‘Twas the season to be jolly – Now it’s time to read true crime: Never Enough, by Joe McGinnis

December 29, 2007 at 3:30 pm (Book review, books)

classic-crimes.jpg In 2000, New York Review Books put out a new edition of Classic Crimes by Scottish lawyer and criminologist William Roughead (1870-1952). Luc Sante has this to say by way of introduction to this collection:

“The genre we call “true crime,” obviously one of the very oldest in literature, has, despite its Biblical pedigree, spent much of its career in the literary slums. The genre from which it is adjectivally distinguished–although seldom referred to as “false crime”–has produced classics as well as potboilers, but the nonfictional narrative of crime has chiefly been associated with such raffish vehicles as as the ballad broadside, the penny-dreadful, the tabloid extra, the pulp detective magazine, and the current pestilence of paperbacks uniform in their one-sentence paragraphs, two-word titles, and covers with black backgrounds, white letters, and obligatory splash of blood.” Later, Sante asks plaintively, “Where is the Homer of true crime, its Cervantes, its Dostoevsky?”

I actually had difficulty finding a true crime paperback whose cover matched the above description. The cover of Never Enough by Joe McGinniss, though, does feature the “obligatory splash of blood.” never-enough.jpg Joe McGinniss is not Homer, Cervantes, or Dostoevsky, and undoubtedly has no expectation of being numbered amongst that august company. But where true crime is concerned, he is one of the chief luminaries in the field, having authored, among other titles, a memorable, controversial, and haunting book that is probably destined to be a classic, if it isn’t already: Fatal Vision.

fatal-vision.jpg Published in 1983, Fatal Vision is the story of the killing, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 1970, of the pregnant Corinne MacDonald and the two children she had with Jeffrey R. MacDonald, a group surgeon with the Green Berets. MacDonald was also injured in the course of the vicious attack that resulted in these deaths.. He claimed that the perpetrators were four self-styled hippies who chanted “Acid is groovy – kill the pigs!” as they carried out their atrocities. Although he himself was later convicted of murdering his wife and children, MacDonald has never, over the years, wavered in maintaining his innocence. (Fatal Vision was made into an exceptional TV miniseries in 1984. I’ve never forgotten the scenes in which Corinne’s mother, played by Eva Marie Saint, bakes batch after batch of cookies in a futile effort to dull the horror.)

The story of the fallout from the book and its subsequent effect on both MacDonald and McGinniss is one I don’t want to go into here. It probably left McGinniss sadder and wiser; at least, he appears so in his author picture. jmcginniss.jpg Suffice it to say that the book itself became a news story, as recounted in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (1990). See Wikipedia’s entry on Jeffrey MacDonald for further details.

Never Enough is the story of Rob and Nancy Kissel. Rob was a driven, highly skilled investment banker. He began his career with Goldman Sachs but later switched to Merrill Lynch. He and Nancy were living in Hong Kong, where the action of this book primarily takes place. Nancy is at the chaotic center of events. She is what is known in common parlance as “a piece of work,” a colossally self-absorbed woman whose only creative outlet is shopping. She and Rob had three children, whom Nancy was happy to consign to the care of Connie, the nanny or amah. If Connie had the temerity to take a day off or be otherwise unavailable, Nancy’s way of dealing with her spoiled, boisterous brood was to plunk them down in front of television and feed them tons of junk food.

As McGinniss describes it, Parkview, the Hong Kong enclave favored by wealthy American expatriates, is both insular and luxurious. Living in such environments promotes the kind of artificially constructed lifestyle can strain the best of marriages, and Rob and Nancy Kissel already had their share of problems by the time they got to Hong Kong. Nancy was not only a compulsive shopper; she was an even more compulsive liar. Eventually the scope of her deceptions becomes so vast that she loses the ability to distinguish truth from fantasy. To the degree that she deceived herself, she was her own worst enemy.

Nancy was more than Rob could handle – way more. He had her followed by private investigators, who confirmed his worst fears: she was not only mendacious, she was also unfaithful. Anyone with eyes could see that this was a situation bound to explode.

One of the things I appreciate about Joe McGinniss’s writing is that he keeps to one side of the story and lets the characters and their actions speak for themselves. And boy, do they ever! So join us as we experience the dubious pleasure of meeting the Kissel clan: Rob, who although basically decent and brilliant in his professional life seems clueless in the personal sphere; Andrew, his con artist older brother; Bill, his controlling. domineering, humorless father – and of course, Nancy. Yes, it’s the classic Dysfunctional Family once again, only this time, into the mix of partisan bickering and relentless manipulating, add murder. Very little stirring needed…

milkshake-murder.jpg brothers2widec.jpg [Nancy Kissel; Rob and Andrew Kissel]

1 Comment

  1. Roberta Recommends: true crime « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] 2, 2008 at 3:25 pm (books) Since reading and reviewing Joe McGinniss’s new book Never Enough, I have had cause to reflect on true crime in general, and my (former? current?) fascination with […]

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