Spring Break

I need to take some time off to get work done in the real world so I won’t be posting here for a month or so. But I’ll be back at the end of June (or thereabouts) with lots more stuff!

The monkeys in charge

Over at Good Reports I’ve added a review of Max Fisher’s The Chaos Machine, an excellent overview of the social evil that is social media. Better to stay off it entirely, but if you really must you should at least be aware of how damaging, manipulative, and deliberately addictive it is.

I think I was on Facebook for about a month ten years ago, and I’ve never been on Twitter or paid much attention to it. I’ve even wondered if blogging is all that innocent. There are days I’m pretty sure the whole Internet was a path we shouldn’t have gone down. The costs have been huge, and did it do that much to improve our lives? Made shopping easier mainly.

TCF: Wicked Beyond Belief

Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper
By Michael Bilton

The crime:

From 1975 to 1980 Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper by the press, killed thirteen women and assaulted many others. The police investigation was widely recognized as having been badly mishandled, leading to a formal inquiry into what went wrong. Sutcliffe himself died in prison in 2020 of COVID-19-related complications.

The book:

A lot of true crime books are ephemeral, rushed into print to take advantage of the particular notoriety of a case in the public’s mind. As a general rule, and it’s only a general rule, the ones that look back with the benefit of hindsight tend to be better. Michael Bilton’s Wicked Beyond Belief is a case in point. It’s more concerned with the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, and draws on a lot of first-hand reporting as well as the Byford Report, which was completed in 1981 but not released to the public until 2006. Bilton had seen the report before then, however, and incorporated some of its findings into the first edition of this book, which came out in 2004. Then in 2006 an updated edition was published with a chapter on the capture of John Humble (“Wearside Jack”), the individual who had pretended to be the Ripper and sent hoax letters and tapes to the police while Sutcliffe was active. So while speculation continues about things like just how many murders and assaults Sutcliffe committed, I think this book will probably stand as the most complete account of the case. At over 700 pages it certainly should be.

That said, it is very much directed at one aspect of the case: the investigation. The depth of detail in Bilton’s coverage, and the length of the investigation, make this the mother of all police procedurals. But luckily for readers, the Ripper killings spawned two classic works of true crime, one being this book and the other Gordon Burn’s Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, a tour de force of immersive journalism which tells the story more from Sutcliffe’s point of view. Some of Burn’s conclusions haven’t held up (his book was published in 1984), but it’s an amazing bit of work that’s full of insight.

Bilton’s book forces us to experience, along with the police, what was a chronicle of frustration. Sutcliffe was interviewed by the police as a person of interest nine times before he was finally arrested on a minor charge having to do with driving with stolen plates. And yet in the final year of the investigation he wasn’t even on a list of “high-grade suspects.” The various threads linking Sutcliffe to the murders were never pulled together.

But what also becomes clear here is that the police not only drove hard, but did some great work as well. The tracking of the five-pound note found at one of the crime scenes and the mapping of the dialect and accent of the voice on the hoax tape to a precise neighbourhood being perhaps the most impressive examples. Unfortunately, the (pre-computerized) system for keeping track of all the leads the police were getting soon broke down under the weight of too much information. The task force also ignored some of the most promising avenues while speeding down a number of dead ends (for example: putting too much emphasis on a specific model of car, and believing the hoax letters and tape to be genuine). Finally, they also had a long run of very bad luck. For example, Sutcliffe’s family gave him alibis, perhaps inadvertently. Witnesses made false or misleading identifications. That sort of thing.

Sutcliffe himself is someone I find to be a real curiosity. He was apparently very low-key and calm in his demeanour, with a stultifying and sterile home life, but his crimes were brutal in the extreme. Beating, stabbing, and biting his victims. Trying to decapitate one with a hacksaw and stabbing another in the eye. Stomping and kicking others. Meanwhile, the sexual motive is blurry. The strange leggings he’d fashioned certainly suggest a kink, but the women don’t seem to have been raped. He targeted prostitutes because they were available, not to have sex with them, either before or after his assaults. Near the end the killing seems to have become almost a chore, though his methods were no less savage.

As I’ve said though, Bilton’s focus isn’t on Sutcliffe but on the debacle that was the investigation. That debacle, with its enormous publicity and expense as well as attendant political fallout, combined to make this “the most important case in British criminal history.”

Noted in passing:

Survivors of Sutcliffe’s attacks described a man with a “Jason King” moustache. This forced me into some online sleuthing, as the television crime/spy drama Jason King only aired for a single season (1971-72) and I’d never heard of it before. In the show, the actor Peter Wyngarde plays Jason King, an author who gets mixed up in various thrilling adventures. He had a long, droopy moustache like Sutcliffe’s but no beard. To be honest, I don’t see much of a resemblance, but as a clue it was better worth following up on than many of the other false leads the police hunted down.

