A Review in the New York Daily News Books Blog

BY Alexander Nazaryan

On the morning of Oct. 31, 1999, Dr. Dick Greineder and his wife May decided to take a walk. Later that day, trick-or-treaters would arrive. Just then, it was clear and bright. They drove from their home at 56 Cleveland Rd. in the wealthy Boston suburb of Wellesley to Morses Pond, a park that abuts the prestigious women’s college bearing the same name as the town. 

The Greineders, who had been married for 31 years, parked their van where Turner Rd. was blocked from further vehicular traffic. With them was Zephyr, one of their two German shepherds; the other, Wolf, had recently become too aggressive for such leisurely strolls.

What happened next has been in some form of dispute for the past 13 years. Dr. Greineder – then a respected allergist at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, today an inmate at a Massachusetts state prison in Norfolk – says he and his wife were walking through a wooded area of the park when she started complaining of a bad back.

He went ahead with Zephyr, doubling back some minutes later. When he returned, Dr. Greineder found his wife lying in the undergrowth, her neck slashed and her chest full of puncture wounds. He says he checked her vitals, ran back to his car (where his cell phone was charging) to call for help and then returned to the side of his already-dead wife. Greineder has always maintained that an unknown assailant had killed May.

That is not what the police would determine, nor what the prosecutors would argue successfully before a jury. Their unwavering position has been that Greineder killed his wife, first by striking her on the head with a hammer, then stabbing her to death. They point to what they claim is DNA evidence from the crime scene, a pair of recovered work gloves that match those Greineder used at home, the blood splatter patterns on Greineder’s clothes and statements he gave after the crime, which range from the contradictory to the bizarre.

Most damningly, they painted for the jury that convicted Greineder of murder in the summer of 2001 the portrait of a man who solicited prostitutes and reveled in hardcore Internet pornography. Prosecutors claimed that May had already discovered her husband’s stash of Viagara and was on the verge of uncovering his entire sordid sex life, which is why he supposedly felt compelled to silence her. Though Greineder’s lawyers have generally maintained that his sex life was extraneous to the case at hand, they are as hard for the reader to disregard as they must have been for the jury.

That conviction came just before 9/11, so it is somewhat understandable that Greineder’s case has receded in the public memory. But, in fact, that case remains in limbo: Just this June, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Massachusetts’ highest court to reexamine the conviction based on what may have been compromised DNA-based testimony from prosecution experts. That means that Greineder could yet have another day in court to plead his case.

Now we have “A Murder in Wellesley: The Inside Story of an Ivy-League Doctor’s Double Life, His Slain Wife, and the Trial That Gripped the Nation,” by Tom Farmer, who reported on the story for the Boston Herald, and Marty Foley, then a detective with the Massachusetts State Police and one of the lead investigators on the case. The shared authorship is slightly misleading, since it is quite obvious that Foley was less an author than a voluble primary source, along with Belinda Markel, a niece of the Queens-born May who seems to have concluded rather early that Dirk was responsible for her murder and appears to not have been very shy in giving her side of the story to the authors of this book.

Among those, however, who have never believed that Greineder was guilty are his three children, Kirsten, Britt and Colin. Like him, all three are Yale graduates; Kirsten and Colin are also doctors. “My father did not commit this crime. My father did not kill my mother,” Kirsten said confidently during his trial from the witness stand – and there is, after all, no confidence quite like the confidence of a daughter in her father. Her siblings were similarly unwavering.

Farmer and Foley are at the other extreme, certain from the very first that Greineder is their man, a cold fish with a cruel heart. Their is a discomfiting self-assurance about “A Murder in Wellesley,” a certainty that the best true crime knows to avoid. Foley and his colleagues, unsurprisingly, shine with near-impeccable professionalism, while Greineder is made to seem a pervert and a liar, one who is more concerned about his dogs than his dead wife, given to rambling statements about his own innocence before he has been charged with anything and sending naked pictures of himself to potential threesome prospects.

There is plenty here to indict Greineder in the reader’s mind: DNA testing aside, it is hard to square the doctor’s assertion that he had tried to revive his wife with the fact that his hands were clean. The prosecution alleged he used gloves during the murder, then tried to dispose of them, unsuccessfully. As would be noted during the trial, Greineder’s clean hands are “not consistent with the lifesaving effort the doctor had described.” That cleanliness, in the end, was damning.

