book reviews, true crime

Repost: My review of Fatal Vision…

Here’s a repost of the review I wrote of Fatal Vision by Joe McGinness. I previously reposted this review on June 19, 2014, but the review itself was written on April 14, 2005. It appears here as/is.

From 2014

I wrote this review in the spring of 2005, not knowing that years later, I’d live pretty close to Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Joe McGinness did a great job writing the suspicious story of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton educated Army physician who was accused of murdering his wife, Colette, and their two young daughters, Kimberley and Kristen, on February 17, 1970.  Dr. MacDonald was ultimately not tried by the Army because the investigation of the crime was a fiasco.  In 1979, MacDonald asked McGinness to write a book about the case, as he was being brought up on charges in North Carolina.  In 1979, MacDonald was living in California, making big bucks as an ER doctor.  The murder charges cramped his style.  McGinness wrote the book…  and ultimately, he became very suspicious… 

Original 2005 review

Here’s another review of a book about murder. I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately. Last year at this time, I was writing reviews about books on managed care… Hmmm, now that I think about it, maybe the two are connected! Anyway, I managed to pick up Joe McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision. The original version of Fatal Vision was published in 1983. I just re-read the 1989 version, which includes an afterword that was written in 1985 and an epilogue that was written in 1989. Needless to say, this book has been around for awhile. According to Amazon.com, it has been updated as recently as 1999. Since this book has been reissued so many times, I am left with the impression that it’s still very intriguing to people besides me. The first time I read Fatal Vision was sometime in 1996, when I was overseas in the Republic of Armenia. At the time, I looked at it as just another book in English. I was desperate for ANYTHING written in English, so I didn’t pay much attention to the subject matter. Little did I know that I would be so riveted by this story.

Fatal Vision is the tale of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton-educated physician and former Green Beret soldier who was convicted of murdering his young pregnant wife, Colette, and their two daughters, 5 year old Kimberley and 2 year old Kristen, on February 17, 1970. The murders were particularly brutal. While in their beds, all three murder victims were savagely clubbed and stabbed with ice picks. MacDonald himself was also injured. It was he who had summoned the military police early that morning to come to his quarters. MacDonald claimed that the intruders who had murdered his family were acid crazed hippies who were mimicking Charles Manson’s murderous spree. For his part, MacDonald managed to escape the fracas with only a few scratches and a partially collapsed lung. He even told the bystanders what they should do if he went into shock while they were waiting for the ambulance to take him to Womack Hospital on Fort Bragg.

When MacDonald came under suspicion for fabricating the story about the hippie intruders, people began to suspect that he was the one who committed the murders. MacDonald vehemently denied these accusations, but he was still subjected to investigation. The Army investigation was badly botched and the subsequent hearing was a fiasco; as a result, MacDonald ended up not being tried by the military because of a lack of evidence. MacDonald then tried to get on with his life.

Joe McGinniss came into contact with MacDonald when MacDonald asked him to write a book about the case. McGinniss and MacDonald met in June 1979, in Huntington Beach, California. Dr. MacDonald was living the sweet life as head of emergency services for St. Mary’s Hospital in Long Beach. At the time, MacDonald was thirty-five years old, deeply tanned, and muscular, and lived in a $350,000 condominium (remember, this was the late 1970s!). He drove a rare Citroen-Maserati with the vanity license plate JRM-MD and owned a thirty foot yacht called the Recovery Room.

MacDonald was forced to go back to North Carolina to face charges of murder. He was surrounded by friends in California who didn’t believe that he was capable of murder. Before MacDonald left California, they even hosted a charity dinner in his honor to help raise money for his legal fees. McGinniss, who initially believed that MacDonald was innocent, agreed to come live with MacDonald in North Carolina, get to know him, and write a book about the case. I’m sure that MacDonald thought that the book would help clear his name… in fact, it had just the opposite effect. McGinniss ultimately came to the same conclusion that the jury did, that Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald killed his pregnant wife and children. Dr. MacDonald was ultimately sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison for murdering his family.

Fatal Vision is meticulously written and researched. McGinniss does a fantastic job of walking readers through the case and laying out all of the details of what happened on February 17, 1970. He includes pictures that were used as evidence in the case, as well as a floor plan of the quarters where MacDonald and his family lived. More tellingly, McGinniss also includes passages that are written in MacDonald’s voice. If MacDonald actually spoke the way he comes across in this manuscript, I think my suspicions would have been aroused, too. The sections in MacDonald’s voice seem to be very telling about the man’s character. They read as if McGinniss transcribed them word for word, right down to his stammers and gratuitous use of “ums and uhs”. McGinniss came to know MacDonald well, and that was why he changed his mind about MacDonald’s innocence.

One potential drawback to Fatal Vision is that it’s a fairly long book. The paperback version of Fatal Vision runs at just under 700 pages. But I found that the book was a fairly fast read because it’s so interesting. I couldn’t put the book down and found that I was able to read it within a few days. I also wish that there had been a few more pictures included. The picture section in my copy of Fatal Vision includes only black and white photographs. I don’t normally need pictures to enjoy a good book, but I do find them helpful in books about true crime. They help me get a better sense of what happened.

True crime fans will almost certainly find Fatal Vision a fascinating read. Fatal Vision is true crime writing at its best and I found it very informative and interesting. In fact, I believe that anyone who is a serious true crime fan is most likely to have already read Fatal Vision because it’s become a classic in the true crime genre. It truly surprises me that there are only two reviews of this book on Epinions.com.

And comments from the 2014 repost…

ShelleyJune 19, 2014 at 10:25 PM

Lawfrog here, too lazy to log into my other gmail account. That book has a long history and McGuinness ended up having to pay MacDonald some money after MacDonald sued him over this book. Interesting read about the legal issues surrounding this book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatal_Vision_controversy

  1. knottyJune 20, 2014 at 12:25 AM Yeah, I read about how he sued Joe McGinness and won. I have also read about Fatal Justice, which supposedly refuted McGinness’s account. I don’t remember if I’ve read Fatal Justice or not… will have to check.

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