Q: You've been nominated four times for the Pulitzer, which is amazing, and you've written a lot about animals.
A: I had a serious journalism career, and then I started writing books. The last book I did was "Close to Shore," the true story of "Jaws." I didn't do that because it was an animal book; I did that because it's a great human story. That's what I try to do as a journalist, and what I hope I'm trying to do with "The Murder Room."
Q: Talk to me a little bit about how you came about finding The Murder Room and what attracted you to it.
A: After finishing "Close to Shore," I was looking for a new book and thinking about doing some fiction. I came across the website of the Vidocq Society and I just thought this would be fun to learn about. It's been an unbelievable experience, with these real, incredible characters. I feel like I've had Dostoyevsky as a mentor for five years with Richard Walter and these other guys.
Reading Dostoyevsky and talking to Richard Walter are the only ways I've experienced the feeling of what evil is. I don't get it from "CSI" or newspapers very often.
Q: One of the things that really struck me is that the teller of the story reflects on what it means to be good as a man. In the opening scene, Walter confronts the priest and there is a line about how he wanted to be a real man or a good man. It seems that part of what you're talking about is not only the nature of good, but the nature of evil.
Q: How do you see that as part of the mission of the book?
A: It was an education on the nature of evil. There are people that don't believe in evil, but there are awful things that happen. For all their flaws, these men are heroes because they stand up against evil. If we don't stand up against it, then it victimizes the most vulnerable.
Q: I struggle with whether there are people who are nonredeemable. One of our contributors, Julio Medina, was locked up for life in Sing Sing by the federal task force against drugs. Convicted of being a drug lord in the South Bronx after twelve years, he turned his life around and has gotten out and done a bunch of good things.
When we published our book, the first place I went was Sing Sing. I was moved, but confused. I spoke to murderers, mostly. It wasn't like I wanted to let them out, but the stories that they told made me feel a certain amount of human compassion for them.
Having done this book, focusing on unsolved murders and psychopathic behavior, how does that make you feel about the nature of evil and the ability of people to be redeemed or never to be redeemed?
A: One of the thrills about doing the book was getting to know Richard Walter, but also Bill Fleisher. Here's a lifelong FBI special agent and head of U.S. Customs Enforcement. He's a famous federal agent and interrogator. And yet, he started the Vidocq Society, because his favorite scene in literature is in "Les Miserables," where Jean Valjean steals silver from Bishop Myriel and the gendarmes drag him back. The bishop says, "I gave him these" and gives him the rest of it. Valjean is just stunned at the force of forgiveness--in this case, divine forgiveness.
Bill Fleisher, who's almost 70 years old, still wants to redeem the good. I believe in that, too. We can never lose that heart for redemption, to give people a second chance.
Richard Walter is more judgmental and less forgiving that way, but he serves a very vital purpose. Sometimes, when people get caught up in a one-sided idea of forgiveness, they forget about the victim. We need to embrace the victim and the killer. Ideally, we would nurture both and love both, not turn around and blame evil on society.
Q: When you have men who've committed acts of atrocity, to find a way to love them while remembering that there are victims who will never recover what they lost.
A: Yes. The men you talked to were probably con men. If you let them out, then it's not only the victim's family. We have to think about new families who're going to experience this horror.
Our society, particularly on the intellectual level, is tilted toward not wanting to believe in evil, because it's a terrible thing. And so you don't see a lot of stories about murdered children and their parents. When a murder resonates for generations through a family, it's a terrible thing. The best way to handle these things, ultimately, is just to try and tell a great story, putting as much empathy as possible for all sides. That's the closest I can come to the truth.
Q: That's actually very interesting, because everyone wants the quick and dirty answer to "what does it mean to be good?" I always say the one thing that I know is part of the definition of goodness is telling the truth. You have to get to the truth. If you can't get to the truth, then you have nothing to go on.
Q: In a sense, your book is about finding this redeeming truth on the behalf of victims who've given up on the truth ever coming to light. In that way, they're all heroes. And so these three guys you present are pretty messed up.
Q: They're on this noble, heroic journey to provide ultimate truth to victims who don't feel like they're ever going to get it.
A: I've learned from Richard that one of the last things you learn as a man is who you love enough to protect. I find that moving.
