- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

A demented courtroom defense by a deranged woman is a highlight of Seduced

by Madness (William Morrow, $24.95, 354 pages), a true crime story of Susan Polk, the Californian who stabbed her husband to death and left his body to be discovered by one of their sons.

The madness of Ms. Polk seems rooted in the strange psychology of California at a time when what became a cult of repressed memory involving childhood torment gripped a state always receptive to extremism.

Carol Pogash, a well-known journalist who worked the Polk case and covered the bizarre trial that concluded it, has done a memorable job of recreating the atmosphere of an affluent-yet-oddly-sinister suburb in the California of the Seventies.

The poison seems to have been planted in Ms. Polk in her teens, when she became the lover of her therapist, Felix Polk. After he divorced his wife to wed his patient, both apparently became fixated on every mental health fad that appeared on the horizon.

Ms. Pogash recalls, “In northern California, the human potential movement was in full bloom … a mecca for the nationwide counterculture.” A degree of hysteria developed over the alleged satanic cults and the capacity of therapists to plant hideous recollections in the memories of their patients, reaching the point where the innocent became trapped in a nightmare.

“To date,” she notes, “there is not a single scrap of compelling evidence of an organized satanic cult in the United States that held meetings in which they raped or killed children.”

Yet that was the kind of neurosis to which a highly educated couple like the Polks fell victim, and that in the end consumed them both.

The trial of Ms. Polk is riveting reading, especially horrifying because of her rejection by her two angry and bitter children, who had been warped by their mother’s insistence that they were victims of the so-called demonic cults. According to Ms. Pogash, it was Adam, the Polks’ eldest son, who alone in the family came to a terrible understanding of what had happened.

“Although he has no memory of the ways his mother and father elicited satanic abuse accusations when he was only a year and a half old, by the time Adam was a little older, he knew what was going on,” she writes.

It was Adam who ultimately made the tragic statement that his parents “went to a crazy place together.” And it was Adam who “first brought the issue of madness to the kitchen table.”

The seeds of madness in Ms. Polk grew and exploded in an unshakeable belief that she was justified in her bloody slaughter of her husband. It is difficult to plumb the depths of the dementia that led her to allow her 15-year-old son, Gabriel, to find the bleeding body of his father in the $1.8 million family home in Orinda. When questioned by police about the murder, Ms. Polk said without emotion, “Oh well, we were getting a divorce anyway.”

Ms. Pogash has produced a truly chilling study of evil.

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The devastation wrought by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was bad enough. It didn’t need a serial killer reminiscent of Victorian England’s Jack the Ripper.

Anthony Flacco has set his thriller The Last Nightingale (Ballantine, $12.95, 272 pages, paper) in blood and chaos further dramatized by the plight of a traumatized 12-year-old. Shane Nightingale is hiding in a cupboard in the wake of the earthquake when the killer arrives to methodically torture the boy’s family to death. His speech reduced to a stutter by the ghastly events he has witnessed, Shane gains the sympathy and interest of a kindly police sergeant, yet he is in possession of knowledge that puts him in peril. Forming a team with the sergeant almost costs the boy his life.

Mr. Flacco has painted a frightening and haunting picture of a ruined city staggering back to reality, yet it is difficult for his plot to compete with the horror of a natural disaster.

Planting a fiend in the midst of such a scene tests the endurance of readers already coping with flames, blood and toppling buildings. That the killer is completely oblivious to what is going on around him seems somewhat unlikely and nobody, however wicked, can compete with an earthquake.

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The beat-‘em-up private investigator has become a symbol of tough detective mysteries over the past half century, but in A Welcome Grave (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 304 pages), Michael Koryta leans too heavily on sadomasochism to evoke more than distaste in his readers. That is unfortunate, because he is often a skilled writer, and his pain and torture scenes waste his talents.

This is the third in his series about Lincoln Perry, a private eye in Cleveland who lives above a gym and whose latest case involves the grisly torture-murder of a powerful lawyer. Perry himself is pounded through the pages as he solves the crime and copes with the betrayal of romantic interests.The familiar plot line of the battered investigator misunderstood by the police is too dependent on violence and lacking in real movement. Mr. Koryta can do better.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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