Who really thinks these days about Ted Bundy? I hadn't done so for many years. Sure, I knew he was a serial killer. But I cannot say I view him as a rock star. From 1973 to 1978, he killed as many as 100 women, confessing, before his execution by the State of Florida, to 30 murders. He was a bad, bad man, but, frankly, no more than that.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon him not once, but twice, on a recent trip to Europe. Bundy's reputation is, at the very least, transatlantic. He may even have made a name for himself in Africa.
Florence is one of my favorite places. I've been there three times, and I will go back the very next chance I get. My wife and I begin each day with a walk that takes us from the city's center, through the hills South of the Arno, and then back into the city itself approaching Sante Croce from the East, through comparatively quiet neighbors unfrequented by tourists. Sometimes we stop at Sante Croce, our favorite church; I remain stunned each time I see Galileo's, Michelangelo's and Machiavelli's tomb. Three men of genius, each reposed in a church that is almost enough to make two pagans believe that there is utility in faith's effort to make intelligible what cannot be spoken.
When we go to Florence, we seek calm. I get my fill of murder and violence at home. I am a criminal defense lawyer by vocation.
This past trip, however, I was drawn to a different sight: The Museo Criminale on Via Cavour. There was an exhibit on serial killers. I resisted entering it for days, but, near the trip's end, my wife and I struck a deal: She would wait on line outside the Accademia to purchase admission tickets. We both wanted to see not just David, but the more impressive row of Slaves, unfinished statues, seeking to release themselves from their prisons of stone. These figures make tangible the spirit's struggle to free itself of the prison in which it finds itself. While my wife waited on line, I could tour the Museo Criminale.
I snuck into the darkly lit building, feeling like a fundamentalist minister sneaking into a peep show during a Bible convention. The price was steep, 12 Euros, or about 17 dollars. But the price of admission also bought an audio tour. I stepped into a world that began with accounts of early modern mayhem and landed me, an hour or so later, sitting at the feet of a wax replica of Ted Bundy.
The lights were dim, and Bundy's eyes were veiled in darkness. But as I listened to the narrator discuss the troubled facts of his life -- his father is unknown, he thought for many years that his mother was, in fact, his sister -- I felt a kinship with this killer. No, I've never killed to achieve a sense of efficacy, but I know about broken lives and looking for hope in all the wrong places. I sat looking at Bundy, hoping for a miracle. What could be tell me about evil, and my own nefarious quirks, if he were permitted to speak? I waited in vain for the moment to come.
Something about this encounter with an effigy of Bundy stuck with me over the days that followed. We went from Florence to Rome, visiting the Coliseum. I looked at the arena and tried to imagine a world entertained by violence. "The others ask me to kill and I kill. That's all," one gladiator once said. I wonder now why we are still so entertained by violence.
From Rome we headed north, to Edinburgh, for the wedding of a family friend. Two days of festivities were followed by long walks through the countryside and city proper. My wife and I are readers, so we spent a day looking through bookshops in Edinburgh, scouting new writers whose voice had not yet reached across the ocean. For new books, Waterstone's on Princes Street is a good bet: buy two books and get one free, from a selected group of new books. We got several free books.
"True Murder" caught my eye. Young girls on holiday from a British boarding school discover suspicious bones in a trunk long since forgotten in the attic of an old home. The bones have a story to tell, and so do the girls' family histories. Ajuba, the protagonist, struggles: She is from Ghana and her mother's heart has been broken into pieces by a faithless husband. Ajuba seeks the love she has lost from a new family in England, that of her classmate Polly Venus.
Polly's father is an international journalist and hence Polly has lived in America. While there, or here, as the case may be, she acquired a taste for a magazine called True Murder. The girls read through the magazine when the lights are out in their boarding school. And, lo and behold, there is Ted Bundy again. Anyone can kill, Polly explains; all it takes is hatred.
The book is written by Yaba Badoe, a graduate of Cambridge who has worked as a civil servant in Ghana and taught in Spain, Jamaica and Ghana. This is apparently her first novel. Keep an eye out for her name; this work easily migrates to the states. The setting is not so unfamiliar as to distract, and Polly, even if she does come off at times like Damon Runyan in drag, sheds light on what it must look like to be quintessentially American: Slang is our native tongue and violence our national pastime.
So what does that make Ted Bundy? In Florence, he stands not two block's from Michaelangelo's David. He haunts the imagination of a young writer from Ghana. Young girls in an English boarding school add spice to their lives by reading about Bundy's murders. And then there is me, a tourist seeking relief from violence overseas, but unable to tear myself away from it even as I was surrounded by beauty.