My thoughts have turned to this subject of late, for two reasons: I’ve been reading quite a few historical mysteries, and I’m watching Wolf Hall:
I have little to add to the praise that has already been heaped on this production. I adored both books – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – and I’m loving the screen version, although I by no means consider them equivalent in impact. But oh, those costumes, those sets, those tapestries! (what you can see of them in the dark, that is).
(Vanity Fair has posted a very helpful guide to the cast and characters in Wolf Hall.)
Now, on to the meat of the matter. Currently I have two favorite historical mystery series. First, there’s Robin Blake’s novels featuring coroner Titus Cragg and his friend and fellow investigator Luke Fidelis, a physician. These books are set in a very specific time and place: Preston, Lancashire, in the eighteenth century. The first, A Dark Anatomy, takes place in 1740. The next two, Dark Waters followed by The Hidden Man, advance the action exactly one year forward. Thus having recently finished The Hidden Man, I feel firmly rooted in the world that Robin Blake has created. It’s an extremely interesting world and it feels utterly real. I feel as though I actually know Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis. Titus is married to the sweet and empathetic Elizabeth; Luke is single. (I am most eager for Elizabeth to become pregnant and for Luke to find a soul mate.)
P.F. Chisholm’s series is set in the late 1500s in the far north of England, near the Anglo-Scottish border In this region, a curious and widespread lawlessness prevails. Queen Elizabeth is apparently too far away to take any meaningful corrective action; one doesn’t get the sense that she’s much interested in this remote domestic Hell raising anyhow. She does send one of her favorite courtiers, a distant cousin named Robert Carey. Would he please try to impose some sort of order on these people? Once arrived, Sir Robert assumes the role of Deputy Warden. Although his immediate superior, the Chief Warden of the region, happens to be his brother-in-law, this does not secure for Sir Robert any special favors. Rather, as he goes about the often dangerous business of pursuing outlaws, he is subject to a more particular scrutiny by that gentleman. Sir Robert’s sister, the wonderfully named Philadelphia, gives him a hand whenever she can.
After reading the first in the series, A Famine of Horses, I went on to read the next three in quick succession. I couldn’t get enough of Sir Robert Carey, his occasionally hapless men, and his seemingly doomed to be hapless love life.These books sparkle with wit, dry humor, and offhand irreverence. They are a joy to read – and there are more!
I’ve written about both Blake and Chisholm elsewhere in this space. It perplexes me that they are not better known and appreciated. Be that as it may, I recommend them to the discerning reader as highly as I possibly can.
What qualities are inherent in good historical fiction? To begin with, the writing has to be first rate. And so important: no anachronisms! Banish them utterly; they break the spell and spoil the illusion. Dialogue can be especially treacherous territory. I’ve read – or begun to read – some historical novels in which one encounters blocks of prose that are passable, even elegantly descriptive. But when the characters open their mouths to speak, they sound like high school kids from some idyllic valley in California. One certainly wishes them well – but do please extract them from Elizabethan England, the sooner the better! One way to skirt this pitfall is to cast the novel in the form of a first person memoir. Although this will limit point of view – the narrator can’t know what’s going on elsewhere except later and at second hand – it’s a technique that offers certain advantages. This is nowhere more apparent than in Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant Memoirs of Hadrian.
Really good historical fiction is carefully researched so that the era in question can be meticulously recreated. That research must then be subsumed beneath the surface of the story that’s being told. If it obtrudes itself in an ungainly way into the narrative, then the cherished illusion of being transported into a past time is under threat. C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels have been justly praised for their rich depiction of life in Tudor England. I’m currently reading the latest, Lamentation. I’m about third of the way in – it’s quite long – and generally speaking, I’m enjoying it. But I’ve been dismayed to encounter several instances in which one or another aspect of the times is explicated for the benefit of the contemporary reader rather than for the novel’s characters.
Here’s an example: Shardlake, a lawyer, is conversing with his new pupil Nicholas on the subject of the accoutrements that may legally be worn in public. As they head for the street, Shardlake asks if Nicholas is carrying a weapon. The pupil replies in the affirmative, and Shardlake offers this comment:
“Since your father’s being a landowner decrees you are a gentleman and gentlemen wear swords in public, we may as well turn the sumptuary laws to our advantage.”
