March 13th, 2014

Review: The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter

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The Mad Sculptor
by Harold Schechter

In 1937, a ghastly murder occurred. A stunning model who posed for pin-ups and pulp detective novel covers was found dead in her home with the bodies of her mother and their boarder. The triple homicide, discovered on Easter Sunday, became major news as detectives raced to uncover the killer’s identity. The media also heavily exploited the murder as the victim’s semi-nude portraits helped sell countless papers in the midst of the Great Depression. The murderer, a disturbed young sculptor named Robert Irwin (but not that Robert Irwin) prone to violent outbursts who had once attempted self-castration, eventually confessed to the crimes after accepting a bribe from the Chicago Hearst-Examiner to surrender.

As far as murders go, the murder of model Ronnie Gedeon, her mother and their boarder was horrible, but not exceptional. Three other murders, briefly described by the author, occurred in the same neighborhood within a few years of this crime, showing just how unexceptional it was. The fact that the story managed to capture the attention of the public, leading to the arrest of Irwin, is due almost entirely to the insatiable appetite of the media to sell papers. It’s an uneasy relationship. On the one hand, it seems as though Gedeon’s life is being shamelessly exploited – but if her scandalous photos hadn’t kept interest in the crime high, it’s highly likely Irwin would have gotten away with the crime. Although the police had been closing in on him, it was the offer of a newspaper to pay Irwin for his story that led to his surrender.

Robert Irwin was clearly a mentally unstable man. Born to religious fanatics but virtually abandoned by his parents – his father left, his mother was too wrapped up in spiritual manners to properly provide for her sons – and afflicted with congenital syphilis, the boy was intelligent and a very talented sculptor, but his erratic temperament prevented him from achieving greatness, as he could rarely hold a job for more than a few months before attacking a coworker or boss. As an adult, he became obsessed with a process he called visualization, by which he could imagine things into physical existence. He was treated multiple times for his mental illness, and ultimately the insanity defense saved him from the electric chair. I’ve got mixed feelings on that – while mental illness prevented him from being able to fully control his temper, is that enough to erase culpability for a murder? It seems pretty clear he knew what he was doing at the time of the killings.

But that’s a moral debate for a different place. Back to the book. Although the Robert Irwin murders take up the most page time, it’s only one case amongst several, all of which are tenuously linked by geography and a degree of sensationalism in the news. Personally, I think the story would have been much stronger if Harold Schechter had focused on the single case, but others may appreciate the context provided by the other murder examples. At least this true crime novel is an easy read that zips along very easily to the end.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Mad Sculptor, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Movie: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
2012: The Little Book by Seldon Edwards
2011: Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon
2010: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
2009: Discussion Question + News: ‘Stealing Athena’ author launches new blog