Sunday, April 26, 2009

On why we like murder....

JAN: At the moment, the world is captivated with the Craiglist's murderer. For any of you who haven't been watching the Today Show, etc., that's the 23-year old Boston U. medical school student, Philip Markoff, accused of killing a woman allegedly selling massage and erotic services on Craigslist. He's also charged with robbing and assaulting another.

Any murder and violence against women is horrific, but unfortunately, there is so much of it, it doesn't capture the world imagination. Murder and the sale of sexual services have no doubt been linked since prostitution began in -- what? Cave man times - and this is a single murder, not the serial variety that usually gets our attention.

So is it the innovative use of Craigslist to advertise sex (which, I found UNBELIEVABLY direct and rampant, BTW, when I was researching Teaser.) Or is it because the suspected murderer is so upscale, with his medical school pedigree and $1400 a month apartment? And if it IS because our culprit is upscale -- what does it say about us - that we love this combination of affluence and violence?

ROBERTA: Or is it that we can't tear our eyes away from the pedigree brought down? I think that is particularly titillating--the idea that someone is so not what he appeared. And that someone who seemed to have it all going for him had screwed up in such a major way. Or here's another theory, maybe we're fascinated because in some ways we can imagine ourselves stepping over a line like he did?

Jan, I have to admit I haven't read Teaser yet--deliberately, because the book I'm working on has some similar elements, Craigslist included, and I'm afraid I'd steal everything you wrote! I'm saving it for when I'm finished:)

RO: Are we not even considering the possibility that the poor girl may have really been a massage therapist? Up until quite recently, I used to get a massage every week. (Fraser, I miss you!) People really do this for a living. And they probably keep a certain number of loonies sane - certainly kept me sane.

JAN: Call me cynical, but considering how dangerous it would be to conduct business that way, I'm guessing a real, certified massage therapist doesn't drive up from NY to meet strange male clients in hotels -- no matter how nice the hotel.

RO: Have table, will travel. But okay, let's say she was a sex worker. It's Craiglist. It's the name. The Boston Strangler. The Honeymoon Killers. It's like, instant story.
And all of these guys are sort of cute and respectable-looking. Let's face it how many women are going to go home with a drooling hunchback with horns and fangs? (Unless of course, that's your thing..which is fine by judgments here.)

HANK: But wasn't it about the money? He--and of course he's presumed innocent and it really could be that he is, and it's sad that people just assume he did it, what if he were your brother?--apparently had lots of gambling debts, and it's the theory that he was targeting edgy Craig's List advertisers, figuring they wouldn't turn him in.

RO: How much money could he possibly have hoped to steal from her? $200? $300?

JAN: If it's at the end of the day,I'm saying it could be a grand, but sounds like theft might have been only an introductory motive (See Hallie's comments below).

But Hank, I take your innocent-until-proven guilty point. I once had a homocide detective confide to me that cops make up their minds in the first five minutes on the scene who probably did it -- and that influences the way they collect evidence. He also said that the investigators very stubbornly hold onto whatever original theory they came up with. On the other hand, the Globe reported Friday that the gun and DNA matched so.....

HANK: Oh, it's an amazing story. It's the fiancee, really, that puts it over the edge for me. This woman, who's studying to be a doctor. And she gets engaged to a doctor. And they're planning this elaborate wedding, with a web page and all. And then--wham. Guess what.

(Let me just say, parenthetically. All this about the "panties" he supposedly took as souvenirs. Have you EVER used the word "panties"? Forgive me, but I think that's disgusting.)

RO: Anyone remember that great scene in Anatomy of a Murder when the judge discusses "the panties" and says something like "get your snickering over now. There's nothing funny about a case where one man is dead and another may go to prison"?

JAN: There is just something about term panty that sounds both infantile and sordid. I think men use this word a lot more than women. Except that my husband wears some sort of tight, lycra, short things to ride the exercise bike in that supposedly keep the muscles warm -- my daughter labeled them his "man panties," and we now use this term to make fun of him whenever possible.

RO: Compression shorts. I was researching jockstraps the other day and that's what they call them. Apparently men don't wear those other things anymore.

JAN: Researching jockstraps?? Trying not to giggle.

HALLIE: If Markoff takes their underwear, then it's not about money.

HANK: True. It's about money and sex and power and panic and megalomania. I mean--police say he hid stuff in a hollowed out copy of Gray's Anatomy. It's--as creepy as it gets.

HALLIE: And this guy lives about 1/3 mile from me. Creepy creepy creepy. The hubris of it gets me. I think we're fascinated because someone that young, gifted, and with all the trappings of the boy next door, the doctor your mother wanted you to marry, is this twisted. The veneer of the everyday makes it particularly sinister.

