An Intriguing Cold Case and an Exhausting Memoir

Book review: The Kill Jar, by J. Reuben Appelman
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Over about a year spanning 1976-1977, at least four children were killed in Detroit’s Oakland County by a serial killer clunkily dubbed the Oakland County Child Killer, or OCCK. The case remains officially unsolved, but as J. Reuben Appelman lays out in this true crime narrative cum memoir, that’s not for lack of information, plenty of suspects, and unbelievable yet seemingly very real conspiracies.

The details of these murders are absolutely chilling. The children were abducted and held for varying periods of time before their bodies were dumped in public places. What I remembered about the case was the detail that one boy had been fed fried chicken after his mother had made a plea on TV to his abductor, trying to humanize him. She promised her son his favorite meal of fried chicken when he came home. It adds an even more sad and sadistic element to an already terrible story.

But the case becomes fascinating when all of the details, excellently related here, come into play. There were multiple viable suspects, including one whose suicide is suspicious to the point of being impossible. Coverups, conspiracies, rich eccentrics, a private island where a perverted pedophile ring abuses children – the truth that came out with this case sounds like it could only come from gritty crime fiction or a dark thriller movie.

The more you dig, the more you see danger around every corner.

Yet it’s all too true. And frustratingly, despite so much information, there wasn’t enough to prosecute a suspect; or, alternatively, that prosecution was purposely avoided. Even at the book’s conclusion, I’m not sure what I think.

That’s all to say that what Appelman tells about the OCCK case is worthwhile – grim, chilling, well researched, leaving you with a lot to mull over about the case and its suspects. But those chapters alternate with his personal storytelling of his family and childhood, his inner darkness that he tries to fight while his marriage crumbles and he tries to hold onto his kids, harms himself, visits strippers, considers cheating on his wife despite his rage about her cheating on him, and obsesses over an old girlfriend he’s reconnected with. Oh boy. It’s the Charlie Kaufman/Orchid Thief problem – he’s looked at the OCCK case and decided he’s the most important thing about it.

The author grew up in Detroit around the same time period, and once as a child was followed, perhaps in an abduction attempt, by an older man; another time, as a teenager, he was groomed by a different older man but thankfully remained unharmed, despite the lingering mental trauma. Here begins his perceived connection.

He also suffered under an abusive father, one who seemingly continues to verbally and emotionally abuse and manipulate him in adulthood. At one point he files a FOIA about his dad, insinuating that he saw police stop him once so maybe he’s involved in the child murders, despite no evidence for this and never following up on what becomes of the FOIA. It’s like what Chekhov said, if you hang a rifle on the wall in the first act, just leave it there for set decoration, no need to fire it.

This memoir element divided the book for me. That’s partially on me – I knew what I was getting into, it’s clear from the synopsis this is memoir too. But despite the author’s methods of working his own story into the historical cold case, it didn’t feel right or fitting. And the stories he chooses to tell are so sad and unpleasant – and I don’t mean in the same way that the OCCK story is sad and unpleasant. Despite the author’s difficult childhood and the pain from various emotional traumas he’s clearly held for a lifetime, he does not come across sympathetically by sharing these things.

Instead, his stories are rife with a casual disregard for women, and I’ll refrain from calling it anything stronger. Yes, toxic masculinity ruins the party again. I was so enraged with this line, I probably should have abandoned the book because fuck this guy, but the crime story was compelling and I thought, let this be a teaching moment:

Reni Lelek has a great, so-sexy smile, showing perfect teeth, teeth that would bite you just slightly when she wanted, bite you at the chin before moving up for a kiss.

Reni Lelek was Birmingham’s first female police officer. The author never met or spoke to her. He looked at her photograph during his research and decided that he would reduce this woman, who achieved something commendable in her life’s work, to being sexualized. What is the point of that description?

