Exhaustive research equals exhausting read

The story of Sam Sheppard murder case is one that has been told obliquely but never completely. Which is odd considering that 50 years later many people have an opinion as to whether "Dr. Sam" murder his wife Marilyn or was the victim of an astonishing miscarriage of justice. James Neff has subtitle his book "The Final Verdict"- a bold move. My guess is that this one will continue to be debated but I doubt we'll have a more comprehensive book on the topic.

Given the topic, my interest in it and my very vague knowledge of the case (informed primarily by movies, TV movies and TV shows), I expected to enjoy this book far more than I did. I can't fault the research which seems to me to be exhaustive. The abundance of facts may be part of the reason why reading the first part of this book felt like a punitive homework assignment. The book starts with the crime and proceeds through the investigation in detail. Neff makes points about the shoddiness of the investigation and the stomach-churning press coverage but he does it in a style better suited to a memo from HR detailing how an employee fell down a flight of stairs at the office. The verbs "to be" and "to have" get a work out in all possible tenses and the passive voice makes many unwelcome appearances. The writing isn't bad, just uninspired. Only when Neff is quoting the words of the participants does any approaching emotion break through. From part two on the writing is more engaging though it never becomes enjoyable. That surprised me. Neff is clearly deeply interested in this case, he has a stake in it, he's devoted years to it, but that passion rarely comes through.

Neff's research yields many interesting facts. I knew nothing of the enmity between D.O.s and M.D.s or why that might have played a role in the coroner's findings. (I also didn't know there was once an "Eclectic Medical School" - although I like to imagine that one day they'd teach the students the finer points of spinal surgery, the next day it was how to make the perfect omelet.) In the question of which party's behavior was most vile in this case there are plenty of contenders: the police, the press, the mayor, the coroner, etc. Take your pick, you'll find plenty of justification for your choice in these pages.

Ultimately, I can only recommend this book for readers who are very interested in the Sam Sheppard case. The combination of details and the writing style does not make for an accessible book for the casual reader. If, however, one is deeply interested in the case, this is essential reading.

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