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True Crime

Girl, Wanted: The Chase For Sarah Pender, Steve Miller, Berkley, $7.99.

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and The Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower

The femme fatale is a stock figure in our culture, enough of a cliche that a culture luminary like Britney Spears pasted the phrase on her latest piece of product. Some feminist scholars maintain that the concept itself is nothing but a social construct, the result of fin de siecle anxieties about the emancipation of women. I invite any savant who thinks that femme fatales are imaginary bogeywomen to make the acquaintance of Sarah Pender, the central figure of Steve Miller’s riveting new true crime book Girl, Wanted: The Chase For Sarah Pender – it’s a lot easier than learning the truth at the wrong end of a shot gun.

Granted, it’s the rarity of such creatures that makes them so fascinating. Miller expertly portrays the character of Sarah, complex to the point of near schizophrenia, a highly intelligent girl who was able to excel in school when she felt like it, but also liable to party with the dregs when that part of her personality held sway. She combined a taste for sensation with a persistent amorality, and although not overtly attractive, managed to project a sexuality the weak willed found irresistible, all in the service of her primary drive, the overwhelming need to control others.

Although she managed to start college promisingly, Sarah soon displayed her tendency to gravitate to the lowest depths of society, among the bottom feeders, fathoms below her in intelligence and easily manipulated, particularly since they were usually wacked out on drugs. Such was her living arrangement with boyfriend Richard Hull, washed out jock, and their roommates, a drug dealing, drug using couple. Unfortunately a trivial disagreement left the latter two decorating the apartment walls with their brains due to shotgun blasts. Typically Sarah convinced Richard to take the fall and back up her story of innocence, but unfortunately for her, was unable to control her sociopathic bravado and talked too much while in jail.

Infuriated at society’s temerity at finding her at fault, Sarah turned her formidable powers to one end, escaping from prison, finding yet another male patsy, a dirty prison guard, and basically cruised out to freedom. Once out she found a new slimy milieu, that of “gentleman’s clubs,” strippers and swingers, ensnaring a middle aged crazy rich guy who’d lost his moral compass, and managed to live a quite comfortable life while one of the most wanted women in America.

To my mind Girl, Wanted, is an even stronger book that Miller’s co-authored true crime debut A Slaying in the Suburbs. Ann Rule has made a living off femme fatales such as Sarah, and Miller at least matches her in his vivid delineation of a truly chilling character, injecting himself into the story to show a dramatic jailhouse interview with her, and even pulls off a final revelation as neatly as any fiction writer. In a field that has such variable quality, he’s a great addition, an author who can be counted on to deliver the unflinching goods.

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