True-crime author Harold Schechter talks murder and 'The Mad Sculptor'
When Wertham died [in 1981], his wife donated all of his papers to the Library of Congress with the stipulation that they not be made available to scholars for, I think, 25 years. But just when I started to work on the Irwin book, Wertham's papers became available. There's a tremendous amount of material in his archives, so that was a very important source. And then, you know, the New York Public Library, and different New York archives and historical societies.
SFBG One unusual aspect of the Irwin case was that victim Veronica Gedeon had modeled for true-crime magazines, like Inside Detective.
HS I was aware of those magazines, but I didn't quite realize how many there were. There were dozens of these lurid pulp detective magazines and true crime magazines, and they always had very sensationalistic painted covers, generally of scantily clad women being threatened in various ways. But the articles themselves were often quite well-researched and skillfully written, and they were all lavishly illustrated, including some actual crime-scene photographs, and dramatizations of them.
Ronnie Gedeon had posed in a bunch of them, always wearing a negligee or whatever, about to be strangled or shot. And of course, all of the tabloids kept pointing out that there were all of these premonitions of her murder in those photographs. Again, you can't beat that combination of sex, violence, the trendy neighborhood, this madman who was a sculptor, an artist. It was just, as I say in my book, a kind of perfect storm of prurience.
SFBG The Mad Sculptor is both true-crime book and history lesson. It really gives a good sense of what NYC life was like at the time.
HS I see my books really as social histories. I feel very strongly that you can learn as much about a cultural moment from the particular crimes that the public is obsessed with as you can from looking at what movies are popular, or what heroes are worshipped. The Manson case tells you as much about the 1960s as the Beatles do. The Leopold and Loeb case tells you a great deal about the underlying fears and anxieties of the 1920s.
SFBG Your books always have such great titles: Fiend, Deviant, Bestial. What's the naming process like?
HS I started with Deviant, about Ed Gein. At the time, I chose it because I'd been doing a lot of thinking about horror fiction and horror movies. The narrative structure of so much horror has to do with somebody who's kind of following the straight and narrow path, and then just takes the wrong turn, like in [the Gein-inspired] Psycho. Horror is often about deviating from your usual path and ending up in some nightmarish world. So Deviant was chosen for that reason.
Then, for some reason, I got it into my head that it would be cool to write a trilogy of books that begin with the letter "D." Partly maybe because there were so many creepy "D" words. So I wrote Deranged, then Depraved. At that point I kind of ran out of "D" words, but I had already established this one-word thing, so I did Fiend and Bestial and Fatal.
At that point, I was starting to get away from just writing about serial killers. So when I wrote my book The Devil's Gentleman, I kind of abandoned the one-word title. But I have to say, I've always been kind of proud of my ability to come up with cool titles! Of course, The Mad Sculptor — sometimes they name themselves. *