For readers of true crime sagas like Tinseltown and Little Demon in the City of Light comes a chilling account of a murder that captivated the United States in the 1920s.
Twelve-year-old Marion Parker was kidnapped from her Los Angeles school by an unknown assailant on December 15, 1927. Her body appeared days later, delivered to her father by the killer, who fled with the ransom money. When William Hickman was hunted down and charged with the killing, he admitted to all of it, in terrifying detail, but that was only the start….
Hickman’s insanity plea was the first of its kind in the history of California, and the nature of the crime led to a media frenzy unlike any the country had seen. His lawyers argued that their client lived in a fantasy world, inspired by movies and unable to tell right from wrong. The movie industry scrambled to protect its exploding popularity (and profits) from ruinous publicity. Outside the courtroom, the country craved every awful detail, and the media happily fed that hunger. As scandals threatened the proceedings from the start, the death of a young girl grew into a referendum on the state of America at the birth of mass media culture.
David Wilson, a private investigator for over thirty years, captures the maelstrom of Marion Parker’s death in vivid detail. From the crime itself to the manhunt that followed, from the unprecedented trial to its aftermath, Wilson draws readers in to the birth of the celebrity criminal.
Published: December 6, 2016
Hickman’s crime, his apparent indifference, and his attempt at using the insanity plea for the first time in California makes for an interesting read. The expansive detail about Hollywood also makes for an interesting read. But combined as they are here, the two aspects don’t gel as a singular story.
Before I clarify my statement, I want to say that the research appears to be impeccable. This is absolutely where the author shines. We are totally immersed in the past, with all the inhabitants of the era.
The writing is straightforward, more akin to news journalism than narrative nonfiction.
Hickman’s crime is laid out for us, from his decision to kidnap Marion Parker, on to the murder, and throughout his trial. We also learn bits about Hickman’s childhood and his crimes during early adulthood. Hickman makes for an intriguing character study in criminal behavior, during a time when psychology was in its infancy. Psychiatrists of the time had little understanding of psychopathic and narcissistic minds. Courts were only just beginning to form guidelines for what it meant to be criminally insane and therefore not legally responsible. Against this backdrop, we have a man attempting to manipulate the system to his advantage.
The Los Angeles Times reported Mr. Hickman asked one of his jailers questions about acting insane.
Hickman was obsessed with movies, attending the theater daily. I think it’s important to note that his obsession was a product of his aversion to real life, and that whatever mental illness he suffered from was not caused or even necessarily enhanced by the movies he watched. Because he didn’t want to work, he used robbery as a way to fund his obsession. Eventually robbery wasn’t enough, and his desire for a big payoff led to kidnapping for ransom. This is the thread linking the other aspect of this book, which is the story of Hollywood’s rise.
Going to the movies was not unusual for the young man. It was a part of his daily routine. What was unusual on that particular day was that several hours earlier he had murdered Marion Parker and then mutilated her body.
We learn a lot about Hollywood within these pages. The author takes us to the beginning, with silent movies, on to the emergence of sound and the conflict of dealing with this new phenomenon. We meet the major players of the era. We’re given a lot of detail on rating systems, censorship, and the politics behind it all. Hollywood, like the legal system, was in a state of flux.
With the first Oscar night under his belt, Louis B. Mayer made a list of items to improve the selection process and the ceremony scheduled for the following year. He now understood that his power in Hollywood was just beginning to be felt outside the wall of the MGM studio.
While the Hollywood story is thorough and interesting, I thought the connection to Hickman was tenuous at best. The depth of detail about Hollywood led me to believe that Hickman’s movie obsession would play heavily into his defense, but this was not the case. In fact, his movie obsession was barely a blip in his defense. Hickman’s decision to murder a little girl had nothing at all to do with the content of the movies he watched, and his lawyer made no attempt at the claim. Consequently, the book winds up feeling like two distinct and separate stories. The in-depth attention to all that went on in Hollywood has the misfortune of overshadowing the legal aspect of the first true insanity plea in a criminal case.
His statement was recorded for the record and later admitted into evidence in his insanity trial: “The first time I felt sad or had remorse, [for the killing of Marion Parker] was when I was in the Loews State Theater. I broke down and cried while I watched the picture Forbidden Women.”
In his closing, the author attempts to equate Hickman’s movie obsession with later societal influences of advertising and current influences of violent video games. This feels like way too much of a leap, particularly since Hickman’s absorption in movies was never even remotely proven to have anything to do with his mental state or his choice to murder a little girl. The closing left me feeling as if the author began with an agenda, and then attempted to put the story together in a way that exposed media’s impact on young and/or damaged minds.
*I was provided with an advance ebook copy by the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.*
Thanks for reading. 🙂