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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.