“This year John Billington the elder (one that came over with the first) was arraigned; and both by grand, and petty jury found guilty of willful murder; by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them; they used all due means about his trial, and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop, and other the ablest gentlemen in the Bay of Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land be purged from blood. He and some of his, had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them; … His fact was, that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen (about a former quarrel) and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.”
Such poignancy in the line, “This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them…”
For more about John Billington, click here.
The murder of John Newcomen took place in 1630. Another murder in the colonies, not included in the Schechter anthology, occurred in New Hampshire in 1648. In May or June of that year, one Hannah Willix was found floating in the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire. The body was in shocking condition: “…her necke broken, her tounge black and swollen out of her mouth & the bloud settled in her face, the privy partes swolne &c as if she had been muche abused &c.” In the course of her research, blogger Pam Carter, a lifelong Maine resident and self-confessed genealogy addict, discovered that Hannah Willix was her own tenth great grandmother.
Robert Begiebing, now professor of English emeritus at Southern New Hampshire University, first came across this story in a different context: he was looking for fresh subject matter with which to engage creatively.
While in this rather restless frame of mind, Begiebing was reading “Bell’s History of Exeter,” an 1888 book about the Exeter-Newfields region where he lives. Alarms went off in Begiebing’s head when he came across a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop.
That sentence was exactly the same as the one, quoted above, that was found by Pam Carter in the course of her genealogical research. It fired Begiebing’s imagination at once; the result was a fine piece of historical crime fiction, in which Hannah Willix becomes the eponymous – and similarly unfortunate – Mistress Coffin:
Here is the book trailer for this novel:
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.
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
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.
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.
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
The large helpings of the literature of true crime in which I’ve been lately immersed have, at times, made me feel as though I were marinating in sin. So I’ve sought relief in a different kind of reading matter altogether. And what would that be? Why mysteries, of course….
In Deadly Virtues, we’re introduced to Constable Hazel Best, one of the Norbold (England) police department’s newest – and greenest – recruits. She had come to the aid of one Gabriel Ash, a man half destroyed by the disappearance of his wife and sons. In the process, Hazel had proven herself an officer of worth and mettle.
Perfect Sins is Hazel’s second outing. This time, she becomes embroiled in a situation involving deeply held family secrets. For Hazel, this is more than just another case: the Byrfields, aristocrats of long and proud lineage, are the employers of Hazel’s father Fred Best. Luckily, she has the help and support of Gabriel Ash – and he has the help and support of Patience, his faithful and preternaturally wise lurcher.
Spending time with Hazel and company is pure pleasure. She is such a fine and decent person, with all the attributes needed to become, in time, a first rate investigator. Her creator, Jo Bannister, has long labored in the field of crime fiction, producing a body of work of continuously high caliber. Yet she is little known in this country. I hope this fine new series changes that.
At one point in the narrative, Gabriel Ash, so grateful to Hazel for her straightforward loyalty and affection, turns to her and says: “I wish I could explain to you how much richer my life is for having you in it.”
The Devotion of Suspect X by Japanese author Keigo Higashino is the March selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery discussion group. We Suspects are currently having an international year. This means we read novels set elsewhere than in the US or the UK. We began in January with Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Although I was not crazy about the book, it nevertheless provoked a lively and enjoyable discussion. February’s selection, set in Barcelona, was A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana. I opted out of this one, due to time pressures occasioned by work on the True Crime Course.
But being intrigued by reviews I’d read – and desperate to resume my normal activities! – I decided I’d make time for the March selection. Initially, I had trouble with The Devotion of Suspect X. It seemed a curiously glum bit of prose and was not drawing me in. But a few chapters in, that changed. Surprisingly, this novel turned out to be in no small part a story of thwarted love, and of humans living in isolation, loneliness, and sometimes fear. The picture the author paints of contemporary Japan is a bleak one, with occasional flashes of light. And the ending – well, I won’t say any more. Find out for yourself; it is well worth it.
I always look forward to the next Harpur & Iles novel. I know I’ll be equal parts amused and appalled (but in an entertaining way). That’s exactly the effect that author Bill James strives for and achieves so effortlessly. Disclosures, the 32nd (!!) entry in this series, suffers a bit for having this dynamic duo off stage or much of the book’s action. A fair compensation, though, is the presence of Ralph W Ember, a long running character, owner of the Monty, a social club, and a member – until recently – of the drug cartel called Pasque Uno. (Strange names abound in these novels.)
Ralph aspires to join a better class of people; his ruminations on the subject of high culture can be quite diverting:
Ralph would admit he didn’t know a terrific amount about classical music, but on the whole he was not anti. It could do no real harm. Radio Three was always there, but you could take it or leave it alone.A lot of the stuff had been around for centuries so there must be certain parts that were reasonably OK.
So much for Mozart, Beethoven, etc.
Bill James is a bit of a mystery himself. He was born in 1929 and his real name is Allan James Tucker. He’s an extremely prolific writer and is still at it, apparently. He has no website, and this is the only photo I’ve ever been able to find (although it is usually reproduced in black and white):
Finally, last but certainly not least, I continue to be vastly entertained by P.F. Chisholm‘s romp through late 1500s with Sir Robert Carey, his faithful and long suffering Sergeant Henry Dodd, his sister Philadelphia, the longed-for but unfortunately (in more ways than one) married Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, and a host of other colorful characters. I’ve already written about A Famine of Horses, the first book of this series, in a post entitled Best Reading in 2014. I felt compelled to go on with the series and am now on number four, A Plague of Angels.
Chisholm knows how to conjure up a scene, as in this description of an encounter in the countryside:
For a moment it was hounds only, the horses heralded by sound. The, like the elven-folk from a poet’s imagination, they cantered out of the tree shadows, three, four, eight, twelve of them, and more behind, some carrying torches, their white leather jacks pristine and lace complicating the hems of their falling bands and cuffs, flowing beards and glittering jewelled fingers, with the plump flash of brocade above their long boots.
(From A Surfeit of Guns, third in the series)
Chisholm has an in depth knowledge of the clothing and weaponry of the period, but her scholarship is never intrusive. Instead, it serves to make her evocation of a past time almost unnervingly vivid.
Oh – and she displays great helpings of wit, often of the most irreverent kind and therefore all the more welcome to a reader desperately in need of some comic relief.
“….an exploration of deadly and sensational interpersonal betrayal, experienced on a very personal level.” – The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule
I’ve already written about rereading the terrific Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson. I did this in conjunction with preparing to teach a course entitled “Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime.” The next classic of the genre that I tackled was Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.
Since its initial publication in 1980, this seminal true crime narrative has been re-issued a number of times. In a 2008 preface to the latest edition, Rule writes, “I never expected to be writing about Theodore Robert Bundy once again.” Didn’t she? From the time of their fateful first meeting as workers at the Seattle Crisis Clinic in 1971, Ted Bundy has haunted Rule’s life, even commandeered her dreams, turning them into nightmares on frequent occasions. But at the beginning, they were friends, even confidants. Or so she thought.
Her determination to write about this experience in clear, honest prose probably saved her sanity; ironically, that same determination turned out to be the making of her as a successful author of true crime books.
There’s very little explicit violence in The Stranger Beside Me until about the book’s half way point. Until he went to Florida, Bundy’s murderous rampage was an oddly shadowed thing. His victims often seemed to disappear into thin air; some were abducted in broad daylight with other people not far distant. There was, in other words, no crime scene – or none until the body was discovered, weeks or even months or years after the commission of the crime. Some of the victims were never found. It was one of the reasons he was so difficult to identify and apprehend.
But once in Florida, the fever seems to have seized Bundy with an overmastering force. On one awful night in Tallahassee, he invaded a Florida State University sorority house and viciously attacked four young women as they slept in their beds. Two were killed; two more, severely injured. He then proceeded to an off campus residence and attacked another female student. The crime scenes were ghastly, and Rule describes them in precise detail. It was horrible, and I could not stop reading.
Professor Jean Murley descibes this phenomenon in her book The Rise of True Crime. In the introduction, she states that as a teenager, her reading of The Stranger Beside Me sparked a life long fascination with the true crime genre. But alongside that fascination came the insistent question: “Why can’t I stop reading this horrifying story?”
There is something uniquely dreadful about Ted Bundy. That a person who faces the world with such an easygoing, pleasant demeanor, and is nice looking to boot, could be so innately evil seems almost beyond comprehension – well, it is beyond comprehension.
In an interview with Library of America, Harold Schechter observes the following:
Our fascination with psychopathic killers derives in no small
part from their outward appearance of normality. Their atrocities provoke in us a
powerful need to comprehend an ultimate human mystery: how people who seem
(and often are) so ordinary, so much like the rest of us, can possess the hearts and minds of monsters.
Hamlet puts it even more succinctly: “The devil hath power / To assume a pleasing shape.”
As I read Rule’s book, I had the sense of following two parallel mysteries. The first concerned the nature of Ted Bundy himself – how such a person could even exist, could conceal his unspeakable compulsions and actions behind a veneer of affability and genuine intelligence. The second mystery resides with the author herself. Rule kept up her acquaintance, if not friendship, with Ted Bundy even when the murders came to light and he went on trial for his life. True, she was writing and publishing about him all the while. But it seemed to me that her feeling of connection with him went deeper than that. It’s as though she were compelled to continue the work of reconciling in her mind the friend she’d known with the monster he was now known to be.
The last part of the book is occupied with Bundy’s seemingly endless legal maneuvering. Sometimes, when Rule would describe Bundy’s annoyance with a lawyer or judge, I would want to scream out loud, “Who cares how you feel, you horror!!”
Jean Murley observes that “Rule’s description of Bundy as sociopath is classic, and the insights she discovered though him form the basis of contemporary understandings about killers:
On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted has gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind, or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.”
Ted Bundy was electrocuted in Florida in January of 1989. I remember the television footage of the scene outside Florida State Prison in Raiford. People were carrying placards and yelling, “It’s Fry-day, Ted!”
“One purpose of true crime writing is precisely to provide
decent law-abiding citizens with primal, sadistic thrills—to satisfy what William
James called our ‘aboriginal capacity for murderous excitement.’ The worst
specimens of the genre may not rise above that quasi-pornographic level. But
the best—like those exquisitely ornamented warclubs, broadswords, and flintlocks displayed in museums—are a testimony to something worth celebrating:
the human ability to take something rooted in our intrinsically bloodthirsty
nature and turn it into craft of a very high order, sometimes even into art.”
From Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, as quoted by Harold Schechter
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.
“….an existence so so splendid, so compelling, that the paltry realities of this world grew faint by comparison.” – Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison
I’ve never lost interest in the story of Joan of Arc. So when I read of Kathryn’s Harrison’s new biography, I knew I’d want to read it.
Ever since she made her appearance in the historical narrative, shaking that narrative to its core, people have longed to know what Joan of Arc actually looked like. The sole contemporaneous likeness we have is a marginal doodle by Clément de Fauquembergue, a clerk in parliament.
He made this drawing in 1429 without actually having seen its subject.But he was correct in making Joan’s hair black. How do we know this? In the mid nineteenth century, a single strand, inky dark in color, was found embedded in the wax seal of a letter she had dictated.
Harrison tells us that
Likenesses made in her lifetime were destroyed upon her being condemned as a witch, rendering them dangerous devil’s currency.
The frontispiece of this book contains a single word: the scrawled signature of the Maid of Orleans:
I was stopped in my tracks. You want to trace the jagged letters with your fingers. (I did.)
‘I was only born the day you first spoke to me….My life only began on the day you told me what I must do, my sword in hand.’
Joan speaking to her voices, in The Lark by Jean Anouilh
Pictorial representations of Joan of Arc have proliferated down through the centuries. And the coming of the motion of the motion picture provided a whole new means of bringing to life her remarkable story.
Harrison quotes liberally from the numerous books and plays in which some version of Joan’s life has been depicted, among them Anouilh’s The Lark (quoted above), George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, The Maid of Orléans by Friedrich Schiller, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, Saint Joan of the Stockyards by Bertolt Brecht, and Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson. In addition, the author place’s the events of Joan’s life in their proper context. The mindset of the people of Western Europe in the late Middle Ages is of course foreign to us in many ways. This is especially true as regards the intensity of religious feeling on the one hand, and the prevalence of superstitious beliefs and fears on the other. (A good way to get a vivid feel for the period is to watch Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal):
Harrison sums up the essence of this stranger-than-fiction individual thus:
Joan’s poise under fire demonstrated what she couldn’t by herself, even had she been erudite as well as literate. It’s one thing to assemble and polish a portrait of oneself, as St. Augustine, a professor of philosophy and rhetoric, and another to demonstrate at nineteen an integrity that a chorus of scheming pedants couldn’t dismantle, their sophistry displaying Joan’s virtues as she could not have done for herself. Few trial transcripts make good reading; only one preserves the voice of Joan of Arc. While the words of the judges are forgettable – all despots sound alike – Joan’s transcend the constraints of interrogation. Even threatened with torture and assaulted by prison guards attempting her rape, she could not be forced to assume the outline her judges drew for her. That was their script, their story of Joan’s life, and, unlike other such medieval documents, it was reproduced, bound, and distributed by her persecutors with the ironic purpose of establishing their punctiliousness in serving the laws of canon.
