The Kalinka Affair: A Father’s Hunt for His Daughter’s Killer, by Joshua Hammer, published by The Atavist for Kindle, iPad, Nook, Google Play, and Kobo.
Reviewed by Deborah Blum
Call it an identity crisis of sorts. But for a career science writer, I’ve found myself spending an unusual amount of time in the past few years writing – and devotedly reading – true crime stories.
Call it also a logical consequence. I wrote a book about poison, murder and the early days of forensic toxicology. I write a blog about culture and chemistry, one that leads me inevitably into stories of lethal cocktails and homicidal intent. When I see a tale of murder and mystery, I usually wonder if there was a toxic weapon involved.
I realize that telling you this may make me sound a little creepy and it’s not – promise – that I spend my days lurking around hoping for a homicide. But I do look for stories that allow me to practice what I occasionally think of as subversive chemistry writing, narratives in which I can weave some toxicology, sneak a few chemical formulas or Periodic Table references into the tale.
There’s more at play here, though, than my interest in narrative story telling techniques. Forensic toxicology raises some fascinating questions about the role of scientific detective work. Can good chemistry always solve a murder? Even if we find a poison in a body, does that always lead us to the killer? And even if we know the killer, does that always lead us to justice?
Which brings me, of course, to The Atavist’s recent successful true crime single, The Kalinka Affair. The story is written by Joshua Hammer, a former foreign bureau chief for Newsweek, and a man with a long-time fascination with murder himself. His full-length books include Murder in Yosemite (the story of a 1999 mass murder in the national park), Sherlock Holmes’ London, and Where Agatha Christie Dreamed Up Murder.
You’ve probably guessed by now that The Kalinka Affair involves poison and murder. That’s my focus more than the author’s – this is foremost a story of a father’s full-fanatic drive to find justice in the matter of his daughter’s death. That passionate, guilt-and-love driven parental determination drives the narrative forward through almost 30 years of twists and turns, international politics and criminal undertakings, and unforgiving rage. “Bamberski would leave his job, burn through much of his life savings, and devote thousands of hours to pursuing his quarry,” Hammer writes.
For example, the German pathologist discovers a fresh puncture mark on the dead girl’s upper right arm. In response, Krombach claims to have given her an injection of an iron supplement to help improve her tan. Then he announces she had an undiagnosed anemia that he was treating. Meanwhile, he persuades the pathologist to forgo any full testing of the girl's blood and tissue.
It doesn’t take much research to discover that the injection story never made sense. That particular drug has very limited application, It was approved, for instance, by the FDA in 1999 but only for a very select group of patients – those with chronic kidney disease, on dialysis, and receiving therapy for a low red-blood cell count. Kalinka Bamberski was never in that group.
Further, the drug is known to be dangerous. It can cause rapid blood pressure loss, difficulty breathing, severe nausea, chest and abdominal pain. The website Adverse Events reports that 41 percent of people with adverse reactions to Ferrlecit required hospitalization and four percent died. In other words, even your average science journalist can figure out that this is hardly the kind of injection a responsible physician would give to promote tanning or even a mild case of anemia.
But Bamberski discovers that nothing about the explanation of his daughter’s death really holds up, that the doctor summoned by an emergency call had not contacted the police and had – at Krombach’s insistence – declined to send the body to a medical examiner. He demands further toxicology work, which turns up a high probability that the injection killed his child. There was also, as it turned out, some suggestive but evidence of rape - which suggested a motive in the case as well.
We’re often misled, I think, by the CSI-style television world into thinking that such findings drive a sense of missionary zeal down at the police station. In the case of Krombach, German authorities declared the findings inconclusive and closed the case. “Deference to Krombach’s professional stature in Lindau, a heavy workload, the ambiguities of chemical analysis – any or all of these could help explain the extraordinary lapses in judgment,” Hammer writes.
What makes this story different is that Bamberski absolutely and completely refuses to accept such institututional indifference. And he maintains that furious focus for decades. It's not an obsession, he insists to Hammer. It's a matter of keeping a promise to his daughter.
Hammer keeps the story moving at high speed through its many twists and through its many troubling ethical questions about criminal processes. This straight ahead approach gives the tale both strength (clear story telling and readability) and weakness (superficiality and a tendency to skim over personalities and problems alike). Brevity is, in fact, the main reader complaint on-line. To give you a sense of how compactly this is done, Amazon calculates the length at 31 printed pages. I downloaded an enhanced edition iBook edition, that included photos, audio, and a detailed time-line and it came to 93 pages total.
But there are worst complaints than readers wishing that your Kindle Single was a full length book. Yes, there could have been more depth in a longer piece. But overall, I think, the speed of the telling does justice to the intensity of Bamberski's mission.
I could have wished for more on the poisons used, but then I’m an admitted chemistry geek. More seriously, I also could have wished for a little more care and accuracy in describing them. For example, when Krombach finally is brought to trial in France (due to some definitely illegal actions by Bamberski) more chemistry is uncovered. Newly improved and sensitive tests of Kalinka’s tissue samples uncover significant levels of a sedative. Hammer identifies this drug as “benzodiazepine,” but, to be technically accurate, that’s actually the name for a class of several dozen sedatives.
Generally, the benzodiazepines are more likely to make you sleepy than to kill you – but mixed in a high dose with opiates or with alcohol they’re notably dangerous. It’s unclear from Hammer’s reporting whether the analysis identified the particular benzodiazepine – Valium? The known date-rape drug, Rohypnol? Ativan? A lethal combination? Or could the investigators tell? A little more of this kind of information, I think, would have added to the story without slowing it down – and made it stronger.
Still, it doesn't miss in delivering the main message. Forensic science - our vaunted ability to tease poisons out of corpses and read messages in dead tissues - is only as good as the honor of the system that employs it. And for all that we wish it to be impartial, justice is often merely human, separated from vengeance by a very fine line.
Deborah Blum is the author of The Poisoner's Handbook (2010, Penguin Press). She writes about chemistry and culture at the Wired science blog, Elemental, and teaches journalism the University of Wisconsin-Madison.