Art Imitates Life: The Detective and the Serial Killer

I read a fascinating account about a police detective in New Jersey who solved a number of cases involving the same serial killer. The article about Robert Anzilotti written by Michael Wilson in the New York Times ( gave a chilling account about Detective Anzilotti, who, days before his retirement, finally solved the last of the serial murders committed by Richard Cottingham. The story about Cottingham, who has been in prison since 1981when Detective Anzilotti was still a teenager, chronicles the brutal murders of young girls and women and is in its own right a riveting story. But, as a crime writer, I was equally fascinated by Detective Anzilotti as a character in his own story. He was more compelling than any cop in the many police procedurals I’ve read, and I have read many excellent ones.

            Writing a credible character is integral to telling a story. The writer likes to think she’s telling the story, but it’s the characters she creates who actually reveal it. The character must be displayed in full human dimension, never as a cardboard cutout.

            Within a one-page newspaper story, Anzilotti jumped off the page. I wanted to understand how he felt so real (which he is) and to see if I could borrow some lessons to humanize my fictional characters. We meet him as a young detective who is handed cold cases that are decades old. He is tenacious. He dares to speculate. He cares about the victims. He cares about their families, whom he meets with personally even forty-seven years after the death of their loved one.

            Anzilotti went beyond meeting families He met with Cottingham, first after finding a way to place Cottingham in solitary confinement, a bumpy start to an unusual relationship that extended over two decades. Anzilotti was determined to get information from Cottingham that would prove he had killed more than the victims whose murders he had been convicted of. He began meeting with him periodically in an effort to accomplish this.

            Anzilotti would have Cottingham driven an hour from the prison to meet with him, which became a field trip of sorts for the inmate. First, there would be pizza and card games with other detectives. Then, one on one, the detective would ask the hard questions. Sometimes he would get answers about who Cottingham had killed. Other times, he would have to wait.

            Anzilotti and Cottingham developed a relationship, although it would be difficult to describe it as a friendship without knowing more from both men. When Cottingham had revealed most of the details he harbored, he held back confessing about two murders that particularly troubled Anzilotti. He feared he would never see Anzilotti again if he told all. In the end, Cottingham gave Anzilotti the last of his confessions as a retirement gift of sorts to the detective.

I confess to having some discomfort that I find hard to explain about the odd alliance between the two men. I do marvel at the way Anzilotti maintained his commitment to solve the murders he had been assigned at the beginning of his career. The compassion and kindness he showed the families of victims was admirable. He demonstrated incredible negotiation skills when he was able to persuade them to make accommodations in court proceedings so other families might have the same chance to learn who had killed their loved one. 

            By the end of the article, I wished I could create a fictional character who is as complex and human as Detective Anzilotti. He is my new poster child for character development. Art does imitate life.

One comment

  1. Fascinating. We’re watching a similar real-crime show but about a British detective who caught a serial rapist who targeting elderly women in south London.

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