Joseph Wambaugh's Echoes in the Darkness follows in the tradition of true-crime stories that have frequently made for scenarios that would rival the most bizarre stories that could be created in the minds of fictional authors. This book relates the story of the Main Line Murder case, involving the murder of a Pennsylvania schoolteacher and disappearance of her two children in 1979. The cast of characters involved in the case is really what makes this case a step above the usual murder investigation, as murder victim Susan Reinert had been involved with one William Bradfield, Jr., a womanizing, incredibly manipulative fellow teacher who not only convinced Reinert to list him as her sole beneficiary (this after Reinert had inherited a substantial sum from a relative and taken out hundreds of thousands of dollars in life insurance), but enlist a band of adamant supporters to vouch for his innocence with regard to the case.
Despite claiming innocence throughout the trial, Bill Bradfield concocted elaborate schemes to protect himself from the long arm of the law, claiming that Susan Reinert was in danger due to her purported involvement with the school's principal. This principal, Jay C. Smith, was already in jail due to a conviction in relation to a string of robberies and other various offenses, but if one was to listen to Bradfield, Smith was a mob hit-man, who invariably killed and made his victim's bodies disappear, often by using some sort of acid to dissolve their remains. Bradfield's entourage, made up of several girlfriends whom Bradfield had sexual relations with at the same time (and even knew about each other), and a pair of fellow teachers, would believe just about anything that came from the well educated man's mouth.
Due to his penchant for intelligently discussing philosophy, writing, and religion, Bill Bradfield was viewed in an almost saintly manner by those around him, who viewed him as a person who could do no wrong. The manner in which his various friends continued to believe the complete hogwash spewing from Bradfield's mouth (which grew intensely paranoiac and incoherent around the time of Susan Reinert's murder) is one of the more distressing aspects of the book. It's almost as if Bradfield's close associates were hypnotized into buying into his singular view of the world, refusing to alert police even when it would have been blatantly obvious that something was definitely "off" with regard to this whole situation. Clearly, Wambaugh saw this as one of the most intriguing aspects of the entire case, and chose to focus significant attention on it throughout the course of his book.
Echoes in the Darkness handles the potentially confusing backdrop for this story in about as good a way as one could expect. The story has aspects that almost defy belief as to how utterly ridiculous they are, particularly involving Bradfield's erratic behavior and the cult of admirers that stuck with him despite glaring problems in the man's logic. Wambaugh creates Bradfield as a man who basically lost touch with reality, presumably due to his involvement in the murder of a woman he was having an affair with and who he manipulated in ways that would benefit him. Jay Smith doesn't fare much better in the book's treatment, as Wambaugh frequently refers to Smith as "the prince of darkness," and describes various transgressions on the former principal's part, including a rather mysterious set of circumstances involving the disappearance of his daughter and son-in-law. Despite focusing on the two main suspects, the book seems to juggle the various characters well, and integrates various sub-stories into the bigger picture of the case quite nicely, with the book seeming to be well-rounded and comprehensive.
We're all but assured that Bradfield and Smith are the guilty parties in the case from the opening moments of the book, and Wambaugh does his part to add in the condemnation of the pair. The main problem I would have with this assessment is that, despite being the obvious choices as suspects in the case, there still was about no actual evidence linking either man to the crime. Granted, the case took place prior to the advantage DNA testing gave police investigating serious crimes, but the lack of concrete, damning evidence here was rather obvious to me in reading the story of the investigation and subsequent trials of the two men. I was somewhat reminded of the HBO documentary Paradise Lost in which a trio of teenagers was convicted of brutally murdering several young boys in Bible-belt mid-America simply due to the fact that the boys wore Metallica shirts and were "different." Despite no evidence linking them to the crime, these three men spent nearly twenty years in jail before being released when new evidence in the case was examined. For me, it's seems somewhat logical that Bradfield had something to do with the murder of Susan Reinert, but the lack of hard-hitting evidence, for me, would have provided some level of doubt as to his guilt in the case. In turn, the way Wambaugh presents the story, while about par for the course in this genre wherein the author obviously has his mind made up from the beginning, paints a one-sided picture of the situation. It's also interesting to note that the case would be affected by the novel, as it was revealed that there was inappropriate conduct between author Wambaugh and members of the criminal investigation and prosecution that potentially affected the outcome of the trial.
While his presentation of the guilt of Bradfield and Smith may be somewhat problematic, I've got to hand it to Wambaugh in that the overall book is a captivating read that I had a hard time really putting down. I plowed through the book in less than a week, and once I started reading, I usually found myself hooked by the details presented in the text. I’d say a little less than half of the book details the truly bizarre string of events leading up to the murder, and the remainder deals with the criminal investigation, which was the largest in Pennsylvania history at that time, with the focus throughout largely placed on main suspect Bill Bradfield’s interactions with his various acquaintances. Wambaugh's descriptions are excellently constructed, providing a you-were-there level of detail, and his choice of language seems to hammer home points that he's trying to make - for instance, he often uses people's full names to give statements more of a punch. Wambaugh's book also has some elements of humor, particularly in throwing in the occasional pop-culture reference, usually as a simile to something described in the text. These references range across all sorts of media, and recognizing and identifying with them provided a couple of chuckles in the more amusing aspects of the story, usually dealing with Bradfield's manipulative, almost completely oblivious, self-centered behavior.
Even with the more humorous moments of the text, the vast majority of Echoes in the Darkness is dead serious, painting a horrific, diabolical portrait of the murder of Susan Reinert. Wambaugh's varied writing style provides both relief from, and a clinical description of, the crime in question, and his text overall is a fascinating chronicle of the story. While I could question some aspects of his argument, and say that for long stretches the author's opinion on the case seems to make this book more of a novel than a non-fiction piece, I still would have to count this as an above average account of a fascinating and incredibly tragic, murder case. It seldom reverts to being overly dramatic or playing on the emotions of the reader, and instead seems mostly to stylishly render the facts of the case, with Wambaugh seeming to emphasize the Gothic qualities of the story by frequently making reference to that idea. For the reader interested in these kinds of stories, and who can handle the sometimes graphic sexual and violent content and language, I would certainly give this book a recommendation.
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