The serial killer inside

“Poor Horace,” the teacher had written in the comments section of Horace Benjamin Beach’s first-grade report card. “There’s something terribly wrong in his home. Whatever shall we do for him?”

Forty years later, forensic psychologist Faye Sultan wrestled with the same question: What to do for Horace? But by then, the stakes had been raised considerably — Horace had grown up to be a killer. Arrested for the rape and murder of two elderly Greensboro women, he faced the death penalty if convicted.

Called in by the defense to support a plea of insanity, Sultan met with Beach over a period of years at the correctional center where he was incarcerated. And what did she find, when seated across the table from a serial killer? A vision of what could happen to each of us if we, too, had passed through a glass darkly.

Beach’s story is the basis for Over the Line, co-authored by Sultan and Teresa Kennedy, a writer living in New York City. Set in Charlotte, the suspense novel introduces Portia McTeague, a forensic psychologist and expert witness who bears a strong resemblance to Sultan herself (just with better cheekbones). McTeague is charged with discovering not who committed the crime, but why they did. To do so, she delves into her client’s past, unraveling a horrific history of psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of a deeply disturbed, schizophrenic mother — an experience that reinforces the belief, as Sultan puts it, that “monsters are made, not born.”

Over the Line did not start out as a novel, but as a nonfiction work about the death penalty in the United States. The book would draw on Sultan’s role as an expert witness in several high-profile cases, including that of convicted killer David Lawson, who, in 1994, fought to have his execution televised. As Lawson’s psychologist for nearly 10 years, Sultan helped to generate the maelstrom of media attention that surrounded the struggle, including a well-publicized bout between Phil Donahue (who opposes the death penalty) and the Supreme Court. Lawson’s request was eventually denied, but Sultan was present when he was executed, an event that clearly spurred her to action.

“Having watched the execution … I thought it was time for me to write about what I knew to be true about the death penalty,” she explained during a phone interview from her Charlotte office.

Publishers, though, showed no interest — until, on Kennedy’s suggestion, a chapter was submitted in novel form, at which point the book was immediately snapped up by Doubleday. A second book, Help Line, is due out this fall.

“We’re kind of in a blood-lust time in our history,” says Sultan thoughtfully, “where revenge seems to be sufficient motivation for everything.”

But in pleading for sympathy for a criminal like Beach, has she forgotten the victims?

“I actually have been asked a number of times about [whether the victim’s suffering was minimized], and it’s interesting to me, because it’s so different from my actual take on all this,” responds Sultan. “In fact, I don’t minimize their suffering at all — the murders are horrible. This is simply an attempt to look at the same story from the other perspective … to see how it is that we come to create human beings that are capable of committing that kind of violence.”

An exciting, tightly plotted read, Over the Line offers an insider’s insights into courtroom politics as well as a taste of, well, how it feels to talk to a serial killer. Interestingly, while the book successfully pulls off the portrayal of a complex schizophrenic, it falters when describing the other characters, who should be as believable and dimensional as the killer at the novel’s heart. It’s almost as if the book’s intentions were so august that there was no room left to depict the more ordinary foibles that mark the more average among us.

McTeague, for example, seems wrought from the immaculate stuff of romance-novel heroines, as in this scene from the novel: “Though Portia McTeague had a formidable reputation as a forensic psychologist and expert witness, Amy had been utterly unprepared for the flawlessly cut designer dress and chiseled features of the woman on the stand.”

Sure, a hero is a hero, but perfection like this begs for a foil; there’s a reason why Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta and Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware are accompanied by blunt-spoken, cholesterol-laden, schlumpily dressed sidekicks. Future McTeague novels will, no doubt, similarly benefit from the authors’ propensity to throw in keen observational asides — such as the brief bit about one of McTeague’s patients, who believes her husband is trying to sell her into white slavery.

But in begging sympathy for the devil, Sultan and Kennedy have already made a refreshing break from the suspense-novel mold. And, in so doing, they are attaching some meaning to lives that would otherwise have passed unnoticed.

“[Beach] is sick enough and vulnerable enough in prison … that he’s not in a position to tell his own story,” says Sultan. “Very few of my clients are ever given a voice. They usually are the faceless and nameless people of the universe. … When I talk to [Beach], what he says is that he’s done nothing but cause pain to other people in his life, and that’s how he sums himself up. This is an opportunity to do some good, to let the sad example — that’s what he calls himself, ‘I’m a sad example’ — to let the sad example of his life maybe teach us something about what in the world we do to children.”

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