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825 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Devil in the Hole
by Charles Salzberg

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

Five Star Mysteries (August 2013)

Cover of Devil in the Hole by Charles Salzberg

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On November 9, 1971, John List, 46, murdered his mother, his wife, his two teenaged sons and his teenaged daughter. He shot each victim with a 9 millimeter automatic and/or a .22 pistol. His son, John Jr., put up a fight and was shot nine times before he died. The walls of the house were pocked with bullet holes, so perhaps List used both guns at the same time shooting wildly. After all the mayhem was over, he dragged his children and wife into the ballroom and laid them on sleeping bags. He left his dead mother upstairs in the attic. Later, he drove himself to Kennedy airport and vanished. The bodies he left behind weren’t discovered until nearly a month later.

Charles Salzberg takes the facts about the murders and uses them to write a fictional account which attempts to explore who John List was. What sort of man could brutally slaughter his mother and his entire family? One might say List was obviously a psychopath, but that’s not what Salzberg says. Not exactly, anyway. Through the use of nearly two dozen characters—a neighbor, several policemen and investigators, a mistress, and various others who knew the murderer in one way or another—the author creates a mosaic consisting of numerous points of view revealing various aspects of John’s character. Salzberg also changes the killer’s name. He is now called John [oh, the irony] Hartman. Little by little, piece by piece we get a larger and larger picture of the man, together with all his very strange complexities.

From Part 3 (called “The Hunt”) onward, the book picks up a peripatetic motif. We see Hartman wandering the earth like a lost soul searching for something he can’t name. He has brief encounters with a variety of people who, each in his or her own way, add bits of knowledge and/or perplexity to the Hartman mystery. There is Charles Floyd, an investigator obsessed with bringing Hartman to justice. Floyd perhaps speaks for many of us when he says:

I wondered how Hartman spent the time between arriving at the airport... And his flight south the next evening. ...Belting back a few at some snazzy nightspot? Or maybe he just checked into the airport motel and spent the night watching TV and jacking off. All the while his family lying there on the cold floor, their bodies losing heat, the breeze blowing through the holes in their heads.

There is also James Kirkland, a neighbor, who obsesses on Hartman in a different way:

In the meantime, John Hartman began taking over my life. I even went so far as to have imaginary conversations with him on the train to work, or just before I fell asleep. ...Ironically, I spoke to him more in these imaginary conversations than I ever had in life.

Hartman’s mistress, Janie McClellan felt he was a good and interesting man. But when she finds out he killed his family, she begins to fear and hate him. She leaves town, but worries throughout the narrative that Hartman will find her somehow and murder her too. She knows him as well as anyone knows him, which means she really doesn’t know him at all. How do you have a passionate relationship with a man and not know him? What do you do when the realization hits you that you have been giving your body to a deadly stranger? There was never a thought in Janie’s head that Hartman was capable of killing anyone at all, let alone wiping out his entire family. No wonder she’s terrified. No wonder she runs.

Hartman himself tells us in Andre Gide’s words: “Please don’t understand me too quickly.” Point being that, generally speaking, we quickly “understand” all types of people whom we don’t know except through TV or radio or magazines or other media. Yes, and we especially understand killers. Few of us believe they deserve any sympathy or pity or compassion. It is a truism that if you murder in cold blood, you automatically cut yourself off from what is often called the common bonds of humanity. You’re no longer quite human and it’s all right to despise you and pray that you are brought to justice and made to suffer.

Salzberg has taken a true crime tale and made it into a compelling work of fiction that attempts to imagine the mind of a killer, not only through his own mind, but through the minds of many others. This is a novel which few readers will want to put down, turning pages mostly, I think, to find out how in the world the author pulls it off. “How,” I kept asking myself, “how can he finish this story?” The buildup becomes more and more absorbing because Charles Salzberg has a lot to say about human nature that is thought-provokingly wise and penetrating.


—Previously published in South Carolina Review (Fall 2013)

—More about Devil in the Hole at



SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, a Pushcart Honorable Mention—and, most recently, a 2013 Indie Book Award (Minnesota Memoirs was chosen as Winner in the Short Story category).

Brenna’s latest books include a memoir, Murdering the Mom (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2012), and a collection of short stories, Minnesota Memoirs (Serving House Books, 2012).

His novel, The Holy Book of the Beard, which he says is one of his favorites, was re-released in 2010 (New American Press). A New York Times review of this book says, “It is loaded with all the ingredients of an underground is nearly impossible to put down.”

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury