Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Nefarious nurse... A review of Death Angel, another case of a murderous nurse

Since I just reviewed Perfect Poison by M. William Phelps, I am going to repost this older review I did of Death Angel, a 2005 book by Clifford L. Linedecker and Zach T. Martin.  This book is about Charles Cullen, a nurse who, over the course of sixteen years, killed as many of 40 patients in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  I gave it three stars because I didn't think it was a great book.  However, if you're looking for stories about nurses who kill, this is one case you should read about.

Nefarious nurse

Feb 16, 2006 (Updated Mar 13, 2006)

Review by knotheadusc

Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Charles Cullen's case is very interesting.
Cons:Annoying writing style. Editorializing about the death penalty.
The Bottom Line: This is one book I'm glad to have finished reading.

I just finished reading Death Angel (2005). Written by Clifford L. Linedecker and Zach T. Martin, this book is the story of Charles Cullen, a nurse who spent sixteen years killing as many as 40 of his patients. It took me at least two weeks to finish reading Death Angel, a book that runs 350 pages. Normally, I'd be able to finish a book of this length within a few days. I have to be honest, though. For a few days, I thought finishing Death Angel was going to be the death of me. But I'll get to why this book was so hard to finish later. First, let me explain a little bit about Death Angel and why I picked it up in the first place.

I bought Death Angel last month while I was waiting for my husband, Bill, to meet me at the airport. His plane was delayed, so I took the opportunity to go shopping at Border's. It happened to be Friday the 13th and I came away from Border's with several true crime books. Having read all of the other books, Death Angel was at the bottom of the stack. And Death Angel was by far the hardest one for me to finish. Sure, I was interested in reading about Charles Cullen, the murderous misfit who spent his nursing career taking care of the sickest patients in hospitals and nursing homes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The book's description on the back cover was compelling and Cullen's story is fascinating. But I could never get further than a few pages every time I sat down to read this book. As someone who is used to whizzing through paperbacks at a good clip, I found reading Death Angel a frustrating exercise. And Charles Cullen's story should have been riveting.

Cullen held nursing licenses in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and he worked in a number of hospitals and nursing homes in both states. He liked to work at night, when he had independence and privacy, making it easy for him to carry out his dastardly deeds unhindered. Cullen worked in intensive care and critical care units, where he would inject his very sick patients with drug overdoses. Sadly, some of Cullen's victims weren't even on the brink of death. In some cases, the patients were starting to rally from their illnesses when Cullen appointed himself grim reaper. Most of the time, he used Digoxin to kill his patients, but sometimes he used other drugs like insulin or Pavulon. According to the Linedecker and Martin, Cullen's victims did not die peacefully. In fact, some of them fought back valiantly, only to have Cullen snuff them out with another round of drugs.

The authors make it clear that Cullen was a lifelong loser. Although he was paid well for his work and he worked many hours, Cullen was unable to pay his bills and had to declare bankruptcy. His five year marriage failed and he found himself unable to keep up with child support payments for his two daughters. And Cullen was also chronically suicidal. He attempted to kill himself at least twenty times. Though he was able to kill his patients without a problem, Cullen was never able to pull off killing himself. The authors infer that Cullen's inability to kill himself was yet another personal failing.

Linedecker and Martin go to great lengths to impress upon readers that Cullen wasn't much to look at by using a lot of derogatory adjectives to describe the man. They call him "skinny", "sallow", "gaunt", "sickly", "puny", "creepy", "anemic-looking", "disturbing" "bloodthirsty", "a loser" and "a loner", among other names. Granted, any person who spends sixteen years killing people, especially those who are helpless and sick, probably deserves to be called a few names. But I got the point after the first few pages. The namecalling got tiresome for me after awhile. And the authors didn't just confine their overly descriptive language to Cullen. They used the same technique when they described other players in the story, including Cullen's victims.

Clifford L. Linedecker certainly should know how to write. He was a newspaper reporter for over twenty years and it shows somewhat in his writing, although at times his writing seems to lean more toward an editorial style. He's worked for a number of newspapers, written articles for several popular magazines, and written thirty-four nonfiction books. Zach T. Martin is a popular radio personality in New York and New Jersey. Martin's mother was one of Cullen's first victims.

Death Angel includes a brief pictures section as well as a couple of appendices. The authors laid out a timeline of Charles Cullen's disastrous existence, starting from his birth and ending in late June 2005, when Cullen pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder. There's also a copy of Cullen's plea agreement. He agreed to cooperate with investigators by telling them who he killed in exchange for life in prison. The authors express obvious disgust because Cullen isn't going to be executed for his crimes, although even if Cullen had gotten the death penalty, it's likely that he would end up dying on death row anyway. Of course, had Cullen killed in Texas or Virginia, he'd likely be as good as dead.

The two authors make it very clear that they felt that Cullen should have gotten the death penalty for his crimes. They repeatedly refer to New Jersey's and Pennsylvania's records for carrying out capital punishment as "miserable". Since I'm against the death penalty myself, I found this aspect of Death Angel a bit irritating. There are a number of places in the book where the authors editorialize about capital punishment. I think I would have preferred it if they had just stuck to telling the story and left out their opinions and excessively derogatory comments about Cullen. I imagine that Martin has very strong feelings about Charles Cullen since Cullen murdered his mother. Perhaps for that reason, Linedecker should have chosen a more objective co-author.

Yes, Death Angel was a tough read for me. I'm a bit disappointed because I think this book could have been a lot better than it was. Charles Cullen got away with murder for sixteen years. Amazingly, despite the fact that Cullen frequently attempted suicide and was repeatedly fired for poor job performance, his records with the nursing licensure boards in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were clean. Administrators were reluctant to report him because they were afraid of being sued for breaching his privacy. The authors do go into this a bit, but mostly, it seemed like they simply focused on vilifying Cullen. It's not that I don't think Cullen deserves to be vilified; I do think what he did was reprehensible. Death Angel just seems to lack objectivity. What's more, the authors' writing style really grated on my nerves. I can excuse Martin for both the writing style and his justifiable anger, but Linedecker, as a veteran author, should have known better. This should have been a better book.

UPDATE

Charles Cullen was just (in 2006) sentenced to a total of 18 life sentences in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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