Long before the specter of terrorism haunted the public imagination, a serial bomber stalked the streets of 1950s New York. The race to catch him would give birth to a new science called criminal profiling.
Grand Central, Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall—for almost two decades, no place was safe from the man who signed his anonymous letters “FP” and left his lethal devices in phone booths, storage lockers, even tucked into the plush seats of movie theaters. His victims were left cruelly maimed. Tabloids called him “the greatest individual menace New York City ever faced.”
In desperation, Police Captain Howard Finney sought the help of a little known psychiatrist, Dr. James Brussel, whose expertise was the criminal mind. Examining crime scene evidence and the strange wording in the bomber’s letters, he compiled a portrait of the suspect down to the cut of his jacket. But how to put a name to the description? Seymour Berkson—a handsome New York socialite, protégé of William Randolph Hearst, and publisher of the tabloid The Journal-American—joined in pursuit of the Mad Bomber. The three men hatched a brilliant scheme to catch him at his own game. Together, they would capture a monster and change the face of American law enforcement.
In this fascinating true crime account, Cannell (The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit) recounts the 16-year hunt for a man known as F.P. who sent off almost three dozen bombs in New York City public spaces in the 1940s and '50s. F.P. was ultimately brought to justice by the NYPD with the help of James Brussel, a psychiatrist, who provided deductions about him that would have made even Sherlock Holmes proud. Cannell is at his best in making the impact of F.P.'s crimes palpable: he conveys in detail the dangers faced by the members of the NYPD Bomb Squad, whose ultra-hazardous work and irregular hours were not rewarded with a higher salary, and also aptly captures the state of terror created by explosions in random places such as movie theaters and train station restrooms. But his choice to include frequent depictions of the thoughts of the terrorist, which he concedes are speculations, is an unwise one, as it casts doubts on the reliability of sections providing Brussel's inner narration.