SOCIAL SCIENCES

Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of

. 2012. 400p. 978-0-34552-244-8. 20.
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Schechter (American literature & culture, Queens Coll.; The Devil’s Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century) presents meticulously researched retellings of selected once famous, now forgotten American murders between 1782 and 1961. The collection is most effective as an overview of the progenitors of modern-day serial killers. It is less effective as pleasure reading, since the first two-thirds of the cases follow the same pattern: American psycho commits brutal murder; murder site becomes bizarre tourist attraction; murder is bemoaned in news as the worst ever; murderer is caught and publicly hanged; hack writer sells ballad describing murder. Only toward the end of the chronology—when public hangings became socially abhorrent and asylums began to take some of the load off the gallows (so to speak)—do the stories grow more varied and interestingly gray. Many of the more historically significant cases are also treated in Schechter’s 2008 True Crime: An American Anthology.
VERDICT Schechter completists and die-hard historical true-crime readers will not be disappointed. Still, while Schecter tells it like it was, the older cases become progressively less engaging once you realize you know where they’re heading.

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