Murder by the Book

Jordan Foster

From the age of four until I left for college, I spent part of almost every day at Murder by the Book, the now-defunct mystery-only bookstore my mother managed in Portland, Oregon. When the store folded in 2013 after thirty years, close to two decades of my childhood and young adulthood went with it. But I’d already become irrevocably immersed in death, real and imagined: the ways it comes unexpectedly for some and spares those who seem to deserve it most, how it drives so many questions and choices, and how it indelibly stains those who cause it. Death shaped my childhood professional desires. I let go of veterinary dreams and became convinced first that I’d be a forensic pathologist and then a profiler. Everything always came back to the books I read, huddled in the stacks, homework done, the faces of criminals staring at me from the lurid covers that always sell. Now I write about crime professionally, often critiquing the kind of books I used to read. It’s as though I never left that bookstore.

The flagship store never strayed from Hawthorne Boulevard, the same street where Powell’s Books on Hawthorne is now, and which was once an enclave for hippies and drum circles. I often walked to the European grocery store next door, and my mother would stand in the bookstore’s doorway and watch me. Every time. I thought she was making sure I didn’t run into a telephone pole or pedestrians while staring into whatever book I was reading. Etan Patz had disappeared three years before I was born, on the other side of the country, and Adam Walsh was snatched from a Florida shopping mall and killed the year before my parents had me. My mother and I never talked about these boys, and I always came back. But I wonder now if, surrounded as she was by so many similar stories, she thought of them.

The authors who came to the store rarely impressed me, hurrying in minutes before their event would start, sometimes scribbling their name on stock. But when I was six, I met James Ellroy at a 1988 signing. The Black Dahlia was out in paperback and he’d just published The Big Nowhere, with Dahlia being the first installment of his L.A. Quartet, followed by Nowhere. Not books fit for a first grader. Not that I cared. Neither did Ellroy. After the event, he asked me to introduce him to my friend, a well-worn stuffed beaver named Bucky. I explained that Bucky and I had a detective agency together, Beaver Investigations. Ellroy nodded solemnly and signed a copy of The Black Dahlia (in which the ex-prizefighter narrator is also named Bucky) and handed it to me. “Bucky lives!” he wrote. I wondered why he took the time to talk to someone who couldn’t buy his book and shouldn’t be reading it anyway, but the way he crouched down, shook my hand, shook Bucky’s paw made me realize that he saw something in me. I didn’t fully understand that it was my induction into a kinship of people for whom the darkness is the draw and who genuinely want to discuss the finer points of crime.

My television and film diet was closely monitored but I had no restrictions on what I could read as a child. I fell under the spell of Jack the Ripper, drawing macabre maps of 1888 Whitechapel with the names and relevant details of his victims. Did I make the connection then that the Ripper was stealing the women’s uteruses? Did I know then that they were prostitutes or what that meant? I must have, because I was a child who did not like the feeling of not knowing—words, concepts, reasons—so I must have scanned the dictionary and found what I was looking for. I don’t remember having that conversation with my mother, though I doubt she would have shied away from it. She had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s inventory and crime fiction in general, and she’d answer whatever questions she could.

No one caught the Ripper. No one knew his identity. He was a phantom, slicing women whose names and deaths I’d memorized. Facts without any meaning behind them. But years later, as a teenager, I stumbled upon Ellroy’s 1996 memoir, My Dark Places, his account of grappling with and trying to crack his mother’s unsolved 1958 murder, when Ellroy was ten. Here was Ellroy, writing about a wrong so visceral that it made me look up over the top of the book to see if my own mother was nearby, and if she wasn’t, I’d casually walk to the front of the store to check, then retreat to my pile of blankets in the stacks. At this point the store was housed in a long, windowless space lit primarily by a skylight, which cast shadows on the shelves, dark places even in the daylight.

I already knew that mothers could not be counted on to survive the narrative. My Dark Places now taught me that good people were often felled by bad acts; their goodness provided no shield. It instilled in me a curiosity about what drove a person to commit an act that society deemed bad. I began to question badness and what it meant. Why did people obsess over naming, and shaming, those who’d made a choice when perhaps, in their minds, it wasn’t really a choice at all? What did choice mean, if one wasn’t free to make it? I hadn’t developed a fondness for criminals or their actions. But I wanted to understand them, so my attention gravitated toward the work of FBI profilers like John E. Douglas, whose Mindhunter I read and reread, and Robert K. Ressler, who wrote Whoever Fights Monsters.

