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Outsiders solve stubborn murders

Outsiders solve stubborn murders

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The premise for "The Murder Room" would fit well in a quirky crime thriller by somebody like David Baldacci: A genial ex-FBI agent, an adulterous sculptor and a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed psychologist form a society of criminologists that meets monthly to solve cold-case murders.

But you'll find Michael Capuzzo's "The Murder Room" on the nonfiction side of the bookstore. It's the true story of the Philadelphia-based Vidocq Society, named after the Frenchman who started the world's first private detective agency in 1833.

The society came to life in 1990 in Philadelphia. Its 80-odd members sit down each month, first to eat lunch and then to rehash some murder or other that has remained open for at least two years.

The Vidocq members have run up some startling successes. The murder of a woman student late one night at Philadelphia's Drexel University puzzled police for eight years. But at a Vidocq meeting, the psychologist who was among the founders noticed in a crime-scene photo that the victim lacked shoes and stockings. After some musing, he said that the killer had a shoe fetish.

Sure enough, a check of records showed that a campus security guard on duty the night of the murder had got in trouble in the Army for stealing shoes from women soldiers. Thus was the Drexel murder solved.

"The Murder Room" focuses on several such cases, weaving back and forth among them. The book unreels largely in terms of the society's three founders, who prove to be fascinating if flawed people.

Despite some hit-and-miss copy editing — does anybody out there know the difference between "compose" and "comprise"? — "The Murder Room" is a grabber. With less than four months remaining, it's the true-crime book of the year so far.

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

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