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So this is not just any friendship. It is also a fair specimen of passive aggression. Schiller, 65, has been treated for years as a world-historical ambulance chaser. A onetime photojournalist, he has made a career of tracking down the people involved in the great public squalors of our time--the Kennedy assassination, the Manson murders, the O.J. Simpson trial--then fashioning their stories into books and TV movies that he directs. He got Jack Ruby's deathbed interview. He co-wrote Simpson's self-serving jailhouse book, I Want to Tell You. For many of those years, Mailer has been Schiller's mentor, older brother and ticket to ride. But lately the balance of power may have shifted a bit. Schiller co-wrote a best seller about the Simpson trial, American Tragedy, with former TIME correspondent James Willwerth. Widely considered the best of the Simpson books, it won Schiller some of the respect toward which he has been struggling all his life. Meanwhile, Mailer's last book, The Gospel According to the Son, was, to put it mildly, not well received. In their previous collaborations, Mailer did the writing. On their new book, it's Schiller, who for good measure is so wildly productive that in September he will publish Cape May Court House, about a car crash that may have been a cover for murder. Posterity will have the final say, and we can assure you which way it will go, but for now it's Schiller who can preen.
Hanssen's story is irresistible. The archconservative son of a Chicago cop, he worked diligently for the Russians. An ultra-orthodox Catholic, he sent nude pictures of his wife to his best friend and, in one of the weirdest discoveries of the Mailer/Schiller research, proposed that his friend use the date-rape drug Rohypnol to seduce her. No mere diagnosis of "mental disorder," says Mailer, could begin to grasp the man's complexities: "There are great holes in formal psychology. Hanssen just blazes through them."
Schiller distills Hanssen's story to the torments that fascinate Mailer: guilt, subterfuge, sex and hubris. He lifts dialogue from Mailer's screenplay and incorporates some of Mailer's imagined scenes. If his serviceable prose were any match for Hanssen's intricacies, this might be a book to be reckoned with. But Schiller's real gift is for gathering information. And in the face of Hanssen's spectacular contradictions, mere facts drop to the floor.
It's a problem that Schiller's film may solve. And if the right opportunity comes along, don't doubt that Mailer will work with Schiller again. Which one needs the other more is an unsettled question. Maybe it always was. Mailer looks at Schiller: "I was always intrigued by what a phenomenon you were." Schiller beams. The feeling is mutual.