Maximum Harm: The Tsarnaev Brothers, the FBI, and the Road to the Marathon Bombing

Image of Maximum Harm: The Tsarnaev Brothers, the FBI, and the Road to the Marathon Bombing
Release Date: 
April 3, 2017
Reviewed by: 

A book so graphic, so heart wrenching, and so passionate demands the craft of a skilled author. So it is with Michele McPhee’s Maximum Harm: The Tsarnaev Brothers, The FBI, and the Road to the Marathon Bombing.

From page one, the reader is put into the center of the disaster, standing at the finish line at the Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15, 2013. Within a heartbeat, two bombs exploded within 13 seconds of each other.

McPhee begins her book in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. She paints the images in vivid, jolting detail. We are given an eyewitness account of the mayhem of shattered and missing limbs, burning flesh, blood-soaked streets, and cries for help.

The author describes myriad firsthand stories of friends and family in shock, some not aware that they have lost a limb, mostly legs, as the bombs were built to explode sideways rather than up, to cause the maximum bodily harm.

Steve, a father, was at the race waiting for his wife, Amber, while he wheeled his son around in a stroller. After the first bomb went off, Steve knew he needed to get away from the explosion, unfortunately he moved toward the Forum restaurant, the site of the second bomb.

In the minutes after the explosion, we are witness to the carnage:

“Terrified, Steve had only one thought: get his son the hell off Boylston Street. Steve reached for his son Leo, his fingers numb. Later, he remembered thinking: “Well. Let’s get out of here. And that’s when I discovered my leg had been severed off.” He recognized his boot on the ground next to him, with his sheared-off limb inside it. He realized that a glob of what looked like bloodied Scotch tape was in fact his Achilles tendon and knew he had to stop the bleeding. He ripped off his belt and tied it tightly around his thigh.”


His tragedy was not unique. The amount of damage that resulted from the bombs killed three people and injured 260 with severed limbs, burnt flesh, and popped eardrums.


The bombs were made from pressure cookers and filled with tiny pieces of shrapnel, BB pellets, sealant and cardboard that would cause people to be set on fire. The metal was meant to tear flesh and shatter bones. It would cause excessive bleeding and a painful death.


The overriding question is what drove the brothers Tamerlan, born in in Siberia in 1986 and his younger brother, Dzhokhar was born in 1993 in Kyrgyzstan, to attack their adopted country this way.

After their parents fled Russia and settled in Cambridge, MA, the boys attended the Rindge and Latin high school, considered one of the best in the country. Indeed, Dzhokhar was enrolled in Introduction to Ethics at UMass Dartmouth.

The family was granted political asylum, and Dzhokhar became an American citizen. However, Tamerlan never quite made citizenship, although it was something he desperately wanted.

Instead, both became U.S. counterterrorism’s biggest nightmare: Homegrown terrorists.

McPhee explores the lives of the Tsarnaev family in great detail from war torn Chechnya, extended relatives, and friends. We see Tamerlan’s friends, a benign group of kids who like to smoke pot and party. There isn’t anything suspicious until Tamerlan takes off to Russia and connects with radical Islamists.

Among the most alarming discoveries McPhee makes is Tamerlan’s ability, after becoming radicalized, to travel back and forth from the U.S. to Russia without a valid passport and while being on two terrorist watch lists. Even the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had warned the FBI and CIA about Tamerlan.

The players, names, relationships, and ancillary characters get difficult to follow at times. The research and attention to every event, large or small, is immense. No question is left unanswered, which explains the depth of analysis and coverage.

Maximum Harm is a difficult book to read in the best sense. McPhee spares no opportunity in putting the reader front and center of the bombing as well as the family dynamics which play the major part of how—maybe not why—the brothers chose to build a bomb and set it off. In particular, the author does an excellent job of allowing the reader to try and find those answers.

McPhee, an investigative reporter, television and radio journalist, is the author of five other bestselling true crime books.