Saturday, June 24, 2017


Fuzz, by Ed McBain (LOC # 68-12156), #22 in the 87th Precinct series, is a book I wanted to read because it's a police procedural that actually seems to have started a crime wave.  A terrible, terrible movie with the same name, based on this book, was shown on the ABC Movie of the Week not long before someone apparently copycatted a crime from the story in Roxbury, Massachusetts.  As you can see from the book jacket above, part of the plot involves Detective Steve Carella's attempts to capture some young hoods who are pouring gasoline on sleeping hobos and lighting them up.  The same week the movie aired on TV, a woman named Evelyn Wagler was walking to her car one night with a can of gasoline, and some young hoods made her pour it over herself.  They set her on fire and she died a few hours later.  I first learned about this because Stephen King mentioned it in Danse Macabre.  He said that when they caught the killers, the kids explained that they got the idea from the movie.  In fact, they have never been caught, but someone noticed the coincidence and that's still one theory -- not a bad one -- about where these young guys got this horrible idea.  For those of you not alive in the early 1970s, when flocks of pterodactyl still blackened the sky for miles in every direction, in those days there were only about 6 TV stations, not 253 or whatever they have now.  The TV guide was in the daily newspaper, so everyone in the viewing area knew what was showing, complete with plot summaries, so there was always a general sense of what was on the small screen. 

Life really does imitate art.  Apparently, idiots with cans of gasoline have been setting fire to hobos ever since.  This meme is such an institution in American crime that even Hudson Platt, the cameraman character in Cloverfield, mentioned it while the plucky survivors were fleeing the monster through a subway tunnel.  That's just one example off the top of my head.  If you Google "set fire to homeless," case after case pops up -- new and different killings every time you look.  That's a lot of impact for a book and a movie that (if you ask around) practically nobody has ever heard of.

But I review this well-written page-turner here as a Golden Apple, because if there's a central lesson in this story, it's that random events change everything.  In here you see the police go off on what looks like, and what turns out to be, a wild goose chase related to their attempts to find a master criminal they call the Deaf Man.  The more they investigate, the farther it seems to take them from the man they are looking for, but they proceed because hey, it looks like some kind of crime is shaping up here anyway.  And it has nothing whatsoever to do with the hoods torching winos with gasoline.  But then a random event occurs...other stuff happens...and the fuzz find themselves confronted with an unexpected solution to every crime on their docket.

And here's the ripest, most fragrant golden apple in the whole barrel.  Remember Evelyn Wagler and the hoods who killed her in Roxbury?  She borrowed a friend's car to go somewhere that night, and it happened to be low on gas.  It conked out in a spot that forced her to walk past where these hoods were waiting.  If she hadn't been walking specifically down Blue Hill in Boston on that night, she never would have run into these three guys.  This wouldn't have happened if she had borrowed a different car, or if the car's owner had thought to fill it up earlier that day.  If she hadn't been carrying a can of gas, she would never have been set on fire; the hoods who killed her were not armed.  If anything at all had gone differently, Wagler almost certainly would have lived through the night and gone back to raising her 6-year-old.  And if this ugliness had never happened and been reported around the world -- Evelyn hailed from Germany so the interest was international -- this particularly foul crime would not have spread with it.  When I Googled "set fire to homeless" just now, the first case I found was from Germany.

Life is terrible sometimes.

Evelyn Wagler, 1949-1973


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