JAN: Want to know more about Markoff? Here's a link to Sunday's Boston Globe piece on how shocked his friends were to find out.... Http://
Tell us what makes you follow this murder in the news? And why we seem so fascinated in it.

And come back Wednesday, when I interview, Spencer Quinn AKA Peter Abrahams, about his hysterical new book, featuring a canine, PI, Dog On It.


  1. I guess I should have said I was researching them online.

  2. Ro, wouldn't hands on research be more...interesting?

    Murder fascinates me. The psychology behind the murder and the physical evidence both intrigue. DNA, the gun, the security camera photos...they all add up to a pretty tight case for the DA. I'm so bad, I tend to fall asleep to Forensic Files at night. I also watch footage of plane crashes and analyze them, too. (We are are career choices, yes?)

    I think the more "mundane" the suspect/perpetrator, more fascinated the public becomes. Most serial killers fly under the radar because they look/seem so normal.

  3. Maybe, you are right Silver James, maybe it's the combo of murder and mundane (almost sounds like the title of a mystery conference, doesn't it?) The Killer BESIDE ME concept. I think what fascinates me is how deep, weird and totally corrupted the sexual urge can be --even in seemingly -- or superficially - normal people.

  4. This case reminds me of the "Preppy Murder." I think women tend to trust someone who is good looking, dressed well, etc.

    I've looked at photos and videos of Markoff and wonder if he fooled his parents too. Or did they see signs and ignore them.

    We had a young boy in our neighborhood who was caught spraying hairspray on a lit match. And he'd throw animals. Other times he'd be smiling at me as he broke my sons toys. I always wondered what happened to him after they moved away. He was a good looking blonde, blue-eyed boy in a well-to-do family.

  5. If one is looking way up society's ladder of success, this murder is facinating because someone is getting knocked down a peg or two.

    If one is looking laterally across the rung of the same ladder, the distance is closer and the subject more magnified.

    It's a perceived class POV.

  6. I agree. Philip Markoff is scary because he could be anyone's son.

    For some reason, this murder also reminds me of the Stuart murder in Boston. But I think that has more to do with my response than the facts of the two cases.
    Because I was pregnant at the time Stuart killed his pregnant wife, it seemed close to me.
    And because Markoff is just a little older than my daughter, he seems close, too.

  7. On this subject, but way off this discussion thread ... I found it interesting this morning that my son mentioned Craigslist and I responded with a comment about the Craigslist Killer and he had no clue what I was talking about. None. Zip. And he's in his 20s. He doesn't watch TV. He'd missed it all.

    When they first started talking about this guy and all they had was security tapes, I was astonished by how calm he was after the killing.

  8. Hi Helen,
    Thanks for stopping by at Jungle Red! The calm demeanor was definitely weird. What I find most amazing is that this has caught such attention internationally!

  9. I have also been taken in by this story. The comments that he "looks just like us" hit a sour note, though, because so many of us in this blog and commenters group appear to look like the mainstream gene pool. Would his reputed murdering strike us so deeply if he wasn't white and middle class? If the woman murdered wasn't?

    On the linguistic note, Hank, I realized that I knew, but wasn't aware, that I too NEVER say "panties." When I mentioned this - that only men refer to women's underwear as "panties" - to 2 of the 3 men in my immediate family over dinner, they were bewildered. Gobsmacked, actually! Thank you for pointing that out.


  10. This whole case is super creepy--and very surreal. Gambling, the internet, a women offering massage, a med student, a fiance protesting his innocence--it has all the makings of an overwrought movie of the week. I keep waiting for the book or movie deal to be announced. How on earth are they ever going to find a jury for this one?

  11. Hi Edith,
    Think about all the murders that go on every day in Mattapan that go unheralded.

    Even black mega athletes getting shot at in bars doesn't command this much attention.

    Sad, but very true. Murder fascination is definitely racist.

  12. I say 'panties' - always have. I never thought of it as a male/female thing.

    Movie deals. Crash books. I'm sure they're all in the works. But the media frenzy is rapidly turning to swine flu.

  13. My daughter is a student at BU so this whole thing has creeped me out. I think there's an element of schadenfreude involved in our fascination with the case.

  14. I haven't been following this story as much as it's been following me. Every time I turn on the news, it's there. Though, you're right, now it's being supplanted by swine flu. (After all that angst about Asia and bird flu, it ends up coming from pigs next door.)

    Sort of like the murderer who looks more like your mother's vision of your fiance than a cold-hearted killer. So what does a cold-hearted killer look like? Yep. Him. (Allegedly, of course!)

    At the Muse & the Marketplace conference this weekend, Tess Gerritsen made an interesting point that our fascination tends to drop off once we identify the imagined crazed "Craigslist Killer," "BTK Killer," or "[insert name here]" and find out he's just our neighbor.

