Author, Berkley Books, Book review, Matt Birkbeck, Non-fiction, Setting, true crime, USA

‘A Deadly Secret: The Bizarre and Chilling Story of Robert Durst’ by Matt Birkbeck


Non-fiction – paperback; Berkley Books; 320 pages; 2015.

Earlier this year I watched the HBO documentary series The Jinx, which told the amazing true life story of Robert Durst, the son of a New York real estate magnate, whose wife, Kathie, vanished in mysterious circumstances in 1982. It’s long been thought that Durst was responsible for her disappearance (her body has never been found), a theory that gained momentum when 20 years later he stood accused of the murder of Morris Black, whose dismembered body was found floating in Galveston Bay, Texas. (He is also suspected of having killed his best friend, Susan Berman in Los Angeles, just days before the case into Kathie’s disappearance was re-opened in 2000. The motive? Berman had given him an alibi for the night Kathie went missing.)

In the six-part TV series, Durst, who had previously (and understandably) gone to ground and had shunned co-operation with the police or journalists, agreed to be interviewed by the program maker Andrew Jarecki.*  These interviews, which run over the course of six 45-minute programmes,  provide both fascinating and disturbing viewing. It’s clear that Durst is an odd (and creepy) character, a recluse who seems to finally want some attention, who speaks in a slow, almost mesmerising, drawl, but denies any wrong doing.

The finale of The Jinx was such an astonishing one — of the oh-my-god-I-didn’t-see-that-coming variety — that I wanted to find out more about the man, hence the decision to read this book, which was originally published in 2002 but has since been updated following the revelations broadcast in The Jinx.

Painstaking research

Admittedly, this isn’t the kind of book you read for its literary merit. There’s a slightly tabloid feel to the writing and a lot of the detail — what people are doing and what they are wearing, for instance — could never have been verified by the writer, he’s simply made it up to give the factual reporting of events a novelistic feel. Perhaps from my own journalistic training (and from reading several novels which explore the theme of fact and fiction blurring into one — think Laurent Binet’s HHhH and Domenico Starnone’s First Execution),  I’m hyper-aware of that kind of “stretching of the truth”, but as much as it grated, I learned to put those irritations aside and just focus on the facts at the heart of the book.

It’s very well researched. Matt Birkbeck was the first journalist to access Durst’s NYPD files and he’s spent a lot of time interviewing family, friends, acquaintances, police and  lawyers (among others) to compile a fascinating narrative that is as much about the politics of police work as it is about the man believed to have committed these crimes.

In the main, A Deadly Secret is not dissimilar to The Jinx, but it does provide a lot of extra background about Durst that I wasn’t aware of having watched the TV series.

The first is that Durst and Kathie’s marriage deteriorated fairly quickly and was marked by domestic violence. Durst, it seems, had trouble controlling his anger and there were times when he demonstrated this in public, at one time dragging Kathie out of a party — in front of stunned family members — by her hair. Only weeks before Kathie went missing, she had asked for a $250,000 divorce settlement, but Durst had refused even though the pair were basically living separate lives — she was in her final year at medical school and he was reportedly having an affair with Prudence Farrow, the sister of actor Mia Farrow.

The second, is that Kathie had a cocaine problem and kept some dubious company because of it.

Police investigations

The book tells the Durst story by focusing on the police investigations beginning with the initial investigation, by Mike Struk, a detective in the NYPD, and the second, by Joe Becerra, an investigator with the New York State Police, when the case was reopened in 2000. It suggests that the original investigation failed to chase up certain leads or carry out basic investigative procedures — for instance, not searching the Durst’s lakeside home when Kathie disappeared — because of the power brought to bear by the Durst family.

The book also posits the idea that the murder of Morris Black — to which Durst pleaded guilty by reason of self-defence and accident — was perhaps not the first time Durst had dismembered a body. Apparently it was so skilfully cut up (the head was never found) it seems to suggest that he had done it before. Indeed, Birkbeck claims that he may well have killed two more people in Northern California — a college student, who went missing in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1997, and a 16-year-old girl from Eureka, who disappeared that same year  — at a time when Durst was known to have had eight different addresses in the state between 1994 and 2002.

Of course, any evidence that Durst may, in fact, be a serial killer is largely circumstantial, but even so, he’s lead such a weird and strange life, and has such an odd and creepy demeanour, you can’t help think that it would be entirely possible.

I realise I’ve written 800 words about this book and I haven’t even touched on some of the more bizarre elements of Durst’s case — the fact he pretended to be a deaf-mute woman when he lived in Galveston, for instance, or the idea that he may well have got away with Black’s murder had he not been caught shoplifting a sandwich in Pennsylvania. Yet that’s what makes A Deadly Secret such a terrific read — if you  made up a character like Durst and put him in a novel, people would say he was too ludicrous to be believable. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction…

* In 2010 Jarecki directed a Hollywood film, All Good Things, based on the Durst story, which starred Ryan Gosling as Durst and Kirsten Dunst as Kathie. I watched this a few weeks ago, and it’s excellent — unsurprisingly it’s very similar to The Jinx.