Granted, sumptuary law will prove an arcane subject for most contemporary readers. (The WordPress visual text editor does not have the word “sumptuary” in its lexicon.) Still, in the context of the novel, this is too much information, methinks. Shardlake and his contemporaries would probably have been well versed in this body of regulations, since violating them could carry serious consequences. For whom then is this information intended? The modern reader, one can but supposed.
Admittedly a small cavil, but what can I say? It sets my teeth on edge and breaks the spell.
If, like me, you love historical fiction, here’s a little book that may drive you crazy in the best possible way:
For me, the chief task of historical fiction is to transport me to another time and place – and keep me there for the duration. Above all, transcendent writing can help make the leap. There are two passages from Wolf Hall that illustrate this phenomenon exceptionally well well. This one:
‘The harvest is getting in. The nights are violet and the comet shines over the stubble fields. The huntsmen call in the dogs.
He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.
All our senses are heightened and brought into play. The past is made real once again.
At 5:30 this morning, while suffering my usual early morning insomnia, I found myself brooding over the strange case of Lizzie Borden.
As an aid to the brooding process, I summoned up on my iPad “The Trial of Lizzie Borden: edited, with a history of the case.” The author of this document is Edmund Pearson. Pearson, as it turns out, was one of the bright lights of true crime writing in the early twentieth century. Published in 1937, this is probably his most famous work.
There is a quality in Pearson’s prose that I find curiously mesmerizing. Perhaps this is due to the combined effect of grace, eloquence, and a deeply ironic world view which comes to bear powerfully on the events and people of which he writes. The writing itself has a slight touch of antiquity, of formality, yet it is in some ways curiously modern.
First, Pearson set the scene for us. The Fall River of 1892 was still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century. Gradually he turns his focus onto the Borden family, who lived, in varying degrees of unhappiness, pretty much smack in the middle of town. The author fills us in on the family’s background. Andrew Borden’s first wife died when he was in his forties. He was left with two young daughters: Emma, twelve, and Lizzie, not yet three. (A daughter born in the years between these two died while still a toddler.)
Here, Pearson describes the scene as it unfolded, just before the murder of Andrew Borden. The old gentleman had just returned from a walk into town. His wife Abby already lay dead, in the upstairs guest bedroom which she’d been tidying, but only one person knew this.
Lizzie has employed – or seemed to employ – a stratagem whereby Bridget the maid might be induced to go out.
“There is a cheap sale of dress goods at Sargent’s, at eight cents a yard.”
Bridget expressed a polite interest, but still made no move to leave the house. She did, however, do something equally convenient to the plans which must have been rapidly revolving in the brain of someone close by. She went up the back stairs to her room, intending to use her half-hour’s leisure taking a nap.
Mr Borden was overcome by weariness and the sultry air. He had moved from his chair to the sofa against the north wall of the sitting room. Here he stretched himself out almost at full length, but with his feet resting on the carpet.
His wife had been surprised alone, and in a place from which there was no escape. The old man had walked into his home as unsuspecting as an animal going to slaughter. But he was a tall man, still on his feet, and with his senses about him. A doubtful enemy to attack, he could at least shout for help.
But now everything was made secure for his assassin. He lay down and slept.
How long Bridget was in her room on the third floor, she never knew. Perhaps ten, probably twenty minutes. She heard the nearby clock on the City Hall strike eleven. She lay on her bed and dozed. It was a drowsy, hot hour; the energy had gone out of the day, and out of everyone. The neighbors and the few people who passed the house dragged their steps; the sun blazed through the dusty street; men stopped in the sparse shade of the trees and wiped the sweat from their foreheads.
And then suddenly, in the midst of this pervading torpor, Lizzie calls to Bridget, demanding in strident tones that she present herself at once:
“Come down here! Father’s dead; someone came in and killed him!”
In the hours following, in the days, weeks and months that followed, and down through the decades, a single question has been persistently asked:
“Where were you, Miss Lizzie, when this happened?”
Pearson reviews various theories of the case, among them the suggestion that in order to avoid bloodied clothing, the killer perpetrated the attacks while in the nude:
The thought is so precious, the notion of the secretary of a Christian Endeavor Society [a post held by Lizzie at the time of the murders] prancing through the house like a blood-drunken nymph at the Witches’ Sabbath is so delightful, that it is with great sorrow that I must say that all evidence for it is wanting, and, on strictly practical grounds, it is most improbable. There was calculation and scheming in the murders; a plan hastily executed, to be sure, but nevertheless a plan. The possibility of interruption or premature discovery must have been considered, and, in that event, it would be easier to explain away a drop or two of blood on the clothing than to be surprised, at eleven o’clock of a Thursday morning, stripped to the buff.
There’s more, but you get the idea. Certainly Pearson cannot resist having a bit of a lark with this notion, especially as it gives him a chance to skewer people’s pretensions and hypocrisies. It’s an opportunity that he invariably took advantage of, often with considerable glee.
But in the end, he offers extremely compelling evidence that Lizzie herself was the perpetrator. Indeed, from a purely logistical standpoint, it could hardly have been anyone else.
As for the motive, one component was probably greed. Old Andrew Borden had amassed a considerably estate, but he was parsimonious in its outlay. The house in which the family lived was modest to a fault; it did not possess amenities as basic as indoor plumbing.
After Lizzie’s acquittal, she and her sister Emma, who had been visiting friends in Fairhaven at he time of the murders, moved to a far nicer established up on “The Hill.” Lizzie grandly named their new domicile Maplecroft. She became an aficionado of the theater and began to entertain actors, actresses, and other folk from that world. Emma became increasingly unhappy with this influx of what she considered questionable associations. In 1905, she moved out of Maplecroft. The sisters never saw each other again.
Lizzie continued to live at Maplecroft up until her death in 1927.
Lizzie Borden strikes me as a woman seething with frustration and resentment. Beneath her starchy, proper exterior she must have yearned desperately for something resembling a normal social life. Instead, she moved in a constricted, narrow sphere in which church activities were the only acceptable outlet. All because she lived in a house that was unpretentious to a fault, with an apparently passive older sister and stepmother and an oblivious, unsympathetic father. She could not break out and establish her own household elsewhere. It simply wasn’t done at that time. And besides, unless her father agreed to support her, what would she live on? She had no proper profession. And, of course, she had no husband to support her.
Oh no – such a thing was not possible. Certainly not while Andrew and Abby Borden were still alive. And so we are left with a portrait of barely suppressed rage and misery.
The full text, in PDF format, of Edmund Pearson’s work on Lizzie Borden can be found on Murderpedia. Many are the online sources and resources on the Borden case. The Wikipedia entry is as good a place to start as any. I found one of the more thoughtful articles on the subject in the archives of Yankee Magazine.
I regret that in the course of the True Crime class, I had virtually no time to spend on this notorious case. It receives scant mention in the True Crime Anthology, though editor Harold Schechter does include a “murder ballad” on the subject. He mentions that although these scurrilous little ditties are usually anonymous, the author of this one not only published his name, but also included his likeness and appended his address:
Interest in this subject never seems to flag. As with a number of other high profile murders, the Lizzie Borden case has found expression in various media and art forms. There’s the opera Lizzie Borden: A Family Portrait,” by Jack Beeson, premiered in 1965 by the New York City Opera. There’s Fall River Legend, one of Agnes de Mille’s best know ballets, set to music by the American composer Morton Gould and premiered by American Ballet Theatre in 1948.
Several days ago, while working at the library’s Central Branch, I cam upon a novel entitled Maplecroft on the new book shelf. I said to myself, Oh, this can only be about…
I knew of Ambrose Bierce from his famous – and famously irreverent – Devil’s Dictionary, and his equally famous and frequently anthologized short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
First: some excerpts from the aforementioned dictionary:
Featured in the True Crime anthology were excerpts from Bierce’s varied journalistic output. All appear under the rubric “Crime News from California.” This first entry effectively conveys Bierce’s satiric flair. For something written – and published – in 1869, it seems to me rather daring, not to mention in some respects ahead of its time:
In the course of looking into Beirce’s background, I discovered a story – a very brief tale – entitled “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” This is the whole of it:
One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.
Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.
Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”
Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”
It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.
Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:
“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more–than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”
This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term)–the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he SAW the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.
As can be seen, the date Bierce assigns to this strange event is 1854. The story appeared originally in 1888 and was included in a collection called Can Such Things Be, published in 1893. Now it seems that in the mid twentieth century, a similar legend was recounted concerning a certain David Lang. The year of these alleged events is given as 1880:
David Lang was said to be a farmer who lived near Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 23, 1880 he supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. His wife, children, and two men who were passing by in a buggy all witnessed his disappearance.
