Norgaard, Christopher, Unfair Competition - Murder by Gunshot ([Charleston, S.C.]: CrestView Pubs., 2013), [2] + 131 pp., ISBN 9781492755555 (softcover), price pending

NOTE:  This review was from an uncorrected proof, dated 10/1/13.

My Goodreads friends will tell you that I’m a long-time fan of the works of hard-boiled crime novelist James Ellroy.  I got hooked by a breathless read of The Black Dahlia sometime around 1997 and devoured just about everything else of his I could get my hands on.  The bulk of his work takes place in a seamy, dreamy, cynical postwar Los Angeles populated by sensationalist journalists, crooked cops, and dissolute film stars awash in a sea of sex, drugs, and murder.  Ellroy’s work has the ring of truth because a lot of it is based on fact, and some publications--such as Crime Wave, containing essays on the link between the Dahlia case and his own mother’s similar murder--actually delve into the “true crime” genre.[1] 

This is usually the closest I get to “true crime,” apart from lengthy feature articles and Rick Geary’s excellent Treasury of Victorian Murder series of graphic novels. The genre has a sordid history, to be sure, but it also has a certain compelling appeal to it, like the traffic accident you can’t look away from.   In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter set the outlines, and police files have been providing the stories ever since.  I bring up Ellroy because Christopher Norgaard’s Unfair Competition likewise occurs mostly in L.A.—specifically, Beverly Hills—and because it, too, finds its roots in a murder case.  The story is fascinating, and getting a peek inside an attorney’s investigative files proves a major selling point of the book.  Ultimately, however, I found Unfair Competition’s alternate solution incomplete, and the work as a whole in need of some editing to remove repetition, and whether it’s appropriate for a law library will also depend on your collection development policy.

The style is at times melodramatic, although it settles down somewhat when Norgaard relates the details of his 30-year-old case file.  From then on, the rest of the book is more of a police procedural.  On the afternoon of May 23, 1979, a person or persons unknown gained entry to the Beverly Hills home of Lloyd Cotsen, a cosmetics magnate and U.S. licensee of Neutrogena-brand soap.  The perpetrator(s) appear to have surprised Cotsen’s wife Joanne, his youngest son Noel, and Noel’s school friend Chris Doering, taking the three of them hostage for several hours while the intruder or intruders searched the house, killing them execution-style after two additional hostages escaped, and vanishing afterward.  The ensuing police investigation focused on a long-running turf war between Cotsen and Arne Tali, the general manager of Laboratoires Ed. Fromont (LEF), the Belgian company that developed Neutrogena and licensed Cotsen.  After Tali’s death in October of that year the night before he was scheduled to be questioned by detectives, the Beverly Hills Police Department closed the case, concluding that he had either been the shooter, or had masterminded the break-in.

Norgaard’s involvement in this affair came about in 1982, when he was retained by Tali’s widow to defend her family and LEF against a civil unfair competition complaint filed by Cotsen and his company alleging failure to warn Cotsen of the danger to his family, and “conspiracy and complicity”[2] in the murders.  Norgaard’s alternate theory of the murder, developed during the defense of the civil action, involves drug-running, some Aguila ammunition, a mysterious bottle of chloroform—manufactured for exclusive sale in Belgium--found at the scene, and a grisly double-murder at L.A.’s landmark Bonaventure Hotel by two members of the Israeli Mafia some five months later.  There is certainly evidence supporting Norgaard, including two secondhand confessions to the Cotsen murders by one of the Bonaventure suspects.  The Beverly Hills Police Department, however, declined to reopen the Cotsen case even in the face of the new evidence.  Still, even taking the confessions at face value, the reader is left to wonder:  was this really a bungled burglary, or were the shooters hired assassins?

One issue an editor could probably address is the somewhat uneven presentation of facts throughout the book.  For instance, repeated, virtually-identical references are made to the same portions of an interview with an ex-LEF employee when one fuller discussion followed by short references back to it would probably have read better—in fact, transcript excerpts might have been particularly effective here.  An entire chapter is spent on the apparent flight path of the shooter(s), although the eventual connection is that the path is close to some local hotels, and the shooters might have been staying there, which seems like it’s posed solely to segue into the chapter on the Bonaventure killings.  The fact that certain aspects of the investigation are presented out of chronological order also makes the narrative unnecessarily difficult to follow.  Some reorganization would help Norgaard’s narrative a great deal.

Now that I’ve gone over the book’s flaws, I want to talk about its strengths, and they are substantial.  One thing about “true crime” books is that the story tends to be fascinating, and this one is no exception.  The tale spun—one of corporate intrigue, personal animosity, Mafiosi, and unanswered questions—does draw you in.  Ultimately, however, the question I’m called upon to answer in these reviews is whether the book belongs in a law library, and my conclusion is uncertain.  This is not a reflection on the work’s quality, but on the fact that law firm libraries and academic law libraries tend to treat material like this as entertainment reading, and your conclusion should therefore depend on how expansive your collection development policy is on this point.  I can’t recommend it without reservation, but it is what it is—an attempt to introduce some clarity to a 30-year-old cold case.

The goateed version of David E. Matchen, Jr., is the Circulation/Reference Librarian at the University of Baltimore School of Law, and looks remarkably like Frank Lapidus.

[1] Ellroy’s work tends to straddle the line between “crime novel” and “true crime.”  The latter is distinguished primarily by its complete lack of fictional elements.

[2] Norgaard, supra, at 128.