J. Paul de River, M.D.
Edited with an introduction by Brian King
by Jon Carlson
Sexual murder still can prove interesting these days (depending on the creativity of the perpetrator), but for the America that had recently emerged from World War II, the crime was considered shocking as well. So one might consider unusual the 1949 publication of The Sexual Criminal, which catalogued Dr. Paul de River's interviews with a wide assortment of sexual deviants from Los Angeles, who had resorted to the most frenzied sort of killing in order to satisfy their bloodlust. Now, a half century later, Brian King has edited a revised and expanded edition, which includes newspaper accounts pertaining to four of the murderers, and a revelatory introduction about the peculiar circumstances that surrounded the professional and personal life of de River.
As one reviews the material of de River and other contributors to the book, it becomes apparent that virtually every sexual act falls under the rubric of perversion, which the glossary defines as "the deviation of the sex impulse from its normal goal." Their introductory and supplementary materials alert us to the evil of "the sex degenerate," and it is the shrillness and certainty of these "experts" that bring present-day evangelists to mind. Even holy wedlock cannot escape the far reach of the law: "Criminals have no monopoly on sexual divergences. It is now accepted by most authorities that many happily married couples engage in mouth-genital, or ano-genital contacts: actions which are considered sex felonies by the laws of most states." However, for all the immoral or illegal sexual practices, nowhere do any of the writers deign to define which behaviors might fit the "normal goal" and thus be appropriate for discharging the sexual appetite of Los Angelenos.
Perversion is most compelling when accompanied by murder, and here de River gives us both aplenty in words and photos. His categories include the juvenile sadist, genteel sadist, lust murderer and others. With each of the accused, de River provides family and personal histories, along with the results of physical and psychiatric examinations. Most interesting are the final segments of the case history, which contain the questions de River poses to the subjects and their responses, followed by the doctor's analysis and conclusion.
By also including photos of disarticulated limbs, multiple stab wounds, etc., de River provides the reader with a smorgasbord of visual aids to flesh out the text and demonstrate vividly to what extent his subjects lost any sense of moderation in pursuit of their sexual needs. This is close-range, hands-on killing with knives, clubs, rope, arsenic—there is not one instance of a firearm used to cause death.
Not every so-called sexual perversion investigated by de River culminates in murder. For example, with regard to sadistic bestiality, de River relates the story of a male preteen who indulged in sexual intercourse with chickens and his pet collie. More absorbing by dint of greater elaboration is the account of a teenage farm girl and Sandy, the family dog (a male, part shepherd). Although the girl longed for stallions or colts, she found Sandy much to her liking, as evidenced by her response to one of Dr. de River's "clinical" questions: "How would you get the most satisfaction from the animal?" Answer: "By his licking my privates until I couldn't stand it."
The Sexual Criminal contains a strong undercurrent of irony thanks to Brian King's introduction, "The Strange Case of Doctor de River." King's extensive research uncovers many concerns about de River's vocation, including questions about his medical training, his conduct dealing with suspects during the Black Dahlia homicide investigation, and his conviction for illegally prescribing narcotics for his wife, who was suffering from spinal surgery. And despite the ostensibly medicolegal justification that underlies the doctor's case histories, the nature of questions he advances in conjunction with the photographs points to a more personal interest. As with anti-pornography crusaders, who must carefully vet all the hardcore material within reach before dispensing their outrage, de River's moral patina is deliciously undermined by his own insatiable voyeurism. As such, it gives this engaging volume an enhanced kick.
In this land where ultraviolence often remains the last resort of those utterly jaded by more normative and stagnated forms of cultural diversion, The Sexual Criminal graphically reminds us that the "simple act of murder," fueled by a rabid sexual urge and carried out well and thoroughly, has always been the ne plus ultra of the true crime connoisseur.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001