Heating Up the Cold Case Files

NoirI found the remote mansion of the “living Sherlock Holmes” before noon. Richard Walter was a withered, thin man with the face of Poe and a suit that stank of menthol Kools. I sat in the Victorian parlor where baffled cold-case detectives and federal agents came to glimpse the heart of darkness. My host offered me a “spot of tea,” in his formal English accent. Then he handed me a thick book documenting the la cuisine au beurre of a London cannibal killer. Scotland Yard had rushed the book by diplomatic pouch to the forensic psychologist in the Pennsylvania mountains they know as “the guru of perversity.”

On the shelf was I Have Lived Inside the Monster, the book by legendary FBI agent Robert Ressler, whose work inspired Silence of the Lambs. It was inscribed, “To Richard, my friend and fellow monster slayer.” There was also a flattering inscription in Signature Killers by Dr. Robert Keppel, the PhD criminologist and Seattle investigator famed for developing computer programs to chase down Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer. Keppel and Walter are renowned for describing the personality subtypes of murderers in a scientific fashion a generation more advanced than the FBI. Nearby was the grand piano the thin man plays, classical pieces of his own creation — only when he is alone, only when he can create unique pieces no one else will hear and he will never play again — to stimulate the subconscious mind.

“He had served ten years for murder, then the do-gooders let him out,” my host said, his aquiline nose wrinkled in distaste. “And now this. It’s quite a marvelous tale, actually.”
I began to turn through the pages of photographs, close-ups of the iron skillet sizzling with chopped brain and fillet of scalp with bits of dark hair.

“Young man,” my host said, “would you like some cookies? Chocolate chip. I bake them myself, an old recipe with some modifications, real butter, proper chemistry. They’re quite good.”

It was a lovely spring day. Over tea and cookies and fried brain, my host related the story of how he had moved to Pennsylvania coal country. “I do not much enjoy the general run of humanity,” he said, and a village of sixteen hundred suited him well. And to be closer to Philadelphia, where he and his partners — legendary forensic artist Frank Bender, and FBI agent turned private eye William Fleisher — meet on the third Thursday of every month with the greatest detectives ever assembled in one room (Interpol agents, FBI, NYPD, mafia busters, Al-Qaeda hunters; investigators of the JFK assassination, blood spatter, pathology; and every sort of forensic specialist known to CSI viewers) to solve cold murders over a hot gourmet lunch.

Walter, Bender, and Fleisher are the founders of the Vidocq Society, the pro bono cold-case crime fighters from more than two dozen states and foreign countries named for Eugène François Vidocq. Vidocq was the nineteenth-century Parisian criminal turned detective, whose flamboyant memoir inspired Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle and birthed the detective story in all its forms on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sherlock HolmesI spent seven years reporting their story for the nonfiction book The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases. I watched them as armchair detectives, and I watched them go into the field tracking down unrepentant killers — the most diabolical and brilliant who had fooled the police — as forensic avengers, men and women who would rather die than live in a world with no possibility for justice. I came to realize that the hard-boiled noir archetype described by Raymond Chandler and Michael Connelly is real, as surely is the eccentric rationative genius framed by Doyle, as surely is Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell, where three-headed Satan weeps blood-tears, and the graffiti includes “Redrum” and “Ted was here.” I felt like a journalistic Dante following Virgil. “This will change you,” the thin man said, and he was right. I believe in Good. I believe in Evil. Life is more precious than ever.

People ask, “How did you find these guys?” as if they are not quite real. “On the Internet,” I say. The Vidocq Society website hooked me with the headline “Cuisine and Crime.” After investigating a turn-of-the-century serial killer — the murderous Great White Shark that inspired Jaws — for the historical thriller Close to Shore, I vowed to do a book where everyone was living.

Well, not quite.

Michael Capuzzo is the author of The Murder Room and of the New York Times bestseller Close to Shore. He was a reporter for the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he wrote crime and police stories, among other things. He was nominated by the Philadelphia Inquirer four times for the Pulitzer Prize and has won numerous writing awards. Learn more at www.michaelcapuzzo.com.