Review: Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson


William Swanson’s _Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson_ is a grisly crime story written in a sure, engaging hand. What’s more, it all actually happened.

In the St. Paul suburb of Highland Park, Carol Thompson, the perfect picture of a devoted wife and mom of three girls and a boy, was beaten bloody and stabbed to death. By—a court of law decided—hit men her husband, attorney T. Eugene Thompson had hired. In 1963, it made crime-of-the-century headlines—in Minnesota, across the country and, for that matter, internationally. After all, such things just don’t happen in Leave-It-To-Beaver-land, USA. Nothing short of JFK’s assassination, eight months later, got stronger Twin Cities coverage. Thompson maintained then and swears now that he didn’t do it. Nobody’s buying. Including his sons and daughters, who convened a private trial to ascertain whether Dad was responsible for the tragedy that changed their lives.

Tight, candid and quite matter-of-fact, Swanson covers the case from top to bottom, following up in detail on the aftermath for the Thompson children. The authenticity is inarguable. Swanson ran the manuscript by the Thompson’s now grown son, Jeff. “I had him read the manuscript last summer as part of the fact-checking process,” Swanson says. “He’s familiar with everything in the book and he’s very pleased with it.”

Swanson, who makes his bread and butter as senior editor at _Mpls/St. Paul_ magazine, has been in the business more than 30 years. It shows. _Dial M_ never gets melodramatic, doesn’t go for profoundly astute. It just brings the goods: fluid text and an evenly paced, tension-building story. As the facts are conveyed, the more you learn, the more you can’t wait to find out.

Why write this book? “Well, because it’s an interesting story,” Swanson readily responds. He’s a good-natured, no-nonsense sort, silver-haired with a Father Knows Best cum Mr. Phelps aspect. “It’s a story I’ve been thinking of since I was 18. It is arguably the most infamous crime story in the Twin Cities ever. And it’s just something that, for a lot of reasons, I could never get out of my head. As a writer, stories [often] grab you as much as you grab them. That was the case. It was something that wouldn’t let go of me until I wrote it.”

Most crime stories end when someone goes to jail. This one carries out 40 years from the crime, covering the investigation and the trial and then visiting the survivors. “[It’s] as concerned with the victims as it is with the murderer.” He adds, “To be able to follow this family and to have this family willing to tell me about their experience over four lifetimes is just an extraordinary thing. The more I worked at it, the more interested I was.”

Jeff, it turns out, became an attorney, then Judge Jeff Thompson of Minnesota’s Third Judicial District. And he respects Swanson. “He was interested in us as people and in the story, but without any indication that he would want to sensationalize the whole thing.” Thompson greatly appreciates Swanson’s accuracy. “I’ve dealt with the media over the years and every time you do, you always wonder what’s their version of our conversation going to be? I’ve been misquoted, taken out of context and, basically, I think, assassinated. So, it’s always pleasant when you’re dealing with a journalist who gets the story straight.”

The title, _Dial M_, might seem to take ghoulish license. But, says Swanson, “According to the state of Minnesota, the plan to murder Carol Thompson included a phone call from T. Eugene Thompson to Carol that would draw her into position where the hired killer would attack her. A similar plot point [lays] at the heart of ‘Dial M for Murder’ the Hitchcock film of the same era. The smart folks at Borealis Books, my publisher, believed, correctly, I think, that “Dial M”, in conjunction with the jacket photo, would conjure up a time and a noirish mood that would be meaningful to booksellers and buyers alike.” That it does.

_Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson_ has been praised in impressive quarters, including Publisher’s Weekly. A captivating story well told, it deserves every word.