Steve Lillebuen, The Devil’s Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell’s Kill Room (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99)
Review copy supplied by publisher
Elliott Leyton has spent more time investigating murder than almost anybody. He has made a particular study of serial killers, but also has devoted years to examining what we might think of as ordinary murder, the kind that follows from a bar fight or domestic brawl. He has taken time, as well, to look at and think about the bloody mayhem that led to the slaughter of thousands in Rwanda.* Leyton’s findings might be discomfiting to some. He holds, in particular, that murderers—even serial killers—are not monsters, but ordinary people. They often are economically disadvantaged and socially marginalized, but they are nevertheless folks like the rest of us. We might pass them at the mall or stand beside them at the video store. They can be our workmates, neighbours, family or friends.
Now and then a murder is reported that seems to be truly exceptional, a crime so heinous, calculated and cruel that it belongs in a category of its own. These are the killings that make the front pages of newspapers and dominate television news broadcasts. These are the ones, above all, whose perpetrators strike us as inhuman. They put Leyton’s thesis to the test.
The murder of Johnny Altinger by Mark Twitchell in an Edmonton suburb in October 2008 promised to be one of the exceptions. There were indications that the crime was inspired by a television series about a serial killer. The murderer used the internet to stalk his victim. It even seemed possible that he had filmed the whole thing.
Steve Lillebuen has done a thorough job of investigating the crime in The Devil’s Cinema. He got first-rate cooperation from the officers investigating the case with the result that the book’s opening section reads like the best kind of police procedural. He followed the trial closely and does creditable work sussing out the stresses at work on the witnesses as well as the accused. And he got to know the murderer himself.
How ordinary was Mark Twitchell? He was good looking and glib: he had been married and had fathered a child. Some women continued to find him attractive. He was a Star Wars aficionado, as are millions of others, who have done no harm. He was skilful enough with his hands to construct accurate reproductions of costumes based on characters from the films. And he had set himself up as a film producer, putting together a business plan that was given serious consideration (although ultimately rejected) by investors with real money to spend. He made a few short films with assistance from professionals who were persuaded that he knew what he was doing. If there was an element of fantasy and illusion discernible in his preoccupations, there was nothing that alarmed the people who knew him. We all have dreams, after all.
And yet he plotted a cold-blooded killing. The steps he took make it clear that he meant it to be the perfect, untraceable crime. He created a bogus identity as an attractive woman on an internet dating site and then lured a vulnerable stranger to the rented garage he used as a studio. He decked out the garage in plastic sheeting, following the example of Dexter, the homicidal character in the television series, to mask all traces of the planned assault. There was video equipment in the garage: whether or not he intended to film the denouement isn’t quite clear. No video was found. But Mark Twitchell went through with it. He killed Johnny Altinger when Altinger came looking for his date.
If Twitchell’s coldness as he organized the murder was shocking, his behaviour after he was arrested was nothing like that of a master criminal he apparently had imagined himself to be. It was obvious that he had no notion that he would be caught. Under questioning he was by turns evasive, bold and pathetically unprepared. When it was suggested to him by a police officer, before Altinger’s body was recovered, that the whole thing had been a hoax, Twitchell asked him, “Just out of curiosity, does a person not get into trouble for the hoax as well?”
The virtue of books like Lillebuen’s is that they give us a glimpse into the lives of people who otherwise are rarely written about, people like Mark Twitchell, who dream of making it big in Hollywood, or people like Johnny Altinger, who long only for a perfect spouse. We’re not all murderers, but we all sometimes delude ourselves. And it was Twitchell’s capacity for self-delusion, as much as anything, that got him started on his murderous path.
*Elliott Leyton’s books include: Hunting Humans (1986), Touched by Fire (1998) and Men of Blood (2002).