The Calculated Fluck and the Tortured Soul

Despite the subtitle of “the untold story of a homicide investigator’s crusade for truth and justice” potential readers might assume, as I did, that this book would provide an understanding of the crime, the victim (Eric Miller) and the murderer (Ann Miller). I am sorry to report this is not the case. Maybe a detailed police procedural showing the ins and outs of the investigation, you hope? Not so fast my friend. How about a reasonably chronological telling of the investigation itself, you ask. Au contraire. What will you get?

Would you believe repeated hints about the weight of the cop in question along with regular updates on his sartorial tastes accompanied by detours into other investigations that have nothing to do with the Miller case? I’ve read some bad true crime in my years but this is truly one of the lamest. This is not the story of the Eric Miller case in any way, shape or form. It is, at best, several years in the life of policeman Chris Morgan who happens to be in charge of the Miller case for some of those years. Which would be lame enough but the way Amanda Lamb tells this story makes it a thousand times worse.

First, Amanda Lamb seems to be under the impression that Chris Morgan is a piece of rare Americana. An investigative Rousseau, helping humankind to see life in a completely new way. Also, she’s obsessed with his physique. Think I’m exaggerating? In the first 10 pages Lamb alludes to Morgan’s size 5 times. His “ample frame”, “formidable frame”, fears that his favorite chair will collapse under his weight, etc. For the rest of the book few pages go by without another reminder that Morgan is a big guy. So many reminders that I began to wonder if perhaps we were dealing with a badge-wearing Jabba the Hutt. This was distracting to say the least. When the action (and I use that word with caution) includes Morgan hiding in the bushes to watch arch criminal Ann Miller not leave her house for hours my thoughts immediately turned to “my God, how large IS that oleander bush?”

Other aspects of Morgan’s anatomy make frequent appearances. There’s his “gut” for example. Morgan’s gut is pretty special. Whereas the average gut gives hints about feelings and the odd bit of intuition, Morgan’s gut provides detailed facts. “His gut told him it was not his shift, not his squad”. His gut can tell time AND read the duty roster. Amazing! Then there’s his head, which is really only mentioned so that we can read more about Morgan’s endlessly fascinating white fedora. Police fashion – does true crime get any better?

Here’s a tip for all true crime writers: There is very little reason for ongoing detailed descriptions of police attire for the simple fact that it comes in only two flavors: uniform and plainclothes. Yes, there is a subset of plainclothes specific to “undercover” but that is dictated by the situation and is not indicative of the character of the wearer. The specifics of the plainclothes may be described one for the sake of completeness or to provide “insight” into the personality of the police officer in question but regular updates on the apparel choice of the day are not necessary. Years of reading true crime have given me ample opportunities to ponder this and I can confidently say that the only scenario in which ongoing sartorial info is required would be if the police officer liked to dress as a different circus performer on a rotating basis. A tutu on Monday, the lion tamer outfit on Tuesday, the clown suit on Wednesday. Other than that, leave the clothes out of the narrative.

This book is awful. I don’t know what Chris Morgan is like but he can’t possibly be the self-enchanted oaf Lamb depicts. In her telling, Morgan spends the first half of the book criticizing Sgt Fluck’s handling of the Miller case (Morgan’s not even on in), jumping to the conclusion that Ann Miller is guilty because … well, because he knows it, and spouting wisdom like “the truth is simple, if it’s not simple, it’s not the truth.” The hilarity is just getting rolling though, since once Morgan is actually assigned to the case he doesn’t get around to reading the case files until two years after the murder. Who would expect to find probative, investigative information in the case files! He actually says he doesn’t want to understand Ann Miller or any other criminal. He knowledge of the victim appears limited to his regional prejudices of the Midwest.

It is a dark, dark day when a true crime book leaves the reader wondering if the plus-size flat foot in charge didn’t create a case against a woman just because he decided she was a “psychopath”, a “criminal mastermind,” and a “master manipulator” without a single fact to back up any of his pronouncements. I do think Ann Miller is guilty but since Lamb doesn’t see fit to tell us what the investigators actually learned and never provides insights from people who knew Eric or Ann I can only imagine what facts were. Why show us anything when we can just bask in Chris Morgan’s profundities, such as “it’s no mystery crime makes people stupid”? Apparently it’s especially brutal on the IQs of certain crime writers.

I’m hard pressed to pick the worst thing in this book. The phrase “prior murderess events” is convoluted and meaningless but the winner has to be Lamb spending pages on the fact that a friend of Ann Miller is playing The Dixie Chicks “Earl’s Gotta Die” when the police question her. I hate country music in all forms and even I know the song is called “Goodbye Earl” and that it sounds nothing like a “funeral dirge” nor is it likely to “waft” anywhere. Oh, and William of Ockham was a monk and a philosopher, not a mathematician.

Even the ending, thankful as I was for it, was lousy. More time is spent on the question of Chris Morgan’s retirement – will the showboating arm of the law start drawing his pension before he final star turn at the trial? – then on any aspect of the trial. It ends with Morgan being “finished with it”, just SO over it, “alone with his tortured soul.”

When in the acknowledgements section Lamb thanks her “collaborators” it actually took me a second to realize that she did not use that word in the sense of “those who assist the enemy.” Some stories really are better left untold if they’re going to be told with staggering ineptitude.

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