April 07, 2006

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The Kissel murders and the profit motive

Second case of murder adds twist to a book, reports the NYT. The full article is below the jump. It details the story of Joe McGinniss, an author writing a book on the Kissel murder in Hong Kong and the change in plot due to the terrible events around Andrew Kissel. It is macarbe when the author's first response is: Oh, I need to recast my book to elevate a previously minor character into a key one, because he now dies too. His publisher is almost jumping out his skin with excitement:

"It opens up a whole facet to the story that has to be reported out and that will be complicated," said David Rosenthal, publisher and executive vice president of Simon & Schuster. "It is turning into a true American saga of murder, money and milkshakes."
What the hell is that meant to mean? I think I know: there's money to be made in these here tragic events. In that sense, it very much is a true American saga.

Joe McGinniss was just grinding away on your average true-crime story: a book about a high-powered American financier in Hong Kong named Robert Kissel, who drank a sedative-laced strawberry milkshake and was bludgeoned to death by his wife. Then his body was wrapped in a piece of carpet that a workman took to a basement storage room.

But the plot thickened with additional blood this week when Mr. Kissel's brother, Andrew M. Kissel, a disgraced money manager on his way to prison, was found dead of multiple stab wounds in the basement of a rented house in Greenwich, Conn., his hands and feet bound.

Now Mr. McGinnis, 63, a journalist who has written 10 books, many of them best sellers, hardly knows which way to look.

"It became a very different story," he said by phone from Amherst, Mass., where he currently lives. "A brother who had been a very minor character in my book now meets the same fate. Clearly, this gives it a dimension beyond the average family tragedy."

There is nothing average about the Kissel family. Robert's wife, Nancy Ann Kissel, fell in love with a television repairman who lived in a trailer near their vacation home in Stratton, Vt., according to testimony at her trial, which ended in her conviction. Evidence showed that in 2003 she slowly and methodically gathered various sedatives over the course of weeks, and then mixed them into a confection that was unknowingly served to her husband by their daughter. The couple's three children became practical orphans after their mother was jailed and Andrew and his wife, Hayley Wolff Kissel, formerly a high-profile analyst on Wall Street, were awarded temporary custody of the children, who had inherited millions of dollars.

But then Andrew was charged with a series of financial improprieties, and his business empire imploded. The two men's sister, Jane Kissel Clayton, who is married and lives near Seattle, stepped in and after a long battle, gained custody, removing the children from the home where Andrew was eventually killed.

"These are highly educated people from the absolute top of society, and yet two brothers are murdered within three years of each other," Mr. McGinniss said. "It is hard to fathom."

But fathom he will try. Mr. McGinniss was unhappily toiling on a book for Simon & Schuster about an around-the-world, 101-day cruise he took in early 2005, but he was bored stiff by life among and riding on the swells.

Then, last spring he saw an article about the so-called "milkshake murder" and was taken by its lurid back story. Nancy Ann Kissel admitted that she had killed her husband by beating him with a lead ornament but said that she had done so in self-defense after years of being coerced into anal sex by a husband she said regularly abused whiskey and cocaine. William Kissel, the father of the two murdered men, agreed to cooperate with the book, in part to clear Robert's name, according to Mr. McGinniss. But last Tuesday he sent the author a one-line e-mail message.

"Andrew is dead," it read.

Mr. McGinnis initially thought that Andrew Kissel had killed himself rather than confront years of incarceration, but he found out differently as the day wore on. And a story that already had its share of twists and turns was lifted into yet another realm altogether. Mr. McGinniss has been swarmed with requests for television interviews, and his publisher is more eager than ever for the book.

"This is not a piece of luck for me," Mr. McGinnis said. "This is a horrible thing. I worry about how much one man, the father, can take. And these kids who lived in that house in Greenwich up until the end of last year, now find out that not only is their father dead, but their uncle with whom they lived has been murdered."

Mr. McGinniss is the literary version of the knockaround guy, an author who has been places and done things, and gotten into his share of scrapes along the way. In 1968, at 26, he wrote "The Selling of the President," a book that all but defined the modern American presidential campaign, and later produced "Fatal Vision" in 1983, a true-crime thriller that Mr. McGinniss originally conceived as a story about a wrongly charged man but which became a literary indictment of Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor who was convicted of killing his wife.

Mr. MacDonald, who continues to maintain his innocence, sued Mr. McGinniss in 1988 for rendering him as a murderous sociopath, and the case was settled for $325,000. (An appeal of his conviction will be heard later this year.) Janet Malcolm of The New Yorker used "Fatal Vision" as an example of the duplicity that lies at the heart of the journalistic transaction with sources.

Mr. McGinniss's 1993 book, "The Last Brother," about Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was roundly criticized for flimsy reporting and the liberties that he took in the writing, but in his two most recent books, "The Big Horse," about a race season in Saratoga, and "The Miracle of Castel di Sangro," a book about a soccer team in Italy, were well received.

"It seems that weird stuff happens around me, and I have no idea what to attribute that to," said Mr. McGinnis, who has lived a life as rich in drama as some of the nonfiction characters he writes about, including a near-fatal accident and a tour as a teacher at a university that he said was backed by a Buddhist cult.

His publisher still hopes that the book can be out next year.

"It opens up a whole facet to the story that has to be reported out and that will be complicated," said David Rosenthal, publisher and executive vice president of Simon & Schuster. "It is turning into a true American saga of murder, money and milkshakes."

posted by Simon on 04.07.06 at 11:06 AM in the Kissel category.


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