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Happy Birthday to Greg! Happy Birthday to Greg!

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Okay, you know how it is.  I had to.   I did it with Matt, and what’s sauce for the goose–

No, that won’t work.  They’re both ganders.

But it’s Greg’s birthday today, so we have the post title, and I hope he enjoys it.  Being of a different temperament than Matt, he was so excited that it was his birthday coming up, he stayed up nearly all night–the way he used to before Christmas when he was very small–and we had to sing happy birthday to him over cake and candles at eight in the morning. 

It’s odd to think that neither of them is a child anymore.  I can still remember both of them in diapers.

I want to look for a minute today at a couple of ordinary criminals, except not quite, for various reasons.

I meant it when I said that Bernie Madoff was nothing special–not especially bright, not especially cunning, not especially ambitious.  He was essentially a small time con man whose scheme got away from him and came close to bringing down the world.

But there are a couple of things that keep coming up in the things I read about him, and I find them odd for a…well, maybe from a mystery writer’s point of view.

The first has to do with Madoff’s offices in the Lipstick Building.  If you can find a picture of it online, you can see why they called it that, although not officially.

Madoff had offices on several floors of this building, and on most of those floors everything was fanatically organized, meticulously clean and strenuously controlled.  No other colous but black and grey were allowed anywhere.  Even secretaries had their desk decorations policed and restricted. All the equipment was state of the art and up to date. You could have done brain surgery on the floor of Madoff’s office.

There was, however, one other floor that belonged to Madoff’s company–the floor where the scam was conducted.  THAT floor was a complete and utter mess, dirty, chaotic, dark.  The equipment was so old, it was almost impossible to get replacement parts for it–keypunch machines instead of real computers, for instance, and stuff written down in pen on paper instead of stored in computer databases.

Then there was Madoff himself, who in his regular office and in his private life was a clean fanatic of the nearly obsessional kind, and obsessional as well about straight lines and clean angles.  He once had an entire wall of televisions and computer screens destroyed and rebuilt because the wall was curved–and he didn’t care that the curved wall actually made the screens easier to see.

Now, this is the kind of detail that is so perfectly metaphorical that, if I put it in a book, my editor would probably scream.  And if he didn’t, all the reviewers would.  It’s practically a textbook case out of 1950s theories in psychology, and so close to “out, damned spot” that it feels surreal.

If I was going to write a post about real criminals doing real crime, I would probably say that things like this do not happen, and make a book less believable than if the writer had left them out. 

But this did happen, and if you care about figuring out what was going on in Bernie Madoff’s head–if you care about the how and why of it–it almost certainly matters.

The other ordinary criminal is a young woman named Casey Anthony, the 22-year-old single mother from Florida who was convicted of having murdered her two-year-old daughter Caylee and hiding the body a few miles from the house they both shared.

Casey Anthony is not the kind of murderer I would normally be interested in.  The crime itself is just a variation on the old them of “kill the baby because it’s getting in the way and you’re annoyed,” and Casey doesn’t seemed to have planned out her crime either before or after it occurred.  If she was trying to get rid of the kid because her boyfriend wouldn’t marry her while she had it, then she did an even less impression job of staging the crime and trying to get away with it than Susan Smith, and Susan Smith as pathetic.

What does interest me about the case was a conjecture put forward by somebody on one of the television stations in the day or so after Caylee’s body was found and Casey was arrested.

Caylee was killed with chloroform–but, this person said, when young mothers give their kids chloroform, they almost never mean to kill them.  Rather, it’s a common practice among young single mothers who want to go out to clubs.  Give the kids just enough of the stuff–not too much, and not too little–and they’ll sleep through the night and be perfectly safe and snug in their beds when you get home with your buzz on.

What strikes me here is the idea of an entire subculture in which this kind of behavior–give your infants and toddler chloroform!–is considered completely sensible and normal.  My guess is that these women know that their doctors wouldn’t consider this normal, and that a few other people wouldn’t either.  They do not seem to take any of that to heart, though.

Okay, women like this are not inherently interesting, although I could see one becoming so depending on how she developed over time.  What we’re mostly dealing with is, again, a double dose of stupid.

