Why are we drawn to true crime narratives? The ready-to-hand answer to this question might be that we are by nature prurient creatures whose morbid curiosity can only be slaked by the rich helpings of horror and misfortune served up by these stories. While there may be some truth to this explanation, I don’t believe that it is the whole truth.
I was recently asked by my friend and fellow Usual Suspect Pauline if I might be interested in teaching a course in the literature of true crime. The course would be offered at a lifelong learning institute that has a local campus. (Pauline herself has been teaching there for a number years.) As soon as this proposition was put before me, my mind started to race: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher! Fatal Vision! The Executioner’s Song! The Devil in the White City! Midnight in Peking! The Poisoner’s Handbook! And, inevitably, In Cold Blood.
In addition to these, in the past several months I’ve read three notable true crime titles: Little Demon in the City of Light by Steven Levingston, The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter, and Blood Royal by Eric Jager. All three belong to the subgenre of historical true crime and though all were in varying degrees engrossing. I’d have to say that my favorite was Blood Royal, a book that combines elements of medieval history, crime, and detection to create a riveting narrative. It will rank as one of my best reads of this year, for certain.
So my mind is racing, filled with the myriad possibilities and approaches to such an undertaking, not to mention the sheer number of books to consider. For the first time, the vastness of the field became apparent to me. Where to begin? How to place limits?
With this decision made, everything else began to fall more or less neatly into place.
to begin with, I decided to highlight several of the 20th century’s more notorious crimes, as referenced in this collection.. There’s “The Black Dahlia,” subject of an essay written by Jack Webb. Yes, that Jack Webb, the man who created Dragnet and became a pioneer of realism in television police dramas.
In “Eternal Blonde,” Damon Runyon describes the murder trial of former lovers Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. In the heat of their affair, Snyder convinced Gray to help kill her husband for the insurance money. They had to make it look like an accident, so that they could get twice the amount in the payout. In insurance speak, that’s called double indemnity.
Sound familiar? It should:
Double Indemnity , a classic noir novel, was inspired by the Snyder-Gray case. In 1944, it became one of the greatest noir films ever made. The following clip, featuring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, is one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. The screenwriter was Raymond Chandler, and the rapid fire one liners were written by him, not Cain:
In the fifties and sixties, Dorothy Kilgallen was a panelist on a popular television quiz show called What’s My Line. Most of us who watched the show back then knew her only in that capacity. She was in fact an accomplished journalist who write about show business as well as politics and crime. Her piece in the True Crime anthology is called “Sex and the All-American Boy,” and all I can say is, read it for yourself. Tone, style, content – she absolutely nails it!
The eponymous all-American boy is one Robert Allen Edwards. In 1934 Robert found himself embroiled in a classic love triangle. The competing love interests were Freda McKechnie, the girl next door in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, and Margaret Crain, who resided with her parents in Aurora, New York. Freda became pregnant. Robert said he’d marry her, but he desperately did not want to.
One evening, Freda suggested that Robert take her to a lake for a swim….
A young man with two girlfriends. One of them becomes pregnant and insists that they marry. They go down to a nearby lake….
Once again, I ask: Sound familiar? It is almost the exact same scenario that describes the death of Grace Brown at the hands of Chester Gillette in upstate New York in 1906. One of the journalists present at the murder trial of Robert Allen Edwards was Theodore Dreiser. In 1925, Dreiser had written his magnum opus An American Tragedy, a fictional treatment of the Brown/Gillette story. How strange it must have seemed to him, sitting in that courtroom some twenty years later. He probably experienced a powerful sense of déja vu.
An American Tragedy provided the plot line for yet another terrific film. Made in 1951, A Place in the Sun starred Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters and a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.
More on this subject will appear in a subsequent post. Now I’d like to address the way in which this subject has hijacked my personal reading program! Having promised myself that in future, I’d be buying as few hard copy books as possible, I’ve just purchased a slew of them. Several of the items I’ve become interested in as a result of my recent research on true crime are not owned by the local library; nor are they available for Kindle download.
A number are out of print. This is true of Murder One, the collection of pieces by Dorothy Kilgallen that includes “Sex and the All-American Boy.” I did not get this Dell paperback (75 cents!); rather, I got a used hardback. Rather ill-used, judging from the condition of its cover.
Blood and Ink: An International Guide to Fact Based Crime Literature, by Albert Borowitz. In print, published by Kent Stat University Press. A terrific but dangerous reference work. I was only in the A’s when I encountered Richard Altick, an author I remembered from my graduate school days. At that time, we’d been assigned to read The Scholar Adventurers. I recall finding Altick’s tales of literary sleuthing quite fascinating. What I don’t recall, and perhaps never knew, is that he had a special interest in Victorian Britain, specifically in crimes that occurred in that era. Hence, my ordering of Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations (available for Kindle download, thank goodness). No more poking around in Blood and Ink for me – at least, for the present! (“The Medea of Kew Gardens Hills” by Albert Borowitz is included in the True Crime anthology.)
And today I look forward to the arrival of two more items related to my true crime investigations. The first is The Badge by Jack Webb. Webb’s essay on the Black Dahlia murder case is included in this volume. I’m especially interested in reading James Ellroy’s introduction to the 2005 reissue of this book. In 1958, when he was ten years old, Ellroy’s mother was murdered. He then went to live with his father, something he was glad to do, as that feckless person pretty much left him alone to raise himself and later, to run wild. One thing his father did do for him was to give him the Jack Webb book for his eleventh birthday. On the face of it, this would seem an odd gift to give to a boy whose mother had recently met with violent death. And yet the book had a life changing effect on him, particularly the piece on the Black Dahlia:
The Badge got me hooked. I just followed Jack Webb’s lead.
He credits the book with motivating him to become, in his own words, the “Demon Dog of American literature.”
Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer” is included in the True Crime anthology. Originally published in GQ in 1994, the piece was later enlarged to become the memoir My Dark Places, published in 1996.
Jean Hilliker Ellroy’s killer. most probably the “swarthy man” with whom she’d gone out on a date the night of her death, has never been found.
I’ll keep you posted on further developments.