News of a horrific crime prompts the question: how could someone do that? In the cleverly-crafted Devil in the Hole, Charles Salzberg considers both the crime and the criminal from a number of angles to get at the answer.
Although fiction, the book is based on an actual event that occurred in a comfortable, upper-class east coast community. Five members of a household, along with the family pet, are brutally slain and left in a 13-room mansion ablaze with lights. Missing is John Hartman, the husband, father and son of the victims. So well does the suspected killer plan his escape and cover his tracks, the deaths go unnoticed for three weeks and by then, well, where is he?
In a series of first person accounts from Hartman and others who knew him or whose paths he crossed, Salzberg recreates events leading up to the killings and delves into the mind and heart – if one exists – of the killer, a man who tidied up the house after methodically drugging and shooting his victims. As if speaking into a tape recorder, coworkers, neighbors, girlfriend, a local minister and the relentless investigating officer as well as a number of unsuspecting people Hartman encounters in his flight, talk about the case. Sometimes they digress into their own lives as people are wont to do but they always return to Hartman. Like a foul river, the man and his deed course through the narratives. Incredibly, as with the true-life killer, this fictional villain evades the authorities for years, leaving the reader to wonder if and how he will ever be caught.
Salzberg’s technique puts the reader face-to-face with the mild-mannered Hartman as he explains and tries to justify his loathsome deed and with the others as they relate their experiences with the mass slayer.The result is both chilling and powerful and conveys a subtle cautionary message. The next time a soft-spoken unassuming man takes the seat next to you on the bus or train, you might take a second look and then scoot a little further away because you never know. You might be sitting next to a killer.
Salzberg is the Shamus Award nominated author of the Henry Swann Detective Series and an instructor at and founder of the New York Writers Workshop.