But I could do something with the situation,  as the basis for a work of fiction.  I don’t mean Casey and Caylee’s situation in particular, but that of the “community” of young women doing this sort of thing to their children. 

A murder mystery about Casey Anthony would not be very interesting.  A murder mystery about something who used somebody like Casey Anthony, who used the entire system of drugging the kids and going out to clubs in order to cover up something else–well, that affords possibilities.

It does interest me, too, that this particular explanation of what happened to Caylee Anthony came and went on the news, and has since been nonexistent in most examinations of the crime.  Maybe that’s because it isn’t true. 

But I think it’s more likely that the problem is that IF it’s true, it makes it harder for us to deal with the death of this child.  A child murderer ought to be Satan Incarnate, at the very least.  There’s something just wrong about the idea of a child murderer who is just sort of addled and not good enough at math to get the dosages right and wasn’t paying attention, exactly…

In the end, the New York courts gave Bernie Madoff a sentence so long, he wouldn’t qualify for parole for a century, and the last I heard, the Florida courts were still messing around with Casey Anderson’s sentencing.  Maybe that’s been fixed by now, but I googled it this morning, and didn’t get a thing but speculation.

Maybe there’s a point to all those Supervillains after all.

Written by janeh

January 14th, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Happy Birthday to Greg! Happy Birthday to Greg!'

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  1. Happy birthday Greg!

    How do you get chloroform? I mean, I can get the idea of someone sedating their child for various reasons, including selfish ones. That’s probably been done since time began. Certainly some of the Victorians gave them laudanum and alcohol. But I don’t quite know where I’d go to buy chloroform.

    Stupid or temporarily crazed people ending up killing stuff – I don’t know why people don’t like those ‘motives’. Maybe it’s too scary to think that terribly evil things can result from the kind of stuff almost anyone could do. I saw a brief news snippet about some woman who was a monster because she was driving drunk and had an accident killing several children who were in the car. Further details revealed that she’d had some kind of massive fight with her husband, packed up the kids and drove off, drunk and in a rage. She was in the wrong, of course. No question. But I could see myself doing something similar, given enough alcohol and a marriage that meant a lot to me collapsing and children I couldn’t or wouldn’t leave behind. I think it’s far more monstrous to kill someone to collect on insurance than to kill by accident, even an accident you are mostly or entirely responsible for. But as a species we seem to have an innate need to demonize some of our own, and killers – particularly women who kill children – are still safe targets, unlike political, racial or ethnic groups, and irrespective (if that’s a word) of whether the group in question organizes the killing of children, incidentally or deliberately.

    I heard of a case once in which there were no charges laid. A very young child – far too young to take medicine on her own – died of a massive overdose of some over-the-counter medicine, cold medicine I think. No witnesses, no one admitted giving the child anything. The speaker concluded ‘murder’. I wondered then if it could be merely accident (or stupidity) and the culprit was too scared to own up. Not something you could make a murder mystery out of, of course.


    14 Jan 10 at 1:39 pm

  2. The Victorian “norm” in such circles was to hold the child over an unlit gas burner with the gas on to get a little quiet time. I’m sure both it and the chloroform produced and produce deaths on a regular basis. For that matter, most of the young male idiots waving knives and loaded firearms around aren’t intent on homicide. Like the girls drugging their children, they want the things they want, and not endangering anyone else isn’t a priority.

    Maybe Bernie Madoff is a reasonable fit.

    If we only had to deal with homicidal maniacs and tyrants and would-be tyrants and even master criminals, the world would be a much nicer place. The year terrorists took down the Twin Towers, FAR more Americans were killed by drunk and drugged drivers, idiots passing in unsafe conditions and running red lights, bandits whose armed robberies that “got out of hand” and mean drunks in bar room fights.

    And for those we have fairly good numbers. Think of babies shaken or smothered because they wouldn’t stop crying or drugged because Mama needs her night out–or just left unattended at far too young an age. Even in our modern bureaucratic society I doubt we catch and properly identify half such deaths.

    Which is why I prefer fictional crime. The people Nero Wolfe tracks down set out to commit murder. They didn’t do it inadvertently.


