Monday, July 30, 2007

Don't Touch Me I'm A Real Live Wire

By Kevin Guilfoile

It was absurd and chilling. The kind of scene that, as a writer, you wished you'd made up yourself.

Joseph "The Shark" Lopez, defense attorney for accused mobster Frank Calabrese, Sr., was cross-examining Frank Calabrese, Jr., his client's son and the star government witness in Chicago's ongoing Family Secrets trial. Lopez was dressed the part of a mob lawyer in a black suit with pink tie and socks. Frank Jr. was in the middle of a grueling week of testimony in which he had confessed to taking part in more than a dozen murders.

"Are you a serial killer?" Lopez asked him.

"No," Frank, Jr. replied. "I'm just a killer."

If I had to propose a universal theory of suspense novels, a single theme common to almost all mysteries and thrillers (some cozies excepted, perhaps) it would be something like what is suggested between the lines of that exchange. Suspense novels explore, again and again, not just the reasons human beings kill each other but, just as significantly, the reasons human beings don't kill each other more often than we do. Almost all suspense fiction is set at the horizon of decency where we've drawn the line representing mankind's ultimate and universal prohibition against taking another person's life. These stories are frequently about the people who seek to cross that line, the individuals assigned to keep them from doing it, and the people who are terrorized and victimized when that ethical wall is breached. The point of it, if I can avoid making it sound too self-important, is to understand what it means to be human. That's the point of all fiction, of course, but suspense novelists have staked out this particular territory on the edge.

And sometimes, it seems, so have the federal courts.

Lopez's half-serious but still provocative question--Are you a serial killer?--was obviously meant to shock both jury and witness (if it's possible to shock a person with so many notches on his holster). And it's easy to see why readers and writers are attracted to and repulsed by the psychology of serial killers. Our fascination with mobsters might even be more complicated. Men like Frank Sr. and Frank Jr don't seem to be mentally ill. I'm not qualified to say whether any of the men accused in the Family Secrets trial is a sociopath. But what becomes clear in the trial testimony is the way killing is not just a method for mob members to eliminate enemies or remove obstacles in their way. For them, murder is a tool of business the same way retailers have QuickBooks and White Sales. If there were a Malcolm Gladwell for mobsters he might be writing THE WHACKING POINT.

The popular notion of some mobster code in which members of the Mafia limit violence to their own kind is rooted partially in this seemingly business-like approach to murder. The serial killer murders for pleasure or to quench some pathological thirst. The mobster always claims to have a commercially viable reason.

But on another day of the trial we got a glimpse at just how frightening and arbitrary those reasons can sometimes be. After someone broke into the home of mob boss Tony Accardo in 1978, burglars all over town began disappearing. Bobby "The Beak" Siegel had nothing to do with the Accardo break in but he was getting the distinct feeling that he might be next. His fears were confirmed in a conversation with mobster Gerald Scarpelli, who told Bobby that The Outfit couldn't be sure exactly who had been involved and so they had decided to go after any and all small time burglars in an effort to send a message. "They were trying to make it one guy of every nationality," Siegel said he was told by Scarpelli of the hit list. "He said, 'You just happened to be the Jew.'"


Libby Hellmann said...

Soul-searching stuff, Kevin. Do we rate killers depending on how many they’ve killed and the motives for their killing? Which is more offensive, killing for passion or killing for business? Like pregnancy, can you be “just a little bit” evil? The Family Secrets trial, which started out as a yawn – at least for me – has, nonetheless, spawned some interesting questions. (Which I hope to expand on later this week). Thanks for another fascinating post.

The Home Office said...

Another thought provoking post, Kevin. You hit on what I like best about the mystery genre: its existence at the edge of behavior. Far out plots may create more best sellers, but to me the real buzz in reading a mystery/thriller is seeing how close the bad guys can be to the good guys without becoming caricatures.