Frank Edwards included the following description of Lang’s disappearance in his book Stranger Than Science (1959):
David Lang had not taken more than half a dozen steps when he disappeared in full view of all those present. Mrs. Lang screamed. The children, too startled to realize what had happened, stood mutely. Instinctively, they all ran toward the spot where Lang had last been seen a few seconds before. Judge Peck and his companion, the Judge’s brother-in-law, scrambled out of their buggy and raced across the field. The five of them arrived on the spot of Lang’s disappearance almost simultaneously. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a hole to mar the surface. And not a single clue to indicate what had happened to David Lang.The grownups searched the field around and around, and found nothing. Mrs. Lang became hysterical and had to be led screaming into the house. Meanwhile, neighbors had been altered by the frantic ringing of a huge bell that stood in the side yard, and they spread the alarm. By nightfall scores of people were on the scene, many of them with lanterns. They searched every foot of the field in which Lang had last been seen a few hours before. They stamped their feet on the dry hard sod in hope of detecting some hole into which he might have fallen — but they found none.David Lang was gone. He had vanished in full view of his wife, his two children, and the two men in the buggy. One second he was there, walking across the sunlit field, the next instant he was gone.
Eventually the grass around where Lang had disappeared turned yellow in a fifteen-foot diameter circle, suggesting that some form of energy had mysteriously transported him away.
Seven months later his children were said to have heard their father’s voice faintly calling out for help as they played near the spot of his disappearance, but eventually the sound of his voice faded away. They never heard his voice again.
This tale is recounted on the site The Museum of Hoaxes. Further information and speculation is therein contained.
At any rate, the question remains: Whose is the original disappearance? Williamson the planter of Alabama or David Lang the farmer from Tennessee? Is either story true?
In the late 1990s, a chamber opera was composed that was based on the story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” It has been performed several times since then, to considerable acclaim.
To add to the general strangeness of this subject, the composer’s name is David Lang.
In 1913, after an extended period of travel, Ambrose Bierce, then age 71, announced his intention to go to Mexico. At the time, that country was embroiled in revolutionary turmoil. His stated aim was to join the army of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez as an observer. At the time of Bierce’s last known communication, he was in Chihuahua. After that, he was never heard from again.
In other words, he disappeared.
“This year John Billington the elder (one that came over with the first) was arraigned; and both by grand, and petty jury found guilty of willful murder; by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them; they used all due means about his trial, and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop, and other the ablest gentlemen in the Bay of Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land be purged from blood. He and some of his, had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them; … His fact was, that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen (about a former quarrel) and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.”
Such poignancy in the line, “This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them…”
For more about John Billington, click here.
The murder of John Newcomen took place in 1630. Another murder in the colonies, not included in the Schechter anthology, occurred in New Hampshire in 1648. In May or June of that year, one Hannah Willix was found floating in the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire. The body was in shocking condition: “…her necke broken, her tounge black and swollen out of her mouth & the bloud settled in her face, the privy partes swolne &c as if she had been muche abused &c.” In the course of her research, blogger Pam Carter, a lifelong Maine resident and self-confessed genealogy addict, discovered that Hannah Willix was her own tenth great grandmother.
Robert Begiebing, now professor of English emeritus at Southern New Hampshire University, first came across this story in a different context: he was looking for fresh subject matter with which to engage creatively.
While in this rather restless frame of mind, Begiebing was reading “Bell’s History of Exeter,” an 1888 book about the Exeter-Newfields region where he lives. Alarms went off in Begiebing’s head when he came across a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop.
That sentence was exactly the same as the one, quoted above, that was found by Pam Carter in the course of her genealogical research. It fired Begiebing’s imagination at once; the result was a fine piece of historical crime fiction, in which Hannah Willix becomes the eponymous – and similarly unfortunate – Mistress Coffin:
Here is the book trailer for this novel:
This past Monday, March 23, was the final convening of the true crime class; thus, today begins the assessment of the experience.
First, I freely admit that I did not realize the magnitude of the task I was undertaking. I’ve been teaching off and on my entire adult life: middle school, high school, freshman composition at the community college level, aspects of the mystery genre in continuing education settings, etc. etc. And that does not include the numerous presentations I gave while working at the library.
