I told San Diego author Caitlin Rother that she has gotten a virgin. Me. Until I read an advance copy of her book Body Parts coming out this week, I had never had the slightest interest in sexual S&M (sadism/masochism), M&M (murder/mayhem), or even porn, in books, movies, or on TV (unless you consider watching today’s economic news a tendency to self-flagellate). I trembled upon reading a plug by a fellow author: “Caitlin Rother delivers page-turning excitement and blood-curdling terror once again with Body Parts, yet her skill screams loudest in covering the details of murder — sometimes the most ghastly crimes imaginable.”
Oh dear. But even in my innocence, I couldn’t put this excellent book down.
I had admired her work as a reporter for the Union-Tribune, although we don’t know each other that well and didn’t work together. I read her 2005 book, Poisoned Love, on the tragic case of Kristin Rossum, the bright, beautiful young San Diego scientist whose methamphetamine addiction, along with her affair with her boss, led her to murder her husband. As Rother, a Kensington resident, says, “She had everything going for her and threw it away. She had three relationships: with her husband, her lover, and with meth. She picked meth and destroyed her life.” The book, now in its fifth printing, skillfully probes both the murder and Rossum’s psyche, but is not filled with violence.
In 2007, Rother’s novel Naked Addiction (Leisure Fiction), about San Diego sex, drugs, and murder, came out and got some good reviews, but it did only fairly well, she says. The next year, Twisted Triangle, a true story about an attempted murder and a lesbian love affair, came out to good reviews and “did all right, not fabulously,” says Rother. It comes out in paperback in April. All told, including Body Parts, there have been 170,000 copies of her books printed. In September, Where Hope Begins coauthored with TV reporter Alysia Sofios, will tell how Sofios risked her career by sheltering victims of a cult whose leader produced offspring by his wife, daughters, and wife’s nieces, while children were murdered.
Body Parts is the true story of a serial killer, Wayne Adam Ford, now on death row at San Quentin. He murdered four prostitutes through erotic asphyxiation (a dangerous way to intensify the orgasm) and dumped their bodies in Humboldt, San Bernardino, Kern, and San Joaquin counties. He probably murdered more; he told authorities he had used erotic asphyxiation on 50 women. He stuck pins in his sex partners and enjoyed having pins stuck in himself. He also had his partners choke him. As a youth, he had bound, burned, and pierced his own genitals for pleasure. He dismembered two of the bodies and in one instance masturbated with the human parts. He also had sex with one corpse (a process called necrophilia). He put one victim in a bathtub, bled her out, and cut off her breasts, head, arms, and legs and sliced out her vagina.
Oh, yes. He also had a severe drinking problem. Boozed it up and gambled, winning $1000 right after one murder.
In 1998, he walked into the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department in Eureka and turned himself in. He had a dismembered woman’s breast in his pocket.
Suffice it to say: Wayne Adam Ford is not a nice fellow. He is a naughty boy, and then some.
What’s remarkable about the book is that Rother handles it with a journalist’s objectivity. All this weird activity is described coolly. She dispassionately describes the murders and the court trials, as the defense tries to spare Ford the death penalty by stressing that he gave himself up because “conscience prevailed,” according to the defense attorney. This attorney objected when the prosecutor called Ford a monster. The judge told the prosecutor to tone down his rhetoric. Ford now insists that the murders were accidents.
A psychology major as an undergrad, with a particular interest in aberrant psychology (partly because her alcoholic husband committed suicide), Rother analyzes the forces that may have set Ford off course: an adulterous mother who turned him out of the house, bizarre family relationships, failed attempts at marriage. Somehow, he came to dislike women intensely. She seems to lean toward the idea that environmental more than genetic influences twisted Ford, although she denies that. “Is a serial killer born or made?” she asks, leaving the conclusion to the reader. She points out that Ford had suffered a severe head injury: “A lot of people on death row have had head injuries.” She sums up, “I don’t see a black and white picture. There is a lot of gray,” although she realizes that Ford’s crimes were horrible.
She denies that she tried to pack the book with gratuitous gore. Since I haven’t read any comparable books, I can’t gainsay the point. “I did not try to glorify” the gore aspect, she says. Did she mean gorify? Absolutely not, says Rother.
She is trying to penetrate a very small market, called “true crime,” at a time in which the total book market is shrinking. But the recession isn’t the only factor, says Michelle McKee, editor of the blog In Cold Blog. “Blame it on the TV shows, ‘murdertainment’; they strangle the life out of stories,” she says. “By the time the high-profile cases have been exploited on TV, there’s not much left for a book.” At a bookstore, true-crime sections are minuscule. Unfortunately, some authors are “bottom-feeding, bloodsucking ambulance chasers looking for blood, guts, and gore — whatever they can sensationalize,” and that makes it tough for authors like Rother trying to tell a story in a detached fashion, says McKee.
There is hope: “Inside a vast and overpopulated book marketplace, the true-crime genre is very steady,” says author M. William Phelps, a fan of Rother’s books.
“There are some wonderfully written true-crime titles” such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, says Paul Foster, publisher of San Francisco’s Wiley/Jossey-Bass. Such books “appeal to a more educated audience. However, the majority of the market tends to follow…the blood-and-gore model, which attracts a larger, and by default, less-educated market.”