Picks and Pans Review: First Born
by John Katzenbach
When Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood In 1965, he brought sudden respectability to what had been a fairly disreputable, if enduringly popular, genre: the true-life crime story. Wambaugh, who made his success with police novels like The Blue Knight and The Choirboys, has written one other nonfiction crime book, The Onion Field. Lines & Shadows (Morrow, $15.95) is a nonfiction story about a group of San Diego policemen who in 1976 were given the job of trying to curtail the violent mistreatment, robbery and murder of thousands of the quarter-million aliens who are caught trying to cross the border at Tijuana illegally each year. As usual, Wambaugh is most absorbed with the effect this kind of dangerous and impossible job has on the cops. They drink too much, their private lives fall apart, they become as violent as the outlaws they are supposed to curb. The work of the Border Crime Task Force, he writes, "finally resulted in so much blood and bitterness and discontent and ruined careers" that it destroyed the good along with the evil. These policemen are not especially admirable and that is a clue to Wambaugh's continuing success. We believe him, despite the fact that the book erupts with wildly staged scenes and excessively overwrought prose.
Katzenbach, a Miami Herald reporter who wrote In the Heat of the Summer, a good novel about a psychopathic killer and the reporter who takes him in, has chosen in First Born (Atheneum, $14.95) to write about an actual case in which an escaped mental patient slashed the throat of a little boy in a Miami hotel nine years ago while the child was waiting for his parents. The book is subtitled: "The Death of Arnold Zeleznik, Age Nine: Murder, Madness and What Came After." The parents and the boy's younger brother are confronted by the body in a hotel bathroom, and the book's main concern is what happens in the aftermath of such a crime. The law, it seems, is more concerned about protecting the rights of the crazed killer than in affording the victim's survivors any kind of help. This is a complex, well-told tale of out-of-control horror that consumes eight years in a family's life. Katzenbach, the son of former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, does a fine job, employing the clean prose of a first-class reporter who has had extraordinary cooperation from the Zeleznik family, the police and attorneys for both the prosecution and the defense.
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