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Opening the door to The Murder Room

A conversation with author Michael Capuzzo

Created date

September 20th, 2010
ERC_0910_Murder Room Q&A Pic 1
ERC_0910_Murder Room Q&A Pic 1

When author Michael Capuzzo first learned of the Vidocq Society, he knew he had a story on his hands. Every month, its members an eclectic blend of forensic professionals and motivated citizens meet on the top floor of the Public Ledger Building in Philadelphia, Pa., to discuss and hopefully solve cold murder cases over a hot lunch. Capuzzo focuses on the society s three principal members: William Fleisher, an ace federal interrogator; Frank Bender, a genius forensic artist with a gift for giving the dead a face; and Richard Walter, a criminal psychologist and Victorian gentleman of sorts. Together, these three very different personalities combine their talents to help solve murder cases that have law enforcement officials stumped. The Murder Room tells their story. In a phone interview, Capuzzo spoke with the Tribune about the book. How did you discover the Vidocq Society? I was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and, believe it or not, they were only about ten miles from my house. I found them on the Internet at their website It had what was basically a headline that read Cuisine and Crime Solving, and I thought the idea of the world s greatest detectives solving crimes over lunches was just incredible. Danny DeVito had paid a fortune at the time for the movie rights, and that got me to wondering if they wanted a book written. That really fueled my urge to get to know the society s principal members and find out what they do. This was around 2002 or 2003. We worked on the book for about seven years. Speaking of the principal members, I found Richard to be one of the most interesting characters in the book. He s a flamboyant character for sure. As is mentioned in the book, he really does have a house full of antiques and his baby grand piano that he plays only when no one is listening. He s like a Victorian gentleman, this strange sort of modern knight that has devoted his life to understanding the criminal mind and helping to catch the bad guys. He ll tell you that he was married but only briefly, never had children, and didn t really want them. And when you ask him what he s given up, he ll say I ve given up my innocence. How is he able to do what he does? There s his prediction that helped lead to the capture and arrest of murderer John List, for instance. [List murdered his wife, mother, and three children in 1971 and led a new life until his arrest 18 years later, when Walter and Bender teamed up to create a profile of the killer for the TV show America s Most Wanted]. He predicted the type of glasses List would be wearing, where he would be living, what he would be doing, the type of woman to whom he d be remarried, and he was almost completely accurate on every count. It s like he has a third eye or a crystal ball. I know. That s a good point. A lot of it is experience. It looks like magic and wizardry, but it s mostly instinct and probabilities. Certain types of killers illicit specific patterns. Richard has worked on hundreds of cases. He s brilliant, intuitive, and very analytical. Police are trained to be procedural and gather facts, and we want them to be that way obviously. When the trail of facts ends, though, they stop and turn to someone like Richard Walter. He knows how killers think, and it s amazing how he does this. Of course, List s capture was also due in large part to Frank Bender s incredible talents as a forensic artist. Yes, Frank is an amazing guy. He has an incredible charm and energy he s a real force of nature and a huge talent. He must be psychic judging by the way he works his art. And Bill Fleisher is the one who grounds the group? I think so, yeah. Bill is probably the most conventional of the three. He s married, has children and grandchildren, and he s just a great guy. He too is an extraordinary character. He has a huge heart, and the fact that he s an ace federal interrogator who has written books on the subject only adds to that. He really feels for victims. These are three very different personalities that together are highly synergistic. After writing this book, what would you say is one of the things that they have in common something that drives them to do what they do? That s a good question. I think it s their overriding passion and sensitivity for victims. Richard told me that over the last 30 years an estimated 100,000 killers have gotten away with murder in this country. He says, They re still afoot, and I think that s wrong. If he can help take a killer off the street and get justice for the victims and their families, he ll do it. He feels that it s his obligation to do this and to teach the next generation of crime fighters how to do it too. That drives all three of them. In fact, all of the Vidocq Society members are that way, but it s particularly intense among Richard, Bill, and Frank. Did you ever interview all three of them together? I did interview them all together, but most of the interviews were done separately. In the beginning, there were group interviews to determine which cases would be featured in the book. When you first approached them about doing the book, was there any resistance on their part? Not really. They welcomed me in to witness everything that