Also, a condom is called a “contraceptive sheath” in England. I thought we got the word “rubber” from over there.


Bilton helpfully includes in an appendix transcripts of the two police interviews of Sutcliffe where he confessed to the killings. Or at least to most of the killings. What’s interesting about what he says in the interviews is that despite giving himself up he still manages to be extremely dishonest. Some of this is psychologically understandable, even relatable, especially as it pertains to his sexual motivations. But he also lied about things that he seemingly had no reason to lie about. In his first interview, for example, when asked about the murder of Marguerite Walls he responded “You’ve got a mystery on your hands with that one.” But later he had to admit that he’d killed her as well.

I don’t think he’d forgotten. There’s a tendency among the general public anyway to see jailhouse confessions as being reliable, especially where nothing is to be gained from lying. But Sutcliffe wasn’t just a homicidal psychopath, he was a habitual liar as well. Indeed he pretty much had to be the latter out of necessity. Such people don’t stop lying because they’ve been caught. In some ways, I think they basically forget how to tell the truth.

True Crime Files

Fox and friends

The decks behind the units in my condo complex have, over the years, been home to many unpleasant burrowing creatures like groundhogs and skunks. Except for under my deck, where I have built an impermeable stone wall where the deck adjoins the cement slab of the back porch that the critters like to dig under. That was a long battle, but I finally defeated their digging projects.

I don’t like groundhogs. I even shot them as a kid. I like skunks even less because the stink just gets everywhere. If they spray nearby you have it in your house for days. So I was happy a couple of years ago when a family of foxes moved in and took over these ready-made dens. No more rabbits. Only a few groundhog sightings. But you can see the fox family out playing every morning and again at twilight. They are bold and very cute. Here’s one of the adults (not sure if it’s male or female) while you can make out a few of the kits hanging out under the edge of a deck close to me. I’ll try and get some better pics, as they are quite photogenic.

See here for an earlier wildlife sighting in my neighbourhood.

Correspondences II

“Apocalyptic Landscape” by Ludwig Meidner (1912).

From The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939):

Across the top, parallel with the frame, he had drawn the burning city, a great bonfire of architectural styles, ranging from Egyptian to Cape Cod colonial. Through the center, winding from left to right, was a long hill street and down it, spilling into the middle foreground, came the mob carrying baseball bats and torches. For the faces of its members, he was using the innumerable sketches he had made of the people who come to California to die; the cultists of all sorts, economic as well as religious, the wave, airplane, funeral and preview watchers — all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence.

TCF: The Billionaire Murders

The Billionaire Murders: The Mysterious Deaths of Barry and Honey Sherman
By Kevin Donovan

The crime:

On the morning of December 15, 2017 the bodies of Barry Sherman, the billionaire founder and owner of Apotex, a generic pharmaceutical company, and his wife Honey were found in their North York (Toronto) mansion. They had been strangled in what appeared to be a double-homicide. To this date no one has been charged in the killing.

The book:

The police investigation got off to a rough start, bizarrely assuming that the deaths were the result of a murder-suicide. I can’t understand how this happened, and Kevin Donovan seems to be just as mystified. My own hunch is that, as so often, laziness was more at fault than incompetence. But in defence of the police (and regular readers will know this isn’t something I do reflexively), a couple of things about the initial timeline of the case, items that Donovan glides over to the point where they’re nearly invisible, really leapt out at me.

The bodies of the Shermans were discovered by the realtor who was showing their house to prospective buyers. She was immediately advised by the cleaning lady, who she’d asked to verify that the Shermans were dead, to call the police. She didn’t, and instead called her boss. Then she tried to get in touch with the four Sherman children. “Finally, after a delay of almost ninety minutes from the discovery of the bodies, a call was made to the Toronto Police 911 system.” Within a minute the police were on their way.

My jaw dropped at this. Given the shock of the situation – the bodies of the Shermans had been arranged in a macabre tableau by the side of the home’s underground pool – I think most people would have been phoning 911 as fast as their fingers could punch in the numbers. To have delayed making that call for so long was something I could hardly believe. Then later that evening, when a police detective came to a family gathering to speak to the children, he was questioned why “he was so late in coming to speak to them.” When the detective responded that he had to pick his kids from daycare this “admission struck family members as an indication that the police did not consider this a high priority case.”

