Monday, December 29, 2008

True Crime: Death Sentence

(Joe Sharkey, Signet Books, 1990)

An interesting book about an almost perfect mass murder, in that it took 18 years for the killer to finally be arrested, and then only through the intervention the television show America’s Most Wanted. Death Sentence tells the story of wimpy John List, a quiet, religious hypocrite who decided one day that he had had enough of his out-of-control life, but rather than ending his own, he ended those of his wife, daughter, two sons and mother before disappearing westwards from New Jersey to start anew as Robert Clark in Colorado. There, step by step, he built himself a new life, starting off first as kitchen help at a Howard Johnson’s before ever so slowly working himself back into his beloved career as an accountant, even getting married again along the way. Interestingly enough, neither as List nor as Clark was he able to really keep control of his life, finances and career, the same mistakes being repeated in both lives, including the biggest one, of marrying bitchy women always quick to criticize and belittle him.

The true victims of the tale are not the wives, either the one he killed or the one whose life fell to pieces upon the revelation of his true identity, but rather the three children that he so heartlessly shot dead. While neither of the two wives comes across all that sympathetic, their motivations seemingly motivated by greed and finances than love, the three children seemed to be of much finer stuff than those of their preceding generation, though the time was never given to them to prove it.

Although List claims that he did the murders so as to save his family from having to go onto welfare and from losing the children to the world of sin that was/is America, he comes across more like a heartless, emotionless failure with some nasty delusions, capable of justifying any act as long as the mistake is not placed on his shoulders in the end. (In other words, he’s an Average Joe.)

True, as described his childhood and youth were hardly conducive to the production of an emotionally mature person, but many people have had worse pasts and not gone on to wipe out their family. Though the author does make a good attempt at trying to tie together the disparate aspects of the man to achieve some sort of final, basic id, Death Sentence offers little sympathy for John List, as it should be. Even for fans of murder and murderers, List must come across a cold, sniveling worm who regrettably aimed his gun the wrong direction.

Update: List died from complications of pneumonia on March 31, 2008, as unrepentant as ever; but then, as he told Connie Chung in an interview in 2002, he was sure he would go to heaven when he died. In all likelihood, he had a good life in prison: not only did he do the accounting there, but the rigid structure probably appealed to his personality.

Images: The book itself; the whole happy family.

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