Books: On the trail of a psycho killer

The death of Gianni Versace lifted the lid on a crazy world of wealth and fame.
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The Independent Culture
Three Month Fever

by Gary Indiana

Quartet, pounds 10, 254pp

THE MURDER of Gianni Versace outside his Miami mansion in 1997 left us many disturbingly pseudo- religious images. There were the Christ-like abandoned sandals at his gate, the martyr's blood on the marble steps and (you couldn't make this up) the slain body of a dove killed by a ricochet of the same bullets that hit the fashion designer. What did it all mean? Those TV pictures of Versace's lily-festooned funeral, at which the Princess of Wales hugged the puffy-faced cherub Elton John, was in hindsight an ominously prescient moment in her own journey towards apotheosis.

Gary Indiana is a magnificently cantankerous novelist always drawn to the dark side of the American dream (see his seminal Rent Boy and thoroughly unpleasant, brilliant Resentment). He has consistently understood the heartless demi-monde from which killer Andrew Cunanan sprang. There are the desperate badly- parented small-town boys who will do anything to escape from their dull backgrounds, the twinks living off the chequebooks of older gay men, wanting to do something "artistic": the gay world is full of these Tom Ripley types.

Yet gay "groups" went on TV to distance themselves from Cunanan and his killing spree (he murdered two gay friends before journeying to Miami to turn the gun on Versace). The killing seemed to conform to any number of old "gay equals moral disorder" prejudices. The reaction was predictable, including that from gay men. Indiana sourly notes that "one fag... said that he'd like to see Andrew hung by his testicles", while another claimed Cunanan "was not one of us" - as if you can somehow be blackballed by the gay community.

For the truth was that Cunanan had not only killed King Fag; he had killed the Emperor of Conspicuous Consumption. He had attacked the dollar. Versace was the man who said he would "hug himself" with joy after spending three million dollars on a shopping spree.

What was their history, exactly? The only known time when Cunanan met Versace was in October 1990, briefly, at a staging of a Strauss opera in San Francisco. Versace apprently said: "I know you, Lake Como, non?" to his future killer. It is a phrase oddly pregnant with all manner of classical and romantic freight. One can almost imagine Byron saying it to the figure of Death at Missolonghi, or Catullus thus propositioning a rent boy in Ancient Rome. Versace's relationship with Cunanan still remains shrouded in mystery.

Indiana drops in passing the extraordinary fact in passing that he has personally known five murderers ("two of them documented serial killers") before they killed. He notes that all of them - contrary to tabloid lore - behaved like ordinary people. In contrast, Versace and many of the famous people he mixed with were much more obvious sociopaths.

The media coverage of the murder and the awesomely inaccurate TV films about it smudged such subtleties. The idea that Versace and the superficial world he represented was innately sociopathic is completely absent from these treatments.

Indiana draws on many sources, such as his own interviews with Cunanan's friends and his research into the killer's Filipino-Sicilian parentage. He reproduces Cunanan's postcards home, news reports and police reports, finally creating imaginative reconstructions of the crucial events. Yet Cunanan himself remains a strangely vague and insubtantial figure.

I have always had the sneaking suspicion that the fiction of Bret Easton Ellis is actually pretty accurate about a certain level of US media culture. Cunanan is an Easton Ellis character, pure and unadulterated: the Xanax- popping Judas to the Shopping Christ, the Amex Psycho who bought a copy of Kenneth Clark's The Romantic Rebellion mere hours before he slew the fashion messiah. There is everything ancient and everything new here; it's a story as old as the hills (Sicilian assassin hits Prince of Milan), and as crooked and as modern as a quakeproof highway through LA.

Gary Indiana's book is a work of startling, innovative daring, but I wonder how many people will be able to stomach the profound ambiguities which it throws up. My prescription, however, is that they should try.