From my own experiences dealing with the police, having someone meet with the family later the same day doesn’t indicate any great delay. Coupled with how long it took for the police to be notified of the discovery of the bodies I can’t imagine they were impressed.

The second point in the timeline I flagged was that later that same evening the family received a phone call from a friend advising them to hire private investigators to look into the killings. They were also advised to put “pressure on the police” by getting in touch with friends in high places. What’s striking about these moves is that they came before there was any public reporting of the murder-suicide theory. Only twelve hours after the discovery of the bodies, an adversarial relation to the police (and the media) seemed already well advanced, and that through no fault of the police or the media. The wagons were being circled.

Donovan found the family’s antagonism to the media beyond his understanding, something he could not fathom. My guess is that it comes from a new attitude among the very rich that if you have enough money you get to “control the narrative.” It also goes by the name of entitlement and privilege. I was shocked, again, to find that Donovan’s request to interview the Shermans’ son was rebuffed unless Donovan “agreed in writing to allow him editorial control over any portions of the book or newspaper story that concerned him.” On what planet, I had to wonder, was the son living on to even consider making such a request of a journalist? It’s no place I’ve ever visited.

As of Donovan’s writing, and indeed of my writing this review, the case remains unsolved. This is one way that cases like these hang around. They give rise to all kind of speculation. Everybody has a theory. Donovan’s penultimate chapter, “The Most Likely Scenario,” puts forward a basic outline of how the murders went down, without naming who he thought was behind them. This is understandable, since having finished the book, and followed the case irregularly the few times it’s been in the news, I don’t see any likely suspects. Barry Sherman certainly made enemies, but people who hated him enough to kill both him and his wife? Donovan does narrow things down somewhat though:

Did Barry and Honey Sherman know their killers? I believe so. After spending a year and a half delving into this case, I believe that the killer or killers had an intimate knowledge of the Shermans, including their routines. I also believe that the killer or killers were not trained professionals and that the attempt to make it look like a murder-suicide was a poor one, though it obviously worked for a while.

I’m not sure about that final point. Killing people isn’t easy, and the killer (or killers) here seem to have done a good job of it. Obviously, they didn’t get caught. Furthermore, it’s not clear to me if the aim was to make the deaths look like a murder-suicide, but if it was, working “for a while” was all that was required. I think it’s very possible, perhaps even likely, that whoever actually did the killing was a hired gun.

All of which only gets us so far. Hence the fascination with cases like this. A fascination that’s unlikely to go away, as cold as the trail becomes. I think Donovan’s book is an excellent account of what we know so far, well written and fair minded. The way it’s structured, alternating chapters for most of the way between telling the story of the Shermans and the investigation, helped make up for the fact that I wasn’t that interested in the Apotex story. I didn’t come away with any theory of my own on who was responsible, but if I were a betting man (and I’m not) I’d bet that we will find out eventually. I think more than one person, and probably more than two, know what happened and somebody will talk. But we’ll probably have to wait a while.

Noted in passing:

I remember that as home prices skyrocketed during these years I often found myself asking “Who is buying all these multimillion dollar properties?” The average price of a house in the city I live in was nearly $700,000 at the time of the Sherman murders, and continued going up over the course of the next five years. That’s the average! And my hometown is cheaper than Toronto. Was the average family able to afford housing at this price? And if not, who was feeding this frenzy?

My sense was that the high prices were being driven by big money looking for investment properties or just a place to park some cash. Not a lot of people could afford to buy an average-priced home at this time, especially in cities like Toronto. So was it a relatively few people with a lot of money who were making the market?

The Shermans weren’t average homebuyers. (The house they were killed in was listed for $6.9 million – underpriced, in Barry’s opinion – and they had plans to build a new mansion in Forest Hills that was going to cost them around $30 million all-in.) But apparently they did buy a lot of houses. For example, their youngest daughter “through a series of companies headquartered at Apotex, purchased several residential properties in Toronto (each cost between $2 million and $4 million), which she rent[ed] out to tenants. Sherman friends say Barry supported her financially in this venture as a way to provide her income she could consider her own.” Elsewhere in the book various other instances are given of his involvement in buying multi-million dollar properties in different sorts of arrangements. “Barry did so many unusual things with real estate,” one family friend tells Donovan.


The difference between being rich and being poor is that when you’re poor nobody cares if you live or die and when you’re rich people want to kill you. Most people would still prefer to be in the latter group.

True Crime Files

Re-reading Shakespeare: As You Like It

(1) Several years ago I heard about a production of Shakespeare using the original pronunciation, or what’s known in the trade as OP. Apparently even audiences familiar with the material only understood about a 1/3 of the lines.

