Non-Fiction: “Incendiary” by Michael Cannell

IncendiaryHere it is, friends: the beginning of the end (of 2017). I have six books (including this one) to get through and then I’ve got the 2017 recap to get done. If I can keep my head down and power through, I’ll be able to post the recap before September, and therefore be better than I was last year.

The last six books of 2017 were also all library books. This title was on the “new and notable non-fiction” shelf, and I’ll be very honest: when I read the subtitle (“The Psychiatrist, The Mad Bomber, and The Invention of Criminal Profiling”), I picked up the book and checked to see if there were any references to Hannibal Lecter or Thomas Harris in the index.

Reader, there were.

The plot – such as it is, for a non-fiction book – covers the story of the Mad Bomber in New York City. Beginning in 1940 and continuing over the course of 16 years, the Bomber planted pipe bombs all over the city, mostly focusing in movie theaters, train and bus stations, and Radio City Music Hall. The police force struggled to determine the culprit – not only were forensics still fairly primitive compared to today, but the Bomber was extremely careful with his fingerprints. The Bomber would either write letters to the newspaper or the police station, I can’t remember which, but the police were aware that the bombs were placed in retaliation against Con Edison, a huge electricity public utility in New York State.

Around 1956, New York Police Capt. Howard Finney decided to visit a psychiatrist, Dr. James A. Brussel, who was the deputy commissioner of the New York State Dept. of Mental Hygiene. On a whim, Capt. Finney asked Dr. Brussel to try and give a psychoanalysis of the Mad Bomber.

This had never been done before. Psychiatrists would only analyze people in their presence. So, based on what evidence Capt. Finney could give Dr. Brussel, the doctor created the first criminal profile.

In addition to the anger the Bomber felt toward Con Edison, Dr. Brussel gave the following additional insight:

Male, as historically most bombers were male. Well proportioned and of average build, based on studies of hospitalized mental patients. Forty to fifty years old, as paranoia develops slowly. Precise, neat and tidy, based on his letters and the workmanship of his bombs. An exemplary employee, on time and well-behaved. A Slav, because bombs were favored in Middle Europe. A Catholic, because most Slavs were Catholic. Courteous but not friendly.

Has a good education but probably not college. Foreign-born or living in a community of the foreign-born – the formal tone and old-fashioned phrasing of the letters sounded to Brussel as if they had been written or thought out in a foreign language and then translated into English. Based on the rounded letter “w’s” of the handwriting, believed to represent breasts, and the slashing and stuffing of theater seats, Brussel thought something about sex was troubling the bomber, possible an oedipus complex – loving his mother and hating his father and other authority figures.

A loner, no friends, little interest in women, possibly a virgin. Unmarried, perhaps living with an older female relative. Probably lives in Connecticut, as Connecticut has high concentrations of Slavs, and many of the bomber’s letters were posted in Westchester County, midway between Connecticut and New York City.  [Wikipedia page (]

And as Capt. Finney was leaving with the profile, Dr. Brussel added this:

In the parting moment Dr. Brussel closed his eyes. An image of the bomber came to him with cinematic clarity. He wore outdated clothes since his contempt for others would prevent him from holding steady jobs. His attire was old-fashioned, but clean and meticulous. It would be prim, perhaps with an enveloping, protective aspect.

“Captain, one more thing. When you catch him,” Dr. Brussel said, “and I have no doubt you will, he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit.”

Dr. Brussel added, “And it will be buttoned.”  [p. 107-108]

From there, Capt. Finney went to Seymour Berkson, the publisher of the New York Journal-American, and published a letter to the Mad Bomber, asking him to give himself up.

To The Mad Bomber
(Prepared in Co-operation with the Police Dept.)

Give yourself up.

For your own welfare and for that of the community, the time has come for you to reveal your identity.

The N.Y. Journal-American guarantees that you will be protected from any illegal action and that you will get a fair trial.

This newspaper is also willing to help you in two other ways.

It will publish all the essential parts of your story as you may choose to make it public.

It will give you the full chance to air whatever grievances you may have as the motive of your acts.

We urge you to accept this offer now not only for your own sake but for the sake of the community.

Time is running out on your prospects of remaining unapprehended.

You can telephone the City Editor of this newspaper at Cortland 7-1212, or you can go to any police station or even the policeman on the street and tell him who you are.

In all cases you will be given the benefits of our American system of justice.

Give yourself up now.  [p. 127]

The Mad Bomber began a correspondence with the Journal-American, and that led to confirming some of Dr. Brussels’ theories about the Bomber.

Eventually, a secretary at Con Edison found a worker’s comp document dating back to 1931, wherein an employee had been injured at work and found to have a permanent disability, and therefore fired. She found similar phrases used in the Mad Bomber’s letters and responses published in the Journal-American, and notified the police. The lead paid off: the culprit was George Metesky.

(Fun fact!: Con Edison also potentially delayed the investigation by claiming that all worker’s comp records dated prior to 1940 had been destroyed, when actually, they hadn’t. Capitalism!)

Metesky was arrested and indicted on 47 charges, including attempted murder and damaging a building by explosion. And yes, when he was arrested, he was wearing a buttoned double-breasted suit. Metesky was interviewed by numerous psychiatrists, and a judge determined him to be a paranoid schizophrenic; Metesky was declared legally insane and incompetent to stand trial. He was committed to Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

He was eventually released when the Supreme Court found that one cannot commit someone to a hospital unless a jury finds that person dangerous. Since Metesky was committed without a jury trial – and by that time, he’d served two-thirds of a maximum 25-year sentence – he was released. He died in 1993, at the age of 90.

So now that I’ve got that out of the way, here’s the part of the book that talked about Hannibal:

Today profiling plays a prominent role in the pursuit of all serial offenders. It has also become a preoccupation of popular culture. In the late 1970s a quiet, bearded former Associated Press editor named Thomas Harris audited classes and met with FBI agents at Quantico, Virginia, where he learned about the agency’s semisecret efforts to profile killers and sex offenders. “What I try to do with a case is to take in all the evidence I have to work with … and then put myself mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender,” said John Douglas, one of the profilers Harris consulted over the years. “I try to think as he does. Exactly how this happens, I’m not sure …. If there’s a psychic component to this, I won’t run from it.”

Harris applied what he had learned at Quantico to his writings. His bestselling 1981 novel, Red Dragon, and its sequel Silence of the Lambs[*], introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist and homicidal cannibal, and Will Graham, the profiler who tracked him. Like Dr. Brussel, Graham succeeded because he could get inside the mind of a madman and follow his logic.

“It’s the way you think,” Graham’s FBI supervisor[**] tells him in Red Dragon.

“I think there’s a lot of bullshit about the way I think,” Graham replies.

“You made some jumps you never explained.”

Harris almost single-handedly created a profiling genre that stormed the bestseller lists and commands prime-time programming. [p. 244-245]

[*] It’s The Silence of the Lambs, dammit!

[**] Will’s “FBI supervisor” is JACK CRAWFORD, MUTHAFUCKA!

jack flips the bitch.gif

I liked the book. I thought Mr. Cannell did a good job with going between viewpoints: that of the NYPD, Mr. Metesky, and Dr. Brussells. He explained a lot of the forensics without being overly technical, which I appreciated. The plot – such as it is – moved along. If you’re interested in this type of topic, I’d recommend it. The Hannibal stuff was just a bonus.


Grade for Incendiary: 2.5 stars


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