First published back in August of 2001, US true crime writer and professor of American Literature and Popular Culture, Harold Schechter’s book ‘Fiend’ followed on from an impressive line of similar true crime books written by this highly-regarded authority on the subject of serial killers.

DLS Synopsis:
It all started back in 1871 when eleven-year-old Jesse Harding Pomeroy began abducting and sexually torturing young boys around his hometown of Chelsea.  A total of eight boys varying in ages from that of a toddler to little under Pomeroy’s own age, were subjected to the horrific sexual assaults that would kick-start the atrocities that this young lad would go on to commit.

After having been caught for his crimes by his distinctive ‘milky eye’, Pomeroy was subsequently arrested and sentenced to the Lyman School for Boys located in Westborough, Massachusetts.  However, Pomeroy was only at the reform school for just sixteen months before he was let out for good behavior and signs of great improvement.

And then in March of 1874, just six weeks after his release, ten year old Katie Curran goes missing.  A month later and the heavily mutilated corpse of four year old Horace Millen is discovered on the Dorchester Bay marshes.  Fourteen-year-old Jesse Pomeroy becomes the prime suspect for these crimes, a culpability that is further confirmed once the body of Katie Curran is found hidden away in an ash heap within Pomeroy’s mother’s dress-shop basement.

In December of that year, Pomeroy was found guilty of the horrendous crimes, however with a jury recommendation that the death penalty not be applied to the defendant on account of his age.  Instead the governor in charge of the trial remanded Pomeroy to life imprisonment at the Charlestown State Prison where he would be kept in permanent solitary confinement.  Up until the age of seventy-one when he was finally transferred to Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Pomeroy spent his time slowly educating himself, composing inherently-flawed legal challenges for his release, as well as various ingenious escape attempts that were all to end in failure.

Just three years after his eventual transfer, Jesse Pomeroy died in September of 1932 aged seventy-three.

DLS Review:
Through the usual wealth of painstaking research Schechter has managed to produce a true crime book that paints a detailed and thorough picture of the horrifying events that led up to Jesse Pomeroy’s incarceration.  This captivating if not sickening timeline of events forms the entirety of the first half of the book.  The latter half dealing with Pomeroy’s controversially isolated time in prison, along with thought-provoking comparisons between Pomeroy’s shocking crimes and those of more modern day young killers.  The eternal questions of who or what is to blame in forming these monsters at such a young age, and whether or not their punishment should be significantly adjusted on account of their age, are duly brought to the table in this chunky second half of the book.  Answers aren’t necessarily given.  However important but difficult questions are nevertheless raised by Schechter as he attempts to explore the very crux of this deeply troubling matter.

I have to say that the first half of the book was pretty darn compelling reading, with the horrendous acts of cruelty performed by Pomeroy on these heart-wrenchingly young children creating a deeply emotive account of the true story.  Schechter describes the sadistic tortures performed on the various young victims with a vivid and shocking detail.  The assaults are thrust at the reader with an intricate brutality; with Schechter adopting a no-holds-barred approach to detailing the quite frankly stomach-churning ins and outs of the tortures performed by this sadistic young killer.

It’s this natural flair for storytelling, even in the face of such a difficult subject matter as that of retelling vicious real life crimes, which makes Schechter’s book on notorious serial killers such compelling and widely read books.  The true life story, however brutal, just swallows the reader up within minutes of starting the book.  Okay, so perhaps Schechter might ‘fill in a few gaps’ here and there with a bit of guess work or mild storytelling ad-libbing.  Why the hell not?  No doubt none of these story ‘fillers’ have any substantial bearing on what really happened.  Schechter does however manage to create a flowing and unbroken storyline that reads as if the reader was there at the time, witnessing the unfolding events with almost crystal clear clarity.

Moving on to the second half of the book and things become a little less gripping and sequential.  Instead, Schechter begins to meander away from the overall timeline and the earlier structure, to adopt a more inquisitive and open-ended-questioning approach.  Pomeroy’s arrest, trial, incarceration, legal battles and repeated (and quite ingenious) escape attempts, form the backbone of this second half.  However, Schechter often sneaks away from the factual storytelling, to ponder upon questions regarding ‘the bigger picture’.

Although purposefully thought-provoking, these quite often lengthy diversions from the main body of the book begin to break up its overall delivery, making the book as a whole feel too broken down and stuttered.  Indeed, more often than not the reader can find themselves becoming derailed from the sequential progress of the book by a meandering thought process that just seems to wander around the houses for no obvious purpose or reason.

However, amongst this slightly muddled second section Schechter has included some impactful and truly shocking glimpses into the person that was Jesse Pomeroy.  In the form of actual letters written by Pomeroy during his lengthy incarceration, the reader is able to see the frightening immaturity and foolish naivety of Pomeroy for themselves.  Having read the various letters that Pomeroy wrote in his deeply misguided defence (they no doubt did more harm than good for Pomeroy) as well as his letters to his childhood friend Willie Baxter who was also in prison with him, the reader can’t help but begin to evolve far more complex and strangely contradictory views.

But all along, Schechter purposefully leaves this open to debate.  There are so many tricky questions raised.  So many areas of concern and troubling speculation that are given a chance to be explored.  So much left open for the reader to draw whatever conclusions they can from it all.  And it does work to a certain degree.  And in the end, the questions that are raised are still as relevant to today as they were all those years ago.

The book runs for a total of 352 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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