The premeditated slaughter of Richard Robison, his wife and four children in the summer of 1968 in northern Michigan has haunted the Great Lakes state. The unsolved murders of the family have fueled inquiries and rampant speculation for four decades, leaving locals weary and the rest of us wondering.
Many writers have examined this case, but until 2008, none ever completed a nonfiction work about one of the worst mass murders in the state's history.
Traverse City author Mardi Link has avoided an apparent curse on the effort to explain what happened to the Robisons. Her new book, When Evil Came to Good Hart [Amazon; B&N], comes out in July from the University of Michigan Press. Michigan has waited a long time for this book.
In 200 crisp pages, the author tells the story with an immediacy that underscores the fact that for many, this tragedy may well have happened last year. The book includes numerous photos and impressive list of sources. It describes the evidence that an exhaustive investigation produced.
Like many suburban Detroiters before and since, the Robisons were trying to escape the crime and traffic (and in the 1960s, the riots) that plagued Detroit when they took an extended vacation in Good Hart, Emmet County, Michigan, at the tip of the mitt. They never came home. On June 25, 1968, a killer or killers murdered the entire family of six in their cottage with two firearms. Afterward, the rage still not spent, the killer(s) moved their bodies and yanked down Mrs. Shirley Robison's clothes.
The Robisons weren't found for a month -- not until the cottage's caretaker could no longer ignore the smell. The case exploded onto the front pages of newspapers everywhere. The image above is from NewspaperArchive.com.
Author Link had a tough task. The stale crime scene was second only in its horrifying impact to the fact of the murders themselves. She has stepped carefully, avoiding maudlin or graphic descriptions, tamping down on the gut-punch of this abbatoir, to focus on the questions everyone wants answered: Who? And why?
There is no cut-and-dried answer, but from what evidence there is, some conclusions can be drawn. For one thing, the business and personal activities of Richard Robison, patriarch (and judging by the gunshot wounds, the primary target), were, as the author aptly puts it, "just plain weird." As the owner of an advertising business, Robison, it appears, routinely defrauded his clients and fondled his secretaries while battling a profound mental illness. And he apparently drove someone into a murderous rage.
Bullet casings and shoeprints from the crime scene were the only strong evidence that the case ever really produced. Readers who are willing to draw fair and logical inferences from that evidence will not be left to wonder who cruelly murdered this family as they played cards in their backwoods retreat.
The question of why is less easily answered -- in nonfiction, at least. Two fiction books about the case are Dead End by James Pecora and The Tarished Eye by Judith Guest. But Mardi Link deserves the honor of being the first nonfiction writer to take on this bizarre multiple murder and replacing rumor with reporting, innuendo with fact, and an unsettling mystery with some clear answers. Hopefully When Evil Came to Good Hart will cleanse the stains from a community that deserves to be known foremost for its exquisite scenery, freshwater catches, lakeshore sunsets, and the smell of pine trees, and not for rumors of mysterious murders.
Visit the author's website
Read the review and story from the Traverse City Record-Eagle (just ignore the nonsense about how William Roughead "launched" true crime and Truman Capote made it modern. Sheesh. That's what happens when a reporter relies on Wikipedia.)