Does the true crime genre really need a fifteenth book about the Scott and Laci Peterson case? One could reasonably conclude that the question answers itself. Then I read Erased.
Unlike the fourteen titles that preceded it -- including books by the jurors, the journalists, Laci's mother, Scott's sister and lover -- the latest title to delve into the most widely publicized U.S. case since OJ's acquittal stands alone. Erased: Missing Women, Murdered Wives [Amazon; B&N] by Marilee Strong (with Mark Powelson) is very well informed by history and psychology. The lead author has delved to the nth degree into the criminal history of the United States, and the result is a unique study of a certain type of uxorcide. I couldn't skim or skip a page of this book, which marries, if you will, two of my favorite subgenres: spousal murder stories and criminal psychology.
In developing a profile of what she terms "eraser" killers, the author recounts many cases that have remarkable parallels to the Peterson case, highlighting dozens already familiar to some of us: Chester Gillette, Carlyle Harris, Reverend Richeson, Robert Blake, Mark Hacking, Bartin Corbin, Michael Peterson, and numerous other more obscure murders. In developing her profile, she comes to some strong conclusions while offering a depth of research to support them. For example, she points to the fact that Scott Peterson reported his wife missing on Christmas Eve. I had assumed that he was a psychopath who gave himself a Christmas present. Author Strong points out a more mundane possibility: that a disappearance on a holiday would not result in a vigorous investigation by experienced detectives. Just as Theodore Dreiser "profiled" Chester Gillette and his brothers in crime in fictional terms, this author does so in the language of clinical psychology.
I approached this book skeptically, frowning at the flap copy, groaning at the press release ("missing women cases ... have come to dominate the national print and broadcast media since the highly publicized disappearance of Laci Peterson," it says, when it should say such cases have always dominated the media). I've also grown more skeptical of the work of profilers and agree with the general prohibition against admitting their testimony in court, while at the same time I think they are useful to the general public. And crime encyclopedias usually disappoint this reader with numerous errors. Not this time. Erased is cogent and compelling.
An "eraser" killer, the author posits, is a man with no history of violence who leads a double life characterized by grandiose, compulsive lying, whose heinous act against wife or girlfriend is often preceded by a pregnancy. Such killers often dispose of the corpse -- erasing the woman entirely -- or stage her death as a suicide or drowning. And the motivation isn't another specific woman, she posits, even though in the "shock and awe" media frenzy that followed the disappearance of a California housewife, the pundits tried to ascribe that motive to her husband. "Fundamentally," the author remarks, "eraser killers do not kill for the reasons normally ascribed to murderers, such as greed, sex, or jealousy. They eliminate the women, and sometimes children, in their lives because their victims no longer serve any 'purpose' in the emotionally desolate world of the eraser killer, or are seen as impediments to the kind of life they covet and fantasize for themselves. In the mind of this type of murderer, it is better, easier, and more satisfying for him to kill than simply get a divorce."
Despite the coverage suggesting the Peterson case was unique, this author has proven that the case "was no milestone in the history of conviction... no shocking aberration in the stand of proof required for finding someone guilty of murder...." Rather, as she ably proves, there was nothing original in what he did -- and in demonstrating that, this author elevates the discussion and contributes a new and valuable analysis to the genre.
For more: The Richmond-Times Dispatch review
Visit the author's blog