For readers of true crime sagas like Tinseltown and Little Demon in the City of Light comes a chilling account of a murder that captivated the United States in the 1920s.
The subtitle for David Wilson’s true crime novel Not Just Evil is Murder, Hollywood, and California’s First Insanity Plea—a fitting title, and I’m sure it wasn’t the last. David Wilson has delivered a skin-crawler of a book. The subject matter is revolting, but the narrative Mr. Wilson succeeds in crafting is a cause for celebration.
Many true crime books travel into the minds and actions of horrible human beings, causing you to pause a moment as you cannot believe the depths to which people can sink. Often, the stories themselves are bad enough, but then the whole thing is made worse by clumsy writing and overly detailed gore with weak attempts at pseudo-intellectualizing that come across as contrived.
There’s nothing fictional about this fascinating book; I just wish there was. The start, middle, and end are all disgusting. You’ll want to wait to have your dinner before reading this … if you want to hang on to it. This is simply not an easy read. But if true crime is your thing, it’s an extremely captivating story.
Less than two weeks before Christmas in December 1927, Marion Parker is abducted from her school in Los Angeles. She is returned to her father dead and mutilated. The book goes into some pretty gory detail as to the extent of the crime, but that’s for the reader to discover.
It is impossible to read this brilliantly crafted book without wanting to get inside the covers and sort the murderer, William Hickman, out. It’s only as you read more that you discover that, while Hickman is clearly the villain of the story, he is not the only one for whom innocence is just a long forgotten word. If you are going to think about getting in there and dispensing summary justice, then you better put more than Hickman on the list.
In the midst of all this change and turmoil, a young man named William Edward Hickman found great comfort and solace sitting in the darkened back row of a movie theater. His need to escape into the fantasy world of film soon became part of his daily routine. He moved from Kansas to Los Angeles in an effort to be closer to the source of his amusement, and was more than willing to commit whatever petty crimes would give him the twenty-five cents a day he needed to indulge his addiction.
For the price of admission he could watch two movies, a cartoon and—the latest addition to the theater experience—a newsreel that included a voiceover description of what was being shown on the screen. Sitting alone in the theater, he would identify with the characters on-screen. He most strongly identified with criminals who appeared to get what they wanted when they wanted it. For him the vision of mean-spirited gangsters meant freedom from domination and control by others. I was a vision that was becoming all-consuming. The trip to the theater became a part of his daily routine, and the three dollars and twenty-five cents he needed each week to feed his addiction became the justification for a life of crime.
When it was presented, an insanity plea was groundbreaking. California had not seen this type of thing before. Hickman’s legal representatives presented a case for Hickman’s personality that laid the blame on the movie industry, where right and wrong blurred into a magical celluloid world in which facts were conveniently jettisoned for the gratification of the viewer. A reality with no legal or moral framework that sucked Hickman into its vortex, spitting out something that could not be held personally accountable for its actions.
A clever and well thought out defense, this shifted the gaze of guilt from Hickman to the movie business and, by proxy, America as an entity in itself, where mass media was growing into the huge, living thing we all know today. If Hickman was going to throw his fate to the court, the film business certainly wasn’t going to go down with him.
David Wilson has been a private investigator for more than thirty years, and it shows in this meticulous analysis of the actions, behavior, and trial of someone who was basically the first criminal to gain the attention normally reserved for … well, movie stars.
Louis B. Mayer was extremely concerned about the media frenzy surrounding the Marion Parker kidnapping. He read the newspapers and knew several newsreel teams from MGM had covered Hickman’s capture and his extradition back to Los Angeles. He was also made aware of Mr. Hickman’s inflammatory statement regarding his love of motion pictures and his daily attendance at theaters even on the day of the famous kidnapping and on the day of the hideous murder. Mr. Mayer understood better than most what negative publicity could mean for the movie industry. Canadians were advocating a law that would make it illegal for children to enter a film theater unaccompanied by an adult. The killing of an innocent child and the part movies played in Hickman’s life could cost the American studios millions of dollars each year if the subject was not dealt with properly.
Not Just Evil is a fascinating read, and the subject matter is skillfully navigated by Mr. Wilson. When the end comes and the credits roll, his name should be displayed firmly at the top.
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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.