A great deal of work, with abundant rewards: the True Crime class concludes

March 25, 2015 at 10:17 pm (books, True crime)

This past Monday, March 23, was the final convening of the true crime class; thus, today begins the assessment of the experience.

First, I freely admit that I did not realize the magnitude of the task I was undertaking. I’ve been teaching off and on my entire adult life: middle school, high school, freshman composition at the community college level, aspects of the mystery genre in continuing education settings, etc. etc. And that does not include the numerous  presentations I gave while working at the library.

So what made this undertaking so uniquely challenging? To being with, it had the imprimatur, as it were, of Johns Hopkins, a name to conjure with in this region, and probably elsewhere as well. Granted, this is a noncredit lifelong learning institute, but to my mind that made it no less daunting. I was forewarned that the members had high standards and expectations. So, yes, a bit nervous making.

On the other hand….

I’ve rarely had so much fun doing research. Also I’ve mastered some new computer skills, thanks mostly to my endlessly patient husband Ron. The art of teaching now incorporates technology in ways that were unheard of when I first started out in the field. For instance, up until this class came into my life, I had never assembled a power point style presentation. Neither had Ron, but he’s a quick study where I.T. is concerned, and so he got me up to speed fairly quickly. The program we used was Google Presentation.

Here’s the slide I began the course with:


To  begin with, we talked about the landmark works of true crime that appeared in the years between 1965 and 1983:

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(recent reissue)



I had just reread Blood and Money and was as mesmerized as I was when I first encountered it decades ago. (It was urged on me by my mother, of all people – definitely not her usual reading material.) This quintessentially Texas story of passion, murder, and betrayal still has the power to shock, and to sadden.

Joan Robinson Hill, champion equestrienne, with the parents who adored her....

Joan Robinson Hill, champion equestrienne, with the parents who adored her….

...and the husband who betrayed her.

…and the husband who betrayed her.

I then proceeded to read, for the first time, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule.  (One of the class members read the book right after we talked about it in the first class. When I next saw her, she told me that she had a single daughter in her early twenties and that The Stranger Beside Me had made her very fearful for that daughter. All I could think to say was, Remind your daughter to beware the facile charm of certain men. They can be master deceivers. But really, Bundy was seemingly a unique and terrible case, and, one hopes, one whose like will never again see the light of day.)

My feeling about Ann Rule as a writer is that while she is no great prose stylist, she knows how to tell a story so that it almost never loses momentum. In addition to her full length books, she’s published several collections of shorter pieces. Her contribution to True Crime: An American Anthology, the text I used for the course, is an explosive – quite literally – piece entitled “Young Love,” which originally appeared in the collection Empty Promises in 2000.

In addition to posting images, Google Presentation allows for videos to be embedded within slides. I did that with this video of an interview with Ann Rule:

The other video I showed in that first class, though not in its entirety, features Jean Murley, an associate professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY). Professor Murley’s book, pictured on the above slide, is entitled The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and the American Popular Imagination. It was very helpful to me in gathering and organizing material for the course – a real treasure trove, in other words.

In 2008, The Rise of True Crime was nominated by  the Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar Award for best critical work. Professor Murley poses some provocative questions, to which she does not offer  facile answers (something I really appreciate):


To these, I appended several more:

What can we gain from reading and studying the literature of true crime – generally speaking, and specifically in regard to the Library of America anthology?

Why do certain crimes continue to resonate in the public consciousness while others fade from memory?

How do the crimes in our reading selections affect the lives of perpetrators, surviving victims, friends and family of the victims, investigators, witnesses and bystanders – in other words, anyone who becomes involved one way or another?

I urged class members to be mindful of these questions as we move forward with our discussions.

Schechter12  And next: Let us now praise Harold Schechter, who has assembled a terrific anthology of true crime narratives. In his excellent introduction, he limns the history of the genre; he also includes deeply informative header notes in front of each selection. I highly recommend the interview on the Library of America site. Here are some excerpts:

….we dutiful citizens harbor a dark, savage self, deeply hidden from our own awareness, that revels in violence and destruction. This atavistic part—the flip side of our civilized persona—has been called many things: the Id, the Shadow, the Other, Mr. Hyde.William James describes it as “the carnivore within.” Appealing as powerfully as it does to our least socially acceptable impulses, true crime has always carried a strong whiff of the forbidden and incurred the censure of moralizing critics.
What critics of the genre fail to realize, of course, is that true crime isn’t
just, or even primarily, about titillation. It’s an age-old form of storytelling,
deeply rooted in folk tradition, that—by casting deeply disturbing events into
shapely narratives—helps us cope with and make sense of the violence that is
endemic to both our inner and outer worlds.

