by Joe McGinniss
Simon & Schuster, HK$200
Joe McGinniss, best known for his best-sellers The Selling of a President and Fatal Vision, makes his comeback to true crime after 16 years by turning his attention to Hong Kong's most notorious killing - the 2003 murder of Merrill Lynch investment banker Robert Kissel by his wife Nancy Ann.
Robert Kissel's father, Bill Kissel, has already denounced the book as a work of fiction. It's not hard to see why: Bill Kissel is painted as fast approaching megalomania while being accused of driving his two sons towards violent deaths.
Meanwhile, Nancy Kissel is reduced almost to caricature. McGinniss' Nancy is self-absorbed and wanton, the 'material girl' who uses her feminine wiles, her single-mindedness and, eventually, murder to pursue her greed.
The effect, however, is that the promise on the book's cover of Nancy as a 'riddle wrapped inside an enigma' never materialises. It is a one-dimensional portrayal that feels neither insightful nor earnest, and at times seems even facetious.
There is little attempt to answer the nagging doubts that continue to surround the case, such as why a woman who is obviously smart and apparently sane would resort to murder. At any time she could have walked out of the marriage and divorced the man who, with three young children in the picture, was worth financially almost as much to her alive as dead.
Through the use of letters sent by Nancy to her former lover, Michael Del Priore, during and immediately after her trial, McGinniss would have you believe that it was a good old crime of passion, that Nancy was overcome by an infatuation - that, and a seriously flawed character. She is described as bored by the monotony of motherhood. If that is an indicator of a would-be murderess, then I know quite a few husbands who should be removing all ornaments from their homes right now. But there are no answers as to why a woman who had coolly planned to murder her husband and drugged him for the purpose had no strategy for removing the body and was forced to embark upon such a clumsy cover-up.
There is no answer as to how, even if Nancy was lying about her husband's attack on her with a baseball bat, the lead ornament used to kill him became bent into a curve prior to her hitting him with it.
One problem is that much of McGinniss' information, particularly relating to the trial, is a rehash of newspaper reports and blog entries of the time. Despite what the book calls 'unprecedented access' to some key players, it is startlingly low on real insight. Nancy wasn't interviewed.
Another problem is that McGinniss can't seem to escape stereotypes. For example, there are the investment bankers who 'indulge in feelings of superiority every bit as grandiose as those displayed by England's colonial masters of the nineteenth century'.
And their wives fare no better: 'All that free time and all that free money were overlaid atop a sense of entitlement they wore like Chanel. What was the point of having it all if you couldn't indulge in a bit of white mischief?' Such trite statements would be amusing if the subject matter weren't so serious, or if it wasn't so hard to shake off his sneering tone: 'A maze of elevated and air-conditioned walkways permitted expatriate bankers to go weeks on end without ever setting foot on a Hong Kong street,
without ever hearing the din, feeling the humidity, or choking on the filthy air.'
Then there is the inaccuracy. You have to worry about the correctness of a book that gives the wrong floor number for the Kissels' apartment. More suspicions arise when McGinniss draws on his mistakes to form or bolster conclusions: he lists the generous eight-hour visiting times at Siu Lam psychiatric prison, where Nancy was held prior to trial, in order to claim that a 'coterie' of wives from Hong Kong's Parkview spent half their waking hours in her presence, earning themselves 'Parkview cachet'.
Even the most elementary research into Hong Kong's prison system would have revealed that remand prisoners in Hong Kong are entitled to only 15 minutes total visitation a day, by a maximum of two persons.
It goes on: when Mr Justice Michael Lunn revoked Nancy's bail at the end of her testimony during trial, McGinniss says it was because prosecutor Peter Chapman's argued that Kissel had falsified evidence. No such submission - or such finding - was made.
Even when McGinniss stumbles on a half-truth, there is dubious innuendo: in setting out the drugs prescribed to Nancy in the week before Robert was killed, McGinniss pronounces (cue drum roll) that dextropropoxythene is a 'drug that, according to an English National Health Service Report 'can cause rapid death''. According to that same report, so can paracetamol - and paracetamol was considered the more life threatening of the two. By the end of the book you end up wondering how much 'true' there is in 'true crime' these days.
In his favour, McGinniss is still a master of witty hyperbole: 'No Amish Church practised shunning with more rigor than Nancy' and 'Robert Kissel was as methodical as a Swiss watchmaker. His heart leapt impulsively, but his mind soon assumed full control'.
The book's cantering pace is at times riveting. And McGinniss employs a deft use of quotations from forensic textbooks to build suspense during the three nights that Robert Kissel's body lay in
If you are looking for tabloid titillation, then McGinniss has filled the remit. If you are looking for the same depth and thoroughness of McGinniss' earlier works, you will be disappointed. And if you are looking for truth, the riddle wrapped inside the enigma remains unsolved.
Amanda Clift-Matthews attended the Kissel trial in 2005 and has been researching the case since then.