    14 Jan 10 at 5:00 pm

  3. I did get chloroform from a pharmacist years ago–for killing insects for 9th grade biology–but I’m pretty sure he used to date my mom and that’s why he trusted us with it! ;)

    And all you have to do is sit on an airplane with a crying baby to have someone suggest dosing it with enough Benadryl to put it to sleep….



    14 Jan 10 at 6:41 pm

  4. Back in the 60s and 70s, I used to read police procedural novels by Dell Shannon. They featured Lt. Luis Mendoza in Los Angeles.

    A lot of the crimes didn’t really have motives – some of them were insane serial killers or teenagers out for a thrill.

    Is anyone writing that sort of novel these days?


    14 Jan 10 at 10:12 pm

  5. There’s a court case running in Sydney, NSW right at the moment where a woman named Keri Lane has been charged with the murder of her new-born daughter, Tegan. It’s totally bizarre, because she kept her pregnancy secret from her family and friends, and the staff and her students at an all-girl private high school. She went to hospital, had the baby, was discharged and took the baby away with her on either the same day or the following day, and the baby has never been seen since. She attended a wedding ceremony and celebrations on the evening of her discharge from hospital. It wasn’t until many years later that someone realised that she’d had the child and that it disappeared, and for the matter to be investigated properly.

    Much as it pains me to admit it, the best summary of the case that I’ve seen so far is this from the Guardian:


    It’s early days in the trial yet, but this is one cold individual who may get away with it yet.

    As for Madoff, I was not surprised that the courts vented the public’s spleen on him and awarded him such a monumental sentence. Yet, I believe his crime – which really only directly affected a select group of uber-avaricious wealthy people – is trivial compared to what I’m convinced is the greatest scam of all time, run by one of history’s most egregious hucksters, Al Gore and his henchmen. One can only hope that when a full and honest accounting is done, that Mr Gore receives his just deserts and takes Bernie Madoff’s place in the slammer for a commensurately lengthy term.

    There’ll be a good book in that, Jane. :-)


    15 Jan 10 at 4:54 am

  6. I think there must be lots of serial killer novels, John. I don’t read that many of them any more, but when I’m browsing, I seem to remember blurbs that seemed to be about serial killers. I don’t recall many about teenagers out for a thrill, although that can be the motivation for fictional crimes occurring years later when the guilty secret looks like it is going to slip out.

    That Australian case is fascinating. Of course, it’s not unusual for women (or, more often, girls) to have secret pregnancies – but three? In quick succession? And since the first and third are accounted for, why should the second be missing?

    One big social change since my own teenage years is the attitudes and behaviour expected of mothers – and although I doubt real attitudes have changed much, behaviour certainly has. When I was young, it was assumed that of course a girl wanted a baby, but she should be brave and make the sacrifice of giving the child up for adoption if she couldn’t afford to keep and raise it. Now, or at least the last time I had many dealings with adolescents, the assumption is, again, that of course a girl wanted a baby, but she could only possibly give it up for adoption if she were in some way unnatural or cruel or really didn’t want it anyway (thereby proving herself un-female and un-natural). The effect on the adoption rate and on children living in poverty is predictable. It’s interesting to me that among the girls I knew, the idea that the baby might not be really wanted (and the girl be a normal, if unhappy about the pregnancy, girl) wasn’t common. If such ideas were expressed, oh, it had to be hormones or something. EVERY girl wanted a baby REALLY. So I can see that a girl who really didn’t want a baby, or an abortion, would be motivated to have a secret birth. This has been common for centuries. Sometimes it ends in infanticide, although nowadays that seems to be limited to those girls in such deep denial they can’t even admit that they’re pregnant. Maybe that’s where this one is coming from.

    And if I’m writing almost exclusively about girls, well, it’s because the percentage of boys who hang around for the long term isn’t very high, and some of the boys don’t even know about the pregnancy. I’ve often wondered if men don’t wonder if they’ve got unknown children out there somewhere…now, that’s the basis of some plots; the unknown illegitimate (do we use that term any more?) child showing up at the most inopportune time for the parent(s)!


    15 Jan 10 at 7:02 am

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