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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

The Red Ripper by Peter Conradi

Red Ripper - Peter Conradi

I don't know why, but when the syllables and emphasis are right my brain turns things like book titles and names into popular songs. The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" gives many five- and six-syllable titles a very ominous tone -- like Dickens' David Copperfield and Huxley's The Devils of Loudun. Sometimes first lines are singularly appropriate. Imagine the first line of the Guess Who's "American Woman" converted to Ellis' American Psycho: "American psycho, get away from me." The same thing happened with this book, about Russian serial killer Andrei Romanovich Chikatilo. The way I pronounce his last name fits perfectly with Abba's "Chiquitita": "Chikatilo, tell me what's wrong." I figure he would have stopped the song right there, in order to count the many ways that he went wrong. I take the subject matter very seriously, but a little levity never hurts.


This dude killed more than 50 people, most of them children, both male and female. He liked to say that he led them into the woods for sex and that the killing wasn't planned, but in fact he couldn't perform with the willing ones and evidently didn't even try with the others. What got him off in all cases was murder and mutilation, often cruelly prolonged with knife thrusts calculated to keep the victims alive for as long as possible. Meanwhile, he maintained a largely sexless marriage, managing to father two children, more out of a sense of duty than as a result of any normal passion. His reign of terror lasted 12 years.


How could he operate for so long and accumulate so many victims? Part of it was luck, or what passes for it in the criminal community. Unimaginable luck in his case. He was arrested once and his blood typed. From semen samples, the police knew they were looking for someone with type AB blood. Chikatilo's blood came back as type A. What the Russian authorities didn't know at the time was that in very rare cases, semen and blood types don't match. So they let him go. And he went on to claim an additional 21 victims.


Another factor was police inefficiency and the Soviet system of law enforcement generally, which put a premium on catching someone -- anyone, really. Several men, most of them intellectually impaired to one degree or another, found themselves in jail for crimes Chikatilo committed, and one was even executed. The author tells a very sad story about the mother of the executed man when authorities went to her to apologize for their mistake.


And then there was Chikatilo's own penchant for staying a step ahead of the police, using his various jobs over the years to travel and kill in areas not yet fully staked out by the police or abandoned because they thought he'd moved on. It was just this sort of rational calculation that destroyed any hope he ever had of an insanity defense.


Conradi does a good job of taking us through Chikatilo's life (even if he doesn't cite his sources) and the changing times in his country. His murders took place, after all, during the last years of the Soviet Union and ended as the new era was just beginning. I kept expecting a change in emphasis -- from crimes to trial, for instance -- but Chikatilo was so sickeningly prolific that the murders just kept coming. Then, too, as Conradi shows, Russian trials weren't what they are in the West. Though they acknowledged a prosecutor and a defense attorney, it was, as Conradi says, really a "one-man show" -- that one man being the judge. And because Chikatilo confessed, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Very little time is spent on the trial. Indeed, this book seems to have gone to press before the verdict was announced.


The Red Ripper lacks a certain depth of detail (I think there's a reason Conradi doesn't cite his sources), but it's a good, well-written book that exposes more than the depravity of its subject; it also reminds us how terrifyingly vulnerable we all are to people, like Chikatilo, who appear outwardly harmless, but whose true "otherness" is a state of mind.