Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Redhanded: An Exploration of Criminals, Cannibals, Cults, and What Makes a Killer Tick - Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire

Summary: What is it about killers, cults, and cannibals that capture our imaginations even as they terrify and disturb us?  Do we find these stories endlessly and equally compelling and frightening, because they hold up a mirror to society's failings and to the horrors that we humans are capable of?

Redhanded rejects the outdated narrative of killers as monsters and that a victim "was just in the wrong place at the wrong time." Instead, it dissects the stories of killers in a way that challenges perceptions and asks the hard questions about society, gender, poverty, culture, and even our politics.

With candor, humor, in-dept research on real-life cases, and an unflinching analysis of what makes a criminal, Bala and Maguire take you through what drives the most extreme of human behavior to find out once and for all: what makes a killer tick?

Based off the authors' popular podcast of the same name -- with millions of listeners around the world -- Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire's Redhanded explores real-life true crime cases to discover once and for all if a killer is born or made. 

(Summary from back of book - Image from www.redhandedpodcast.com - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  Once upon a time, two twentysomethings met at a party, got a little bit tipsy, and discovered their mutual obsession with serial killers.  Not long after they started a podcast that is described on their website as "a weekly dose of murder, wit, and "WTFs" delivered with all the facts, anecdotal tangents aplenty, serious societal scrutiny, and real BRITISH flavor." Their podcast was (and continues to be) a smashing success and in September 2021 their bouncing book-baby was born.  I have zero experience with the authors' podcast -- too many 'little ears' in my house -- but if it is anything like the book, I can see why they have a loyal following. 

Redhanded is informative, insightful, and -- I'm a little nervous to say -- unexpectedly diverting. I've never to read anything quite like it.  In eight horrifying but fascinating chapters, the authors' discuss a variety of elements that influence the making of a serial killer. They delve into the lives of both well-known and lesser known murderers, their backgrounds, and other factors that led them down a path of sickening depravity.  Their 'voice' is a distinctive blend of frank delivery, thoughtful commentary, and seething moral outrage, laced with clever quips and snort-inducing sarcasm.  It's also incredibly informative and, if the massive source list in the back is any indication, thoroughly researched.  The authors' frequently referenced recent papers, theories, statistics, studies, and interviews with experts in relevant fields.  That might sound like a bit of a slog, but it didn't feel that way; even the technical bits were riveting.    

Amid the all the discussion of messed-up psyches, botched cases, and horrific murders, the authors insert their own brand of humor, a momentary but welcome reprieve that might seem wholly inappropriate if it weren't so desperately needed to lighten the mood.  The authors' seem to have developed the morbid sense of humor that inevitably comes from taking a deep, lengthy dive into the cesspool of sordid human behavior.  This sense of humor is never at the expense of the victim, but it is occasionally dark and salty -- like my favorite chocolate -- and might not be to everyone's taste.  The subject matter itself is incredibly interesting but matter-of-fact when it comes to discussing the murders.  It's not something I'd recommend to the overly squeamish.  You've been warned.

Redhanded introduced a variety of interesting topics, but I was most drawn to author's summaries of the killers' backgrounds, which laid out their sad progression from innocent infant to hardened serial killer.  It became clear that many (not all) killers were impacted at a very young age by forces beyond their control.  Many serial killers are first victims of child abuse and a society that perpetuates inequality in education, housing, healthcare, opportunities etc. While this shouldn't change the way we view their actions, it might change the way we view them.  In that same vein, I respect the author's decision to refrain from using the word 'monster' when referring to serial killers, which they assert dehumanizes them and absolves society from any responsibility for their creation.  It was bold but a provocative reminder that (in their words) "what leads a person to deviance and depravity is usually something very human indeed." 

Although the book is non-fiction in nature, it is not without bias. Throughout the book I noticed comments that seemed to indicate a personal bias against religion (not just cults) and law enforcement.  In saying this, I must also acknowledge my own bias as both a religious person and the wife of an officer who has spent the last 13 years serving as a sex crimes and homicide detective.  While I wholeheartedly acknowledge that neither religion nor law enforcement is without significant issues and failings (especially in some of the cases presented) I felt that a personal bias was driving the conversation in a way that painted both institutions with a rather broad brush.  Even though I don't agree with some of the authors' assertions, I kept reading despite the bias-issues because I felt that the rest of the book had intellectual merit.

When the innocent fall victim to depraved and senseless violence, it is the nature of humanity to want to know more -- as if understanding the hows and whys of a situation could 'make sense' out of senseless violence.  Overall, I truly *appreciated* (enjoyed doesn't seem to be the right word) my time with this book and the opportunity to learn more about such a complex issue. As the authors' state, "the path that leads someone to kill another human being is a complicated and twisty-turny one." Redhanded may not hold all the answers (I doubt there is a book that does), but it will give interested readers a far better understanding of how serial killers are formed and what makes them tick.  

My Rating:  3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:    If you are sensitive to violence, gore, or explicit language, this book is not for you.   The authors don't shy away from discussing murder (in a very matter of fact way) as well as sexual assault, sexuality, and sexual deviance as it relates to the commission of a crime.  Additionally, there is occasional profanity and expression of anti-religious and anti-police sentiment. 

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