they do. It was a matter of getting all the material that you need, which requires that you develop a long-term trust. That certainly takes time. Richard Walter, who I got to know extraordinarily well, never even told me that he had a brother. I found out after the book was published. He s very protective, I suppose, and when you know what the darkest evil is capable of, you re wary of everybody. Tell us a bit about the writing process for The Murder Room. First, I had to convince the principal members Bill, Frank, and Richard to work with me, and they were eager to do that. They had all read my previous book Close to Shore [Broadway, 2001], which is about the 1916 shark attacks in New Jersey. And true to form, Richard said, What do I care about a damned fish? [LAUGHTER] But they liked the book, and that was the first step. I also went to a lot of meetings and traveled with Richard in particular to several American Academy of Forensic Sciences meetings in Chicago, the Parents of Murdered Children in Cincinnati, and on trips with Bill (the Vidocq Society goes out of town to do pro bono work for law enforcement, helping out on cases and doing seminars). I also did hundreds of hours worth of interviews with Bill, Richard, and Frank the three of them being strong-willed, eccentric personalities. But over time, the relationship between us all got stronger and stronger, and in the end, it made for what I hope readers think is a great story. How did it make you feel working on a book about a rather grim profession? Did it strike you as a bit morose? Yes and no. A lot of people have asked me, How do you live with this kind of evil? I thought about it, and my response is that as a writer, you should be able to tell any story. For the longest time, writers have written about the extremes of human behavior. Dostoevsky wrote about them, as did Shakespeare. That gives me license to turn my gaze to anything. You have Richard Walter, who s a world expert on sadism, and to be able to see it through his lens is one thing; to see it through my own, entirely another. I was privileged to be able to witness the extremes of the criminal mind through the eyes of experts and tell that story as a writer. Of course, they ve gotten quite a bit of attention before the release of The Murder Room as well. Oh, absolutely. The New York Times called them the heirs of Holmes and did two features on them. The Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, and People magazine have also covered their story. They ve been written about pretty much everywhere because their story is that kind of Sherlock Holmes, true-life thing. They re used to publicity, and they ve had lots of offers for film and television. Was there anything that surprised you in writing this book? Richard Walter said to me at the beginning, If you have any talent, and that s the way he talks, If you have any talent, this will change you. And after seven years, I realize that what he meant was that if I had any perseverance, this would change me. It really did. I learned so much about human nature that, as a writer, I thought I already knew. It broadened my mind. With Walter in particular, it was like having Dostoevsky as a mentor. I felt like a poor man s Dante going down to the pit of hell with Virgil leading me. After writing this book, I have a much deeper sense of what pure evil is and how it behaves. I also learned about the heroic people out there who stand up to this evil. When did Richard, Bill, and Frank first see the manuscript? As a matter of practicality, I let them see it before it was printed, but they didn t see it before it was completed. I knew Richard Cramer (a former Philadelphia Inquirer colleague) who wrote What It Takes about the 1988 presidential race. He had decided to let all the presidential candidates look at what he had written, and they hardly asked for anything to be changed. They actually asked for things to be added. And what kind of reaction did you get from Fleisher, Bender, and Walter? They all loved it. Do you have a relationship with them since the book has come out? Has it created a bond between them as crime fighters and you as a writer? Absolutely. I do have a bond with them, and the book is one of the things that bring us together. They re out there working on publicizing it right now. This is their story, and they re very proud of that, as they should be. What made me feel really good was something that Bill Fleisher told me. He said that he feels like the Vidocq Society s story is immortal now. If there is a movie, a TV series, or both, they also have a document that stands for their story, the book, that is. For me, writing The Murder Room was a great experience, and I learned so much from the society s members. What do you hope readers get out of this book? I hope I make them feel what I felt. My aim was to write a story that reads like a fictional thriller. I was so struck with these real-life detectives and how grounded and human they are as compared to what you see on shows like CSI. These guys are filled with joy and complexity. They love what they do, and they re romantic figures in that respect. There s a real sense of heroism. Also, it s not only about science. There s art and instinct in criminal investigation, and Bill, Frank, and Richard prove that. I hope readers see it for themselves. Read more about the Vidocq Society in the November print issue of the Erickson Tribune.