When Good Dolls Go Bad

The epidemic of doll-on-doll crime is a fading memory, as real in America’s collective memory as the crack epidemic and the O.J. Simpson trials, and all that’s left is for the books to come out, letting us look back at those terrible tragedies that riveted the nation. Books like Ann Rule’s “The Vinyl-Coated Killer” and Joe McGinnis’ “How, Now, Mistress Doll” were excellent contributions to the genre. Now, “The Dollhouse Murders” adds a different perspective by telling the story of six deaths through the eyes of the investigators.

Author Thomas P. Mauriello has taken pains to disguise the names and locations of these crimes, to the point of changing the detective’s name to “the Detective.” But no matter, these stories retain their dark edge of madness and tragedy, and the plethora of crime-scene photos adds a visceral kick in the gut to even the most jaded true-crime aficionado.

Doll-on-doll crime may occur on a smaller scale, but that doesn’t make them any less horrific. There’s the attempted robbery at the family store. Amid the cash register and grocery shelves, two men lay dead. We follow the detective as he works the scene, attempting to deduce the chain of events that led to the tragedy: a cracked pane in the pastry case; the pattern of money thrown from the till; the splatter of blood-like paint by the corpses. These are the red threads that must be knitted together to create a satisfying narrative.

Sometimes, the detective is not even sure a crime has been committed. A woman’s body is found in her garage, her dog lays dead nearby. The car is still running, its doors locked and windows rolled up. The victim shows signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, but like David Bryne might sing, “Well, how did she get there?” Was it murder, suicide, or accidental?

Readers interested in learning step-by-step how a scene is “processed” will see that there is no one right method of working, and explains why some crimes don’t get solved, how guilt cannot be proven. Clues are gathered using observation, intuition and an intimate knowledge of forensics, such as the way blood gathers where the body meets the floor, or what the size of the entry wound implies. Miss a clue, and the narrative will still be created, but it won’t be accurate. Fail to look around at the right time, or fail to keep an open mind as to suspects, and you have another JonBenet Ramsey case on your hand.

Not all the cases are homicides. The detectives investigate a rape at a college campus. It’s the old, familiar story: a late-night pizza and beer party, a trip to his dorm room and an attack in his top bunk. Our amazement that dolls go to schools is trumped by the discovery that they can have sex. And the smirk painted on the suspect’s face looks all too familiar.

Murder freezes a moment in time and the detective is its archivist. “The Dollhouse Murders” opens a window into the lives of dolls, seeing them at work and at home, in places we never see. By placing their deaths in the context of their lives, Mauriello is also issuing a plea for empathy and tolerance, in effect, putting a human face on the vinyl victims. But even more, these are taut, grim tales of violence and death, told with an eye for observation and an ear for detail that recall the best of Joseph Waumbaugh, Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard. These stories pack a punch. And Judy.