Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Cawelti's new 'whydunit,' a brother's blood still cries out

Originally printed Nov. 18, 2011.

It's a shame that television actor Peter Falk recently died because Iowa author Scott Cawelti has just published a true crime book — "Brother's Blood: A Heartland Cain and Abel" (Ice Cube Press, 2011) — that easily could be transformed into a compelling episode of "Columbo."

In 1975, Cawelti was as shocked as rest of his Cedar Falls area neighbors to learn that one branch of a prominent local family — Les and Jorjean Mark and their young children Julie and Jeff — had been shot to death in their home. Days later, he was even more shocked to learn that the police had arrested Les's brother Jerry Mark and charged him with the gruesome killings.

But the evidence presented in the subsequent trial eventually convinced Cawelti — as it convinced a jury of Jerry Mark's peers — that the murder of the Mark family was indeed the modernized version of the biblical Cain and Abel story that the prosecutors claimed it was.

Jerry Mark — a lawyer and Peace Corps volunteer turned self-described hippie — angry that his younger brother was exercising more leadership in the family farm business than he was, rode his motorcycle across country from California to Iowa, slaughtered his brother's family in their home, and then rode back west — all the while making collect calls to his girlfriend in California lying about his location and about the reason for his extended motorcycle holiday.

Cawelti began researching for a book on the murders a few years after Jerry Mark was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But Jerry Mark consistently has maintained he is innocent in the killings, and his many appeals made it difficult early on for Cawelti to find officials involved in the case who were willing to talk on the record.

After allowing the book idea to simmer for more than two decades, Cawelti decided to begin working on "Brother's Blood" in earnest in 2006, after a federal judge ordered that Jerry Mark either should receive a new trial or be released — a decision reversed by an appellate court the following year.

With the Mark family murder in the headlines again, Cawelti dug out his old notes, re-immersed himself in the trial transcripts and other public records and eventually gave himself permission to move into the realm of narrative speculation whenever the facts didn't clearly explain the motives for Jerry Mark's actions.

As a result, "Brother's Blood" isn't a traditional "whodunit" in which readers have to wait until the end for a detective character to reveal the killer. Nor is it a "CSI"-style mystery solved only when forensic scientists use the most up-to-date technology to unlock something no one expected. Instead, the book is a "Columbo"-style "whydunit" in which readers are with the murderer when the murders take place and when the police — led primarily by small inconsistencies and a growing mountain of circumstantial evidence — eventually close in.

Cawelti has gone out of his way to stress the "nonfiction" component of his true crime tale. More than a third of "Brother's Blood" consists of public records, interview transcripts and new accounts from law enforcement officers, lawyers and family members that attest to the veracity of Cawelti's version of events.

But the tone of "Brother's Blood" still seems to match the sentiments Lt. Columbo conveys to the murderer in the TV show's pilot episode: "I must say I found you disappointing; I mean your incompetence. You left enough clues to sink a ship. And for a man of your intelligence, you got caught in a lot of stupid lies."

Cawelti will read from his new book and discuss the Mark family murder at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights Books.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

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