So what made this undertaking so uniquely challenging? To being with, it had the imprimatur, as it were, of Johns Hopkins, a name to conjure with in this region, and probably elsewhere as well. Granted, this is a noncredit lifelong learning institute, but to my mind that made it no less daunting. I was forewarned that the members had high standards and expectations. So, yes, a bit nervous making.
On the other hand….
I’ve rarely had so much fun doing research. Also I’ve mastered some new computer skills, thanks mostly to my endlessly patient husband Ron. The art of teaching now incorporates technology in ways that were unheard of when I first started out in the field. For instance, up until this class came into my life, I had never assembled a power point style presentation. Neither had Ron, but he’s a quick study where I.T. is concerned, and so he got me up to speed fairly quickly. The program we used was Google Presentation.
Here’s the slide I began the course with:
To begin with, we talked about the landmark works of true crime that appeared in the years between 1965 and 1983:
I had just reread Blood and Money and was as mesmerized as I was when I first encountered it decades ago. (It was urged on me by my mother, of all people – definitely not her usual reading material.) This quintessentially Texas story of passion, murder, and betrayal still has the power to shock, and to sadden.
I then proceeded to read, for the first time, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. (One of the class members read the book right after we talked about it in the first class. When I next saw her, she told me that she had a single daughter in her early twenties and that The Stranger Beside Me had made her very fearful for that daughter. All I could think to say was, Remind your daughter to beware the facile charm of certain men. They can be master deceivers. But really, Bundy was seemingly a unique and terrible case, and, one hopes, one whose like will never again see the light of day.)
My feeling about Ann Rule as a writer is that while she is no great prose stylist, she knows how to tell a story so that it almost never loses momentum. In addition to her full length books, she’s published several collections of shorter pieces. Her contribution to True Crime: An American Anthology, the text I used for the course, is an explosive – quite literally – piece entitled “Young Love,” which originally appeared in the collection Empty Promises in 2000.
In addition to posting images, Google Presentation allows for videos to be embedded within slides. I did that with this video of an interview with Ann Rule:
The other video I showed in that first class, though not in its entirety, features Jean Murley, an associate professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY). Professor Murley’s book, pictured on the above slide, is entitled The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and the American Popular Imagination. It was very helpful to me in gathering and organizing material for the course – a real treasure trove, in other words.
In 2008, The Rise of True Crime was nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar Award for best critical work. Professor Murley poses some provocative questions, to which she does not offer facile answers (something I really appreciate):
To these, I appended several more:
What can we gain from reading and studying the literature of true crime – generally speaking, and specifically in regard to the Library of America anthology?
Why do certain crimes continue to resonate in the public consciousness while others fade from memory?
How do the crimes in our reading selections affect the lives of perpetrators, surviving victims, friends and family of the victims, investigators, witnesses and bystanders – in other words, anyone who becomes involved one way or another?
I urged class members to be mindful of these questions as we move forward with our discussions.
And next: Let us now praise Harold Schechter, who has assembled a terrific anthology of true crime narratives. In his excellent introduction, he limns the history of the genre; he also includes deeply informative header notes in front of each selection. I highly recommend the interview on the Library of America site. Here are some excerpts:
….we dutiful citizens harbor a dark, savage self, deeply hidden from our own awareness, that revels in violence and destruction. This atavistic part—the flip side of our civilized persona—has been called many things: the Id, the Shadow, the Other, Mr. Hyde.William James describes it as “the carnivore within.” Appealing as powerfully as it does to our least socially acceptable impulses, true crime has always carried a strong whiff of the forbidden and incurred the censure of moralizing critics.
What critics of the genre fail to realize, of course, is that true crime isn’t
just, or even primarily, about titillation. It’s an age-old form of storytelling,
deeply rooted in folk tradition, that—by casting deeply disturbing events into
shapely narratives—helps us cope with and make sense of the violence that is
endemic to both our inner and outer worlds.
I first became interested in the historical roots of true crime when I discovered,
twenty or so years ago, a collection of old issues of the Illustrated Police
News of London, the best-selling periodical of Victorian England. The equivalent
of today’s sleazier supermarket tabloids, this wildly sensationalistic paper
offered graphically illustrated accounts of the most gruesome crimes, all trumpeted with headlines like “Shocking Murder!” “Singular Homicide!” “Frightful Slaying!” I realized that, though based in fact, these accounts were a variety of what folklorists call wondertales—stories designed to elicit a kind of childlike
astonishment and awe in the reader. That same experience, I believe, remains central to the appeal of true crime today. As a result, I chose to focus my anthology on accounts of remarkable crimes, the kind that erupt into otherwise ordinary lives—as opposed to, say, gangland murders, which are, after all, an
everyday part of life for your average hitman.
While visiting his website, I discovered that in January of this year, Harold Schechter delivered a lecture entitled “A History of Serial Murder from One Million, B.C. to the Present.” The venue was one I’d never heard of: The Morbid Anatomy Museum. This curiously named entity, located in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, opened in June of last year. (This write-up in The New York Times features a slide presentation.)
Schechter’s latest true crime opus has been nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for the award in the Best Fact Crime category. I hope he wins. I love the way this man writes!
More to come on this; not sure when.
I’ve known of Zora Neale Hurston for years. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God appears on many school reading lists, and during my tenure at the library, I frequently looked for it for students. Yet I knew almost nothing about her and had never read anything written by her.
So when it came time to research her life and work as part of my preparation for the true crime course – an article by her is included in the anthology I’m using – I was struck as by a revelation. How had I managed for so long to remain incurious and ignorant in regard to this truly remarkable woman?
Although born in Alabama, Zora Neal Hurston grew up primarily in Florida – Eatonville, Florida, to be exact. Incorporated in August of 1887, Eatonville was one of the first all-black towns in the United States. Hurston’s mother died when she was nine; she never got on too well with her father, the Reverend John Hurston. By the age of fourteen, she had freed herself from the family home, working various jobs and eventually joining a traveling theater troupe.
Hurston was hungry for education. Leaving the theater troupe in Baltimore, she enrolled in the Morgan Academy, the high school division of what eventually became Morgan State University. In 1918, she began her studies at Howard University in Washington D.C. Always she struggled, working at any job that would help sustain her financially. While at Howard, she had begun to write, and never stopped writing. Eventually she made it to New York, where she became an assistant to novelist Fanny Hurst. Offered a scholarship to Barnard College, she eagerly accepted, ultimately earning a B.A. degree in anthropology. This she achieved in 1928, at age 37. During her time at Barnard, she was the sole black student on campus.
Hurston was able to do some graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, where her mentor was the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. It was he who encouraged her to make a study of the folkloric heritage of the Southern black community which had nurtured her as a child. She had already become a member of that glittering New York scene known as the Harlem Renaissance, but it seems she knew fate was beckoning her. She gladly took up the task of becoming the chronicler of her own people. It proved the making of her as an artist.
I was glad when somebody told me, “You may go and collect Negro folklore.” In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.
Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men
At the end of her life, having returned once and for all to the Florida of her childhood, Zora Neale Hurston died in penury and alone in 1960. In 1973, a young writer sought out Hurston’s final resting place in Fort Pierce and found it, not without some difficulty, in a weed choked segregated cemetery. There, she and a fellow scholar placed a grave marker: “The marker was modest but its message was not.”
That young writer was Alice Walker. Having bestowed this recognition on an artist she revered, Walker was instrumental in sparking a renewed interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston. (Ten years after accomplishing this righteous mission, Walker’s novel The Color Purple was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.)
For more on Zora Neale Hurston, visit the Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive, located at the University of Central Florida’s Center for Humanities and Digital Research.
Hurston seems to have been a person who accepted no limitation on her aspirations, knew her own gifts, and would not take no for answer. A Genius of the South – and a genius of America.
Zora Neale Hurston managed to avoid many of the restraints placed upon women, blacks, and specifically black artists by American society during the first half of the twentieth century. And she did so with a vengeance by becoming the most published black female author in her time and arguably the most important collector of African-American folklore ever. Hurston was a complex artist whose persona ranged from charming and outrageous to fragile and inconsistent, but she always remained a driven and brilliant talent.
Contemporary Black Biography
A great cop–or a great detective–needed to be smart and quick, but not necessarily bookish or terribly analytical. A good memory, a talent for improvisation, a keen interest in people, and a buoyancy of spirit–one had to like “capering”–ensured that the hyperactive flourished in a job that left others wilting with stress.
Leovy then states: “Wally Tennelle had all these traits.” Detective Wally Tennelle and his family are at the center of this narrative.
Leovy describes in detail the extraordinary difficulties involved in policing South Los Angeles. Making cases that stick is a process that has its own set of problems, mainly having to do with witnesses who are too terrified to testify in open court.
The tribulations experienced by those who work for the Los Angeles Police Department are rendered vividly in this narrative. There is the inevitable faceless, infuriating bureaucracy. There are cops who operate on some version of automatic pilot.
There are also individuals who operate at the very highest levels of sensitivity, empathy, and most of all, devotion to duty. And there are the counterparts of these, people who are forced to endure the most searing pain there is: loss of a loved one. When that loved one is a child, the pain seems well nigh insurmountable.
I’ve been reading a great deal of true crime lately, but Ghettoside is different. Jill Leovy takes you to a place so dark, so seemingly hopeless, that you can think of nothing but how to escape, the sooner the better.
By forcing you to look directly again and again at the injustice and violence and the inevitable resultant agony, the reader arrives finally at the still, anguished center of this harrowing narrative. It is impossible not to. And once having come to that place, there is no going back.
There are stories of gang members shooting individuals they’ve erroneously thought to be members of rival gangs. These ‘mistakes’ happen because of a particular hat being worn, or the color of a bandana sticking out of a pocket.
You want more than anything to see these murder cases followed through until justice is done. You wish to thank people like Detective John Scaggs and his fellow cadre of officers for their unwavering dedication in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles (some of which emanate from their own police department).
Most of all, you wish you could somehow assuage the pain of those who have suffered the worst of all losses. Leovy tells story after story about vicious, senseless, utterly unjustifiable murders, and the suffering they cause family members, who are left trying to cope with the loss for weeks and months and years afterwards, probably forever.
Choked silence, accompanied by that flat gaze one police chaplain called “homicide eyes,” was perhaps the signature response people offered when asked to describe their experiences with violence….
Karen Hamilton, a bookkeeper from Jefferson Park, had still not spoken of her son’s murder seven years after his death.She tried, drawing deep breaths, her hands shaking, but no voice came. Homicide grief may be a kind of living death. Survivors slog on, disfigured by loss and incomprehension.
At the conclusion of the trial that is the centerpiece of this book, the jury foreman, who was white, had this to say:
“There is a perception that blacks are doing it to blacks, and if I’m white, it doesn’t affect me….” His eyes flashed with sudden anger. “Well, get over it. It does.”
I can’t possibly do Ghettoside justice in this space. Only let me say that it is the most urgently relevant, compassionate, profound, and beautifully written book I have read in a very long time.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Meditation XVII, John Donne
It’s what greeted me this morning as I was directed to a video of my granddaughter on the slopes.
I know it means a lot to my son and daughter-in-law that Etta become an adept skier while learning to enjoy the sport as much as they do. Even so, they declared themselves blown away by the combination of competence and fearlessness she displayed last week in Jackson.
Her Dad made this video. To me, it serves as a celebration of the magic of childhood and of the love they have for their feisty little four-year-old daughter.
Wednesday March 4, tomorrow, is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. My brother Richard, holder of a PhD in American history, has called to remind me.
I am fortunate to live near the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. This museum occupies shared premises with the American Art Museum in the Old Patent Office Building, itself a majestic edifice with a fascinating past. (In this slide show, Temple of Invention brings that past to life.)
Located on the first floor of the Portrait Gallery, The American Origins Exhibition is a repository of art and history that is rich with meaning for all of us.
It is even more meaningful, and deeply moving as well, to walk the length of the Great Hall, site of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball.
It takes no great feat of imagination to conjure the crowd of well wishers and celebrants, to hear the animated conversation and the music – and to inhale the aromas emanating from the banquet table.
(Click here for more on the Inaugural Banquet.)
The appearance of the Great Hall today is not exactly the same as it was for the occasion of Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball. In 1877, The Old Patent Office was severely damaged by fire; what we currently see is the refurbished version of the Great Hall.
In 2000, the entire building was closed for renovation. By 2007, all galleries and other public spaces were reopened.
March 4, 1865
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Source: Library of Congress
The large helpings of the literature of true crime in which I’ve been lately immersed have, at times, made me feel as though I were marinating in sin. So I’ve sought relief in a different kind of reading matter altogether. And what would that be? Why mysteries, of course….
In Deadly Virtues, we’re introduced to Constable Hazel Best, one of the Norbold (England) police department’s newest – and greenest – recruits. She had come to the aid of one Gabriel Ash, a man half destroyed by the disappearance of his wife and sons. In the process, Hazel had proven herself an officer of worth and mettle.
Perfect Sins is Hazel’s second outing. This time, she becomes embroiled in a situation involving deeply held family secrets. For Hazel, this is more than just another case: the Byrfields, aristocrats of long and proud lineage, are the employers of Hazel’s father Fred Best. Luckily, she has the help and support of Gabriel Ash – and he has the help and support of Patience, his faithful and preternaturally wise lurcher.
Spending time with Hazel and company is pure pleasure. She is such a fine and decent person, with all the attributes needed to become, in time, a first rate investigator. Her creator, Jo Bannister, has long labored in the field of crime fiction, producing a body of work of continuously high caliber. Yet she is little known in this country. I hope this fine new series changes that.
At one point in the narrative, Gabriel Ash, so grateful to Hazel for her straightforward loyalty and affection, turns to her and says: “I wish I could explain to you how much richer my life is for having you in it.”
The Devotion of Suspect X by Japanese author Keigo Higashino is the March selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery discussion group. We Suspects are currently having an international year. This means we read novels set elsewhere than in the US or the UK. We began in January with Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Although I was not crazy about the book, it nevertheless provoked a lively and enjoyable discussion. February’s selection, set in Barcelona, was A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana. I opted out of this one, due to time pressures occasioned by work on the True Crime Course.
But being intrigued by reviews I’d read – and desperate to resume my normal activities! – I decided I’d make time for the March selection. Initially, I had trouble with The Devotion of Suspect X. It seemed a curiously glum bit of prose and was not drawing me in. But a few chapters in, that changed. Surprisingly, this novel turned out to be in no small part a story of thwarted love, and of humans living in isolation, loneliness, and sometimes fear. The picture the author paints of contemporary Japan is a bleak one, with occasional flashes of light. And the ending – well, I won’t say any more. Find out for yourself; it is well worth it.
I always look forward to the next Harpur & Iles novel. I know I’ll be equal parts amused and appalled (but in an entertaining way). That’s exactly the effect that author Bill James strives for and achieves so effortlessly. Disclosures, the 32nd (!!) entry in this series, suffers a bit for having this dynamic duo off stage or much of the book’s action. A fair compensation, though, is the presence of Ralph W Ember, a long running character, owner of the Monty, a social club, and a member – until recently – of the drug cartel called Pasque Uno. (Strange names abound in these novels.)
Ralph aspires to join a better class of people; his ruminations on the subject of high culture can be quite diverting:
Ralph would admit he didn’t know a terrific amount about classical music, but on the whole he was not anti. It could do no real harm. Radio Three was always there, but you could take it or leave it alone.A lot of the stuff had been around for centuries so there must be certain parts that were reasonably OK.
So much for Mozart, Beethoven, etc.
Bill James is a bit of a mystery himself. He was born in 1929 and his real name is Allan James Tucker. He’s an extremely prolific writer and is still at it, apparently. He has no website, and this is the only photo I’ve ever been able to find (although it is usually reproduced in black and white):
Finally, last but certainly not least, I continue to be vastly entertained by P.F. Chisholm‘s romp through late 1500s with Sir Robert Carey, his faithful and long suffering Sergeant Henry Dodd, his sister Philadelphia, the longed-for but unfortunately (in more ways than one) married Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, and a host of other colorful characters. I’ve already written about A Famine of Horses, the first book of this series, in a post entitled Best Reading in 2014. I felt compelled to go on with the series and am now on number four, A Plague of Angels.
Chisholm knows how to conjure up a scene, as in this description of an encounter in the countryside:
For a moment it was hounds only, the horses heralded by sound. The, like the elven-folk from a poet’s imagination, they cantered out of the tree shadows, three, four, eight, twelve of them, and more behind, some carrying torches, their white leather jacks pristine and lace complicating the hems of their falling bands and cuffs, flowing beards and glittering jewelled fingers, with the plump flash of brocade above their long boots.
(From A Surfeit of Guns, third in the series)
Chisholm has an in depth knowledge of the clothing and weaponry of the period, but her scholarship is never intrusive. Instead, it serves to make her evocation of a past time almost unnervingly vivid.
Oh – and she displays great helpings of wit, often of the most irreverent kind and therefore all the more welcome to a reader desperately in need of some comic relief.