Sunday, December 2, 2007

Philip Carlo - The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer (2006)

When I was younger I used to be an avid true-crime fan (interested particularly in serial killers, rather than organised crime), but over time I started to feel too much empathy for the victims, and also to get frustrated with the near-universal (despite some honourable exceptions) poor quality of writing and shallow pop-psychological explanations. So what brought me to this work, and was the return to the genre worthwhile?

TIM is essentially a biography of Richard Kuklinski, both a serial killer on his own time, as it were, and also a Mafia contract killer, who was imprisoned, after hundreds of murders (by his account), in 1986. Though I hadn't heard of him before (and here I thought I was familiar with all the major names in serial killing), the case is apparently notorious, and a number of high-rating HBO documentaries have been made on Kuklinski. The book is based on the author's extensive (over 240 hours, by his account) prison interviews with his subject. Carlo also claims that, where possible, all the crimes Kuklinski discussed were factually verified. I picked it up, firstly because it looked like a cut above the usual true-crime B-grade standard (in which I was partially, but not wholly, mistaken); and also because, from a browse, Kuklinski seemed like a very unusual figure in the pantheon of serial killers.

Carlo's writing is by no means impressive - I often found his 'downhomey' language and style, and the lack of originality in expression, irritating. This does, however, make the book a quick and easy read, 'light' except inasmuch as the hideous acts it describes - which is what I was in the market for. For the most part he avoids the lengthy pop-psychological opining which (as mentioned above) spoils so many works of true crime, leaving Kuklinski to give his own opinions as to how came to be able to commit the cruellest acts (and I'm not kidding about this) with absolute equanimity. The usual voyeuristic material is provided about Kuklinski's crimes, which ranged from impersonal, instant mob-style 'hits' to very 'personalised' episodes of lengthy torture, and I won't pretend that this voyeurism doesn't have a pull - which, however, I'd argue is an often-suppressed part of the human psyche that one shouldn't apologise for, as long as it doesn't mean an idolisation of the perpetrator or a lack of empathy for the victims. A note of warning should be sounded, however, in the fact that all of this material is provided by Kuklinski himself, and none of it is referenced, so its 'facticity' may be doubted - although the picture that emerges is not one of a pathological liar or a man who has an interest in excusing or blaming others for his actions.

The reason to read this work, really, is the contradictory personality of Kuklinski himself, who, unlike some serial killers, is a genuinely articulate and fascinating personality. In general, there is a very clear divide between mob hitmen (no matter how much they take sadistic pleasure in their work) and serial killers - but Kuklinski straddled this divide in a very unusual way. His background seems like that of a serial killer - early, unplanned killings, and murder as a 'leisure activity' rather than a career into which one is inducted - but some of his attitudes are very unlike serial killers - notably, his refusal (by his own account) to kill women or children (despite his terrible ongoing physical and mental abuse of his family), his empathy with children, and a sense, however, terribly skewed, of justice (which is not to say that he was not prepared to kill utterly randomly, as long as the victim was male). As well as killing for his own entertainment and for the Mafia and private individuals, Kuklinski would also kill those who he encountered who he considered 'deserved it' according to this sense of 'justice' - particularly those who abused young children. Kuklinski also seems, unlike most serial kilers, not to have taken a sexualised pleasure in the act of killing, although he emphasises his enjoyment of the planning and execution of a 'hit' over the actual act of killing itself.

Overall, then, while I've certainly read better works on killers (Brian Masters' Killing For Company, on Dennis Nilsen, or Tony Parker's Life After Life come to mind - though I'm not such a fan of 'classic literary' works of true crime such as Capote's In Cold Blood or Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), this book, while by no means free of the typical flaws of most true crime, was above all a fascinating character study and a work which I wouldn't dismiss with the run-of-the-mill, pulp-by-numbers, Anne Rule-style true crime.

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