Michael Capuzzo will give the keynote address at this year’s International Symposium on Human Identification. Capuzzo is the author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller, The Murder Room, the story of forensic psychologist and consulting detective Richard Walter, “the living Sherlock Holmes,” and the Vidocq Society of Philadelphia. The Murder Room was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, was shortlisted for the 2011 Gold Dagger Award for Non-fiction by the British Crime Writer’s Association in London, and is currently under development in Hollywood by The Mark Gordon Company (Criminal Minds) for a CBS Television Studios series.
We asked Michael for some details on his experience with the Vidocq Society.
How did you become interested in the work of the Vidocq Society?
By a one-in-millions chance: I stumbled on their web site, “Cuisine and Crime,” a crime-fighting and dining club in Philadelphia, where I was living at the time, called “the heirs of Holmes” by the New York Times. They had a movie deal with Danny DeVito, but no one had written a book.
Members of the Vidocq Society have a reputation for being publicity adverse. How were you able to gain access to the members and conduct interviews for your book, The Murder Room?
Coincidentally, the Society members were fans of my previous bestseller, Close to Shore, and were encouraged by my substantial journalism experience.
Were you able to sit in on any of the Vidocq Society’s monthly luncheon meetings? If so, what was that like?
Yes, I sat in many times. It was remarkable to sit in the historic City Tavern in Philadelphia. We were in the formal ballroom where Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, et al. met nightly, with white table cloths and waiters bearing silver cloches, and after desert, voila, a corpse appears on a big screen, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation presents a cold case they can’t understand to the world’s greatest detectives, and the fun begins.
The Vidocq Society was founded in 1990. Since that time, how many cases has the society taken on, and how many of the cases have been solved?
Dozens of cases have been solved by the Society. My book focuses on half a dozen extraordinary cases, like the “Boy in the Box” (young detectives have grown old and died working that case), and the foot-fetishist killer, as well as John List, who killed his whole family in a New Jersey mansion and eluded the feds for 17 years. List was caught by Walter and his partner, the famed and eccentric forensic artist and Lothario, Frank Bender, in 11 days.
How does the Society decide to accept a particular case?
Usually a case is brought to the Vidocq Society by a grieving parent or other family of a murder victim who will not give up. They may hear about the Society after the local police have been unable to solve the case for many years. Family members ask the police if they will cooperate with the Vidocq Society; often police are eager to do so because of the society’s reputation and membership comprised of many well-known law enforcement members. The society helps innocent victims; gangsters killed in the line of duty don’t interest them.
Many of the cases that the Vidocq Society accept are quite old- predating the common use of collecting DNA evidence, and before the time that DNA databases were established. How does the Society go about solving crimes that are so old?
Ironically, forensic psychologist Richard Walter, known from Scotland Yard to the NYPD as “the living Sherlock Holmes,” does not regard DNA as the paramount information in a case. The paramount information is the old-fashioned shoe-leather stuff of motive, greed, jealousy, psychopathy, etc. DNA can be incredibly helpful for justice, but if you don’t understand the other stuff, harmful.
You’ll be presenting the keynote address at this year’s 28th International Symposium on Human Identification in Seattle. What can the audience expect to learn?
I hope to entertain and also provoke thought. While DNA science is ever more important, as a storyteller I’m most fascinated, as are the world’s best detectives, by the old fashioned verities that William Faulkner called “the heart in conflict with itself,” without which you can’t understand what the DNA means and solve a murder case. Love, honor, sacrifice, the traditional understandings of good and evil, aren’t fashionable but they’re part of human nature, as variable as they are, another part of biological science.
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