Credit for the serial killer subgenre usually goes to Thomas Harris. However, two years before Harris introduced us to Hannibal Lecter, Shane Stevens wrote about Thomas Bishop in By Reason of Insanity, a serial killer thriller that predates the term serial killer.
Thomas Bishop’s mother, Sarah, resented him from birth. He robbed her of her figure, her sleep, her free time, and her attempts to keep her husband’s wandering eye focused on her. Harry Owens never really wanted to get married and never much wanted a kid. During an argument, Sarah tries using the idea that Thomas might not be his to wound his male ego but Harry is only too happy to latch on to any excuse to give the young boy nothing other than scorn.
After Harry dies in a failed robbery, Sarah moves outside of town. Bishop spends his formative years in near total isolation with his mother. Subjected to her brutal abuse and torture, he never knows love, comfort, or a touch that isn’t violent. In this house of horrors, young Thomas comes to share his mother’s growing belief that his real father is The Red Light Bandit.
Stevens uses the actual Red Light Bandit to great effect in By Reason. Armed with a red light to trick motorists into thinking he was a cop, the Bandit targeted couples in the secluded areas around 1948 Los Angeles. He drew a .45, robbed them, locked the men in the trunk, and assaulted the women.
Longtime criminal Caryl Chessman was on parole when the police spotted him driving a vehicle matching the Bandit’s description. He was apprehended after a high speed chase. Physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, and a confession earned Chessman a conviction on multiple counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape. Under the Lindbergh Law, kidnapping was punishable either by life imprisonment or execution, and the jury voted for death.
However, Chessman wouldn’t go that easy. Acting as his own attorney, he became a cause célèbre and avoided the gas chamber for twelve years. The state finally executed him in 1960 and then only because a secretary’s misdialed number delayed what was supposed to be his latest stay by a few minutes too many.
Thoughts of the real life Caryl Chessman are Thomas’s sole source of comfort. He begins to think of his true father as a hero who struck against what his warped mind has come to perceive as the deepest evil: women. The thoughts grow and consume him until, at age 10, he snaps and kills his mother, eats her, then burns her remains in the stove. When the authorities find the grisly scene, Thomas is taken away and hospitalized. He’s poked, prodded, medicated, and given electro-shock treatments.
But Thomas knows how to wait. He knows how to watch. He knows how to learn. And, most of all, he knows how to plan.
Fifteen years after he’s first institutionalized, Bishop sees his opportunity when another inmate arrives with his same height and build. Thomas escapes, assumes another identity, and begins a killing spree targeting women that will bleed the country from one coast to the other. Bishop’s vicious reign of terror pulls in politicians, newspaper men, college professors, doctors, cops, sheriffs, the FBI, the mob, and his victims’ families.
Written in a style that reads more like true crime than thriller, Shane Stevens uses reporter Adam Kenton’s manhunt for Thomas Bishop to confront abuse, poverty, loneliness, crooked politics, sex, media manipulation, the death penalty, opportunism, the changing face of police work, and our twisted habit of making killers famous:
You want recognition? I mean real recognition? Your life story in all the papers, your face on television all over the country. Books written about you; what you eat, what you feel, what you think, what you don’t think. Maybe even a movie about you. Why not? They made movies about all the killers and maniacs I’ve mentioned, including Chessman. If that’s what you want, it’s easy. Just go out and kill some people. They don’t have to be presidents, they don’t have to be big shots. Just kill enough to make a big splash in the papers. Or kill only one or two in a novel way or a crazy way, anything to get the news media interested. You too can be famous.
Producing a book Stephen King called, “One of the finest novels ever written about perfect evil,” Shane avoids Harris’s flight of fancy. Unlike Thomas Bishop, the good Dr. Lecter is a comic book villain. Lex Luthor with a taste for human flesh. Doctor Doom without the metal armor. A Bond baddie with all the ridiculous background trappings—Eastern European nobility raised by a Japanese sexpot aunt, genius level intelligence, photographic memory, superb physicality and master level artistic ability—stripped of all the pulp fun. Thomas Bishop’s kills are real and brutal, a manifestation born of a lifetime of horrors. There are no diabolical schemes, no ridiculous clues hidden under fingernails and down someone’s throat. There are no bodies left in strange tableaus that echo some forgotten 16th century Italian artwork. There’s just blood and guts and rage and gore.
Thomas Bishop is a horror bred from humanity’s worst behaviors, the source of true evil.
Chad Eagleton is a hardboiled writer and unrepentant leftist currently working on the style of his soul. His work is available in print or eBook and online. Most recently, he edited the anthology Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats. He currently serves as a reader for Needle: A Magazine of Noir and a co-editor at Beat To A Pulp. He’s also an obsessive Shane Stevens' fan, attempting to complete a biographical portrait of this tragically forgotten master.