As far as the reader is concerned, the details dished out by Markel (and, I imagine, her mother Ilse Stark, who is May’s sister), which suggest that Greineder was at best callous, at worst insane. In these pages, he refers to his dead wife as “the body,” and after a funeral that is portrayed as having been done on the cheap, he greets mourners in a mood that is “unusually jovial, even frivolous…almost boisterous,” at one point joking with the Yale swimming coach, as Farmer and Foley tell the tale.

What never becomes clear is just why Greineder would kill his wife, even if, as was alleged, she had discovered his stash of self-prescribed Viagara and was on the cusp of finding out about his hooker trysts and predilection for porn. After all, some men cheat and many look at porn; of these, plenty are discovered by their spouses, but very few – almost none, statistically – resort to murder. Farmer and Foley stay on the surface of the case, almost never mentioning the motive, which leaves you wondering if they ever came up with a good one. They call the doctor “a murderous sociopath,” but that is a match lit in total darkness. The question – why?  – hangs, irksome, in the air. A courtroom does not need a motive, but a good true crime book, like a good crime novel, does. Without motive, you are left with a kabuki theater of victims and villains, moving through time with unstated purpose. 

The Greineder case brings to mind that of Jeffrey MacDonald, who sits in prison for the murder of his wife and two daughters on Feb. 17, 1970 and whose case begat Joe McGinniss’ “Fatal Vision,” Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer” and, most recently, Errol Morris’ “A Wilderness of Error.” Both men are Ivy League doctors (Greineder: New Haven; MacDonald: Old Nassau) with seemingly happy families and little apparent cause to commit uxoricide. Indeed, both have continued to profess their innocence and both hope to still be freed on appeal. Yet for now, they remain in federal prison.

Why do we read their stories? For one, they are much more interesting than our own, allowing for the katharsis – the release of pity and fear by watching the suffering of another – that Aristotle said was the crux of great tragedy. But there is something else, too. The comedian Chris Rock once said that you have never been in love until you’ve fantasized about killing your significant other, elsewhere describing marriage as “f—-ing boring.” To be yoked to another person, whom you can never completely know, is indeed a frightening enterprise. When you put that ring around your betrothed’s finger, you are buying a stock whose value may rise or dip, just as your own may. You’re going all in, and you could end up broke – and broken. 

Of course, some wing the whole matrimony business, which is possible with enough prime-time television. Others simply divorce. But then there are those troubled few whom “till death do us part” takes on an especially gruesome connotation. They seem unable to accept either the essential illusion of happiness that undergirds most marriages nor the admission of misery that is suggested in all divorce. And so, what Rock says in jest, they do in earnest.

“True crime,” though, is something of a misnomer. The murder of a 19- year-old black male in Dayton is certainly, tragically “true,” but you are unlikely to find his story on the shelves. His story, sadly, is too true, too common – the opposite of Greineder’s story or MacDonald’s. While “true crime” may be merely a form of classification, it is more than that, suggesting an anxiety that some might perceive the tale as fiction. There is a desperate need, then, to emphasize that this happened, it really did, which would make “This-really-is-true crime” a more accurate name for the genre. At one point, an acutely anxious Greineder tells his family members, “This isn’t real. This is a movie.” The rich irony is that it is, in fact real, though it also has the benefit of being cinematic – even though that benefit, of course, is one only the reader can enjoy.

It is a curiosity of history that both Google and Viagara were introduced in 1998, the year before the events described in “A Murder in Wellesley.” No two products have done more to either save or damn masculinity. In 1999, when May Greineder was murdered, both were still novelties; today, there are some who pop Viagara for pleasure, while only the dullest naif doesn’t know what Google’s “private browsing” window is for.

If Greineder and MacDonald did kill their wives, then there is an obvious madness to their thought – the same rage that had Clytemenstra stab Agamemnon so many centuries ago. I imagine the rage of a febrile animal, trapped and running out of ideas – until he hits upon the most gruesome one. This is tragedy. Pass the popcorn.


Leave a Reply