There’s a lot to report; this post will necessarily cover just a small amount of material. Doing the research has been an adventure, and a fascinating one at that. (I am reminded of what Steven Saylor, in the author’s note in Arms of Nemesis, called “a sort of information ecstasy.”)
Starting with Harold Schechter’s remarkable anthology, I’ve traveled down interesting byways, some fairly familiar and others more obscure. As I made my way through this hefty compendium – it clocks in at just under 800 pages – I encountered several unexpected names: William Bradford, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln (!), James Thurber. But what’s been especially gratifying is the discovery, or rediscovery, of writers of whom I’d never heard or whose names rang only the faintest of bells. I refer in particular to Miriam Allen deFord, Jose Marti, Celia Thaxter, Lafcadio Hearn, and Edmund Pearson. All are not only excellent writers but fascinating individuals in their own right.
Edmund Pearson, considered by many to be one of the founders of modern true crime writing, was by profession a librarian. His wry and irreverent observations on the foibles of human nature seem strangely apt. Pearson is best known for his work on the Lizzie Borden case. In this passage from The Trial of Lizzie Borden, published in 1937, he debunks the assertion made by commentators that the Borden murders could only have happened in New England, ancestral home of the stern, humorless and unbending Puritans:
“The major events of the Borden case might have happened anywhere. Its chief
personages could have flourished in Oregon, in Alabama, in France or Russia.
Stepmothers, dissatisfied spinster daughters and grim old fathers are not peculiar to
Massachusetts. It is my impression that they appear in Balzac’s novels.
Perhaps this is mere whistling against the wind. We shall never give up the black-
coated scarecrow of the Puritan; throwing stones at him is too much fun. For three
hundred years New Yorkers have intimated, sometimes jocosely, sometimes angrily, that
the folk of New England, or most of them, are sour bigots…. Acquittals or convictions
have been equally wrong and have somehow resulted from “Bostonian snobbishness” or
“fierce puritanical hatred.”
This has become a convention, fostered by many who profess to scorn convention.
The feverish village patriotism of frontier days subsides for a time, but editors whip it up
again to tickle local pride. We pretend that the vinegar-faced Puritan is still bothering us,
just as we cling to our belief in the parsimonious Scot of the anecdotes.”
“It was the consensus among my male colleagues, who either saw Margaret Crain in the flesh or studied her photographs, that she had about as much sex appeal as a pound of chopped liver.”
Making allowances for pre- PC mid-twentieth century America, this is at the very least an attention grabber. I immediately located and purchasd a copy of Murder One: Six on the Spot Murder Stories, a collection of Kilgallen’s crime writing.
Professor Murley defines true crime as “the narrative treatment of an actual crime.” She adds that in the course of constructing these narratives, writers frequently make use of fictional techniques. (This latter practice has been a source of controversy ever since Truman Capote announced the invention of what he called the nonfiction novel.)
The second question is more personal, almost a cri de coeur from the author herself: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”This one is harder to answer, or at least, to answer honestly. You don’t want to think of your interest in this subject as being purely prurient, or worse, deriving from a perverse enjoyment of the misery of others. Those elements may be present in some hopefully small degree, but Murley offers two other possible explanations for why we read true crime:
A desire to make sense of the (seemingly) senseless
A desire to illuminate the sordid with beams of truth
Let’s leave it there, for the time being.
I came up with this list of postwar true crime classics:
Compulsion by Meyer Levin – 1956
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – 1965
The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh – 1973
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry – 1974
Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson – 1976
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer – 1979
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule – 1980
Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss – 1983
Of these eight titles, I have, at one time or another, read five. My plan was to reread In Cold Blood and then read the three that I’d not read before: Compulsion, The Onion Field, and Helter Skelter. Meanwhile I had ordered a copy of Blood and Money, currently available from Carroll & Graf. I vividly recall being spellbound by this book. What was it about this narrative that, on my first reading all those years ago, had so captivated me? I made the mistake of opening it and perusing the first few pages….
You can guess the rest. I came up for air 474 pages later, at the end, feeling slightly stunned. I cannot overstate the compelling nature of this stranger than fiction story, infused as it is with Tommy Thompson’s relentless drive. The last two paragraphs are especially powerful. Some books, fiction or nonfiction, attain a kind of greatness at their closing moments. One thinks of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and The Great Gatsby as well. You can put Blood and Money in that select company.
Thomas Thompson died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 49. We are fortunate that he had the time and the will to write this true crime classic.