Monday, February 18, 2013

The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins

Paul Collins is almost exactly my age, has a son with issues in the same spectrum as my older son, and has the kind of career (writing nonfiction books about quirky bits of history) that looks attractive from the outside -- so I sometimes think of him as an alternate-universe me, as if right now on the other side of the Trousers of Time, he's selling books to architects and I'm writing a book about Trollope's favorite trains. This is silly, of course, but if we can't be silly in our own heads, life isn't worth living. So I've read nearly all of Collins's books to date -- Not Even Wrong, The Trouble With Tom, Sixpence House, The Book of William -- and enjoyed them each in their own ways, while following his career with interest.

The Murder of the Century is a more obvious book than any of those, perhaps indicating that someone (Collins himself, an agent or editor or publisher) is getting tired with the sales of those quirky books (a little sleuthing into that well-known book-industry sales-reporting tool shows that Murder is already his second-bestselling book, close behind Sixpence, which has an eight-year head start). Of course, there's nothing wrong with writing books that people will want to read, and Murder is much more commercial than, say Trouble, being the story of a major (but now-forgotten) murder case and subsequent media frenzy in late 19th century New York City.

It's a fine scandal -- a series of body parts (lower torso, upper torso and arms) are found around New York in 1897, and are identified as William Guldensuppe, German immigrant and worker in a Turkish bath in midtown. Guldensuppe was living with a woman, Augusta Nack, who had left her husband for him, and the story is that another man (Martin Thorn) was moving in, and Guldensuppe wouldn't move out. Add the lack of a head -- allowing the defense to claim that Guldensuppe ran away and is not dead -- and the whispered imputations that Nack, a licensed midwife, did most of her work as an illegal abortionist, and the newspaper arms race between Hearst and Pulitzer of the day, and the Guldensuppe murder was front-page material. More than that: screaming front pages, over and over again, with teams of reporters from a panoply of papers doing nothing else and special editions chasing each other and the last scrap of news or scandal or imputation, from the first piece of Guldensuppe was pulled from the East River until Thorn was executed for the crime.

Collins tells that story well, digging into the archives -- as he did in Book of William and Trouble With Tom -- to get lots of details and color. (There's a lot of dialogue in this book, and Collins has a note up front to state that it's all straight out of the papers of the day -- this story was so exhaustively covered that nearly every word of it was written down at the time.) On the other hand, there's less Collins in this book than in his previous work: he's telling a reporters' story this time, in the way a reporter would. It's exciting and interesting and a great window into a world that's both been gone for over a hundred years and still feels very contemporary, with ubiquitous news and blaring scandals.

If you've never read Paul Collins, but like smart nonfiction, Murder is a great place to start -- he has an amazing story to tell, one completely forgotten after the century of shocking murders since. But if you have read Collins before, there's less of him in these pages than you've been used to.

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