Both Douglas and Ressler are connected to Thomas Harris’s seminal 1988 novel, The Silence of the Lambs: Douglas served as a model for Jack Crawford, Clarice Starling’s boss at the FBI’s then-fledgling Behavioral Sciences Unit, and Ressler (who with Douglas coined the term “serial killer” in the mid-1970s, around the time of David Berkowitz’s Son of Sam murders) advised Harris on the novel. I read Silence at eight, perhaps nine, and what I held on to was Clarice Starling: her personal and professional isolation, her mixture of fascination and revulsion when she viewed the crime scenes, as well as the serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself. I’d experienced the same mix reading some of the gorier parts of Douglas’s and Ressler’s cases. And when I read about Buffalo Bill and the human skin suit he stitched, what I experienced was not terror but a mixture of sadness and questions I couldn’t yet articulate. Starling became, and remains, a hero for me. Lecter became one of the first killers whose motivations I questioned, attempting to separate the refined, accomplished aesthete from his murders, parsing the criminal from the crime.

Lecter was fictional and Jack the Ripper was centuries dead, which made both of them safe for me. But the men (and women) Douglas and Ressler profiled were real and contemporary. Ted Bundy. Gary Ridgway, better known as the Green River Killer, who wouldn’t be caught until 2001. Charles Manson. Ed Gein. Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Not only were there people in the world who did terrible things, but apparently they were everywhere.

The crimes were inherently less interesting to me than those who committed them. I read Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me at thirteen or so, and it was one of the few times I asked my mother about one of “those” books, the books I read in the back of the store. The ones I thought perhaps she didn’t know about. (She did.) Why, I asked her, didn’t Ann Rule know she was sitting next to Ted Bundy at the Seattle crisis line? My mother told me that Rule did know, eventually, but that Bundy’s key strategies were to blend in so completely and ingratiate himself so fully with his potential victims that they didn’t see their fate coming until it was too late. I wondered how to separate a man like this from the thirty murders he confessed to committing. It was difficult for me to find that gray area between the doer and the act, the moment of choice when the action transforms the person into—I didn’t have a more sophisticated phrase as a child—something bad. If a choice could change a person so completely that the action erased who they’d been before, and what they did—murder, rape—became who they were now, then was it even possible to find the person underneath that choice? Had they been completely subsumed? The more I read, and the older I got, I came to see the separation as vital but problematic, a necessary way to assess what is damaged beyond the obvious labels like “dangerous” or “broken.” To pick apart the destruction from the inside out.

The question of deep damage and, most keenly, the perils of choice stood out for me when reading Emlyn Williams’s 1969 Beyond Belief: The Moors Murderers. Between 1963 and 1965, Ian Brady and his girlfriend, Myra Hindley, murdered and sexually abused five children, ranging in age from ten to seventeen, before burying the bodies on the English moors near Manchester. Hindley died in prison in 2002 and Brady died in May 2017, in the Ashworth Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Theories vary as to whether or not Hindley was responsible—or even present—for all of the murders; she claimed at one time that Brady molested some of the children alone. But then tapes surfaced that contradicted her. I could not fathom, at fourteen or fifteen, being in the kind of love that would lead me to make the choices Hindley ultimately made, the ones that made her “the most hated woman in Britain.” And I immediately gravitated toward the woman in this story, perhaps because women killers are so rarely discussed. Or perhaps it was because even though Brady was found guilty of murder and later found to be criminally insane, it was Hindley, a woman who killed children, who was publically reviled. I wondered, then, where the space existed between the woman and what she’d done, if it even did. Years later, the case troubles and saddens me as an adult in ways it didn’t as a teenager. I don’t see Hindley as blameless, or spellbound by Brady—the tapes prove her complicity—but as a woman whose life before and after the murders can be clearly delineated, precipitated by a series of increasingly disastrous choices: to stay with Brady; to participate in the molestation; to murder at least some of those children; to bury those bodies on the moors. In the public’s eye after the trial, she ceased to be a woman, or a person, at all and became her crimes. To me Hindley is a figure undone by choice.

The bookstore didn’t teach me how to read. I could already do that. It didn’t choose for me, in terms of what I would read, though it offered, in its own unobtrusive manner, ways of deconstructing a world I hadn’t encountered yet and, in some instances, may never encounter. The bookstore taught me, from an age when I was first learning to construct a story, that choice is vital. It makes or breaks a character, whether that “character” is Hannibal Lecter strolling off into an Italian sunset or Ted Bundy, captured and eventually executed in Florida for only a fraction of the murders to which he confessed. The men, these characters, were people before they were criminals. Damaged, undeniably, but people. Reading true crime showed me that in between the crime and the criminal is, if you look hard enough, a kind of truth. It’s dirty, and ugly, and most of us don’t want to admit that these are fellow human beings who made a choice. Murder by the Book introduced me to the idea that their humanity was paramount to their actions. It showed me a world of people who were real and could kill you, but were still people, though it would be more comforting for them to exist only in novels. I didn’t learn to love the villains at the bookstore, but I learned to pick apart the need to label them so quickly. And the more I read, the more comfortable I became with the dark. Because it’s there. Always.

Jordan Foster grew up in Portland, OR. She earned her MFA in fiction from Columbia University and is back in Portland working as a freelance writer. Her work has been published in Publishers WeeklyKirkus ReviewsLibrary Journal, and will soon appear in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto