Roberta Recommends: true crime

January 2, 2008 at 3:25 pm (books)

Since reading and reviewing Joe McGinniss’s new book Never Enough, I have had cause to reflect on true crime in general, and my (former? current?) fascination with it. I pretty much stopped reading books in this genre several years ago because of the disreputable taint that I felt was attached to them, and, by association, to myself when I read them. (See Luc Sante’s comments as quoted in the post on Never Enough.) After all, why would a person who considers herself basically good and decent read these terrible stories, replete as they are with gruesome crime scenes and mangled bodies and the wailing grief of loved ones? Is it prurience, pure and simple? Or is it more a fascination with the vagaries of human behavior? Is my reading in this area motivated by a genuine desire to better understand why people act – and react – as they do in extreme circumstances, and why they contribute to, or even create, the bizarre situations in which they find themselves? Finally, is all of this a cop-out, pure rationalizing, except for the point about prurience?

Perhaps we can go back to the love, even craving, people have had since time immemorial for stories. Few experiences in life can trump that of being in the grip of a compelling tale. This basic human longing would seem to account for the popularity of entertainments that are plot driven, and few categories of film and literature are as strongly powered by narrative drive as those that deal with crime. (Witness the current popularity of crime fiction.) And yet, I find that the best books and movies – in any genre – are primarily character-driven. The characters are complex and intriguing; their actions grow out out of their natures – or, inexplicably, seem to go against those natures, as we have been led to understand them. Such stories are a constant reminder of how hard it is to know or truly understand our fellow beings.

bloodmoney.jpg There’s no easy resolution to this question, so I’m now going to proceed to specifics. The first account of a true crime that I ever read was Blood and Money (1976) by Thomas Thompson. It was recommended to me by – gasp! – my mother. Now my mother, Lillian Tedlow, was one of the most ferociously intellectual people I’ve ever known in my life. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, she was the first person in her family to attend college. (She not only attended – she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a major in economics, from Douglass College, at the time called the New Jersey College for Women.) She was no reader of crime fiction, being rather a snob on the subject, but every once in a while, she’d read true crime, in order to be amazed once again by the extremes of behavior of which human beings are capable.

(Yes, I know I digress when I write about my mother, but I feel the need to do so now, as a way of acknowledging her tremendous influence – much of which was exerted through books – on my mental and emotional life. Although she died in August of 2004, she had been lost to us for seven or eight years prior to that because of Alzheimer’s. This vicious disease, among its other depradations, robbed the most articulate woman I have ever known of the power of speech. )

mother-graduation.jpg [ Lillian Tedlow, class of 1938]

Texas, which over the years has supplied us so richly with examples of the extreme in weather and politics, also does the same from time to time with criminal behavior. As described in the Amazon.con blurb, Blood and Money is a story of “power, passion, oil money, murder” – a rich and heady brew, stirred into a volatile mixture as only the Lone Star state could serve up.

capote-cold-blood-500.jpg From Thomas Thompson’s book, I went on to the next logical and inevitable choice: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It left me awestruck, as it has so many other readers. Other high points, for me, in the true crime genre:

executioners.jpg The Executioner’s Song (1979), Norman Mailer’s thinly fictionalized account of the life, crimes, and hard fought death of “feral misfit” Gary Lewis Gilmore. I remember finishing this book some 25 years ago at six o’clock in the morning – it had kept me awake most of the night. Tears were streaming down my face, even as I berated myself: You’re weeping for this monster? Such was the power of this book, for this reader.

normanmailer.jpg R.I.P. Norman Mailer; you had greatness in you!

( Mikal Gilmore, a writer for Rolling Stone and youngest brother of Gary Gilmore, wrote a memoir, Shot in the Heart, in 1994. In it, he tells the appalling story of “…the house where I grew up, a house that, in some ways, I have never been able to leave.”)

Fatal Vision (1983) by Joe McGinniss, which I wrote about in my recent review of his latest book, Never Enough;

adversary.jpg The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception (2000) by Emmanuel Carrere, probably the most purely chilling tale of subterfuge and carnage that I have ever read – or ever will read. The film version, entitled Time Out, was well done but did not adhere too closely to the facts of the case – especially in regard to the ending;

echoes.jpg wambaugh.jpg Echoes in the Darkness (1987) by Joseph Wambaugh. This case, involving a group of teachers at a high school in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania, was so replete with unbelievable behavior by poeple who should have know better that I did something I almost never do: I read another book about the same crime – or, I should say, series of crimes: Loretta Schwartz-Nobel’s Engaged to Murder . It was good, but I’d recommend the Wambaugh; he has an almost gleeful time retelling this stranger-than-fiction story. (Echoes in the Darkness was made into a very good film for TV starring Robert Loggia, Peter Coyote, and Stockard Channing. Neither it nor Fatal Vision has been transferred to DVD, as far as I’ve been able to determine.)

annrule02.jpg What, you’re now asking yourself, hasn’t she read an Ann Rule? I have, but for the life of me, I can’t recall which one. I don’t think it was The Stranger Beside Me (1980). ( I read another book about serial killer Ted Bundy, The Only Living Witness by Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, and was not thereafter tempted to go back for seconds.). Nevertheless, I think you can’t go wrong by reading Stranger; it started Ann Rule on her life of crime-writing, and she is currently esteemed as one of the best in the field.

dominick-dunne-justice.jpg dominick_dunne.jpg Dominick Dunne’s Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments (2001) is excellent, written with this author’s usual attention to detail. It concludes, sadly, with the story of the murder of Dunne’s own daughter by a jealous boyfriend.

Historical true crime is a subgenre in which I’ve allowed myself a fairly wide lattitude. After all – It’s equivalent to reading history, right? Oh, well…here are three titles that I found especially memorable:

chapman.jpg The Murder of Dr. Chapman (2004) by Linda Wolfe, the story of a crime that took place in a community near Philadelphia in the early 1800’s.

Linda Wolfe brought out a terrific collection 1n 1986 called The Professor and the Prostitute. It’s currently out of print but well worth making the effort to obtain. I remember that the title story was pretty wild; Wolfe also includes here the story of the Marcus brothers, twin gynecologists in New York City who were both drug addicts. That story was filmed as Dead Ringers starring Jeremy Irons.

swift-justice.jpg Swift Justice by Harry Farrell, the story of a kidnap/murder that happened in San Jose, California in 1933. This book won the 1993 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Fact Crime. Swift Justice has never been filmed to my knowledge, but it would make a great period piece, IMHO.

bloody-falls.jpg Bloody Falls of the Coppermine (2005) by McKay Jenkins. A riveting account of the murder of two priests, in 1913, by members of a tribe of Arctic Eskimos whose way of life hearkened back to the Stone Age. This book has it all: atmosphere, suspense, crime, retribution – and the most intrepid investigation imaginable, courtesy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Very highly recommended.

With regard to the Edgar Award, mentioned above in connection with Swift Justice, you can get a complete list of all the winners and nominees in all fields, including “Fact Crime,” by querying this database, created by members of the Mystery Writers of America. also has an excellent list of well reviewed true crime.

america-crime.jpg If you’d like your crime in smaller doses, you could try the yearly anthology Best American Crime Writing – or, as the 2007 edition is titled, The Best American Crime Reporting. Finally, here’s a blog that contains much interesting material: Clews: The Historic True Crime Blog.

I’d like to append one last thought on the true crime genre. In reading these stories – and/or watching shows like The Investigators or Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice – it is true that you come face to face with the worst evil a human being can perpetrate. But you also come to know people, particularly those in law enforcement, who keep plugging away on a case despite disappointment and frustration. Their persistence, dedication, and resourcefulness are awe-inspiring. They deserve to be called heroes.


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