The Girl with the Crooked Nose: A Tale of Murder, Obsession, and Forensic Analysis. By Ted Botha. Berkley. $15.
Television and movies wrap up crimes neatly. Real life is messy. Just how messy becomes clear in Ted Botha’s novelistically written The Girl with the Crooked Nose, a biography of forensic artist Frank Bender (1941-2011) and a look at some of the gruesome cases on which he worked – successfully or not.
Botha’s structure is almost too neat. By jumping forward and back in time, focusing sometimes on Bender’s own past and sometimes on the cases on which he worked, and moving around geographically, Botha creates an expectation akin to those in films and TV shows: that he will knit everything together in the end and there will be a suitably upbeat (or at least ironic and noir) conclusion to the story. But, again, real life is messy, and this is not what readers get – which will likely lead to some sense of disappointment. A 16-page “Postmortem” does explain what happened, or failed to happen, in a number of Bender’s cases and to a number of the people mentioned in the book; then an Afterword explains what may or may not have happened to the book’s title character; and then the back-of-book Acknowledgments pages briefly conclude the story of Bender himself and his wife, Jan, both of whom died after the original publication of this book in 2008. The result of all these postscripts is ambiguity and a sense that things should have worked out more fairly and more neatly. And so they would have in entertainment media; not so in real life.
Readers not looking for clarity or apotheosis will find a great deal that is interesting and quite a bit that is upsetting in this book. Botha returns again and again – as Bender did – to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, site of the notorious feminicidios (“femicides”) that have claimed the lives of hundreds of women, and perhaps thousands, since 1993. Bender spent considerable time, and took considerable personal risks, trying to help local Mexican police, and later the federales, identify some of the victims and hopefully move toward finding the killers. The depth of corruption of the Mexican police and legal system comes through very clearly here, as does the uncertainty with which Bender dealt all the time – one apparent ally, for example, proves to be a possibly dangerous enemy or even perhaps a man involved in the coverup of some of the killings, if not himself a killer (although, as often in the book, readers never find out just what role this person played; he simply fades away from the narrative).
What also comes through clearly is that forensic sculpture was no way to make a living, at least not for Bender. He was particularly skilled at giving lifelike expressions to his reconstructions of victims, having an intuitive grasp of how they might have looked at things when alive (although, again, this is real life: his intuition was often right but often wrong). But to make money, he did everything from photography to tugboat maintenance – his sculptures of victims paid little, and sometimes the agencies for which he worked did not pay him at all. Yet Bender had more than talent: he had a drive to bring the dead back to life in some way, and maybe bring closure to their loved ones (although, again, he failed at this as often as he succeeded). Bender’s wife, Jan, is a subsidiary character here, but a fascinating one herself: very much a wild teenager (she stole five dollars and used it to run away from home before she turned 18, leaving her one-year-old daughter with her parents), she tolerated her husband’s affairs, generally supported his forensic endeavors, and helped find ways to keep their marriage together for almost 40 years until her death from cancer in 2010.
The Girl with the Crooked Nose is a fascinatingly frustrating book to read. Bender was a multifaceted human being, highly talented but deeply flawed. His conflicts with bureaucrats and corruption will be easy for readers to relate to: at one point he walks out on a forensics meeting and goes to the beach, telling the man who invited him, “It’s just a bunch of fuddy-duddies at the conference.” The skill of his reconstructions is clear not only from Botha’s narrative but also from the book’s eight pages of photos. Bender’s impatience with red tape contrasts with the extreme care he brought to his reconstructions. But for all Bender’s hard work, and that of the honest law-enforcement personnel who appear in this book, the fact remains that the killers of many of the people whom Bender reconstructed got away with murder. And they still do: the feminicidios cases were abandoned by the Mexican federales in 2006, and most remain unsolved.