By Derrick Nunnally The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery” by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz, $26
It’s been just nine years since Chandra Levy disappeared, touching off a search that exposed the scandal of an affair between a promiscuous congressman and the 24-year-old congressional intern.
That the incident can seem further in the past owes much to timing. Its run in the national headlines ended with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and resumed briefly when her bones turned up in a Washington park in May 2002.
The story faded from national media attention for years before the March 2009 announcement that a Salvadoran day laborer was charged with the killing — and not U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., who lost his political career in a wave of national scorn over the scandal. She had apparently been randomly attacked in the park.
Now, with the laborer, Ingmar Guandique, awaiting a murder trial, two Washington Post reporters who fingered Guandique as the killer in a 2008 series have written “Finding Chandra,” an adroit true-crime narrative that tells the story from the perspectives of the Levy family, Condit, Washington police, and others — from police to media figures who played roles in the true-life drama.
The book, by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz, is chiefly an expansion of their newspaper series, which publicly cleared Condit and laid bare a sheaf of mistakes by Washington police that made solving Levy’s murder take years.
And it reads much like a newspaper series, taking readers through the shifting focus of chapters that deal with specific characters or institutions, with frequent reminders of the larger context.
The technique serves to make the book, despite the high drama inherent in the subject, feel less like a suspense novel and more like hard journalism, an expose built around character studies.
The book’s journalistic mission, as sharply as it is accomplished, is more than academic concern for Philadelphians, who will spot a man who has become a key city figure playing a pivotal role.
At the time Levy disappeared in 2001, Washington’s Metropolitan Police was led by Charles H. Ramsey, now police commissioner of Philadelphia.
“Finding Chandra,” like the newspaper series before it, puts the bungled investigation on his department’s shoulders, from leads not pursued to a dysfunctional bureaucracy whose constant media leaks made investigators distrust their bosses.
Ramsey has declined to challenge the authors’ findings in their newspaper series or the book.
The book is driven by character studies of the detectives and others associated with the day-to-day investigation.
Their lives, like those of other central players in the investigation, are shown in vividly detailed portraits, perhaps most effectively in the introductory chapter, about a genteel bone collector whose wanderings in Rock Creek Park unearthed Levy’s remains.
Though the book capitalizes impressively on the depth of reportage in the newspaper series (which itself showed pretensions of being a book, labeling its stories as “chapters”), the conclusions feel rushed, since the case against Guandique is still pending.
The book ends before the last chapter of the story has played out.