Fame & Acclaim through Murder: Our Iconic Killers

By Jeffrey A. Cohen

We all know the icon I mean.  We see him in literature, in film, in popular culture, in the news.  He’s the poet-murderer, the societal rebel, the killer as greater soul.  The killer in social protest.  He’s Mailer’s “hipster,” that existential hero and “true” individual, who expresses himself through violence, and gives us his reasons from prison.  

Years ago while in law school, I became fascinated with the phenomenon of the jailhouse literary sensation, and particularly, Jack Henry Abbott. He was the convicted murderer who became a cultural icon and literary shooting star when his book of letters to Norman Mailer, In the Belly of the Beast, was published in 1981. 

One irony of the Abbott case is that this evil man’s letters, irrationally justifying his lifetime of violent crime, resulted in public sympathy, literary acclaim, and even his parole (with Mailer’s assistance).  Another irony, a tragic one, is that within six weeks of his release Abbott killed again, the night before a laudatory review of his book would appear in the New York Times.  And a final irony—the most perverse of all—is that the man he stabbed in the heart, Richard Adan, 22, a night-shift waiter who refused him the use of an employees-only restroom, was by day pursuing his dream of becoming a writer himself. 

We tend to invest our violent criminals with special qualities—they’re poets (like Abbott), they’re rebels (like Gary Gilmore), they have greater souls, or they bravely act in the face of society’s most sacred rules—our antiheros.  Only, in truth, they are almost never heroes of any sort, and kill because they are less not more.  The jailhouse literary sensation and our other celebrity killers, bask in the limelight of a little life turned big through evil acts, and blossom and flourish in our misconceptions of them.

This is the spark behind The Killing of Mindi Quintana. In my novel, Freddy Builder kills Mindi Quintana and is writing the book about their relationship everybody wants.  It’s a lying rewrite of Mindi’s life and his own, and of his miserably thin involvement with her.  Freddy is a department store clerk with dreams he’s done little to further.  Now, as he awaits trial, excerpts of his book appear to acclaim, and interest grows in the case.  His own lawyer, Philip, watches with disgust as Freddy builds his acclaim from the bones of his victim.  And as a new celebrity killer takes the stage.

In the store, before killing Mindi, Freddy daydreams of his future this way:

“When he made it into high gear, he would know what to do: He would be witty for reporters, pensive when appropriate, insightful always, and clever sometimes. When people cared what he thought, he would think great things. When they came to him, he would know what to say.  When there was no question of his stature, they would admire his work.  All he needed was an occasion to rise to.”

The “occasion” is murder and my novel asks if Freddy is right. It asks if our iconic criminals are as often depicted in literature and the press, or if they are undeserving of attributions of special character, talent, or existential heroism.  The Killing of Mindi Quintana is about celebrity through murder and the fascination we have with our violent criminals.  And it delivers the blow we all wish for when we think of O.J. Simpson, Gary Gilmore, Jack Henry Abbott—the alleged killer with a book, or who gains fame through the backdoor of murder. 

I was inspired to write my novel The Killing of Mindi Quintana by several aspects of the Jack Henry Abbott case: the dubious attribution of exceptional talent to his writing in In the Belly of the Beast; the public’s fascination with him for having killed; and the cruel irony of his killing Richard Adan—an aspiring writer who worked in obscurity to achieve what his killer was awarded for a lifetime of crime.

I think of what Abbott accomplished as “fame and acclaim through the backdoor of murder.”  He was a pre-packaged jailhouse literary sensation, his letters to Norman Mailer on prison life chopped into pieces for Belly, edited, organized under subject headings, and graced with a forward by Mailer himself.  I am always struck in reading his letters by Abbott’s ethos of violence, his monumental narcissism, and the disjointed philosophy he constructed from his prodigious reading to justify his lifetime of violence.  (When I think of Belly, I think of the Unabomber’s manifesto—where would he be in our pantheon of criminal icons had he had a Mailer as his champion?)

Abbot’s self-acquittal in Belly is internally inconsistent, irrational at times, remorseless, and in many places lacks credibility—it is unpersuasive.  To read his letters is to know he should not have been paroled.  But I am concerned, too, with something else: I am concerned about a public and literati eager to call him a genius for too little, a cultural tendency I explore in The Killing of Mindi Quintana.

I am not unmindful of the high quality of Abbott’s writing here and there, which it would be dishonest to ignore.  But his logic, his ideas and credulity are all doubtful, and his ability to do anything more than rant eloquently in short bursts is not apparent.  All of this argues against his merit as a writer; and I am suspicious of both what was left on the cutting room floor, and the nature of the editing of what we do get to read.

I recommend reading In the Belly of the Beast yourself and coming to a personal conclusion.

It was in the late ‘70’s, while Mailer was working on The Executioner’s Song about Gary Gilmore, that Jack Henry Abbott first wrote him offering a primer on prison life through his letters. Gilmore, the first man to be executed in the United States after a ten-year hiatus, famously abandoned his right to appeal in favor of an expeditious execution.  Like Abbott, Gilmore was a state-raised convict who had spent mere months outside prison as an adult before being released to commit heinous crimes.

As Belly does Abbott, The Executioner’s Song lionizes Gilmore through Gilmore’s letters from prison, carefully selected and edited. Mailer writes of that editing,  “…[I]t seemed fair to show [Gilmore] at a level higher than his average…. Besides he wrote well at times.” (Song at pg. 1052)  Fair to whom?  The reader looking for an accurate depiction of Gary Gilmore? 

Mailer brings to bear far more material than merely Gilmore’s letters to portray him as a poetic soul, a talented artist, a lover, good writer, and thinker. Mailer’s Gilmore is an existential hero, defying society by breaking its laws, and by killing, loving, and then dying on his own terms. Song also chronicles a moving prison love story between Gilmore and Nicole, his girlfriend of all of two months before his arrest for two murders.

The love story before prison was more prosaic: Nicole had grown bored of Gilmore and abandoned him.  Their breakup, in fact, occasioned the murders.  On successive nights, distraught over Nicole, Gilmore killed a gas station attendant and then a motel manager.  He had each lie facedown on the floor in his place of business, had each tuck his arms underneath his body, and shot each twice in the back of the head.  With Gilmore’s arrest, Nicole’s love is rekindled.

Gilmore’s letters, like Abbott’s, showcase an extreme narcissism and a remorselessly violent credo. In a number of his letters, Gilmore asks Nicole to commit suicide so that no other man will ever have her.  She tries and fails to kill herself.  He tries, not so hard, and fails, too.

The wind in the hair of these killers is supplied off camera by those creating the narrative we hanker for.  My job, as I saw it, in The Killing of Mindi Quintana, was to skewer the icon, to show the ersatz killer-poet for true.  We don’t all kill because we’re poets, it turns out; some of us kill because we’re not poets—then pretend to be when others see one in us.

In The Killing of Mindi Quintana, a department store clerk turned jailhouse literary sensation, builds his acclaim with his victim’s bones, as he writes his book.  His defense attorney watches with disgust until he can watch no more. 

I hope with my novel to steal the back the wind from the hair of a false rebel, and to deliver a comeuppance to the killer with a book.

This post was contributed by Jeffrey A. Cohen, a writer, technology entrepreneur and former trial attorney currently residing in Philadelphia. You can find out more about this author and his book by visiting his author page on Amazon, following him on Twitter, joining him on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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