Book Review: Murderabilia by Carl Vonderau
In Murderabilia by Carl Vonderau, William MacNary is the son of a serial killer who dismembered and photographed his victims. Decades after his father’s crimes, William is linked to a copycat murder, forcing him to confront the man he’s spent decades trying to forget.
Crime fiction is rife with stories of serial killers. These monstrous apex predators cloaked in human skin have fascinated and terrified us in all manner of mediums. So, those stories have lost some of their power. In order for a serial killer story to really resonate it has to do something special and different. It has to look at the killer’s crimes from a new angle. In his debut novel, Murderabilia, banker turned novelist Carl Vonderau does just that. His angle? How the lives of the family who loved a killer and had no idea about his crimes are impacted in the aftermath of their family member’s arrest. The result is a powerful, poignant, chilling, and original thriller.
. . . his father is Harvey Dean Kogan, an infamous serial killer given the nom de guerre of “The Preying Hands” because of the gory tableaus he’d leave his victims in.
Vonderau’s protagonist in Murderabilia is William MacNary. When we meet William he’s living a seemingly idyllic life in San Diego as a banker. It’s a life he’s worked hard to build, and it’s a life of secrets. Because MacNary is not the surname William was born with. His original last name is Kogan, and his father is Harvey Dean Kogan, an infamous serial killer given the nom de guerre of “The Preying Hands” because of the gory tableaus he’d leave his victims in.
Harvey Dean Kogan didn’t possess Sendaro by torturing or raping her. In the ten minutes he took to strangle her the Dürer drawing flashed into his mind ‘That’s when I became an artist,’ he later told a journalist. In an abandoned park he severed her arms with a hacksaw and scissored off the sleeves of her blouse. Super glue held her hands together in prayer.
So Murderabilia does feature a frightening serial killer in the form of Harvey Dean Kogan, and readers do meet him later on in the story. What gives Vonderau’s tale so much power though is the focus on William and the people who share his secret; his mother, his sister Polly, and his wife Jill. We get flashbacks to William and Polly’s childhood. William was eight when his father was arrested and his sister was 13. So, we see how they tried to accommodate their memories of their father to fit with his vicious deeds. We see how society turned its back on William, his sister, and his mom. And we see how their mother’s Christian Science faith exacerbated some of the difficult things they had to deal with.
Beginning from that day, Mama refused to talk about Pop or even say his name. I knew that he had killed thirteen women, but I had to find out more. One night, Polly and I snuck out while Mama slept. I pulled a newspaper from a garbage can and uncrumpled the pages to read the headline. HE CUT UP THEIR BODIES FOR PHOTOGRAPHS.
Polly held me. ‘Breathe,’ she said.
A car passed by. The streetlight hummed through the night’s heat. The crickets chattered.
‘But he’s Pop,’ I said.
In the present-day sections of Murderabilia William and Polly’s past comes back to haunt them in the form of a mysterious and sinister person who knows their secret past and claims to be William’s brother. In other books, this portion of the story could easily feel rote. What enlivens the present-day thriller sections of Murderabilia with power though is what makes any story good: a focus on character. We care about the frightening turmoil William and Polly are caught up in because of what Willam’s first-person narration told us of their past, and because of their present-day circumstances. We’ve seen how they’ve tried to rise above their past emotional traumas.
That focus and investment in character extends to the supporting cast of Murderabilia as well. Vonderau gives readers a variety of interesting details about William’s lawyer Marta. So much so, that we feel like know her. She’s a living and breathing character. Vonderau also is great at giving his supporting characters nuance. There are two main police detectives in Murderabilia. When we first meet them they come across as simply antagonistic figures. You’re meant to hate them. But as the story unfolds, those characters are given more layers and depth. I actually found myself understanding and even kind of liking them.
Vonderau’s gift for details applies to places as well. Murderabilia unfolds in a variety of locales; from the banks and diners of sunny San Diego to a dingy state prison in Illinois. Vonderau’s prose made all those locations come to life.
The next morning Marta and I met at Wired Cafe. The usual Euro techno music wafted from the speakers and the expresso machine hissed like part of the percussion.
So, with Murderabilia Carl Vonderau uses his gift for prose and character to transform the classic serial killer tale into something more haunting and powerful; a tale about family and how an act of physical violence perpetrated by one member inflicts emotional damage to all.