Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Book Review: “The Murdered Family” by Vernon Keel

Miscarriage of justice carried out by devious cops on the North Dakota prairie is the compelling focus of Vernon Keel’s novel “The Murdered Family”.
Well researched and suspenseful with insightful detail, this book is based on a true crime -- the 1920 murders of the Wolf family and their hired hand on their farm near Turtle Lake. It’s a novel since the last two chapters are drama based on speculation about the murderers from facts gathered by Keel, a mass communications research scholar, journalism educator and reporter.
More than another “In Cold Blood,” the author provides a pre-Depression snapshot of the harsh and bewildering lives of German Russian immigrants to the North Dakota prairie. The man convicted of the brutal killings, Henry Layer, was ill equipped to match wits with a cunning Bismarck police chief, his hired thugs and conniving politicians. (Keel doesn’t say this but I am convinced ot this having read the book).
The role of the news media as a social institution is a sidebar where regional and local newspapers are important in a community where information is otherwise dispersed through word of mouth or via the local telephone operator. In one case, the Bismarck news reporter takes dictation from the angry police chief without questioning his statements, yet the Bismarck Tribune plays an important role in reporting the story.
The premise of the prosecution was that Layer killed the Wolfs over a dispute about his cattle grazing on the Wolf farm. It’s entirely plausible that tempers could flare over such an event. I recall at least one rural crime in southern Idaho over water from an irrigation ditch when I was a reporter for the Idaho Statesman.
(Vernon Keel was my supervisor when I was a graduate student in Agricultural Journalism at the University of Minnesota in 1969-70 and helped me navigate my way through graduate school).