August Read of the Month: “The Murder Gene” by Karen Spears Zacharias

The Murder Gene (Koehler Books, 2022) is written with the precision of an ace journalist and with the page-turning intrigue of an award-winning novelist. No surprise since the author, Karen Spears Zacharias, is both. This combination of talents results in compelling nonfiction which deserves a wide and appreciative audience. Not only impeccably written, the book also raises a critical question replete with broad social consequences: Is there a genetic component to extreme violence? If one can inherit blue eyes or a tendency toward diabetes, could a person also inherit a tendency for violent behavior? And, if a propensity for extreme violence can be part of one’s DNA, how does society deal with this?

Zacharias poses these questions woven between the tales of a grandfather and his grandson who randomly commit murder. Written in a style reminiscent of In Cold Blood, the book often reads like a best-selling thriller, but also contains summaries of the top science on DNA and the possibility that criminal tendencies are as much an inherited trait as one’s predisposition to certain diseases. While most scientists readily accept, according to Zacharias, the notion of that a person can inherent a gene that programs them for certain physical diseases like cancer, there is less agreement on the issue of criminal behavior.

Given its central theme, this book naturally explores the nature versus nurture debate and offers a summary of current scientific thought and study on that issue, as well as a concise, clear explanation of DNA. The author presents some hard, heavy science and does so with explanations laymen can understand.

Beyond the scientific aspects, The Murder Gene is a true-crime style depiction of a troubled family in which both the grandfather and the grandson commit heinous, seemingly random acts of violence. Told with the pacing, suspense, and descriptive quality of the best thrillers, the book captures the personalities of the victims and the killers alike. Zacharias excels at presenting the characters in such powerful terms that there is a definite “you-are-there” quality. And while written with compassion, the book does not shy away from the horror of what these two men did.

Lukah Chang, the grandson of a convicted murderer, dominates the story line. Having spent ten years researching this book, the author interviewed enough family members and others to paint a vivid portrait of Chang—the quiet son of missionaries in Morganton, North Carolina. Perhaps not at all the sort of person one would expect to commit a heinous crime, Lukah grew up in an overtly Christian household, was home schooled, had a close relationship with his sister, and was acutely intelligent. And acutely troubled. Dead-ended after high school because of an adolescent stunt he pulled, he joins the military as his best option and forms a close friendship with another service member. Lukah marries, but his wife only wanted to wed to receive medical insurance as she suffered from an expensive illness. Drugs, personal conflicts and difficult economics intrude. When things spiral out of control, Lukah goes AWOL.

While AWOL and living homeless in plain view, Lukah kills a young hotel maid in her place of work in a small town in Oregon. He did not know her. Police are stymied at first and Lukah is not even a suspect. What follows takes a page from the best police procedurals. Once again Zacharias does her homework and offers a well-detailed account of his capture more than a year later.

Just as Lukah appears to murder out of the blue, his maternal grandfather, Gene Dale Lincoln, had previously murdered a young woman camper in 1973 in Michigan and abducted a 12-year-old girl. The account of the kidnapping is page-turning, intense, and meticulously recreated. The girl’s determination to survive comprise some of the most riveting portions of the book.

Through a controversial plea deal, Lincoln serves time, but only for relatively few years given the nature of his crime. Released, he ends up in the Carolinas, living with Lukah and his family. What influence he might have had over Lukah raises a case-specific kind of nature versus nurture question within the family.

Engrossing, thought-provoking, and important, The Murder Gene showcases Zacharias as not only a compelling writer, but a consummate, detail-oriented researcher. The sheer range of her writing and her insights in this book—from a lucid explanation of scientific details to law enforcement’s prolonged investigation to the poignant portrayal of a loveless marriage to the spine-tingling account of a child’s kidnapping and a woman’s murder—establish Karen Spears Zacharias as an exceptional, perceptive, and talented writer.

Zacharias is an award-winning author of numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction. A former crime beat reporter, she has taught journalism at Central Washington University. Her work has been featured on NPR, CNN, and Good Morning America. Her op-eds have appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times. A Gold-Star daughter, she divides her time between her home in Deschutes County, Oregon, and her hometown of Columbus, Georgia.

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