Back in 2005 during one of my frequent trips to the public library I came across a copy of The Best American Crime Writing: 2004 Edition. After looking the book over I quickly grabbed it, not because I’m a fan of “true crime” writing but over the years I’ve come to enjoy such anthologies as Best American Essays, Best American Science Writing and Best American Nonrequired Reading and I was willing to take a chance on another one. After burning through the 2004 crime anthology in relatively no time years later one of the book’s essays seemed to always stick with me. That particular essay chronicled the history of the Vidocq Society, a group of detectives, criminologists, law enforcement personnel and other professional crime fighters who meet every month in an upscale meeting hall in downtown Philadelphia to solve unsolved murders. Intrigued by such a fascinating society I always hoped some writer would expound upon the original essay and write a book-length piece about the Vidocq Society. Then one evening I happened to catch a Fresh Air interview with Michael Capuzzo. Author of the 2002 book Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916, during the program Capuzzo discussed his latest book The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Homes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases. After learning that finally, at last a writer had written a book about the famous Philadelphia-based crime solving society I vowed to someday grab the book from my local pubic library. As luck would have it, a few weeks ago I spotted Capuzzo’s book during one of those frequent visits. True to my vow, I snatched it. After ripping through it in what seemed like no time at all, I felt in spite of the book’s flaws I found myself sucked in and therefore considerably entertained.
Founded in 1990 by three incredibly gifted men, each one radically different from the other: an idealistic Jewish-American FBI and Customs Agent; a libertine and former boxer turned self-educated forensic sculptor; and a mercurial yet brilliant criminal profiler, eventually the Society would grow to 82 members (since Eugene Francois Vidocq lived to the ripe old age of 82) representing an elite collection of individuals united by their collective desire to solve unsolved murders. Together the Society would tackle cold cases thought unsolvable by local law enforcement agencies, with some cases like “the boy in the box” and “the butcher of Cleveland” going unsolved for decades. According to Capuzzo, each month the assembled minds would listen to that meeting’s selected case and proceed with asking rapid fire questions, all in hopes of solving the case before the dessert would arrive.
Like I said at the start, despite the book’s flaws, I found The Murder Room enjoyable reading. Averaging about two stars out of five on both Goodreads and Amazon, most readers thought Capuzzo spent too much time telling the backstories of the three founding Vidocq Society members and not enough time on the goings on inside the Society itself. Those same readers also criticized the book from a structural standpoint, complaining that it jumped around too much. While I agree wholeheartedly with those valid criticisms, I found those backstories incredibly interesting. Therefore if Capuzzo’s literary detours are distractions, thankfully they are entertaining distractions.
Sometimes a book will succeed in spite of itself. Considering how much I liked this book regardless of its shortcoming, perhaps The Murder Room is just that kind of book.