Perfect Murder, Perfect Town

By Lawrence Schiller

Every now and then a perfectly newsworthy story turns into something larger: the media event. In particular, the combination of celebrity with sex and/or violence is usually irresistible, leading to excesses like the O. J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky reportage.

But at other times the attention given to a story is harder to explain. Such an unlikely media event was the murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colorado, on Christmas Day 1996.

By now everyone in North America knows something about the story. JonBenet has entered that media pantheon where you don’t even need a last name to be recognized. The haunting pictures of her competing in child beauty pageants have become part of the collective consciousness, while the inability of authorities to bring closure to her case has allowed gossip and speculation to run riot.

Enter Lawrence Schiller, one of the most prominent and respected names in American true crime. His telling of the O. J. saga, American Tragedy, was one of the many popular books on that subject, though he is probably best remembered for doing the leg work for Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.

In Perfect Murder, Perfect Town he attempts to “take the story of of the murder investigation of JonBenet Ramsey out of the context of the newspaper reports and sound bites that have formed the nation’s opinion of the case and place it into a more complete context.” That context is one of almost mind-numbing incompetence on the part of the Boulder police and district attorney’s office. Readers of Kirk Makin’s account of the Guy Paul Morin investigation (Redrum the Innocent) may experience a sense of deja vu. The sloppy handling of evidence, the bickering between different levels of command, the media pressure and tunnel vision, all have something in common with our own most notorious travesty of justice.

As a result, the chances of finding out who killed JonBenet are worse today than they were two years ago. While the Ramseys (father John, mother Patsey) continue to live under a cloud of suspicion, there is still no convincing motive or theory explaining the crime. Such evidence as there is points in conflicting directions and even the cause of death remains unclear.

As usual, Schiller has done a remarkably thorough research job, condensing what must have been a mountain of material into a well-paced narrative. His grasp of legal issues is a strong point, as is his ability to bring a small army of minor characters to life. The major players in the JonBenet story are supplemented here by a strong supporting cast of freaks, including a necrophilic morgue attendant and a deranged reporter who stalks the police.

There is no denying the macabre fascination such a tragic tale has. Even given Schiller’s overly exhaustive analysis, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town is still a page-turner. More importantly, it reminds us how easy it is to lose sight of social and personal values in a media-driven age.

Review first published April 10, 1999.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: