Murder-mystery fans would kill for entry to the Vidocq Society, the Philadelphia-based crime-probing organization Michael Capuzzo describes in The Murder Room. Imagine the thrill of being in the same room with some of the world’s most resourceful detectives, coroners, profilers, polygraph experts and forensic artists when they’re presented details of a particularly perplexing homicide and challenged to put their formidable minds to solving it.

The society, which takes its name from pioneering French detective Eugene Francois Vidocq, was established in 1990 by former Philadelphia cop and FBI agent William Fleisher, self-taught forensic artist Frank Bender and psychologist/profiler Richard Walter. Strictly an advisory group to law enforcement agencies, the society had consulted on more than 300 cases by 2009, Capuzzo reports, and solved 90 percent of them.

Rather than present a dry chronological narrative, Capuzzo tells his story on three interlocking and time-shifting levels—the murders at issue, the society as both a professional and a social organization and its three colorful founders. Fleisher emerges as the genial but relentless father figure who holds the society together; Bender is the intuitive (he might say psychic), bohemian artist; Walter is the chain-smoking cynic who anatomizes the criminal mind but never romanticizes it.

The murders cited are truly horrifying. Among the grisliest is the “boy in the box” murder from 1957 that united and still haunts the three principals. Capuzzo recounts several such crimes and their resolutions with panache, always seeming to be at the investigators’ elbows as they slog through to victory. But what he fails to clarify is which details he’s actually witnessed, which he’s been told about and which he merely surmises.

As the book went to press, Bender was suffering from a terminal case of pleural mesothelioma, which, the acerbic Walter observed, might just be another of his flamboyant friend’s bids for attention. If there’s not a movie in the works about this charmed circle of cold-casers, someone is missing the boat.

 

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