Blood and Money: Hill and gone
It's a classic story: boy meets girl; boy spends an ass-ton of money on a cheesy "music room," then starts cheating on girl with vixen he met at his kid's summer camp while girl is off doing horse-show things underwritten by her overinvested oilman daddy; boy may inject girl with poo he grew in a petri dish, then fail to get her prompt medical attention, even though he's a doctor, but then again he may not; Overinvested Oilman Daddy may arrange with a bookie's widow, a junkie hooker, and a guy with a crappy mustache to assassinate boy, but then again he may not, and also the guy with the crappy mustache gets killed before he can testify. You know: that story.
Joan Robinson Hill, a Houston socialite and accomplished horsewoman, fell ill of apparent food poisoning in the late '60s, then died of massive sepsis (…probably; three separate coroner's reports couldn't agree on the actual COD). Her unfaithful husband, plastic surgeon and uptight classical-music dweeb John Hill, had been acting weird about serving his wife an éclair in the presence of houseguests, then seemed to take his sweet time getting her to a hospital; the DA thought something was hinky, but couldn't quite pin anything more serious than second-degree assholery on him. Joan's father, Ash Robinson, was convinced his son-in-law had killed his beloved daughter, and convened a P.I. posse of investigators and retired lawyers to dig up evidence to that effect. Then Hill got shot on the eve of his second trial…and then the trigger man in that murder, Bobby Wayne Vandiver (…obviously. God bless the south), got shot by the cops before he could take the stand.
As true-crime yarns go, Thomas Thompson's Blood and Money has all the tools — a love triangle, a great beauty brought humiliatingly low, intra-family fuckery, weird coincidences, obsessive vengeance-seeking, and no real answers, in the end. (Starting with why John Hill was considered so handsome. Maybe I haven't seen the right photos, but that looks like room-temp mid-century cornpone to me.) Nobody ever really admitted to anything. The case isn't a "major" one in the style of, say, the Lindbergh kidnapping or D.B. Cooper, but in the late '60s and early '70s, it held the headlines in Houston, and with good reason.
I wouldn't say the book squanders the potential of the material, but it's a trying read at times. The best way to describe Thompson's prose is that he is engaged in a particularly vigorous game of mailbox baseball in which the English language generally, and accepted turns of phrase specifically, serve as the mailboxes. Now and then Thompson achieves a solid hit and creates an amusing splinter or two; at other times, the sheer destructiveness of the endeavor, and Thompson's evident enthusiasm for it, is captivating, if not "good" in any other sense. You've got your downright weird observations: "The grand jury contained a suitable cross section of Houstonians, including a lawyer, a postman, a retired schoolteacher, a merchant, and four black people" (187) (evidently, "being a black person" is a recognized occupation). You've got "back away from the Danielle Steel" flights of over-description: "With hair streaked beige and silver, a slim body bespeaking the pampering of expensive oils and lotions, she was what the bourgeoisie would expect the aristocracy to be" (230). And you've got phrasings that just don't really make sense: "A strange man pushed his way in and stood in dominance" (269) (yikes, dominance — y'all better go out to the sidewalk and scrape that off before it sets up in the treads. …Wait: henh?).
Between that straining tone-deafness true-crime prose does so "well" and the lack of pictures — a serious problem, given the genre, but the author's own jacket photo may (rightly) have been seen as making up for it — it's tempting to give up, but every now and then you get a legit gem.
Sadly, Bobby rode the bus back to Dallas and tried to forget Maudeen. When she was released from prison she moved to Nebraska, married a banker, and became a prominent figure in church and community affairs. Bobby became a burglar. (309)
Gorgeously done! It has everything: chewy name (Maudeen), rule of threes (second sentence), felonious behavior, lost love, and an alliterative punchline of admirable brevity. Or dig this one:
Then it was DeGeurin's turn. He had not slept much the night before either, sitting for a long while in a steaming tub, sipping an iced tea glass of fine whiskey, entertaining a modest degree of paranoia. (465)
…Right? That last clause starts to melt a little bit, but the rest of it is perfectly evocative. You can totally envision the defense attorney drinking a honking glass of booze while his papers are going limp on the lip of the tub, glasses fogging up. Good stuff.
Far between, alas, and Thompson also has pacing problems. The tragedy of the Hills is, again, a curious case but comparatively minor, and Thompson's exhaustive backgrounds on each figure in the narrative reminded me of a Hawthorne novel, in that it's a ripping yarn at 40 pages but wet wool at 240. It takes nearly 100 pages for death to darken the book's doorstep. Once it does, Thompson finds a higher gear, and while the writing still isn't good, it moves right along, only to slow back down to molasses speeds when the (alleged) hired killers show up. Yes, Marcia McKittrick was up, then down, then over, then out, and she knows one thing. Got it. Don't need a recitation of her day planner. Or such liberal use of the word "whore." Other flavorful synonyms for "prostitute" exist; try one that's less loaded.
Thompson's style isn't without merit, though. Although he comes off…let's say "outmoded in his social attitudes" at times, any agenda or beliefs he might have about various players' guilt or innocence is kept hidden. He's also adept at keeping a fairly confusing handful of circumstances clear and comprehensible, and introduces peculiarities of law smoothly. Chop 50 pages out of it and throw in some crime-scene photos and you've got a minor classic in the genre.
As written, it's…not that, but it's still quite entertaining. Not terribly gory, and of course you won't have visuals on that anyway, but the description of Joan Hill's physical demise might nauseate some readers.
Note: This is the inaugural installment of The Blotter, the true-crime/pop-culture project I mentioned some time ago. This is kind of a provisional place for/version of it until I see what it turns into; I could have agonized over "Readrum" puns until I turned grey, but then I thought, let's just get started.
I welcome contributions, although I can't pay you yet. Leads on DVD copies of various vintage miniseries about the likes of Ted Bundy also greeted with gratitude. Watch this space for a live blog of that Menendez "TV event" starring Edward James Olmos — and, if I can find it, the TV-movie featuring this case and starring Farrah. Clearly.
Tags: Ash Robinson Blood and Money Bobby Wayne Vandiver D.B. Cooper Danielle Steel Joan Robinson Hill John Hill Marcia McKittrick murder The Blotter the Lindbergh kidnapping Thomas Thompson unsolved mysteries