This was a valuable experiment then, just in terms of alerting us to something that’s easy to forget. Since then OP has become a movement, and I was able to watch some of an OP production of As You Like It online. It’s worth giving a listen to (the video quality is terrible), though if you’re like me you won’t last long. It’s very hard for a modern ear to follow.

I thought of OP while re-reading As You Like It because of the number of times the notes were telling me how certain words had to be pronounced. I remembered that the name Jaques was supposed to rhyme with “jakes” because that’s the name the Elizabethans had for a privy so it’s meant as a joke. But I’ve always wondered if Rosalind should be pronounced the way we normally do or so as to rhyme with “kind” and “find” as Touchstone does in his poetic improvisation. And I didn’t know, or had completely forgotten (it comes to the same thing), that back in Shakespeare’s day “Goths” rhymed with “goats” and “hour” with “whore.”

This reminded me of something I read a while back about how if we had a recording of Keats reading his own poetry we likely wouldn’t be able to make out much of what he was saying because his Cockney accent would be unrecognizable even in London today. Similarly, we think of Shakespeare’s lines being delivered in some version of the beautiful voice, but it probably wasn’t like that at all.

(2) The seven ages of man seem very much like the seven ages of Jaques’s life, because he doesn’t invest them with a lot of joy does he? The infant isn’t cooing but “mewling and puking,” the schoolboy is whining instead of having fun with his classmates, the lover seems out of luck writing his woeful ballads to a woman who probably doesn’t even know he exists, the soldier is on his way to getting killed “seeking the bubble reputation” in the cannon’s mouth. The justice at least seems comfortable, though he’s a bore and a phoney. Then the pantaloon has one tottering foot in the grave, and “second childishness and mere oblivion” is the horror waiting for all of us at the end of the road. Who would sign up for such a curriculum vitae?

(3) I always thought the line had it that “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” but I guess it’s really “faining” (or longing). There was a pun there with the subsequent use of “feign” that got lost with a later emendation.

(4) How strange that Rosalind asks Orlando “what is’t o’clock?” and he replies “You should ask me what time o’ day. There’s no clock in the forest” when earlier Touchstone had drawn “a dial from his poke” to tell Jaques that it’s ten o’clock. I wonder if that was consciously done.

(5) A man of the theatre, Shakespeare could see how divine monarchs weren’t so much born but made and then sold to the public. His plays are full of observations on how rulers are popularly perceived and how their image must be managed. Which is all pretty striking in that he wouldn’t have known anything even remotely like today’s democratic process. There’s Henry IV coaching Hal on how to appear before the masses and how he stage managed his reputation by stealing “all courtesy from heaven” and keeping his “person fresh and new.” Or Claudius, who would do with away with Hamlet but for “the great love the general gender bear him.” You wouldn’t think to find reflections like these in As You Like It, but the fact that you do says something about how much Shakespeare thought about such things. Oliver has to connive at his brother’s murder because Orlando is “so much in the heart of the world.” And Duke Frederick has to lecture Celia on how Rosalind is beating her at the public image game:

She is too subtle for thee, and her smoothness,
Her very silence and her patience
Speak to the people, and they pity her.
Thou art a fool. She robs thee of thy name,
And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous
When she is gone.

Of course in the twenty-first century we’re very familiar with the idea of political theatre, but I find it amazing that Shakespeare was so attuned to it in an age where it wasn’t anything like the industry it is today, and where I wouldn’t have thought it made a whole lot of difference. Hal, Hamlet, and Oliver aren’t running for office. There were plenty of monarchs in the early modern age who weren’t charismatic, or were even downright monstrous or moronic, but it’s not like they could be voted out by the “general gender.” The worst they had to face was a rebellion of their nobles. This is one of those ways Shakespeare is so far ahead of the curve he really does feel like our contemporary.

Gurning and gurning in the widening gyre

Gurning contestant. I’m not sure what the point of the horse collar is, but they all wear one.

I was recently reading a British graphic novel where an unhappily married woman referred to her husband as a “gurning idiot.” Now I was sure I’d heard the word “gurning” before but it’s one of those words that you give a pass to because you think you have a general idea what it means and it seems to only be modern slang anyway. But out of curiosity, this time I decided to look it up.

In fact, it’s a very old word, and seems to have enjoyed peak popularity sometime in the 18th century. Nobody is quite sure where it comes from, though it’s been suggested it comes from a Scottish dialect for “grin.” To be honest, I always figured it basically meant “grinning,” with an added sense of doing so in a particularly stupid way. It also has a more modern application related to the sort of face people sometimes make when they are on drugs.

