The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers
by Michael Newton
Published by Checkmark Books
391 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Aaron Blanton
What do you do when you're 49 years old and you've written 146 non-fiction books with names like Century of Slaughter, Cop Killers and Armed and Dangerous: The Writer's Guide to Weapons? I mean, by the time you've written a pile of books that high and you're still only in the comfortable embrace of middle-age, it stands to reason that you'll have accumulated a lot of knowledge on the topics on which you write. You'll know stuff -- perhaps more than you ever thought you wanted to know -- about the darker part of human nature. You'll have spent so much time researching and reading and learning that your head will be full of dark notes. And you'll want to do something with them. To exorcise them in some fashion. A logical way to do this might just be to compile all of that knowledge into something encyclopedic. A reference for those delving into that dark part. A place, if nothing else, to dump all of that accumulated knowledge while a) producing yet another book and b) giving the world a compendium of stuff they didn't even know they wanted to know.
Michael Newton's The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers might not have come into being this way, but then again, it might have. Either way, the resulting book is bone-chilling, absolutely not for the faint of heart or stomach and an absolute must for crime fiction writers and others with a need to have this sort of information close to hand. It's well executed, entirely comprehensive and includes more details on this topic than most people may ever want or need.
Newton, by virtue of those 146 books if nothing else, is an intensely professional writer. This might be why he's opted for a deadpan -- pardon the pun -- approach to his topic here. And really, why embellish it? The subject and the material are horrific enough as it is. In fact, Newton's "just the facts, ma'am" approach perhaps even adds to the horror. Take, for instance, Gerard John Shaefer, the Florida-based sometimes-teacher, the so-called "Butcher of Blind Creek" who, in the mug shot photo included in the book, smiles pleasantly at the camera. While Shaefer was convicted for just two murders -- both of them grisly -- there was strong evidence linking him to many, many more: perhaps over 100.
The photos -- all black and white and not slickly printed -- are compelling in themselves. You find yourself scanning the faces, looking for signs. It's frightening to not find any. Sure, you can look at the photo of Ottis Toole, the "practicing cannibal" who was convicted of two murders in 1984, though who likely was responsible for over 100 more. Toole's forehead doesn't have "crazy ass murderer" tattooed on it, but it may as well have. With an IQ of 75, Toole was classified as retarded and his eyes show it. Asymmetrical, they seem to peer stupidly at the camera. His jaw is slack. His teeth are gapped. Sure, he is ugly, but it's more than ugly. His is the face you imagine central casting would send down if you ordered up a serial killer.
Most of the others, however, do not -- in photos, at least -- appear as transparent. Ted Bundy was the classic of course, and he's made the cut of inclusion for this book. Richard Ramirez, L.A.'s vicious "Night Stalker" would look more normal in his photo if not for the pentagram on his palm that he holds up to the camera like a badge of honor. Or Paul Knowles, whose, "gaunt good looks" helped make his female victims easy targets. More than 240 serial killers are profiled in The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers but many more are included in the extensive appendices that Newton has prepared for the book. And yet, it's all just the tip of the iceberg. Newton tells us in his preface to the book that more than 1500 serial killers render, "comprehensive coverage of each and every case unfeasible in any single volume." Even so, beyond the 240 serial killers the author has chosen to profile in the main body of the book, "The remainder of cases known at this writing are presented in a detailed appendix, further subdivided into sections for solo killers, those who murder with accomplices, and cases presently unsolved."
The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers brings home one frightening truth: Anything you've seen on television or at the movies -- from serial TV to Natural Born Killers -- is only a pale reflection of real life. If you find this an unsettling notion -- and, quite frankly, I do -- this will not be a book to add to your library. Ignorance is bliss, they say and I'm not one to disagree in this context. Too intimate a brush with The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers had me peering over my shoulder and locking my car doors while driving for a week. In some cases, maybe it really is better not to know. | July 2000
Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living in Scotland. Most of the time, he's happy to be alive.