Here are 3 that I really enjoyed.
Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio start with the urban legend of Cropsey, Staten Island’s version of the hook-handed madman who chops up kids; segue into the story of Andre Rand, convicted of kidnapping (but not murdering) a local child who turned up in a shallow grave on the grounds of an abandoned mental institution; and balloon into the investigation of a rash of child disappearances in the 1980s. Along the way they encounter rumors of Satanism, necrophilia, and a cult of homeless people living in the service tunnels under the Willowbrook State School.
I have no idea if Rand is guilty or not. He’s clearly mentally ill, but that doesn’t make him a murderer. I’m disturbed that there was absolutely no physical evidence against him, just vague eyewitness accounts, sometimes decades after the fact–including a woman who says that when she was 6 she saw a masked Rand offer candy to one of the victims–and that Jennifer Schweiger’s body was found in an area that had been searched dozens of times, in a grave so shallow that her arm and leg were sticking out of it. And my hackles always raise whenever anyone starts blabbering about “Satanic black masses”.
But ultimately that’s the point: not whether or not Rand is guilty, but society’s need to invent demonic scapegoats, rather than confront the failings that created human monsters.
I remember hearing about the Toynbee Tiles a long time ago, I think probably on Snopes.com–the message board was my first real interaction with the internet; creating content and communicating with other people, as opposed to just reading things. This is exactly the kind of weird, random thing that I get obsessed with all the time; but Justin Duerr and his Scooby Gang take it off the internet and into the streets, interviewing short wave radio enthusiasts and the residents of a colorful south Philly neighborhood, sifting through clues as diverse as a one-act play by David Mamet and a Philadelphia rowhouse address found on a tile in Santiago de Chile. One thing I thought was interesting about the tiles that wasn’t really covered was that what they were made of and how they were affixed was part of the mystery (apparently linoleum, asphalt crack-filling compound, and tar paper, then allowing cars to drive over it).
Ultimately they come to a plausible, if unverifiable conclusion about who is making the tiles and why. Copycats have since started placing tiles all over the world, which was the Toynbee Tiler’s end goal: many of the tiles contained little sidebars that read “You must make + glue tiles! YOU!!!” (Supposedly there’s one in New Orleans somewhere, although it may have been paved over by now.) The Tiler thought if he could just publicize his idea–that of a “scientific heaven” on Jupiter where dead people are brought back to life*–enough, it would happen.
*Presumably he only meant cool dead people. I mean I don’t know how you can have heaven with, say, Albert Fish running around.
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death were apparently the inspiration behind the “Miniature Killer” storyline on CSI:, and I wonder if they’re also the reason why Lester Freamon carved dollhouse furniture. They’re on permanent loan to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office and still used as training aids by the Baltimore PD; David Simon followed the BPD for a year for his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which was the inspiration for the HBO series The Wire. (The Baltimore connection also explains why this movie is narrated by John Waters.)
Frances Glessner Lee constructed painstakingly accurate 1:12 dioramas of crime scenes. She attended autopsies, read case files, and even wore used clothing (even though she was heiress to the International Harvester fortune) to obtain realistically worn fabric with which to make the doll’s clothing.
The film makers also make a trip to the Body Farm in Tennessee, which initially seemed like an effort to pad out the running time. But there are parallels to be drawn between the two: what at first seems like morbid frivolity are actually extremely valuable, if unconventional, crime-solving tools.