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Review: New book about Susan Powell's disappearance is awful, well-told tale

Published May 19, 2014 8:59 am

Review • True-crime authors detail the layered, complicated story of what happens after Susan Powell goes missing.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There's an adage that says you don't embellish a good story.

And while "good" should never be used to describe the saga of Susan Powell and her family — four people are dead and Powell is still missing — the principle still applies. Give authors Rebecca Morris and Gregg Olsen credit for following it in their new book, "If I Can't Have You."

Morris and Olsen spell out the facts and leave it at that.

Those facts — taken from interviews, West Valley City police documents and exhibits from the various court cases with a connection to the disappearance — are the basis for the reporting. Much of the book is told from the perspective of Powell's parents, Chuck and Judy Cox.

The facts offer a few new theories.

One is that Powell's husband, Josh Powell, planned to dispose of Susan in early 2009 — months before she disappeared. Josh wanted a couple's camping adventure, but the trip was aborted when Susan refused to leave their two sons in the care of her father-in-law, Steve Powell.

Morris and Olsen also suggest Josh might have been poisoning Susan in the weeks before she disappeared. Josh was making Susan special smoothies, and during this time she reported feeling so nauseated she thought she was pregnant and had miscarried. Both theories are based on witness accounts. No other evidence is offered.

The authors don't offer any new ideas about where Susan might be. Yet the book remains compelling, even for people who have been following the saga from the beginning.

As bad as you thought Josh and Susan's home life was, it was worse. In one anecdote, their oldest son, Charlie, was diagnosed with malnutrition as an infant. Josh didn't want to feed Charlie enough food because the baby would just poop it out.

The facts here are less kind to Josh than they are Susan, but the portrayal of Josh is not without sympathy.

Morris and Olsen report both a mystery and a tale of multigenerational dysfunction. They describe Steve's mistreatment of Josh's mother, Steve's anti-Mormon rhetoric and his antisocial behavior that influenced Josh and his siblings. The authors also offer evidence Josh passed that legacy to his own sons.

There's also a possibility, Morris and Olsen report, that Braden, the younger boy, was molested by Steve or his son John. Upon the state of Washington awarding custody of Charlie and Braden to the Coxes, Braden was diagnosed with a fungal skin infection.

There are multiple ways to contract such an infection, and one of them is sexual contact. That's slim evidence of child molestation, and the authors acknowledge that. But in light of Steve's voyeurism of his neighbor girls, and John's mental illness, Morris and Olsen articulate the Coxes' suspicions.

How well West Valley City police are portrayed is in the eye of the reader. Again, Morris and Olsen tell the facts, and the facts are that West Valley City investigated the disappearance for 3 ½ years. But the strategy of waiting for Josh to incriminate himself didn't work.

In a scene shortly after Josh kills Charlie, Braden and then himself, a sobbing West Valley City police Chief Buzz Nielsen tells Susan's father "You were right all along" about Josh. Chuck Cox's reaction is probably the same one readers will have.

"If I Can't Have You" isn't sequential, as the book jumps around a bit from before to after Susan's disappearance. Readers who have followed the Powell case since 2009 should do fine. For newcomers, the book will make sense in the end.

Well, as much as any of the facts in the Powell case make sense.


Twitter: @natecarlisle —

If I Can't Have You: Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children

By Gregg Olsen and Rebecca Morris

St. Martin's Press

Pages • 336

Cost • $26.99 —

If I Can't Have You

Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance and the Murder of Her Children

About • A Trib Talk live video chat on Monday, May 19, at 12:15 p.m. at sltrib.com will feature the case and the book. Co-author Rebecca Morris and The Tribune's Sheena McFarland will participate with moderator Jennifer Napier-Pearce. In addition, the book will be the focus of The Tribune's Utah Lit book club discussion Wednesday, June 25, at 7 p.m. at the Viridian Event Center, 8030 S. 1825 West, West Jordan.

Also • The authors will launch the book at a panel discussion with Susan Powell's family and family attorney Anne Bremner at the Pioneer Park Pavilion, 330 S. Meridian, Puyallup, Wash., at 7 p.m. Friday, May 30.