Lelek is only mentioned a few times in the book and her connection to this case and story is tenuous (she appeared in a photo with a child victim the author identifies with but she’s ultimately an unexplored dead end, mentioned for no real reason except to fill a few pages with descriptions of thinking about her and not being able to contact her). This was unnecessary, inappropriate, and thanks to this mindset, I’m unlikely to pick up anything of this author’s again. We obviously don’t see eye to eye on some big issues.

He bluntly describes his obsession with sexuality in another passage, blaming it on sneaking his dad’s pornography as a kid: “They stuck with me as a way of seeing the world through sex-colored lenses.” Obviously, since he can’t even look at a photo of Birmingham’s first female police officer without fixating on her sexiness and how she would kiss and bite him. Barf.

It’s unfortunate that the book is structured as it is, because I found his crime writing to be engrossing and well done. His memoir writing, beyond infuriating passages like that one, just isn’t as strong or as compelling. It’s more often dull beyond reason – describing his frustrations in research, what to do/where to go next, what to eat, his myriad personal problems, etc.; or it veers into purple prose or annoying literary flourishes. As here, writing about the “imperfection” of this case since it remains unsolved, while making sure he’s the main character:

I would like a readership to find fault in perfection, should I threaten to deliver it, the story winding itself down on the streets of Detroit, my hooded figure bookending the tale, or with my hair in the wind riding a ferry through the frigid chop toward the Foxes; for it is only in the imperfections, the unknown aspects of the OCCK, that we are allowed to see the truth: that no serial murder case in the history of modern criminal justice has had so many leads, and for as long a duration, without a single arrest.

I do think it’s worth reading for the chapters on the crime. I don’t have much comparison, having only heard a bit of the OCCK story before, but just consider all the bizarre, mysterious elements wrapped up in this one case:

That planes go down over frigid waters, automobiles explode, suicides abound, blood is sprayed on dashboards in the parking lots of apartment complexes, lives are gassed in the suburban single-car garages of spring, birth certificates are burned and passports are faked, and composite after composite matching suspect after suspect and vehicle after vehicle matching imprint after testimony after composite alike can, without resolution, be overwhelming.

That’s what makes this case so fascinating and what kept me reading when I was loathing the memoir chapters and getting increasingly annoyed with the author’s attitude. Just look at that laundry list of happenings. It’s like everything from a formulaic thriller movie all rolled into one real life case.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if you’re writing true crime, or any journalistic reportage on an event that’s not directly connected to you, ask yourself if your story is as captivating as the historic or unrelated one you’re trying to tell. If it’s not, resist the navel-gazing urge and remove yourself from the story. This could have been such a different book without the tortured, wannabe-Philip Marlowe noir elements. 2/5

The Kill Jar:
Obsession, Descent, and a Hunt for Detroit’s Most Notorious Serial Killer
by J. Reuben Appelman
published August 14, 2018 by Gallery (Simon & Schuster)
I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.

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14 thoughts on “An Intriguing Cold Case and an Exhausting Memoir

  1. I actually had this one on my wishlist, but I was sceptical as I’d seen a few low ratings. I’m going to remove it now, you’ve fill my nonfiction list wish so many books, I’ve got no time for books that don’t deliver

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same! Just too much good stuff to waste time on anything less. The case itself is unbelievably fascinating but doing some googling after reading, I’m not sure there was even much in the book that can’t be found in some google deep dives.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh no! This one sounds like it had potential, but really didn’t work out. I just read a book on Formula 1 where the author’s attitude towards women was a real sticking point for me and I won’t be picking up anything else of his either. I also agree about the memoir thing. In fact, that’s how I felt about To The Bridge – too centered on the author.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That kind of attitude creeping into the writing is a dealbreaker. I can’t believe it’s even a factor but amazingly it is. I could roll my eyes at most of the melodrama of the memoir but as you say, that attitude was a sticking point. I usually can’t stand when an author inserts themselves if it doesn’t serve some significant purpose but I don’t remember it bothering me in To the Bridge! But I think once you start noticing it it’s often the end of being able to really like a story.

      Liked by 1 person

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