Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, Richard Rhodes (Alfred A. Knopf)

why they kill

If the words true crime conjure up images of cheap paperbacks with lurid covers, or quickie hardcovers designed to cash in on some headline-making atrocity, here’s a book that will change your image of the genre. Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer for The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987), has crafted a serious, intelligent, and altogether mesmerizing portrait of evil and the people who fight it. Chief among the fighters (at least in this book) is Lonnie Athens, whose rocky childhood led him into a career as a criminologist. His decade-long study of criminals behind bars revealed things no one had yet begun to suspect–including, most importantly, the reasons why people commit violence on one another. Rhodes’ profile of Athens–this is in many ways a traditional biography–strongly suggests that the people best equipped to understand violence are those who, like Athens, have seen it close up. This is not a flashy book, and some readers may be turned off by Rhodes’ somewhat dry style. Others may find some of the graphic language unsettling. But Rhodes tells a remarkable story, and the book ranks near the top of the true-crime genre.

This review originally appeared in Booklist, September 1999.

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