I first became interested in the historical roots of true crime when I discovered,
twenty or so years ago, a collection of old issues of the Illustrated Police
News of London, the best-selling periodical of Victorian England. The equivalent
of today’s sleazier supermarket tabloids, this wildly sensationalistic paper
offered graphically illustrated accounts of the most gruesome crimes, all trumpeted with headlines like “Shocking Murder!” “Singular Homicide!” “Frightful Slaying!” I realized that, though based in fact, these accounts were a variety of what folklorists call wondertales—stories designed to elicit a kind of childlike
astonishment and awe in the reader. That same experience, I believe, remains central to the appeal of true crime today. As a result, I chose to focus my anthology on accounts of remarkable crimes, the kind that erupt into otherwise ordinary lives—as opposed to, say, gangland murders, which are, after all, an
everyday part of life for your average hitman.

While visiting his website, I discovered that in January of this year, Harold Schechter delivered a lecture entitled “A History of Serial Murder from One Million, B.C. to the Present.” The venue was one I’d never heard of: The Morbid Anatomy Museum. This curiously named entity, located in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, opened in June of last year. (This write-up in The New York Times features a slide presentation.)

The museum’s website proclaims its mission as “exploring the intersections of death, beauty, & that which falls between the cracks.”  Morbidanat

1734682314 Schechter’s latest true crime opus has been nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for the award in the Best Fact Crime category. I hope he wins. I love the way this man writes!


More to come on this; not sure when.

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Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South

March 22, 2015 at 3:47 pm (African America literature, books)

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I’ve known of Zora Neale Hurston for years. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God appears on many school reading lists, and during my tenure at the library, I frequently looked for it for students. Yet I knew almost nothing about her and had never read anything written by her.

So when it came time to research her life and work as part of my preparation for the true crime course – an article by her is included in the anthology I’m using – I was struck as by a revelation. How had I managed for so long to remain incurious and ignorant in regard to this truly remarkable woman?

Although born in Alabama, Zora Neal Hurston grew up primarily in Florida – Eatonville, Florida, to be exact. Incorporated in August of 1887, Eatonville was one of the first all-black towns in the United States. Hurston’s mother died when she was nine; she never got on too well with her father, the Reverend John Hurston. By the age of fourteen, she had freed herself from the family home, working various jobs and eventually joining a traveling theater troupe.

Hurston was hungry for education. Leaving the theater troupe in Baltimore, she enrolled in the Morgan Academy, the high school division of what eventually became Morgan State University. In 1918, she began her studies at Howard University in Washington D.C. Always she struggled, working at any job that would help sustain her financially. While at Howard, she had begun to write, and never stopped writing. Eventually she made it to New York, where she became an assistant to novelist Fanny Hurst. Offered a scholarship to Barnard College, she eagerly accepted, ultimately earning a B.A. degree in anthropology.  This she achieved in 1928, at age 37. During her time at Barnard, she was the sole black student on campus.

Hurston was able to do some graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, where her mentor was the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. It was he who encouraged her to make a study of the folkloric heritage of the Southern black community which had nurtured her as a child. She had already become a member of that glittering New York scene known as the Harlem Renaissance, but it seems she knew fate was beckoning her. She gladly took up the task of becoming the chronicler of her own people. It proved the making of her as an artist.

I was glad when somebody told me, “You may go and collect Negro folklore.” In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.

Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men

At the end of her life, having returned once and for all to the Florida of her childhood, Zora Neale Hurston died in penury and alone in 1960. In 1973, a young writer sought out Hurston’s final resting place in Fort Pierce and found it, not without some difficulty, in a weed choked segregated cemetery. There, she and a fellow scholar placed a grave marker: “The marker was modest but its message was not.”


That young writer was Alice Walker. Having bestowed this recognition on an artist she revered,  Walker was instrumental in sparking a renewed interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston. (Ten years after accomplishing this righteous mission, Walker’s novel The Color Purple was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.)

For more on Zora Neale Hurston, visit the Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive, located at  the University of Central Florida’s Center for Humanities and Digital Research.

Hurston seems to have been a person who accepted no limitation on her aspirations, knew her own gifts, and would not take no for answer. A Genius of the South – and a genius of America.

Zora Neale Hurston managed to avoid many of the restraints placed upon women, blacks, and specifically black artists by American society during the first half of the twentieth century. And she did so with a vengeance by becoming the most published black female author in her time and arguably the most important collector of African-American folklore ever. Hurston was a complex artist whose persona ranged from charming and outrageous to fragile and inconsistent, but she always remained a driven and brilliant talent.

Contemporary Black Biography

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston





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Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

March 11, 2015 at 11:49 am (Book review, books, California, True crime)

A1mftPyMp+L._SL1500_ Here’s how Jill Leovy characterizes an effective officer of the law:

A great cop–or a great detective–needed to be smart and quick, but not necessarily bookish or terribly analytical. A good memory, a talent for improvisation, a keen interest in people, and a buoyancy of spirit–one had to like “capering”–ensured that the hyperactive flourished in a job that left others wilting with stress.

Leovy then states: “Wally Tennelle had all these traits.” Detective Wally Tennelle and his family are at the center of this narrative.

Leovy describes in detail the extraordinary difficulties involved in policing South Los Angeles. Making cases that stick is a process that has its own set of problems, mainly having to do with witnesses who are too terrified to testify in open court.

The tribulations experienced by those who work for the Los Angeles Police Department are rendered vividly in this narrative. There is the inevitable faceless, infuriating bureaucracy. There are cops who operate on some version of automatic pilot.

There are also individuals who operate at the very highest levels of sensitivity, empathy, and most of all, devotion to duty. And there are the counterparts of these, people who are forced to endure the most searing pain there is: loss of a loved one. When that loved one is a child, the pain seems well nigh insurmountable.

I’ve been reading a great deal of true crime lately, but Ghettoside is different. Jill Leovy takes you to a place so dark, so seemingly hopeless, that you can think of nothing but how to escape, the sooner the better.

And yet…

By forcing you to look directly again and again at the  injustice and violence and the inevitable resultant agony, the reader arrives finally at the still, anguished center of this harrowing narrative. It is impossible not to. And once having come to that place, there is no going back.

There are stories of gang members shooting individuals they’ve erroneously thought to be members of rival gangs. These ‘mistakes’ happen because of a particular hat being worn, or the color of a bandana sticking out of a pocket.

You want more than anything to see these murder cases followed through until justice is done. You wish to thank people like Detective John Scaggs and his fellow cadre of officers for their unwavering dedication in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles (some of which emanate from their own police department).

Most of all, you wish you could somehow assuage the pain of those who have suffered the worst of all losses. Leovy tells story after story about vicious, senseless, utterly unjustifiable murders, and the suffering they cause family members, who are left trying to cope with the loss for weeks and months and years afterwards, probably forever.

Choked silence, accompanied by that flat gaze one police chaplain called “homicide eyes,” was perhaps the signature response people offered when asked to describe their experiences with violence….

Karen Hamilton, a bookkeeper from Jefferson Park, had still not spoken of her son’s murder seven years after his death.She tried, drawing deep breaths, her hands shaking, but no voice came. Homicide grief may be a kind of living death. Survivors slog on, disfigured by loss and incomprehension.

At the conclusion of  the trial that is the centerpiece of this book, the jury foreman, who was white, had this to say:

“There is a perception that blacks are doing it to blacks, and if I’m white, it doesn’t affect me….” His eyes flashed with sudden anger. “Well, get over it. It does.”

I can’t possibly do Ghettoside justice in this space. Only let me say that it is the most urgently relevant, compassionate, profound, and beautifully written book I have read in a very long time.

Jill Leovy

Jill Leovy


No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Meditation XVII, John Donne


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Utter enchantment…

March 5, 2015 at 6:04 pm (Family)

It’s what greeted me this morning as I was directed to a video of my granddaughter on the slopes.

I know it means a lot to my son and daughter-in-law that Etta become an adept skier while learning to enjoy the sport as much as they do. Even so, they declared themselves blown away by the combination of competence and fearlessness she displayed last week in Jackson.

Her Dad made this video. To me, it serves as a celebration of the magic of childhood and of the love they have for their feisty little four-year-old daughter.

Go Etta!!

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With malice toward none….

March 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm (History)


Wednesday March 4, tomorrow, is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. My  brother Richard,  holder of a PhD in American history, has called to remind me.

I am fortunate to live near the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. This museum occupies shared premises with the American Art Museum in the Old Patent Office Building, itself a majestic edifice with a fascinating past. (In this slide show, Temple of Invention brings that past to life.)

Located on the first floor of the Portrait Gallery, The American Origins Exhibition is a repository of art and history that is rich with meaning for all of us.

It is even more meaningful, and deeply moving as well,  to walk the length of the Great Hall, site of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball.

GreatHall Patent Office

It takes no great feat of imagination to conjure the crowd of well wishers and celebrants, to hear the animated conversation and the music – and to inhale the aromas emanating from the banquet table.


(Click here for more on the Inaugural Banquet.)

The appearance of the Great Hall today is not exactly the same as it was for the occasion of Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball. In 1877, The Old Patent Office was severely damaged by fire; what we  currently see is the refurbished version of the Great Hall.

In 2000, the entire building was closed for renovation. By 2007, all galleries and other public spaces were reopened.


Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

March 4, 1865


At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Source: Library of Congress


President Lincoln was felled by an assassin’s bullet on April 14, 1865.


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