Q: I've been doing a lot of work with returning veterans recently. That's where it's in a very graphic format. Men don't have the easiest time showing love for one another in civilian life, but in the face of war, men protect and love each other profoundly. Part of the problem for veterans coming home is they miss that level of love.
A: Right, and intensity.
Q: So let's just talk a little bit about the three guys. Bender's the one who's the womanizer. Is he really that bad?
A: Well, yes. He's a womanizer, sex addict. He's not apologetic for it. Frank is Frank. He's like a force of nature.
Q: Tell me about his background. We haven't really talked about him.
A: Frank was this row-house kid in Philadelphia. He used his fists a lot, growing up in a tough neighborhood, with bullets coming into the side of the row house.
He has a gift. He's an artist's artist. His gift is to understand people, to present it and be intuitive about victims. He and Richard make an incredible contrast. Richard is this Victorian, super-articulate arch-character, like Sherlock Holmes. Frank seems always manic--he doesn't go depressive. He's this bald, tough, tattooed ex-boxer/ladies' man who is just relentless in his pursuit of women and justice. He's flawed in particularly colorful ways.
Q: And so Fleisher was the one who kind of glued them together?
A: Fleisher is the most conventional. He lives in a ranch in a subdivision in New Jersey. He has children, grandchildren and a wife of 30 years, Michelle, who he's always loved. He's worked for 20 years or more as a federal officer. And yet, how many federal officers pull out copy of "Les Miserables" and start crying over the redemption of Jean Valjean?
Bill's a surrogate for all of us in this story. When he reaches middle age, he wants more out of life. He's very dissatisfied with George H. Bush's War on Drugs. He just saw it as a complete waste of time and money.
Ultimately, he wanted to redeem people. He wanted to dig deeper into himself. When we dig deeper, sometimes we find shadowy characters. Bill found two eccentric geniuses who fit him perfectly.
Q: Who taught you about manhood?
A: My dad was a role model of it, always relentlessly happy and upbeat. He was never wealthy, but he managed to go on Caribbean cruises and stay upbeat. It's an upbeat thirst for life.
I've learned a lot about manhood from the guys in this book. What it takes to stand up to wrong. They'll put their life on the line to protect other people or to stand up for what's right. That's incredibly admirable.
Q: How has romantic love shaped you as a man?
A: I'm getting some tingles down my spine or up my arms when you say that. I don't want to go any further, anatomically, than that.
My wife, Teresa, taught me what love is. It's changed my whole life. I can't imagine life without it and without her.
Q: I feel the same way. So what two words would describe your father?
A: Sweet liar.
Q: And how are you most unlike him?
A: Well, hopefully, I try to tell the truth.
Q: From which of your mistakes did you learn the most?
A: I'm always trying to learn. The question is "what mistake am I making now that I'm going to learn from?" It's a constant process of making mistakes and learning.
Q: What word would the women in your life use to describe you? Do you think it's accurate?
A: I guess "creative" would be my wife's first word, probably because she thinks I talk too much. I'm trying to figure out how the entire universe works and come up with a grand theory. I'm getting closer.
Q: Who's the best dad you know, and how does he earn that distinction?
A: There's a guy named John Bope. He's on his way to China, at age 60, to adopt his second Chinese girl. When he was about to have heart-transplant surgery, he took his first daughter to the surgeon and said, "Doctor, this is why you have to save me."
Q: That's awesome. Do you suppose you've been more successful in your public or your private life?
A: I don't think I'm particularly successful in either one. You hope to do more with your life. The older you get, the more the shortcomings in your private life seem to sort of stand up and start talking to you like characters in "A Christmas Carol."
Q: When was the last time you cried?
A: I don't cry as much as I used to, and it upsets me. I think one of the things about manhood is you're so damn busy trying to either avoid the subway in New York or the mastodon 30,000 years ago, that there's no time left to feel like that. When I wrote "The Murder Room," there were parts of the book where I cried. I think our mind--the intellect--can only go so far. The greatest understanding of other people, and any kind of art, comes from your heart.
Q: What advice would you give teenage boys trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
A: Don't ever believe people who tell you that there's not an unseen world you're following. If you put your heart into something, whatever your talents are, you will find something incredible to do with your life.
Q: Last question--what's your most cherished guy ritual?
A: God, this is awfully cliche. You feel things so deeply in yourself. You think you're unique, but you're just like everyone else. Sports, basketball, hanging out together and drinking whiskey.
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