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deadly american beauty

6 february 2024

I hadn't read a good mass-market-paperback true-crimer in a while. I learned of John Glatt's work via reading up on the crimes he profiles in Cries in the Desert. But before I could get that one, I found Glatt's Deadly American Beauty in a used-book store. You could call Deadly American Beauty a formulaic book, except it's a true story, and how can life follow formula? But I guess authors make a formulaic choice from the vast range of real-life crimes. They home in on stories rich in Schadenfreude. Here, the daughter of a prominent conservative pundit who decried drug addiction, irresponsibility, and permissiveness … came to embody drug addiction, irresponsibility, and permissiveness.

And murder. Kristin Rossum, a toxicologist on the fast track in the forensic-medicine profession, was also a meth addict, and a seducer of men who came into her orbit. She had married one of them, Greg de Villers, against her better judgment, such as that was. When she fell in love with another of her conquests – Michael Robertson, who was also her boss at a lab in San Diego – Rossum could easily have just divorced de Villers. Instead she killed him. Then she tried to make his murder look like suicide.

The title of the book comes from Rossum's fascination with the movie American Beauty. She staged her husband's "suicide" by surrounding his body with rose petals, a memorable motif from the film. Unfortunately (for her, anyway), she bought the rose she used on the day of the killing; and to get cents off, she used a supermarket loyalty card to do so – thus recording the purchase and handing the prosecutors a key clue.

A killer draws inspiration from a movie, and is tripped up by a clue that seems straight out of Sherlock Holmes or Monk. "Just look at it as a mystery on TV, okay?" asked the real-life homicide detective, Laurie Agnew, as she interviewed Rossum (176). And Robert Jones, another of the detectives who broke the case, noted a misplaced tub stopper in Rossum's apartment; he would later call it his "Columbo clue" (139). People know so much more about murder from fiction than from real life, that life, when it turns murderous, has no choice but to imitate fiction.

The murder of Greg de Villers was so stupid on so many counts that one wonders about Kristin Rossum's frame of mind when she committed it. At worst, she could have separated from de Villers at no greater cost than a divorce (with no custody battle; the couple had no children), and maybe some professional setbacks. Hardly something you'd risk life in prison to avoid. Yet she was strung out on drugs. There's the unavoidable question of whether something broken in her own mental makeup led her to those drugs in the first place. Rossum does not inspire sympathy, but she also doesn't seem like someone who was hitting on all cylinders at any point in her adult life. So even the Schadenfreude aspect of Glatt's book is limited. But Deadly American Beauty is very skillfully told and undeniably attractive to fans of the true-crime genre, like me.

Glatt, John. Deadly American Beauty: A true story of passion, adultery, and murder. New York: St. Martin's, 2004.

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