In a Child's Name

Exactly why the United States leads the world in the production of homicidal sociopaths remains a mystery. But beyond the fact that Americans buy great numbers of true-crime books about such suave killers as Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald of Joe McGinnis’ Fatal Vision, there’s another good reason why authors like Peter Maas (Serpico; Marie: A True Story) enjoy writing them. From Melville’s novel The Confidence Man onward, the theme of the trickster has always appealed to American writers. In a society whose mythology insists that anybody can become anything at all, few figures are more compelling than the charming fraud.

In a Child’s Name tells the story of Dr. Ken Taylor, a handsome Indiana- born dentist who murdered his New Jersey wife in a particularly brutal manner, and later directed an elaborate conspiracy to ensure that his family — not hers — would retain custody of their infant son. Filled with moral outrage and written in a briskly clichéd style, In a Child’s Name is true crime at its best.

One source of fascination with characters like Taylor — whose history of appalling indifference to the personal integrity of others, particularly women, Maas traces through three marriages — is how they manage to get away with it as long as they do.

Glib, handsome, and a sexual athlete with a taste for drugs and hookers, Taylor walked out on his first wife (lucky woman) in her ninth month of pregnancy. While a Navy dentist, he tried to chloroform the second, who chose to believe a psychiatrist who decided Taylor had temporarily flipped out due to stress caused by ”a growing lack of respect and appreciation from his wife.” (Among its other qualities, In a Child’s Name is not the kind of book that will fill readers with reverence for either forensic psychiatry or child-custody laws.) Having bludgeoned his third wife half to death on their honeymoon in Acapulco, he somehow persuaded her that he hadn’t done it and that Mexican police had only charged him for the purpose of extorting a bribe.

Maas may be a little hard on Taylor’s parents, who appear to have driven themselves to frantic lengths to deny that they had spawned and loved a moral monster, a man no more capable of normal emotion than a rotary lawn mower. But that’s certainly arguable. Those who enjoy disapproving of true-crime stories had better not begin In a Child’s Name — because they will certainly finish it. A-

In a Child's Name
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