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Blood and Money Paperback – September 9, 2001
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I've read three classic true-crime books. They are Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood", Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song", and Tommy Thompson's "Blood and Money". All three books feature the crime in the first part, and the after-events in the second part. In "Blood", the first part is the life and death of Joan Robinson Hill, a legendary Houston society beauty and equestrian. Adopted as an infant by oilman Ash Robinson and his wife, Joan had been through two short marriages before meeting and marrying Dr John Hill, a young plastic surgeon just establishing a practice in Houston. Rarely has there been a more mismatched couple and the marriage soon soured after the birth of their only child, Robert. Joan Robinson Hill died in very murky circumstances - possibly abetted by her estranged husband - and her father, who adored her more than anything else in his life, vowed revenge on Dr John Hill. The book's second part is about the murder of John Hill, in front of his third wife, his son, and his mother, and the cast of characters involved in that murder. It is this part that Thompson's writing shines.
The plot and execution of the Hill's murder involved some of the strangest "characters" you'll ever read about. From Marcia McKittrick - the proverbial prostitute with a heart of gold -, to her sometime boyfriend, Bobby Vandiver, who carried out the murder, to Lilla Paulus, the Houston matron with the bad, bad past who set up the assassination, and to the lawmen who worked the case and the lawyers that defended and prosecuted McKittrick and Paulus, Tommy Thompson brings the characters to life. The reader feels as if he's there, with Dr Orrin Staves, who loses his pistol to Marcia McKittrick in a funny scene and then tries to walk off with the weapon when he's testifying in court. The man just wants his gun back...even if it now evidence in a murder trial!
But if Thompson's characters are beautifully written, so is his writing about the city and society - high and low - of Houston, which almost becomes a character. Thompson's book is about people - good and bad, high and low, moral and immoral - who find themselves bound together in the death of a woman and the aftermath of that death.
The center of this true story is Ash Robinson. Ash is an ambitious, wealthy oil man who finds his niche in the city of Houston, Texas during the oil boom of the 1930s and 1940s. This is a man who does not suffer fools gladly, and you get the impression that he would step on his mother’s neck if he could make a quick buck doing so. Ash and his wife can’t have children, so around this time, they adopt a (some say Ash’s illegitimate) baby girl. The little girl’s name is Joan. Ash becomes mightily smitten, and spoils her mightily.
Living in the uppity River Oaks subdivision (where the richest of the rich live in Houston), Joan, not surprisingly becomes a bit of a spoiled brat. With her rich Daddy doting all over her, she’s soon becomes an expert at horse riding and quickly amasses a room full of trophies and ribbons as she grows into adulthood. After one competition, Joan and Ash are repulsed that she only wins second place, and she throws her ribbon in disgust at a hotel porter. In addition to being very rich, she’s also quite attractive, so she finds herself being courted by a bunch of young rich men that are drawn to her despite her filthy mouth and chain smoking tendencies. Her first two marriages quickly fail, yet one gets the impression this is because wealthy Ash doesn’t want to share his trophy daughter with other men, and interferes quite heavily. Such is the life of the rich and famous.
And then she meets John Hill. John is a young up and coming plastic surgeon. Living the life of the rich and famous is just what such an ambitious young man needs to further his career. Soon Joan and John are married. At this point, Joan now becomes a victim with John taking center stage as a bizarre, off-the-wall manipulator. The marriage falters after a few years. Almost overnight, Joan goes from being slightly sick to becoming deathly ill. By the time Joan is taken to the hospital, she’s dead.
For obvious reasons, Ash is convinced that his monster son-in-law killed his beloved girl, and a man with this much power and clout will stop at nothing to bring about a murder conviction. At this point in the narrative, the story has the appeal of a Peyton Place drama, but once the detective work and murder trials begin, the book does get a bit bogged down with too many details. Despite much of the evidence, John is never convicted of killing his wife. His new wife, Anne, is a bit of a weird-duck, and seems almost as unstable as the rest of these bananas. Anne and John’s marriage goes off the rails as well, and she testifies that John told her that he actually did kill Joan. Hearsay and proof are two different things, however.
So then John moves onto wife #3. Things finally seem to be going well, until they come home from a vacation and find an intruder in their house who shoots and kills John. A random act of violence? Or a ticked-off wealthy father-in-law hiring an assassin to get revenge? Here’s where the narrative again changes. Now, the focus on the book is finding John’s killer who managed to escape the scene of the crime.
As the case progresses, we find ourselves no longer within the sheltered wealthy community of River Oaks, and instead, immersed in a world of prostitutes, pimps, runaways, and drug addicts. Good detective work finds the people who actually pulled the trigger, but then they (and we) want to know ‘why’. In other words, “Was Ash Robinson behind this?”
So we then proceed to a long, lengthy trial where the author seems to relive every single detail of the trial and the alleged connection. Again, the story is good, but it almost feels like we’ve moved on from Peyton Place to a rerun of Law and Order.
I felt this was a very satisfying read, albeit a tragic one. I was reminded again how having gobs of money can never make anyone truly happy. Even without the murders and deaths, you’re left to believe that the people, had they lived, would have had a very shallow existence. This book was the rage in Houston when it was released in 1976 (about 7 or 8 years after the incidents occurred), and it might not have the same appeal now that it’s been 40 years later, but it’s still a very good, yet sad read.
NOTE: John Hill’s second wife Anne actually wrote an account about John and Joan several years after this book was released. The book was much more cookie-cutter, but I read it as a 15-year-old for a High School Civics class, and I found it very good as well. That book was called “Prescription Murder” and is since out of print, but one might find it with some digging. Unlike this book that tends to paint Anne as loopy as a loon, you definitely don’t feel that way about her after reading her own account. Strangely, she seems to hint that John, being a plastic surgeon, faked his death, received extensive cosmetic surgery, and ended up moving to Mexico incognito. There was even a television mini-series based on the book called “Murder in Texas” starring Andy Griffith and Farrah Fawcett.
The characters are well developed, depicting
their individual flaws, their successes and their
failures. The dialogue reflects the worlds in which each character lives, navigates, and
intersects one another. The author developed an intricate plot and subplots woven through the various psycho-social behaviors that contributed to the murderer-victim mindsets and arrested emotional development of each character. True crime is always more bizzare than fiction !!
The pace of the story varied from slow and tedious description of character behaviors and subplots to fast paced action of the animated lives and entanglements of real people in a complex social world.
A worthy read with insights into human behavior and personal choices, applicable to analyzing iur complex society at any time.
I don't want to give spoilers. I do wish the author had included more details of Joan and John meeting and the early yrs of their marriage.