Historical true crime, considered

October 7, 2012 at 10:43 pm (books, Crime)

Last month, an article entitled “Prior Misconduct” appeared in Library Journal. In it, Sarah Statz Cords surveys the field of historical true crime, limiting the titles under discussion to narratives of events occurring prior to the Second World War.

Ms Cords seems genuinely puzzled by the rising popularity of this nonfiction subgenre:

In recent years, titles such as Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher have become best sellers, but why do readers enjoy them so? Is it the emphasis on various historical eras? That the crimes described are more safely (or so we like to think) removed from our own time? Or is it simply that compelling stories, well told, will always command our interest, even if they include violence, theft, kidnapping, assassination, and murder?

All of the above, Ms. Cords; all of the above, though that part about the crime being at a somewhat safe remove is rather less compelling than the other two suggested rationales, in my view.

Out of 28 titles (not counting the anthologies), I’ve read seven. (My tally would have been considerably higher if I’d read any of the books about Jack the Ripper.):




In this space, I’ve reviewed five of the above: Murder in the First-Class Carriage, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Destiny of the Republic, The Poisoner’s Handbook, and Midnight in Peking.

With its compelling cast of characters, rich literary allusions, and the atrocious murder at the dead center of the action – not to mention its keenly evocative portrait of mid-nineteenth century  England  –  The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher makes for very compelling reading. It also proved a great reading group selection, as did The Poisoner’s Handbook.

Kate Summerscale followed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher with Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Although this later title is not specifically about a crime, Summerscale does once again bring life in Victorian England into sharp focus in this tale of one woman’s disastrous and very public fall from respectable society.

Erik Larson has carved out a niche for himself as a teller of tales that people should know about but somehow don’t. For many of us, Isaac’s Storm was the first we’d heard of the disastrous hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900 and caused the death of some eight thousand people. In The Devil in the White City, Larson’s storytelling gifts are once again on vivid display. (And what a terrific title, one of my all time favorites.)

Midnight in Peking was riveting; I read it in three days.

Destiny of the Republic is superb. While I was reading it, I was not thinking of it as primarily a work of true crime but an absorbing depiction of an era in American history and even more than that, a portrait of a man – James A. Garfield – who was possessed of such intelligence, courage, and generosity of spirit that I longed to have known him. Among its many accolades, this book won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.


At any rate, the Library Journal article has some intriguing title recommendations. I for one will certainly be returning to it.

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