Lumpy, Semi-Dorky, Slouchy, Smarmy

John Lanchester

  • Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster
    Macmillan, 340 pp, £14.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 333 78170 8

In January 1957 the New York Police Department arrested a man called George Metesky, whose activities over the previous 16 and a bit years had earned him the sobriquet ‘the Mad Bomber’. The Bomber had planted more than thirty explosive devices, favouring public places such as cinemas, train stations, libraries and phone booths. He hadn’t killed anyone but his bombs were becoming bigger and the injuries they were inflicting were growing worse. In their desperation the cops had in December consulted a New York psychiatrist called James Brussel, described by John Douglas as ‘the father of behavioural profiling’. Douglas is the FBI man who inspired Thomas Harris to invent the character Jack Crawford in the Hannibal Lecter novels, so he should know. This is the psychological portrait Brussel came up with of the Mad Bomber:

He’s symmetrically built … neither fat nor skinny … a co-operative worker … punctual and neatly dressed … a virgin [living] in Bridgeport, Connecticut … with a female relative who reminds him of his mother – either an aunt or a sister … Not only European but Slavic (a Slav would be more likely to use a bomb than a gun to settle his scores) … Roman Catholic … heart disease, cancer, [or] tuberculosis … middle-aged … when you find him, chances are he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit. Buttoned.

Metesky, when arrested, was wearing pyjamas, but apart from that the profile was on the money: he was a mild-mannered Lithuanian in his fifties from Connecticut who dropped out of high school and had been unemployable since an industrial accident in 1931 – the accident, it turned out, which was the source of his grievance.

This would be an impressive early victory for the nascent ‘science’ of profiling if it weren’t for one tiny difficulty: the actual profile Brussel gave the police was nothing like the one he tarted up for his memoirs. Brussel’s real advice was to search White Plains, New York for an egomaniacal German high-school graduate in his forties with a facial scar; an expert in bomb-making; a man who had ‘a classic textbook case of paranoia’, rather than a genuine beef. Whoops. The evidence which led to the capture of the Mad Bomber came not from a psychological profile but from Alice Kelly, a clerk at the utility company Con Ed, who was struck by phrases used in some open letters sent to the press by ‘FP’ (as the Mad Bomber signed himself). She checked old files, and came across Metesky, who had been injured at work at Con Ed on 5 September 1931. His subsequent claim for disability payments had been disallowed because the statute of limitations had expired. He was angry, and his letters to Con Ed showed it. Kelly noticed that Metesky’s letters had similarities in phrasing to the Mad Bomber documents, so she mentioned his name to the NYPD, who at that point were concentrating their efforts on White Plains. On the day the cops picked up Metesky’s Con Ed file (three days after Kelly’s call) the Journal American published another letter from the Mad Bomber, this time giving the exact date of his injury: 5 September 1931. The NYPD hightailed it over to Connecticut, and Metesky confessed straightaway. ‘FP’ stood for ‘Fair Play’. Kelly declined the $26,000 reward on the grounds that she had only been doing her job. Autres temps, autres moeurs.

This terrific story is told by Don Foster halfway through Author Unknown. Foster is the inheritor or professionaliser of the common-sense insight acted on by Alice Kelly: the fact that writing can give a clue to its author’s identity. Foster, a good example of the contemporary academic as entrepreneur, has used these techniques to advance on three fronts: in an academic career, mainly through the (contested) attribution of a late poem of (maybe) Shakespeare’s; as a media star, wheeled out to comment on anonymous, or would-be anonymous, texts of all sorts; and as an expert witness in law cases. By the end of the book he is complaining about his e-mail: ‘in one recent year, thirteen thousand messages were addressed to my Vassar account.’

When these cases hit the press, it is often assumed that the method of textual attribution under discussion somehow involves the use of a computer. Some boffin feeds the text in, the machine crunches it up, and spits out the answer. At a couple of points in the book Foster grumbles about this received idea, which I have to admit was pretty much exactly my notion of how attributional work tended to be done. But his method is more commonsensical and less technological than that, and the main use of computers is to search large text files for specific words. The computer speeds up the process of comparison and of digging for evidence, but is not a primary source of evidence in itself.

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