William Morrow, $24.95
True-crime books rely on the sensational, and few if any murder cases in the Bay Area have ever been as sensational as the case of Susan Polk. The real-life drama was more entangled than a Greek tragedy, pitting an Orinda housewife against her therapist husband, mother against sons, and brother against brother. The twisted tale began when Susan, as a troubled teenager, was sent to see Berkeley psychologist Felix Polk, a married man 20 years older than she. Polk fell in love with his attractive young patient and they became lovers, a disturbing violation of professional ethics. Eventually, the two married and had three sons together. The Polks stayed together for more than 20 years until Susan stabbed Felix to death in the pool house of their sprawling estate.
To its credit, Seduced by Madness doesn't wallow in the sensational details of the Polk story. Like the better books in the genre (Jeffrey Toobin's fantastic deconstruction of the O.J. Simpson case, The Run of His Life, comes to mind), Bay Area author Carol Pogash, a frequent New York Times contributor, brings intelligence to a tabloid story. No one covered the case more thoroughly than Pogash from Felix's funeral in 2002 all the way through Susan's sentencing earlier this year and she picks up on small but revealing tidbits most others missed or ignored.
Pogash, for instance, describes a courtroom scene with Polk who unwisely acted as her own lawyer that I can't remember reading in coverage of the trial. In it, Polk cross-examines a detective about the knife used to kill her late husband, asking the cop if it's the knife he found in her sink. "Do I look like the kind of woman who left dirty dishes around?" Polk asked. Then she demanded to know whether the detective thought it "looked like a high-quality knife or one you would purchase at Target? ... Do you have any idea what a knife like that costs?" The scene nicely illustrates Pogash's understanding of what made this crazy woman really tick. As Pogash shows, Susan's mental illness wasn't the only thing driving her: She was also obsessed with money and status; and she was a narcissistic loner who had no clue as to how her actions made other people like jurors feel.
Pogash's writing style may lack the descriptive elegance of a Truman Capote novel (whose writing doesn't, though?), but she makes up for it with fresh insights into a case many people including me thought they already knew all about. As Pogash persuasively argues, Susan Polk viewed her trial not just as an opportunity to prove that she killed Felix in self-defense, but also to show she wasn't crazy (she failed at both). And Pogash also points out what is perhaps the most tragic irony of the case: that Felix helped engineer his own demise by feeding and supporting Susan's delusions until he found himself a victim of his troubled wife's fictions.
I met Pogash while covering the case for the East Bay Express. Months before the media-circus trial began, Pogash expressed reservations to me about whether she wanted to jump down that rabbit hole of Susan Polk's mad world one in which she believed Felix was an Israeli spy and that she was a medium who predicted 9/11. It would have been hard to blame Pogash for abandoning the project. Fortunately, for lovers of true crime, Pogash stuck it out.