Critiquing one piece of art by comparing it to another can be odious, especially when the two pieces are not only apples and oranges, but apples and oranges of different media. The worst example I have ever seen was a local A&E writer’s review of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, in which the town gossip, Johnnypateenmike, was described as “kind of like Jar Jar Binks, from [whichever of the Star Wars trilogy-ology was currently playing].” I am no better a compare-r than this. Reading Bruce Rubenstein’s Greed, Rage and Love Gone Wrong: Murder in Minnesota is kind of like watching “Cops,” one of the earliest and best (or worst, depending on your reasons for watching it) examples of the reality TV genre.
“Cops,” with its bad boys, bad boys / watcha gonna do when they come for you theme song, set to a cheesy Caucasian-reggae beat, lacks the glamour or production values of later reality shows. Its episodes are simply raw footage of people committing crimes (usually drug- or domestic-abuse related) and being apprehended and arrested by police officers absentmindedly adjusting their holsters over their bellies. The criminals are low-rent losers, dressed in dirty tank tops, teeth missing. Their families respond to the arrests by screaming, “Don’t take him to jail! He didn’t mean to hit me! I was asking for it!”
At the beginning and end of each episode, the cops involved in the dramas give their reactions and opinions on what has transpired. Not one single person featured on “Cops”, regardless of which side of the law he or she is on, speaks proper English. It’s trashy and addicting. You know you should be watching PBS, but you just can’t seem to find the remote.
Rubenstein’s collection of Minnesota true-crime stories provides the same kind of guilty pleasure. Pick it up and flip to a random page. Five minutes later you’ll say, “I can’t believe I’m reading this”; sixty minutes later, you’ll say, “Okay, one more chapter. I swear, one.” The next day you’ll find yourself thinking about the O’Kasick gang or Robert Nachtscheim, about corpses rotting in Twin Cities basements and behind abandoned Moorhead barns.
The first and last chapters of the book are the best. “The Family Who Couldn’t Sleep at Night” narrates the short, tragic lives of the O’Kasick brothers, a 1950’s gang of petty thieves who killed a Minneapolis cop, went on the run, and were finally gunned down by the police, leaving the youngest brother to commit suicide in St. Cloud prison. Neither this chapter nor “Portrait of an Heiress at the End of Her Career” are well-written, but the O’Kasick story is clearly one of Rubenstein’s favorites, and his character studies of the bad brothers are lovingly crafted.
“Portrait of an Heiress” is about Duluth’s Congdon Mansion murders, a story which is practically writer-proof. The juiciest and trashiest of all is “Miss Abyss,” about evil Richfield beauty Anna Vanderford, a siren who preyed on men and ended up killing young Ed Wittkopp.
Calling the stories “stories” isn’t quite accurate. They’re all based on police reports, court records, and other facts. Rubenstein himself notes that the most interesting parts of crime cases are not found in the newspapers or television reports, but in the raw, jumbled notes taken by officers at the scenes. Yet they are not strictly factual accounts, since Rubenstein pads the facts with conjecture and his own biases. The pieces might be called “imaginings”—each one is a sort of “what probably happened” presented as though it had actually happened, but in the style of a fictional story. It’s an odd hybrid, and although Rubenstein takes care to keep the “real quotes” culled from newspaper accounts or court records in quotation marks, and although he has actually interviewed some of the stars of his stories in person, it’s hard not to wonder how much is info and how much is ‘tainment. But then again, some of the murders in these imaginings were never solved, and so perhaps it’s all entertainment.
The narrative is clunky. Flashbacks and shifts in chronological sequence appear in every story, sentences are laden with surplus prepositional phrases and misplaced modifiers, and the prose is full of gumshoe noir metaphors. Some of the accounts are so full of details that it’s easy to lose track—and interest. Sometimes the writing reads like a ninth-grader’s fantasy journal, as in “A Marriage of Convenience,” about a “Cops”-like pair of losers who end up robbing, killing, and cheating on each other.
Over time Michael developed a stress-induced facial tic, which made him the butt of high school ridicule, as did his increasingly rotund appearance. “I was easy prey,” he says, “I turned the other cheek.” That statement is typical of Michael, who seems to view his life as if it were an approaching train, and he were tied up on the tracks. Jamie used him like a ball of human Silly Putty, yet she was able to convince two juries that he planned and carried out a cold-blooded execution and dragged her along as an unwitting accomplice. Their pasts alone make that scenario implausible.
Rubenstein has a bias against people who commit murders, whether those murders are brilliant or botched. He manages, also, to have a bias against both transient losers and the wealthy; his account of grocery store heir Russell Lund, Jr. is laced with Rubenstein’s observations that Lund would have met with swifter justice had he not been able to buy lawyers and influence. His summary of the case concludes with, Those are the real mysteries that surround the murders of Barbara Lund and Kevin Kelly, and only the rich know the answer. His most disturbing bias is against women. The female victims in the stories should have known better; the accomplices were probably gold diggers; the girl perps are out to destroy men’s lives. Jamie Dennis, writes Rubenstein, had a history of getting pregnant to control men. The 42-year-old married high school teacher whose life was ruined when he slept with Anna Vanderford? Clearly the fault of the viper Anna.
For all its faults, Greed, Rage, and Love Gone Wrong is a crazy little side trip. How much is fact is beside the point, especially when you run across nuggets like Joyce O’Kasick screaming Why don’t you kill me like you killed my brothers, you dirty coppers? It’s pure “Cops.”