CRIME CULTURE: An Australian millionaire rapist who then went to the United States and became a serial killer is the focus of this uneven bit of historical true crime reportage, writes Gary Johnston.
Serial killers are big business.
In the increasingly twonked-out world of celebrity, where fame and infamy are intertwined, Andy Warhol’s prediction that everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes has now been reduced to a few fleeting appearances on reality TV shows, with pneumatic breasts, lips and six packs much more important accessories than any discernible form of talent.
As a matter of fact, unveiling yourself as a self-obsessed fuckwit is now considered a guaranteed path toward Z level celebrity status, typified by a brief mention in the highly plagiarised columns of the Daily Mail, prior to the consequential beckoning of the dole queue and subsequent, well-deserved, inveterate, anonymity.
Admittedly, serial killers don’t generally gain entrance to the VIP sections in nightclubs or make a fortune from rushed-out memoirs, (though Tony Blair seems to have done all right out of it), but if the game is becoming notorious, there’s no better journey to immortality than a murder or six.
Jack the Ripper. Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. John Wayne Glover. Their names liveth for ever more. (Unfortunately, for them, if no one else, they’re all dead, but then, immortal status don’t come easy.)
The media, in particular TV and movies, have long been aware of the commercial possibilities of recounting the tales of mass murder perpetrated by men with deviant psychological conditions, but it’s only in relatively recent times that booksellers have latched on to the phenomena, to the extent that ‘true crime’ non fiction is now, arguably, the most popular genre in the publishing field.
It’s a con, of course.
‘True crime’, as a casual visit to any local court in your vicinity will reveal, is rarely – thankfully – mass murder, being much more likely to be ‘low level’ crime, drink driving, theft and benefit fraud, capers which, even though they’re serious enough to lead to conviction, don’t tend to be the sorts of activities that can sustain a Netflix series or a 200,000 word in-depth expose.
In truth, serial killers are so scarce in the annals of crime, publishers and authors are in danger of running out of them. Which has meant that, in order to continue to satisfy the public’s demands to be scared out of their pyjamas come bedtime reading time, it’s now incumbent to recycle them.
This brings us to The Pretty Girl Killer, by Andrew Byrne, billed as “the complete story of one of the world’s most horrifying serial killers, who terrorised both Australia and America”.
Christopher Bernard Wilder is this particular immortal’s name and the book tells his sorry tale, describing him as a charismatic Aussie playboy who went on to become ‘the most wanted man in America’, pursued by a veritable army of FBI agents and local law enforcement officers.
(Pursued somewhat unsuccessfully it would seem, since he went on to murder at least eight women, even though he was never actually convicted, being killed by state troopers after a shoot out in New Hampshire).
The absence of a court case, not to mention the antiquity of the matter – Wilder’s crimes occurred over thirty-five years ago – means that Andrew Byrne has had to use his imagination in recreating the ‘facts’ pertaining to the murders.
To do so, the author uses a liberal amount of internal monologue and imagined dialogue, which to my ears at least, sounded contrived and, at times, cringeworthy.
For example, this:
“Well, here we are, what’s it to be, shit or bust?”, he (Wilder) said to himself smiling, imitating the voice of his TV cult hero JR Ewing from Dallas.”
And then there’s:
“Seconds later, he was speeding past the road marker, whistling the Ray Charles song, ‘Georgia on My Mind’, as he did so.”
I don’t mind a bit of contemporary referencing but in this case it sounds more than extraneous confection from the trusty pen of Phillip Space.
Serial killer Christopher Bernard Wilder (Image: FBI)
Although it’s not altogether badly written, The Pretty Girl Killer has a definite whiff of Wikipedia referencing about it although interestingly, the title of the book, for some reason, differs from the more accepted term for Wilder’s crime – ‘The Beauty Queen Killer’.
This may or may not be as a result of that title having already been used in an earlier book about the atrocities; earlier this year another tome, The Snapshot Killer was also published, further evidence that the scarcity of serial murders is really starting to bite the publishing industry in the rear.
Byrne makes an attempt to explain the origins of Wilder’s murderous proclivities by describing a childhood typified by the stereotypes of a cold, largely absent father and a naive, smothering mother, but his heart isn’t really in it. Before too long, he concentrates on what he knows his reader want to hear, the horrific details of his crimes in which sexual perversion and blunt violence indiscriminately feature. No horrid detail is left out, since Byrne and his editors clearly know that’s the sort of thing people who like this sort of thing, like.
Explanations and context? Not so much.
In order to distinguish his book from the others, Byrne brings into play a number of Australian crimes Wilder may or may not have committed, including the unsolved murder of two teenage girls in Sydney’s northern beaches of 1965. This is conjecture of the highest degree, since the evidence that Wilder was actually responsible is sketchy at best. The only eye witness account of the perpetrator was a seven year old boy who described a youth of “about sixteen years old of medium build wearing zinc cream”.
Wilder was around that age. He was living in Sydney at the time. He was known to surf.
Therefore, it could have been him.
What’s the point of The Pretty Girl Killer?
To satisfy a market. Nothing more, nothing less.
Authors, more particularly publishers, would probably prefer the emergence of some more modern day serial killers, a state of affairs which to me, at any rate, is more than slightly unsatisfactory; otherwise the market might dry up.
That would undoubtedly be bad for profit but good, I would purport, for the rest of us.
Finally, a strong point of view exists that the motives of men who become serial killers has its genesis in notoriety and attention seeking.
If this is true, then a more effective societal response might be what is known as planned ignoring – refusing to grant the perpetrators the oxygen of publicity – (as opposed to the oxygen of oxygen) – a tactic which, in my opinion could easily be extended to participants of reality tv shows, rent-a-mouths and famous for being famous non-celebrities.
I personally have no problem with that approach and it’s one I heartily extend to publishers who peddle ‘true crime serial killer non fiction’, a genre which, quite simply, doesn’t float my particular pedalo.
If however, you do like this sort of thing, you might well enjoy The Pretty Girl Killer.
On the other hand of course, you could get out more.