Book Article

Toying With Death

Dollhouse dioramas provide clues to solve crimes -- The book ''The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death'' features photographs of eighteen miniature crime scenes

What is it?

A dollhouse-size diorama of a 1944 murder photographed by Corinne May Botz for The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

Where'd it come from?

It's one of 18 tiny crime scenes made in the 1940s and '50s by Frances Glessner Lee, an eccentric Chicago heiress.

Why'd she go to all that trouble?

Lee founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where the 1:12-scale models helped train police detectives.

Isn't there something creepy about this?

''It's their combination of the idyllic — pinups, milk at the back door — and deadly that is so intriguing,'' says Botz, 27. ''You always think you can manipulate and control a perfect dollhouse world, but things here are smashed up, out of control.''

So what's their appeal?

''It's mostly their obsessive detail that draws you in,'' says Botz, adding that their creator's life ''Is as mysterious and fascinating as the dioramas themselves.''

Originally posted Nov 05, 2004 Published in issue #791 Nov 05, 2004 Order article reprints