    Yet we never learn...

  15. I think another reason so many people may be interested is that a lot of us have actually searched for something or someone on Craigslist so there's a touch of (OMG, I've been on Cragslist!) It could just as easily have been the phonebook but the Directory Assistance Murderer doesn't have the same ring to it.
    ..having ahem..touched on jockstraps, I'm staying away from the "panties" discussion other than to say rent Anatomy of a Murder.

  16. Yeah, I too have been on Craigslist, selling something. The only thing I worried about, though, was whether the money was real or fake. Little did I imagine... (Thankfully it wasn't something inside the house.)

  17. I like your blog. You have been awarded the Queen of All Things Awe-Summm!!! award. If you accept this award, go to my blog ( and see what you need to do.



  18. Will do Marylynne!

    And Kira, you have a point,what exactly ARE murderers supposed to look like??

    Ro, I got more than half of my cast for the Teaser video from Craigslist. It's actually a pretty wild place, for good and ill. And considering the content, this should really not be a shock.

    The Directory Assistance Murderer?? I think it has a ring to it! (bad pun day)

  19. Kira--you were at Muse and the Marketplace? I was, too! (Loved it.)

    I think part of the fascination, too, is wondering how someone could be so different than they seem--I mean, his fiancee clearly had no idea there was a whole separate life. You'd think you'd know. And then, wham.

  20. All of this points to the fact that transformers actually do exist! What I am saying is that it is possible to look one way, but be completely different in total aspect. I am reminded of some of the creatures in "Men in Black" who could "put on" a man's body.

    Alternatively, if a person chooses to hide their totality from others, it can be done. And, apparently easily - of course, all this assuming he is guilty. "Son of Sam" had some similarities, although, I don't think he would have been considered "normal", as in the upscale boy next door.

    I have to add, the only reason I am even remotely familiar with this is from some quick blurbs I noticed on Yahoo. The case did not fascinate me at all. The only thing that caught my attention was the upscale person that was accused and the mention of Craig's List.

    I had been doing some research into sexuality recently. My conclusion was that what motivates a given person is what motivates them - you can make up whatever story you want, but the mystery of life is pervasive, and while you can attempt to "explain" it - you may need to be happy with the fact that it is an explanation that fits the facts. Other than that, it is no more real than the actions you are attempting to explain... as I think about it... very scary... unless you focus on expanding your awareness and continually keep your radar up...

    As an example, I don't know why this blog fascinated me so much... well actually I do... I was interested in the way you each attempted to come to terms with something that seems to me not very explainable!

    Loved this blog!

    BTW - Just back from Greece and Turkey... awesome trip. I especially "dug" (pun intended) the archeological sites we saw in Turkey! The original art in the Athens Archeological Museum was just stunning. Part of my fascination with that may be the fact that I have had no formal course work in any of it - so it was all new to me.


  21. thanks Mike!!
    I, too, don't actually understand why this is so fascinating, which is why I brought it up. I think Ro's right, its the catchy title.
    Glad to have you back, goodness you get around the world!!

  22. As mystery writers, it is great that you brought it up. After all, it shows that life is stranger than fiction. Of course, then as you all know that puts an added burden on the writer. You know, that proverbial question.. "Is that really believable???"

    So, to me as authors, it's always important to be counterpointing your craft against reality.

    I will say, I have learned much about authorship from all of you, as well as your commenters.

    As far as travel, I have this philosophy... when a unique opportunity arises... seize it... love it... I love being with people who speak the native language and are living in the area. This way, there are very few cities I've ever visited. Literally I have been able to "live" in cities around the world because I am mainstreamed into the social structure by the people living there. It's a whole different experience. When we left Ankara, Turkey, the owner of the barber shop downstairs came out and said to me in Turkish at our cab - "I look forward to being with you again!" My Fulbright brother-in-law had to translate for me. This after only speaking several words to him in my broken Turkish while one of his guys gave me a shave two days before! I've had similar experiences in China and Brazil. I've been very, very blessed with the people in my life... including ALL of you on this blog!!!

    Thanks for all you do!!


  23. Hank: Was hoping you'd blog about the Muse. Yes, I was there and your guided reading workshop was sensational. I went just to listen but was so impressed by the tips you gave and the feedback. The next day's readings, unguided, were funny by comparison. People read whole books in five minutes. Likeeverythingwasalloneword,whichmade

  24. I keep wondering if an editor might not push back on some of the details of this case, if they were submitted in a manuscript. Keeping a gun in a hollowed out Gray's Anatomy?? Isn't that a little too...too?

    It DOES sound like an overwrought movie of the week, Meredith. How crazy, and sad, that it's true.