Lawrence Schiller
Harper Collins, 1999

In journalist Janet Malcolm's book on the lawsuit of convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against true-crime writer Joe McGinnis -- who was the author of FATAL VISION, which was a book about MacDonald's brutal murder of his wife and children -- she begins her story with an opening chapter that should be required reading of every police department and prosecutors' office in America. If Alex Hunter and the Boulder police had read the first chapter of Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer" (Vintage, 1990) before they had ever talked to a newspaper reporter or a broadcast journalist, they might have spared themselves the self-inflicted wounds revealed in the publication of Lawrence Schiller's true crime masterpiece, "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town."

Janet Malcolm's insights into the relationship between journalist and subject are quite remarkable for anyone following the media's coverage of the JonBenét Ramsey case. She begins her book with probably the most revealing examination of the uneasy, and often treacherous, moral tension that exists between a journalist and his subject. Her observations make for instructive reading and should be studied carefully by anyone about to grant a media interview:

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--HIS hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

"The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist--who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things--never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject -- while the reader of a work of journalism can only imagine how the writer got the subject to make such a spectacle of himself."

So there you have it: The "secret" of great journalism. It seems the "secret" lies in something known as the"art of betrayal." If you follow Malcolm's analysis to it's logical conclusion, you are left with the realization that the greater the work of journalism, the greater the act of betrayal. To become a great journalist means, in effect, that you must first become a "Great Betrayer."

Which brings us to Lawrence Schiller and his book about the JonBenét Ramsey case: "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town." Like Bob Woodward in his book "Veil", or Joe McGinniss in "Fatal Vision," Schiller dons the mantle of "The Great Betrayer."And what a job "The Great Betrayer" has done -- made all the more remarkable by the fact that nearly everyone Schiller interviewed in Boulder already knew about Schiller's "Great Betrayal" in his earlier true crime masterpiece on the O.J. Simpson case, "American Tragedy." And yet, like all great journalists, Schiller still managed to get his subjects, against what may have been their better judgment, to spill their guts with revelations about the JonBenét Ramsey case that are beginning to send shock waves throughout Colorado.

Now don't get me wrong. What Schiller does in writing "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town," he does in the hallowed tradition of great reporting. He has operated strictly within the bounds of ethical journalism. And make no mistake about it, Schiller is every bit as great a reporter as Bob Woodward, or Edward R. Morrow. His book is an exciting, brilliantly written masterpiece of journalistic "betrayal." How Schiller is able to get so many respected law enforcement figures in Boulder to undress themselves in public is worthy of consideration by the Pulitzer Prize nominating committee. Watching Alex Hunter and John Eller go at it has all the fascination of seeing scorpions stinging themselves in a bottle.

The facts of the JonBenét Ramsey case are well known to most people, therefore, summarizing Schiller's book for the reader would be a monumental presumption on the part of any reviewer. There are, quite literally, stunning revelations on nearly every page, e.g., the Halloween party where a Boulder lawyer came dressed as the dead JonBenét, or John Andrew Ramsey's semen-stained bedding hidden in a suitcase at the crime scene, to name just two. Suffice it to say that this is a big, ugly book, about an even bigger, ugly crime. "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town," like the book "A Civil Action," deserves to spend at least two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Anyone who appreciates true crime journalism in the great tradition of Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, who doesn't read "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town", is an even bigger jackass than the people in Boulder who made this masterpiece possible by foolishly agreeing to talk to Schiller in the first place.