The more precise meaning is to make a distorted facial expression, typically by sticking one’s jaw out and up. This is easier to do if you have no teeth, and apparently people without teeth can even gurn to the point where they cover up their noses. This makes their gurns hard to top in gurning contests, which I was surprised to find are a real thing. There’s even a World Gurning Championship for gurners held in England, though I don’t know how big gurning is outside of England. I suspect it’s very limited, as I’d never heard of these competitions before.

I don’t know what calling someone a “gurning idiot” means beyond saying they are ugly and stupid. Or maybe that they have an idiotic grin, even though it’s clear that gurning as a competitive event involves deliberately making a funny face — it’s not natural. That said, maybe a decent analogy for Americans to “gurning idiot” would be to calling someone a slack-jawed yokel. I think that’s basically what’s meant.

Words, words, words

TCF: Killer Cults

Killer Cults: Stories of Charisma, Deceit, and Death
By Stephen Singular

The crimes:

Nineteen stories of charismatic gurus and false prophets, most of whom were only interested in grabbing money and acquiring harems of submissive sexual partners.

The book:

I don’t see there being much of a market today for a book like this, or any of the Profiles in Crime series of which it is a part. For starters, there are already a couple of anthologies dealing with the same material and even with the same title already out there. In this one the entries on the different cults are little more, and sometimes even less, than you get on a Wikipedia page, the writing is nothing special, the editing poor (it’s the Book of Revelation, not Revelations), and the few pictures are of low quality. There’s only a very brief introduction and no conclusion or summary, so we get little sense of any big picture of the cult phenomenon. Stephen Singular suggests at one point that “a common thread in almost all of them [these cults] is an attempt to control sexual behavior.” But even here more needs to be drawn out. To be sure, many, if not most, of these cult leaders were sexual predators. But to what extent was an out-of-control libido the driving force behind their cults?

Of course, in any book of this nature you’re not expecting a deep dive. But even so the analysis is cursory. I couldn’t even be sure how much research Singular (a veteran true crime author) put into it. The sources referenced at the back seemed very inadequate, mostly consisting of news stories pulled from the Internet. In the section on Jim Jones reference is made to Jeff Guinn’s book The Road to Jonestown, but it isn’t listed in the sources. Nor is Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. In the section on Charles Manson, missing as sources are Vincent Bugliosi’s classic Helter Skelter and Jeff Guinn’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. In the section on Aum Shinrikyo particularly noticeable is the absence of any reference to a couple of pertinent books on the subject and on cults in general: Haruki Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche and Robert Jay Lifton’s Destroying the World to Save It.

There were at least a couple of directions that Singular might have gone in that occurred to me while I was reading. The first he does touch on, but again only briefly. This has to do with the advent of the Internet and cults going online. The Heaven’s Gate cult was a pioneer in this regard, though their web-page looks laughable today. Singular mentions how The Order had a vision of spreading their white nationalist message online but in the mid-1980s they weren’t there yet. It would take time, but that future has now arrived, as witness the dark fandom of the Columbine cult. But has this made cults more dangerous, or does the intense personal charisma of the leader get watered down, to the point where he or she just becomes another star of YouTube, or Instagram influencer?

The other point I would have liked to hear discussed more has to do with America as the natural home or breeding ground of modern cults. So much so that even people from as far away as India (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) would come to the U.S. to set up their cult communes. Is there something in the American psyche, its status as (in Kurt Andersen’s name for it) Fantasyland, that lends itself to the sort of magical thinking and instinctual worship of gurus? Or something about the link between cults and the anti-government movements and conspiracy thinking that have always been so much a part of the American cultural tradition?

These are the sorts of questions Killer Cults doesn’t ask. Instead, it remains a light read that won’t tell you anything new about the famous cases it discusses and will only whet your appetite for seeking out more information on its more obscure cases elsewhere.

Noted in passing:

What is the link between cults and the products of pop culture? Charles Manson thought the song “Helter Skelter” from The Beatles’ White Album contained a hidden message about a coming race war. Adolfo Constanzo based his brutal crime cult on a 1987 flick called The Believers starring Martin Sheen and Jimmy Smits that I have only the vaguest recollection of today. The Heaven’s Gate cult took its lead from Star Trek mythology, with its members thinkingn of themselves as parts of an “Away Team” as they killed themselves. Why do so many people put so much faith, or even find any meaning, in such crap? I know that’s a question every outsider asks of any belief system, but Star Trek? I guess fandom and cult membership have to be plotted on a spectrum.


Not every cult leader is just a scammer looking to score a fleet of Rolls-Royces and a harem of young lovers. Unfortunately, the true believers are no less toxic than the cynical ones.

True Crime Files