Review: “Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Fiendish Killer!” by Harold Schechter

Though the title of this book reads like clickbait, that is quite possibly one of the only remotely negative things I have to say about this book. Deranged by Harold Schechter covers the stories of Albert Fish, notorious serial killer, rapist, and cannibal. Just around 60 years old and deceitfully benign in appearance, Fish hides exceedingly dark secrets which the author masterfully lays to bear. Descriptions of Fish’s depravity are shocking for even the most experienced True Crime connoisseurs.

The story is a gripping account of Fish’s crimes, starting with the disarming accounts of loving, trusting families, then winding through the emotions surrounding police investigations. The officers navigate through a myriad of initially encouraging and suddenly deflating leads and what are described as ‘crank‘ letters. (That is, rambling or malicious letters impelled by sadism. The presence of these letters themselves is frankly rather frustrating, though they appear to be a poignant fact of most highly publicized cases.) The suspense grows steadily through the book as the disturbing details of Fish’s private life slowly come to light, until a fever pitch of revelations are uncovered towards the end. Descriptions of the crimes and the contents of Fish’s letters scattered through the book are disturbing, the details grotesque and requiring a strong constitution.

In total the book took me maybe three days to read, though I nearly consumed it in two.

I greatly enjoyed the author’s exploration of not only the gruesome details of the case, but the psychological profiling of Fish. Diving into both the various professional perspectives as well as potential originating causes for his behavior was fascinating and informative. Scrutinizing these facts and opinions supplement our understanding of who Fish was as a person, and why he came to be this way (though it’s difficult to imagine we can possibly understand him fully). Though a range of disorders are enumerated in the book, the author does a commendable job presenting the facts and professional conclusions as-is without biasing the reader. One of the most difficult jobs as the reader is arriving at a personal perspective on Fish’s sanity and motivations.

The style in which Deranged is written is both artistic yet precise. The author creates a compelling story arc and sets the pace such that navigating it consumes the reader with the sense of borderline obsession. However I also marveled at the author’s consistently exact word choices. Rarely do I read a book and pause to admire how appropriately a phrase is architected – words chosen with just the right amount of care, for which there is no obvious superior to convey the intended meaning. It takes true talent and practice to achieve that level of writing, and I greatly admire the author’s skill.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The quality of writing is at one of the highest standards I’ve seen in a while, and the story itself is pregnant with shock, drama, and horror. Fish’s background and crimes engage not only our darkest imagination, but also our morbid curiosity and endless pursuit of the ‘why.’ There is never a good answer to why someone commits atrocities such as described in the book, but like any other tragedy we cannot pull ourselves away from searching for understanding. Likewise, it is nearly impossible to put down this book once started. Deranged by Harold Schechter is one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone with interest in the True Crime genre.


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