The True Crime Course: a progress report, of sorts

January 29, 2015 at 2:57 am (books, True crime)

9780275993887  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.”)

truecrimea 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.

Jose Marti

Jose Marti

Miriam Allen deFord

Miriam Allen deFord

Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn

James Thurber

James Thurber

Celia Thaxter in her garden, painted by her friend Childe Hassam

Celia Thaxter in her garden, painted by her friend Childe Hassam

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.”

Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden

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Some of my generation may remember Dorothy Kilgallen from the famous quiz show What’s My Line.What's My Line?   What's_My_Line_1965
Less well remembered are her achievements as a groundbreaking journalist. “Sex and the All-American Boy,” her piece in the Schechter anthology, begins thus:
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“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.”
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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.
At this point, I’d like to note the challenge of obtaining older true crime titles like this one. They tend to be out of print and unavailable in ebook format. Occasionally we  get lucky: a vintage true crime narrative is made into a high profile film and the source material finds its way back into print. That’s what happened with this volume,originally published in 1927:
51otG6hRHeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
In this excerpt from Gangs, included in the Schechter anthology, Herbert Asbury describes the coming of age of one Monk Eastman, who eventually became a prominent gang leader:
———————————
“His father set him up in business before he was twenty years old with a bird and animal store in Penn Street, near the family establishment, but the boy was restless, and dissatisfied with the monetary rewards of honest toil. He soon abandoned the store and came to New York, where he assumed the name of Edward Eastman and quickly sank to his natural social level. In the middle nineties he began to come into prominence as Sheriff of New Irving Hall, and is said to have been even more ferocious than Eat ‘Em Up Jack McManus, who was making history in a similar office at Suicide Hall and the New Brighton. Eastman went about his duties carrying a huge club, while a blackjack nestled in his hip pocket, and each of his hands was adorned with a set of brass knuckles. In the use of these weapons he was amazingly proficient, and in emergency could wield a beer bottle or a piece of lead pipe with an aptitude that was little short of genius.”
 ———————————
 I’ve not seen Gangs of New York, but the trailer is pretty impressive:
Back, for a moment to Dorothy Kilgallen, who died in 1965  under somewhat mysterious circumstances at  the age of 52. For more on this, read an article that appeared in Midwest Today Magazine in 2007. It’s entitled “Who Killed Dorothy Kilgallen?”
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Professor Jean Murley of Queensborough College, author of the above pictured book on the true crime genre, raises some important questions on this subject. They’re similar to questions I’ve also been pondering since I began this strange  journey. I’d like to cite two in particular.The first is of a general nature, namely, what is true crime, and what accounts for its appeal at  this particular point in time?

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
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Let’s leave it there, for the time being.

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One of the most helpful sites I’ve  found for researching murder cases and murderers is (the rather unfortunately named) Murderpedia.
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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.

Thomas Thompson

Thomas Thompson

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My trove of recently acquired true crime material

1 Comment

  1. starrmark said,

    Roberta, have you read Bitter Blood by Jerry Bledsoe. It is a North Carolina story, with which we have some loose family connections. I’ll be happy to lend it to you at our next gathering.

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