Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Wilderness of Error - Errol Morris

 True crime has always been "fun" reading for me.  It inspires me, it intrigues me, and usually propels me to dig deeper, to Google things, to obsess.  The ladies at TLC know this, and often approach me when books like this come on tour.

I'd never heard of this case, which originally occurred in 1970.  It is an investigation that has inspired books, a movie, and decades of bumbling trials that never really arrived at a satisfying answer.  Where on earth have I been?  I was dying for more info.

Synopsis:  In the middle of the night at Fort Bragg NC, in 1970, an esteemed doctor (Jeffrey MacDonald) called  the police.  He had been attacked, and his wife and two young daughters had been murdered.  The word "pig" had been written on the walls in blood, and MacDonald told a horrible tale of four drug-crazed hippies who had committed this crime.

Over a period of 9 years and numerous trials, a circuitous path is taken in the conviction of Jeffrey MacDonald for these murders.  The story he tells, which is supported by one guilt-ridden and drug-addicted woman who claims to have been at the home during the murders, is much different than the one told by the military and the prosecution.  

In the hands of Errol Morris (filmmaker and private detective), who not only pores over the original court documents, but interviews those involved long after the dust has settled, it becomes clear that a serious injustice has occurred.  Leads that were not pursued, a crime scene that was not preserved, lost evidence, errors in the transfer of notes, prejudiced judges...ultimately a team of lawyers that were so convinced of MacDonald's guilt, they turned their backs on facts that would have caused reasonable doubt in a court of law.  Morris has spent over 20 years researching a case that undoubtedly has imprisoned the wrong man.

My thoughts:  The premise of this work is beyond fascinating to me.  The idea that a murder investigation could go this wrong is terrifying, and brings back other stories with a similar result, like "An Innocent Man" by John Grisham or "The Monster of Florence".  Nearly everyone involved in this case (except the military and the prosecution of course) believes MacDonald is innocent!  But yet he still sits in prison to this day.  It is the kind of thing that blows one's mind.

Yet the material...the blood, sweat and tears of Morris that is the work of over two decades...is insanely dense.  The level of detail is something I really struggled with.  Diagrams, interviews, transcripts from the trials...it is all in there.  I was reading this book during a very busy time for me, and I could not get a solid purchase.  The reading requires concentration, and is not conducive to five or fifteen minute reading sessions.  This is a book that would be best digested in several long reading sessions instead.  But this is not the kind of time that I had.  So I labored, and it took me a solid three weeks to read.  It is a long book.

I was also disappointed there weren't more pictures.  True crime requires pictures, otherwise I have to do a lot of work on my own.  If these people exist, then I want to see what they look like.  

So while the idea of this book was mind-bending and thought-provoking, I got lost in the weeds.  I will most certainly keep the book for another read in a different year when I have the time to invest fully.

3 out of 5 stars



16 comments:

bermudaonion said...

I used to read true crime all the time and still enjoy it from time to time. I can't believe you never read Fatal Vision - it's about this case as well. They made a movie out of that book.

caite said...

I am not so much a true crime fan..I like my pretend crime...but I actually remember this case. but I had no idea there was that much doubt about his quilt.

annieb said...

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinnis tells a very different story of the crime and the guilty conclusion. I read it a very long time ago, but as I recall McGinnis had McDonald pegged as guilty. You might want to look it up--it has pictures.

Zibilee said...

When I picked up this book at SIBA, it looked rather dense, and as if it would be a really time and labor intensive read. It looks like I was right. This case sounds frightening.

Julie P. said...

I loved FATAL VISION and I even remember the made for tv movie. An amazing story. You must read it!

Marie said...

Wow. I remember hearing about this case years ago. Like Caite I had no idea there was so much doubt about his guilt. I remember the TV movie with Gary Cole- he was so creepy. This sounds really fascinating.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I very, VERY read true crime and when I do it has to be amazing (basically, In Cold Blood or similar is all I can do) so I definitely don't think this is the right book for me.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

*very RARELY

Trisha said...

I love Morris's films - if this is the same Morris which it has to be because how many people are named Errol Morris right? - but we'll see about his writing. You do have me intrigued; oddly enough by that whole intricacy and overload thing.

Jackie Bailey said...

I haven't heard about this case before, but agree it makes a fantastic premise. Such a shame that it didn't live up to expectations.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great blog! Keep blogging!

Also, great review! Keep reviewing!

And yes, this case is very frustrating! :--)

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I understand your desire for pictures - I love when non-fiction books include actual images (though nothing gory please!).

Thanks for being on the tour.

Jenners said...

Seems like you are getting spammed a lot! I"m looking at those wacky comments above mine.

Anyhoo, I am in shock that you, a true crime fan, never heard of this case!! Even I heard of it. I read the Fatal Vision book, which was huge back in the day. I think it was a miniseries too. It would be interesting to read both of these books together and try and figure out the "real" story.

techeditor said...

Before you have an opinion on his guilt or innocense, read FATAL VISION by Joe McGinnis. McDonald convinced McGinnis to write this book, and McGinnis began assuming he was innocent, which is what McDonald wanted. But McGinnis attended his first (and I think a second) trial, and changed his mind.

I also read FATAL JUSTICE, another book on this case, which McDonald also got a couple people to write later. It's an interesting reinvestigation of the case, and this time the writers stick to the assumption that McDonald got a raw deal.

Now here we go again. I wonder whether McDonald has a hand in this one, too. Probably.

My opinion is up in the air. I don't know.

Danny said...

Joe McGinnis has absolutely no credibility as a non-fiction writer. Imagine the guy has the nerve to makeup his own unproven answer for why MacDonald was guilty. He ignored the real story and went along with the prosecution line that was corrupt in suppressing evidence that would have proved MacDonald's innocence all so he could sell more books.

Kathleen said...

Well you know this one is already on my shelf waiting to be read. You should read Fatal Vision by McGinnis too. It gives some great background on the case and between the two you can make your own mind up about what really happened.