything." The dialogue in general has a snappy wiseacre tone I like. I do not "like" the casual contemporary racist terms and behavior, obviously, but Aquarius doesn't stand back from those moments all "get a load of THIS asshole, right guys?" This is how people talked fifty years ago. It's shitty and wrong, but the script doesn't stop itself dead to make sure we get that, or that the show itself obviously disapproves.

It's well cast overall. Anthony is very annoying as Manson, but purposefully; Claire Holt is great as the unapologetically high-strung Charmain; Kyle Secor turns in another fearlessly dingus-ish performance as a suspect in Hour 2.

...But?

Hodiak is maybe a little too unflappable and quippy. "Usually it's he-said-she-dead" is a pretty clever black-humor line about domestic-violence investigations, but a little of that will go a long way.

A little of Manson will last me personally a lifetime, and as I said, Anthony's performance is a controlled and thoughtful blend of sincere delusion, neediness, and amoral manipulation, but the crazy-asshole-seeks-same vibe of the Family is, I think, well established. Aquarius's conception of Manson as, in no small part, really annoying is accurate...but then that still means he's really annoying. I'd rather spend more time on the police work.

...On the police work. Not on the police's personal lives. Giving Shafe an African-American wife is a bit much, though it could pan out; certainly I don't care to spend time on the future ex-Mrs. Hodiak's alcoholic BPD whatever and the AWOL son.

...So?

I'm in. I hope it maintains the balance among its many potent ingredients, but if it can stick mostly to the cop-show side of the aisle, it's got potential. — SDB, 6/5/15


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It doesn’t seem like we as a culture ever DIDN’T know about the Blanchard case, but back when Mommy Dead And Dearest first came out on HBO, I wrote it up for Previously in Spectrum Analysis form…and revisiting the piece is making me want to revisit the doc.

Notorious Case

3/10

Maybe in my online circle, which got obsessed with the case thanks to the excellent longform Buzzfeed piece by Michelle Dean, but I don't think it's at national-nightly-news critical mass. You should go read Dean's piece, but the short version is that Gypsy Rose Blanchard, Munchausen-by-proxied her whole life by her grifter/paper-hanger mother Dee Dee and not seeing any other way to get out of her situation, managed to scare herself up an online boyfriend who was willing to kill Dee Dee for her, which he did.

Gypsy is currently a guest of Missouri DOC, eligible for parole in 2024. The boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn, goes on trial this summer.

A+ C.V.

6/10

Erin Lee Carr has only made one other feature-length docu, Thought Crimes, but 1) I thought quite well of it, given I didn't really care about the case prior to the film; and 2) she's still not yet 30 years old. Don't sleep on Carr's work, folks.

Have A Seat, Voice-Over

1/10

MDAD doesn't have a VO, but a couple of the chyrons unnecessarily italicize the proceedings.

Silent-Movie Re-enactments

0/10

Not applicable.

Idiots' Guide

4/10

Hard to say, because I do know the case, but Carr does a good job setting the stage with Gypsy and Nick's interrogations, then doubling back to the root cause of Gypsy arranging her mother's murder, the Munchausen by proxy. The syndrome itself is overexplained, in my opinion -- literally every medical drama since the late '80s has had at least one episode devoted to Munchausen or the proxy variation -- but that was probably a network note. In any case, it splits the difference well between bringing newcomers up to speed and not boring those in the know.

Keepin' You Up Nights

3/10

Dee Dee's dead-eyed cheery face in photos reminded me of Margo Martindale in Million Dollar Baby, a manipulative moon-faced bully in a Tweety t-shirt. I'm not excusing what Gypsy did, but I'm not sure she did have another way out, honestly.

On another note, and I don't mean to shade poor spellers or those with reading challenges, but if this is how Dee Dee, a former nurse's aide, thinks these conditions are rendered?

This is how malpractice suits are born. On another note, a local news broadcast informs us at one point that Nick had prior arrests for, among other things, looking at porn in a McDonald's and masturbating "for nine hours." H...ow does that work? Like, if he even has any epidermis left on his felonious dongle after three hours, hasn't someone called the law on him already?

Content-To-Filler Ratio

8/10

Nick is, according to his mother, on the spectrum, so some of the footage of his interrogation -- for instance, the bit where he relates that, after the actual killing, Gypsy wanted to "blow me a little bit," but they had to pack and clean up the crime scene -- is perhaps included for a shock value it doesn't quite earn, given Nick's apparent inability to grasp what's appropriate. In other words, maybe he is a sociopath, but it's hard to say whether that footage proves it.

Other than that, and some sliiiightly too-quaint B-roll of Louisiana, solid ratio.

Exclusive Footage/Access

9/10

I love that Michelle Dean is in MDAD. And so is pretty much everyone else -- Nick and his mother only appear in interrogation footage, but Carr speaks to the prosecutor, Gypsy's defense attorney, Munchausen expert Dr. Marc Feldman, Gypsy's father and stepmother, Dee Dee's dad and stepmom (who throw suuuuuuch chilly shade on the departed), the doctor who notched the medical-notation understatement of the century with this note on Gypsy's chart,

and Gypsy herself. Gypsy is very forthcoming and seems sincere and contrite (though a number of other interviewees note that she can't not have absorbed her mother's manipulative example), and didn't seem to have a problem with Carr using embarrassing photos of the alter egos she created to go with Nick's multiple personalities.

It's...a lot.

Further Research

My esteemed colleague Stephanie Green and I could not WAIT for this to drop, and it did not disappoint. We'll see on next week's episode of The Blotter Presents what Stephanie thought; in the meantime, check out Dean's article on Buzzfeed, linked above, as it goes into more detail on certain aspects of the case (like the internet-sleuthing "community" that sprouted up like toxic mushrooms around the case and some of its tertiary figures). — SDB, 5/15/17


April really is the cruelest month. That’s when Oxygen is rolling out its 12 Dark Days of Serial Killers event. 12DDoSK starts April 9 with “back to back premieres, including new specials ‘Catching a Serial Killer: Sam Little and ‘Snapped: Notorious Hollywood Ripper,’” along with a returning series and the season finale of The DNA of Murder with Paul Holes.

My response: “…k.” First of all, I wouldn’t call myself an Oxygen-ologist, but it doesn’t seem like they avoid serial-killer programming under normal circumstances, so I’m just not sure why this is noteworthy. Second of all, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for network conversations about when to schedule this, since based on the 12-days rubric it might have originally been pegged to the holidays, then deemed too crass and moved off of December? But this is a network that airs a show called Killer Siblings so I don’t even know.

I do know that the version of the announcement that made it to E! News is calling it “the biggest event in true crime history.” And until Redditors solve the DB Cooper case, I guess I can’t argue. — SDB


Tuesday on Best Evidence: Eve takes a break from prepping for Episode 135 to bring you the latest case updates!


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