The Fatal Gift of Beauty

By Nina Burleigh

There are all the obvious reasons why the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy became such a sensational case. So much so that some of the elements that made it so sensational seemed specially manufactured for that purpose. That Kercher was killed as the result of a clumsy break-and-enter – the most likely explanation – wasn’t very interesting. But the case involved foreigners, young and good-looking foreigners, and the whole thing smelled sweetly of cannabis and sex. Before long the Italian imagination with its native “insistence on complicated theories” was in the saddle, conjuring a story “far more interesting” than that offered by defendants Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito (that they simply went to sleep after watching a movie on the night in question).

At least this is one way of thinking about the case, and it holds some water. The chief prosecutor really was a conspiracy nut, and heaven knows the media wanted to run with something sexy. The real story, however, seems to have been less tabloid fare than literary fiction. There was, first of all, the “complex fate” noted by Henry James (Nina Burleigh references the line), the myth of an American innocence both corrupting the Old World and being destroyed by it: Amanda Knox as Daisy Miller. But even more apposite was Amanda’s role as the stranieri Meursault. Camus’ anti-hero is a killer, but that’s not what leads to his conviction. Instead, as Camus himself summarized: “In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.” This is simply because, as he goes on to say, such a man “doesn’t play the game.”

When Amanda Knox discovered the butchered body of her roommate and then stepped outside for a very public (and widely broadcast) snogging session with her lover Raffaele, she was not playing the game – by provincial Perugian standards or our looser North American rules. Later, at the police station, this behaviour was continued: “everyone agreed, only Amanda failed to behave like a grieving roommate. Quite the contrary: she sat on Raffaele’s lap, rubbing noses, sticking out her tongue, giggling, nuzzling.” Even if one doesn’t much care for the death of one’s mother (when Sollecito’s own “beloved mother” died, his sister remembers his being unable to cry about it), or the brutal murder of one’s roommate, one is expected to at least go through the motions.

Burleigh rolls Knox’s disturbing lack of affect together with what she identifies as her “absence of gravitas,” but the truth seems both more revealing and more banal. Being interviewed by the police, Knox’s interpreter found her “insincere and strangely cold.” But this begs the question: what about her coolness was insincere? Called by her mother on 9/11 and informed about the attacks on the World Trade Center, author Elizabeth Wurtzel remembered her “main thought was ‘What a pain in the ass.'” She went on to clarify that she “had not the slightest emotional reaction.” This certainly wasn’t a crime, but she was pilloried in the press for not faking an emotion, not playing the game. Had we learned nothing from Camus? And Meursault, after all, didn’t have the excuse of being young, discombobulated, and stoned.

As with a lot of timely true crime writing, there is evidence of this being a book published in haste. The editing is sloppy, with numerous typos and confusing reportage. It is disconcerting to find, in a paragraph laying out the few “indisputable truths” in the case, that on the morning of November 2, 2007 the door to Meredith Kercher’s room was kicked down in the presence of the police, when it later transpires that this occurred in the afternoon. Another head-scratcher is the line “Five days after the arrest, Perugia newspapers began reporting what police had known within the first week after the arrests.” Huh?

Burleigh’s measured conclusion, that “the scenario presented by the prosecution was not very plausible,” is hard to disagree with. Indeed there seems to have been little evidence, or even compelling reason to believe, that Knox was involved in Kercher’s murder (her “confession,” to take just one example, consisted of a bunch of gibberish extorted under pressure). Justice, we are reminded, is not an abstract, universal principle but an awkwardly rigged social and historical construction. And so much of life consists of being the right (or wrong) person, in the right (or wrong) place, at the right (or wrong) time. Meursault accepted such operations of fate with an ironic shrug. The far less reticent, indeed graphomanic Knox remains, paradoxically, a harder figure to read.

Review first published online September 5, 2011.

%d bloggers like this: