I’ve written a great deal on true crime in the past year, and it was my intention to stay away from the subject for a while – really! – but I wanted to write about the presentation I made for my AAUW branch this past Saturday. It was entitled “Time for Crime: True and Imagined.” This was a rather outrageous attempt on my part to condense twelve hours of instructional material – assembled for the course I taught last year – into a fifty-minute program of book talks interspersed with other items of interest.
I then spoke of some of the more intriguing aspects of true crime:
1. The influence of actual crimes on crime fiction (see the post Further Adventures in True Crime for more on this.)
2. Crimes that resonate down through the years
3. Writers whose lives have been personally impacted by crime:
4. Murders that have never been solved:
5. The emergence of the subgenre of historical true crime:
Guiteau is a cold, demonic, livid figure. He resembles nothing so much as a wild pig: he has the gleaming eyes, full of hatred, the thick, bristling hair, the same way of charging to the attack, taking fright, running away. It would be impossible to imagine him any uglier than he is–he is a fantastical creature out of the tales of Hoffmann.
included in the Schechter anthology (course text cited above)
American Experience on PBS recently featured Murder of a President, based on Candice Millard’s book.
Finally, there is the question of why we are fascinated by true crime. Or, as Professor Jean Murley of Queensborough Community College rather plaintively asks: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”
Professor Murley, author of The Rise of True Crime: Twentieth Century Murder and American Popular Culture, offers some interesting insight on this question. I like her simple and forthright summation:
A desire to make sense of the (seemingly) senseless
A desire to illuminate the sordid with beams of truth
After reading briefly from William Bradford’s “The Hanging of John Billington” (1651), I proceeded to Celia Thaxter and “A Memorable Murder.” I was amazed never to have heard of this terrible crime, the murder of two innocent young women, part of a group of five Norwegian immigrants living on Smuttynose Island, one of The Isles of Shoals, a group of islands located off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. In 1873, when the Smuttynose murders occurred, Celia Thaxter was living on nearby Appledore Island. She knew the victims, as well as the alleged perpetrator, Louis Wagner. Here she depicts him making his way to Smuttynose from the mainland:
A terrible piece of rowing must that have been, in one night! Twelve miles from the city to the Shoals,– three to the light-houses, where the river meets the open sea, nine more to the islands; nine back again to Newcastle next morning! He took that boat, and with the favoring tide dropped down the rapid river where the swift current is so strong that oars are scarcely needed, except to keep the boat steady. Truly all nature seemed to play into his hands; this first relenting night of earliest spring favored him with its stillness, the tide was fair, the wind was fair, the little moon gave him just enough light, without betraying him to any curious eyes, as he glided down the three miles between the river banks, in haste to reach the sea. Doubtless the light west wind played about him as delicately as if he had been the most human of God’s creatures; nothing breathed remonstrance in his ear, nothing whispered in the whispering water that rippled about his inexorable keel, steering straight for the Shoals through the quiet darkness.
I also wanted to cover the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette – again alleged, but almost certainly he was the cause of her death, as they were out rowing on a lonely lake in upstate New York in 1906. (More rowing, strangely – at this point, I am thinking of the poetry collection by Anne Sexton entitled The Awful Rowing Toward God. Alas – as Celia Thaxter would say – these rowings were going in a quite different direction.)
Twenty years later, Theodore Dreiser made the murder of Grace Brown the centerpiece of his monumental novel An American Tragedy. As a result of my involvement with this subject, I finally read this book. Although it dragged in some places, and Dreiser’s writing can be exasperating, it was also powerful enough to keep me up at night and in a deep state of dread. I ended up loving it.
This crime is also depicted in a 1951 movie of excruciating tension and uncommon beauty: A Place in the Sun starred an impossibly good looking Montgomery Clift, an equally impossibly beautiful nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters as the hapless victim in this classic love triangle.
An operatic version of An American Tragedy by American composer Tobias Picker was premiered in New York City in 2005:
I wanted to be sure to touch on story of the murder of white physician Clifford LeRoy Adams Jr. by Ruby McCollum, a comfortably off African American housewife. The killing, which took place in Florida in 1952, was covered by Zora Neale Hurston for the Pittsburgh Courier. As fascinating and strange as this case was, I found the life and work of Hurston even more fascinating. Raised in poverty in Florida, she left her family home at the age of fourteen and worked her way north. After a fruitful stop in the Washington area – she attended Morgan Academy, later Morgan State, and Howard University – she made it to New York City.
Encouraged by novelist Fanny Hurst, who had employed her as an assistant, Hurston attended Barnard College on a scholarship. She completed a BA degree in anthropology in 1928. She was 37 years old and had been the only African-American student on campus.
Hurston went on to do some graduate work at Columbia with the distinguished anthropologist Franz Boas. He it was who urged her to return to Florida and collect the folk tales that she’d heard growing up there. Reflecting later on this directive, she wrote:
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.
Obscure and impoverished, Zora Neale Hurston died in Florida in 1960. Inspired by her example, author Alice Walker made it her mission to resurrect Hurston’s life and work. With some difficulty, she located Zora’s final resting place and caused this headstone to be placed there:
At this point, I was running out of time – and breath! – so I did several rapid fire book talks on titles drawn from this handout which I’d prepared:
POSTWAR CLASSICS OF THE TRUE CRIME GENRE
POSSIBLE FUTURE CLASSICS OF THE GENRE
- DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC: a tale of medicine, madness and the murder of a president, by Candice Millard
- BLOOD ROYAL: a true tale of crime and detection in medieval Paris, by Eric Jager
- THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF: the story of a murder trial, by Helen Garner (Australian)
- GHETTOSIDE: a true story of murder in America, by Jill Leovy
- WITCHES: SALEM, 1692, by Tracy Schiff
- MURDER BY CANDLELIGHT: The Gruesome Crimes Behind Our Romance with the Macabre, by Michael Knox Beran
- MY DARK PLACES: An L.A. Crime Memoir, by James Ellroy
- JUSTICE: Trials, Crimes, and Punishments, by Dominick Dunne
- THE GOOD NURSE: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, by Charles Graeber
- THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK: Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York, by Deborah Blum
- THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF WALWORTH: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America, by Geoffrey O’Brien
- SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER: A shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective, by Kate Summerscale (British)
Nomination for pre-war classic:
GANGS OF NEW YORK: an informal history of the underworld, by Herbert Asbury
As much as Thoreau, [Thomas] De Quincey believed that there is “a chasm between knowledge and ignorance which the arches of science can never span.” The same conclusion was reached by the physicist Max Planck. Having devoted, he said, “his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter,” he concluded that science “cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” The solution to the ultimate mystery of evil is perhaps no less elusive.
Murder by Candlelight, Thomas Knox Beran
‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’
Thomas De Quincey, On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts
[End of handout]
I’m glad I had the chance to talk about James Ellroy’s quest for his mother’s killer. I find Ellroy’s fiction nearly impossible to read – short, staccato sentences and lots of profanity – but My Dark Places was extremely poignant and moving.
An apostrophe to his mother prefaces this memoir:
A cheap Saturday night took you down. You dies stupidly and harshly and without the means to hold your own life dear.
Your run to safety was a brief reprieve. You brought me into hiding as your good-luck charm. I failed you as a talisman–so I stand now as your witness.
Your death defines my life. I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name.
I want to take your secrets public. I want to burn down the distance between us.
I want to give you breath.
This combined power of anguish and rage is also present – very much so – in the first piece in Dominick Dunne’s collection. The title says it all: Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of His Daughter’s Killer.
When you have read this, you will know that the word “Justice” fairly drips with a kind of savage irony.
I had every intention of extolling the virtues of Thomas Thompson’s terrific Blood and Money. I didn’t get to it then, but you can read about it, and much else besides, in a post entitled A great deal of work with abundant rewards: the True Crime class concludes.
Finally, I said a few words on the vast subject of crime fiction. I wanted to make everyone aware of the delightful new series British Library Crime Classics. I’ve already read several of these reissues. While they’re not all uniformly engaging, there are some that are veritable treasures. My favorites so far:
Then I said a few words in praise of the late and very much lamented Ruth Rendell. My favorites: they are too great in number to enumerate here. But I will say this: A Fatal Inversion, published in 1987 under Rendell’s nom de plume Barbara Vine, is as powerful a work of psychological suspense as any I’ve ever read.
And on a completely different note, there’s the ever dependable Sue Grafton and her equally dependable creation Kinsey Millhone. I thoroughly enjoyed X!
And I thoroughly enjoyed this get-together with my AAUW colleagues. These intriguing titles proved the springboard for a lively give and take among group members. In a spirited discussion, we covered both books and recent media related to true crime.
In particular, we wanted to know more about the root causes of murder, the most evil of acts. What about guilt and remorse – what role do they play in the grimmest of scenarios? Someone mentioned the role of forgiveness, and I think everyone agreed that if this could be achieved by those most affected, perhaps a sort of grace could be attained.
I recommend the interview with Harold Schechter that appears on the Library of America’s website.
It was great to have Jennifer back with us, working hard for the branch, as always. And we wish Diane a full and speedy recovery.
Finally, I’d like to mention Kathy, who revealed that she’s read everything she could find on the subject of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. The riddle of this man and his horrible acts is one she has long been trying to understand. At the end of my talk – during what I call the “post-presentation shmooze” – she came up to me and confided that when she was ten, she read two books that changed her life: In Cold Blood and The Diary of Anne Frank. Her eyes were shining as she was telling me this. I was delighted: look what books have been able to do for people! Hopefully they still can, and always will, no matter the time, place, or the format.