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Twenty years ago, three uniquely talented men decided that there was far too much unsolved crime in the world, and set out to use their talents to do something about it. Put like that, this sounds like a story about a batman-style avenger of the wronged, but the true tale of The Murder Room is something altogether more remarkable. These three men - a former FBI agent, a forensic artist and a criminal profiler - are the founder members of the Vidocq Society, a pro bono crime-fighting society based in Philadelphia, named in honour of Eugene Vidocq, the head of the first known private detective agency. The Society is little publicised but has done a huge amount of valuable work over the years.
The Murder Room is the name given to the society's meeting place in Pennsylvania, where Vidocq Society Members (VSMs) meet once a month for a gourmet lunch and the chance to discuss a cold case that has baffled the law enforcement agencies that have thus far investigated it. The Society has many applications to consider cases, and filters them based on three criteria - the case must be at least two years old, to give regular agencies a fair chance to solve it themselves; the victim of the case must have committed no crime, and there must be an element that would be of interest to or may be helped by discussion by the Society. The Society is made up of 82 invited members from a variety of criminal and forensic agencies from around the world, and is able to offer new perspectives, ideas and lines of enquiry to those presenting their cold cases - sometimes they may even be able to come right out with who the likely culprit is. Over these twenty years, the Society has consulted on over 300 cases, and claims a success rate of 90%.
Capuzzo bases his book around the three founder members of the society (William Fleisher, the FBI agent; Frank Bender the artist, and Richard Walter the profiler), making it in part a biography of these three men and their remarkable careers, and partly a history of the society and its work. We are introduced to over a dozen of the most significant and interesting cases the society has consulted on - some of these are quite famous if you are familiar with American news or true crime, while others less well known. The Society provides a solution to many of these unsolved crimes, some of which have led to arrests and convictions, but others have sadly failed to provoke a response from the agencies involved. While the society may be able to offer a consultation on the cold cases, they lack the authority to make the necessarily arrests and bring charges themselves. In one such memorable example, a victim's friend presents a cold case to the society, only to be accused by profiler Richard Walter straight after lunch of being the murderer himself; not happy with just deriving pleasure from the crime, Walter argues, he now wishes to enjoy himself by toying with the detectives investigating the case. Based on the evidence presented the accusation seems reasonable, although the local police force refused to act on this information and man was never formally investigated for this crime.
Capuzzo has clearly had a very high level of access to the Society - which usually works behind the scenes and remains uncredited in media reports - presenting not only a fascinating tale, but giving these men and women the praise and acknowledgement they so richly deserve from all the unpaid hours they have put into bringing justice to murder victims. The book is arranged in short chapters and whips along at a cracking pace, drawing you into each new case quickly and totally. The information is clearly presented, and while gruesome in places, it does manage to steer clear of crime thriller cliché and CSI-style storytelling. The variety of material contained within The Murder Room is also sufficient that if you feel one case, anecdote or biographical section doesn't interest you, there will be another one along in a few pages that almost certainly will.
While I found The Murder Room to be a compelling read, I did get exasperated by the poor organisation of the narrative. The book regularly repeats itself, and jumps around, introducing an intriguing crime one minute and then dropping it, only to randomly pick it up again a few chapters later. Perhaps this was to keep the reader pressing on through the text, but I got a little annoyed by it in places. Even now, when I wish to go back to the book to retrieve a few choice quotes for this review, I can't find what I am looking for because the structure is so elusive and there is no index. So no quotes, I'm afraid. The lack of pictures was also a minor niggle for me, and at several points I broke off reading to look things up on the web to get a more visual dimension to back up what I was reading about.
This is a book that should appeal to fans of crime novels and true crime books alike, who will find The Murder Room to be 400+ pages of hard-to-put-down material. However much the author lionises the three protagonists, it is hard not to be impressed by their work, their dedication and their detection skills - it is not for nothing that they are referred to as the heirs of Sherlock Holmes.
== Book Details==
The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo
Penguin Books, pbk, 426 pages
== With thanks to Penguin for providing a review copy of this book ==
== This review originally appeared on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk ===