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Sunday, August 01, 2004

Invasion of the Body-Snatchers
I just finished reading Murder in the 4th Estate, by Peter Deeley and Christopher Walker, a 1971 book about Britain’s first kidnapping, which I bought last week, more or less randomly, at Powell’s in Portland.

I’m not quite sure why I even picked it up—though I suspect it was its location in the journalism section of the store. Muriel McKay, the victim, was married to Alick McKay, an Australian newspaper executive, who a few weeks before the Dec. 29, 1969, kidnapping, had been named to the No. 2 spot at what was at the time the world’s largest-circulation newspaper, the News of the World. He’d been hired from rival publishing group IPC by his compatriot Rupert Murdoch, who’d just survived a drawn-out and acrimonious battle for the paper with Robert Maxwell. The crime occurred just weeks after Murdoch launched the Sun, in the words of the book, “a brash, campaigning tabloid with a healthy predilection for printing photographs of semi-naked girls.” Apparently, the kidnappers, two Trinidadian brothers with little talent for crime, were after Murdoch’s wife (of the time), Anna.

Told in a very straightforward, non-sensationalistic style by two broadsheet-newspaper staff writers, the details were hardly very scintillating (there’s no attempt to speculate on McKay’s treatment post-abduction, for example), but it was fascinating to see how rudimentary British police methods were 35 years ago—even elite London police had no access to tape recorders, much less effective bugging devices or helicopters. In these days of CSI, Cold Case Files, and Without a Trace, the 1969 investigation seems like the work of the Keystone Kops.

The police never found Muriel McKay’s body, and the contrast between the apparently efficient abduction and the laughable attempts to squeeze a ransom out of the victim’s family led to speculation that a third party was involved at the beginning of the crime but that he or she walked away when they realized that the person snatched was not Anna Murdoch. At the trial, Arthur Hosein, the older brother, claimed that Robert Maxwell was behind the kidnapping. At the time the book was written, Maxwell was an outsider in elite British society—as an Eastern European Jew he never exactly fit in—but he’d been an MP and was part of the Establishment, and the claim was dismissed as "untenable." These days, 13 years after his mysterious death at sea, outlandish speculation about his wild life of crime and intrigue is pretty much the norm.

Because of McKay’s journalism connections, I was reminded of the Patty Hearst case, which obsessed me when I was a kid. At this year’s SIFF I saw Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (which now appears to have been renamed Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army), a slightly credulous documentary whose interesting topic almost makes up for bog-standard storytelling technique. As in the case of the Hearsts, the McKay family’s press connections fed a media frenzy that severely hampered the investigation of the crime.

I don’t remember anything about the McKay case, but I have a very clear memory of the 1975 kidnapping and death of Lesley Whittle, by Leslie Nielson, the "Black Panther." Adam Mars-Jones, whose father was a high-court judge, wrote an incredible story about Nielson, his crimes, and his trial called “Bathpool Park.” (In Britain it appeared in the collection Lantern Lecture and Other Stories; it’s available in Fabrications in the United States.) If you only read one creepy and brilliant story about a British kidnapping, let it be “Bathpool Park.” Weirdly enough, I was just looking at the story, and according to Mars-Jones, Nielson studied Murder in the 4th Estate when he was planning his own kidnap operation.

(I hadn’t thought what good literature kidnapping has helped create before tonight. I loved Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping, and although the crime in Bel Canto isn’t a standard kidnapping, holding hostages for ransom is, well, kidnapping, right? I’ve also written quite a bit about body-snatching myself.)