ARTHUR SHAWCROSS raped and murdered two children, went to prison for 15 years, then killed nine prostitutes on his release. He strangled his victims, then mutilated, abused and sometimes ate their bodies. Out of this, crime-writer Jack Olsen has made a sensitive book, devoid of the salaciousness we usually associate with tales of serial killers.
The story Olsen tells has no glamour, no Silence of the Lambs cleverness. It takes place in a grey world of rural poverty and petty crime in upstate New York, where the sleet blows in off Lake Ontario. The people from the underclass Shawcross kills aren't missed for days; when they are, he is hunted slowly by country police more full of coffee than initiative. He doesn't really try to get away, and doesn't go to the electric chair.
Olsen narrates each murder the same way - from the discovery of the corpse backwards - and lets them accumulate. He writes quietly, criss- crossing different first-hand accounts without melodrama. For example, just after some workmen discover a body in a drainage ditch midway through the book, we read Shawcross's own account of the murder: 'I whispered in her ear she was going to die . . . She must have been on drugs. Just smiled at me . . . I choaked her (sic) for a good 10 minutes, or near as I thought.' Alongside such terrifyingly banal accounts sit Shawcross's graphic imaginings of atrocities in Vietnam, his paranoid childhood memories, and even his desperate musings on his own condition: 'I'm ashamed of all this . . . One side of me. I've got this cloud inside of me and I can't understand.'
But while Olsen gets inside Shawcross's head by using the killer's own words, with all the ambiguity of role this implies, he uses the accounts of the families of his victims as a kind of moral handrail. The book's opening 50 pages are written through the eyes of the mother of the first to die, from her 11-year-old son skipping out to go fishing to the discovery of his bones months later. Crucially, Olsen gives convincing life to characters besides Shawcross and his pursuers, so the horrors don't seem to occur in a vacuum. There's the account of a street-hardened prostitute who survives an encounter with Shawcross ('His hands keep fluttering towards my neck'), and, throughout, there's the stubborn disbelief of his family at the accusations against their son.
Occasionally Olsen does retreat within the superficial conventions of the true-crime genre. A few times the doomy atmosphere is dissipated by excessive details of police procedure, and the book's intended conclusion is a wearying welter of psychological and physiological reports on Shawcross. In the epilogue, which shows Olsen's concern with the damaged lives of the bereaved, Shawcross (in prison now) virtually fades from view. Were he to be released again, Olsen would probably help track him down, rather than let him be a triumphant Hannibal Lecter.
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