Picks and Pans Review: Hunting the Devil

updated 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Richard Lourie

Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo makes Jeffrey Dahmer seem a choirboy. From 1978 to 1990, the onetime high school counselor killed at least 53 women and children, cannibalizing some, mutilating others. Now, following his homicide conviction last October, three books have been rushed into print. Overkill, perhaps. But Chikatilo is the most prolific serial killer in history. If anyone deserves overkill, he does.

All three accounts describe how the murders forced Russia's antiquated criminal-justice system into the 20th century. But each writer takes a decidedly different approach. Cullen (Pantheon, $22) uses his background as a Soviet correspondent for both The New Yorker and Newsweek to good advantage, putting events into a coherent context. One particularly chilling chapter describes how, in 1984, the Rostov police—in the mistaken belief the killer was homosexual—terrorized the city's gays, who, in the Brezhnev era, were still very much in the closet. Nearly 500 were arrested, 105 went to prison, and several committed suicide.

Understandably, Russian journalists Krivich and Ol'gin (Barricade, $20)—both Jews writing under pseudonyms—concentrate on the seemingly novel use of Russian psychiatry as something oilier than a tool to gel dissidents off the streets. Indeed it was a Russian psychiatrist, Alexander Bukhanovsky, who convinced Chikatilo to confess. In his hook, American novelist Lourie (HarperCollins, $22) focuses on a national chief inspector who got into the case late but managed to give the manhunt some badly needed organization. The three books together tell the reader more than anyone could possibly want to know, but singling out any one is difficult because they are all well done—of note for students of the Soviet Union as well as for true-crime buffs.

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