Devil in the Hole: Charles Salzberg
Murder comes to a small town and no one knows it or is aware of it. Someone notices the lights on in a house that never seems to ever go dark and begins to think that something is strange within its walls. Waiting three weeks while contemplating whether to call the police one man watches, waits, counts the lights that shine each night and finally decides to make that one phone call that would rock a small community’s feeling of security, safety and instill fear within the residents when five members of one family are found murdered. Just who would massacre their own family? It the house could speak and the walls could relate what happened this small town of Sedgweick, Connecticut, the home of the Hartman family would relate a story that will chill you to the core. When James Kirkland peers outside of his window and see wonders why the lights in the Victorian mansion across from his house never turn dark he begins to wonder why. When he finally makes that phone call to the police what they find, realize and learn would shake the inner core of the police chief who prefers not to handle the case, the FBI and many other law enforcement agencies. Three teenage children, Adele Hartman and Hartman’s mother are shot point blank in the head, each body covered with a blanket and quietly executed mob style. Listen to the voices of the police; James Kirkland; the killer and the neighbors as each one presents his/her own version, thoughts and ideas about why John Hartman decided to methodically, carefully and brilliantly kill his entire family.
Each voice presents his/her own viewpoint about this killer. The Reverend describes his first impressions upon meeting him, his conversation and the uneasy feeling that this man was judging him. Never meeting his wife except when he came to welcome the family to the community, the Reverend begins to think that maybe he was responsible for what happened. As John Hartman phoned him but from where no one really knows to say his family would be out of town and his son Paul would not be attending Sunday school. Perhaps if he paid closer attention he might have realized something was odd. The man was cold, austere and seemed quite rigid in his manner and ways.
You hear the voice of his mistress as she relates what happens when the other secretaries discuss the murders and how she wants to shout out that they have him all wrong and that their perception of this man was misdirected and misplaced. So, where is John Hartman and how did he pull off these murders with no one being the wiser? What happens when Charles Floyd, a senior police investigator gets the case and stops at nothing to question, inquire, and search for the evidence needed to find this man? A man whose life was filled with what others expected of him and who wanted to hide from himself, would not admit his faults or frailties nor allow others to point them out. A lonely man who filled his mind and time with what he thought life should be and when things were too rough and those around him became a burden he destroyed or killed him lessening the burden within himself and finally free you might way. A father who insisted he become an accountant. His desire to draw and his love of art as Janie his mistress describes not allowed by his austere and overbearing father. John hated failure and when things got rough and he found himself falling short of his own expectations he retreated within himself. Cold, hard, strict rules that he followed and a family that became a noose around his neck, this man decided to leave his life and start a new one thinking that the past would not become the present.
As you hear the many voices of his friends, mistress, the lead investigator and the reverend you learn just how disconnected, disjointed and cold this man really is. Why did he decide to kill his family? Why did he come back and burn down his house obliterating all memories, mementos and reminders that his family ever existed? Listen to the words of so many and hear their innermost thoughts as they relive, enact and revisit the many conversations they had with this man and one man, our first narrator, relives the moment when he realized that something in that house was wrong. When James Kirkland looked out once more he saw a burning inferno facing him. One man, Charles Sandberg will not let this go and he brings to you the reader a portrait of a man so debase, so demented and evil that in order for him to be able to reconcile what happened he needed to write about it and share the murders, the viewpoints and his thoughts with the world. John Hartman, one question that still remains unanswered. WHY?
When you hear his voice you begin to understand the character of this man who divorced himself from reality and became in his own words someone else. How could he be responsible for the murders when he lived somewhere else, reinvented his life the way he always wanted and added some color. Scary as we hear the voice of a woman he meets in a bar, the investigators that are racing the clock to find him and the many different police detectives, friends and even his sister that describe him in almost the same way. Never feeling he was good enough. Never feeling that he pleased everyone he decided to please no one except himself. His wife hired a private detective to find out what she basically already knew. Struggling with his own identity, never really able to find satisfaction anywhere in his life John Hartman decided to take the lives of those he felt were bringing him down. A wife that hated their life. Kids he felt that were out of control and a mother who complained all the time and never smiled. That was his perception but when the PI describes Adele Hartman the descriptions are quite similar. Throughout this novel so many different viewpoints are expressed yet when you reread them, sift through the information and hear the voices of so many what you hear is not all that different and what you learn about this man will make you shudder.
Many women that he meets and spends time with as they recount their meetings with him and the eerie feeling they felt after he leaves. One group of young boys that had to fight their way against him in order to be rid of John. Others describing his actions as calculated, planned and done according to his own special plan as he describes everything he did in Florida, then his decision to go somewhere else because he could not be himself there and needed a new life. Every step of the way the special investigator would move heaven and anything else, defy the rules of his job and fight to bring this man to justice. John Hartman did not believe he was guilty and still does not. Delusional, paranoid and definitely insecure in his own body and mind, John Hartman raced to clock to stay invisible.
Graves are dug for those who are about to inhabit them six feet down and across in most cases. But, some holes or graves are dug way before as one man was so far inside the walls of a grave or mausoleum that he would never dig his way out ever. Hearing the voice of the special investigator who would never give up until he brought him in you begin to wonder who was more obsessed with the crime John or Charlie. James Kirkland was enjoying the celebrity that this incident brought him and others in his town stopped to ask him about what he knew. Deep inside the mind of John Hartman we see a man filled with imperfections that hated anyone or anything that was perfect. When you read how he committed the murders, how he cleaned up when completed you will not only cringe at the sight of him as he is described so vividly by the author but just knowing that his image and movements are revealed on each page.
Charles Floyd came to a dead end in this case and then moved on to another gruesome murder. A lawyer and a stockbroker from an upper class family were tortured and murdered. The description is quite graphic and the end result unusual as their appeared to be no motive for the murder. But, when the reason for the murders is revealed you can never tell a rich couple by their cover. You will be amazed. The reaction of Charlie Floyd you might not expect.
When you hear the interview with Peter Simpson you wonder why he did not realize just who he was riding with on a train, hear what he was admitting and call the police after he left. But, he like so many others did not see what was right in front of them as the author interviews his sister again as John calls her and the conversation would haunt her. Then the shoe falls off the other foot as someone decides to declare John legally dead and what Charlie does will not surprise anyone. Going to a psychic was next so would Katherine Seabury be the answer to where John Hartman was? Just what happens and how they finally get him you won’t believe. Sometimes we never see what is right in front of us until it is too late. In May of 1989 the world would see the most famous murderer in New Jersey in a story that would run for ten minutes reminding an entire community of a murder that took place 18 years before. Charles Salzburg brings to light the power of television, the relentlessness of one man to catch John and the trial of a century that I researched and read about to learn the starling conclusion.
This is one story that everyone needs to read and one that will remind people to be more vigilant about their neighbors, noticing something odd might save a life if you call the police. What would have happened if they knew earlier on? Would anything have changed? Would they have arrested him sooner? John Hartman: till this day thinks he is innocent. Read this story and learn why!
Fran Lewis: Reviewer