In other words, she ran rings around her tormenters. Her courage and resourcefulness, both on the battlefield and in court, were almost beyond belief.
It can be seen from the above paragraph that Harrison’s meticulous and powerful prose is more than equal to the telling of this extraordinary story. (I particularly love the locution “chorus of scheming pedants.”) I do have a small caveat, however: Harrison writes this biography from a distinctly feminist perspective, or at least so it seemed to this reader. I was not troubled by this, because while she makes no secret of the gloss she places on certain aspects of this story, she does not harp on ideological convictions. They’re there, in other words, but not to excess. They do not detract – nothing detracts, really – from this incredible tale.
A brief biography of Joan with excellent illustrations can be found at Live Science.
Finally, I recommend the (silent) film The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was made in 1928 by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. The history of this film is in itself rather unlikely. For one thing, it was very nearly lost to posterity. For another its star, Maria (sometimes called Renee) Falconetti did such an uncanny job of bringing Joan to life that it’s almost as though she were channeling rather than acting. Dreyer himself called her “the martyr’s reincarnation.”
Several full length versions of The Passion of Joan of Arc reside on YouTube. The variations have mainly to do with the soundtrack. Voices of Light, a new soundtrack for the film, was written in 1985 by Richard Einhorn. It accompanies the Criterion release of the film.
The version below has no sound at all and French subtitles only. The final fifteen minutes are extremely harrowing and need no words whatsoever.
“‘The triumphal progress of Linnet Ridgeway in her golden car….'” – a discussion of Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle. From this fateful and impulsive act, a world of trouble arises, starting with the couple’s Egyptian honeymoon.
But the great question, the crucial question is…Why should we care?
Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects discussed Death on the Nile, the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie. Led by Frank, one of our newer members and himself an aspiring writer of crime fiction, this proved to be an especially lively session.
Frank got us started by asking up front for our opinions of the novel. In this space, I recently advised against opening a book discussion this way, but on this occasion, the gambit worked exceptionally well. The first few responses were fairly positive, but then Yours Truly, the curmudgeon for the evening, weighed in. Way too plot driven, I complained, at the expense of character development and setting evocation. We’re supposed to be in Egypt, for Heaven’s sake! Where are the descriptions of the wonders of antiquity? Instead, we have a group made up mostly of spoiled rich people and insufferable snobs (the usual suspects, in other words) playing out their petty psychodramas in the cramped confines of a cruise vessel called the Karnak. (Pauline opined that it would have been a good thing if the ship had simply sunk, a view with which I concurred, as did several others.)
Admittedly, the basic murder plot was very cunning, but in order for it to work, circumstances had to obtain which were by no means a sure thing. Meanwhile, readers were tossed enough red herrings to make a large seafood salad, and I admit that in this regard, Christie’s ingenuity positively shone. However, this multiplicity of suspects was made possible by the presence of large number of characters who drifted in and out of focus as the narrative progressed. Also there are secondary plots involving the theft of valuable jewels and a murderer who foments trouble internationally and who, though his identity is unknown, is also on board the Karnak. This is a lot to cram into a novel of about 330 pages in length.
In fairness, it must be noted that this novel contained some memorable passages. I liked the “golden car” conceit, and there were other piquant bon mots as well. Agatha Christie’s primary storytelling strength lies in the creation of clever puzzles that are difficult to unravel before she unravels them for you. In the first Golden Age of British crime writing, this skill was considered a key asset in an author of detective fiction, and Christie did it as well if not better than just about anybody else. (Frank admitted that he’s a great admirer of this kind of plotting – to the extent that he uses a computer to map puzzles like this one.) But it must be said that as crime fiction has evolved over the decades, character creation and evocative setting have become more or less coequal in importance with storytelling.
(Someone observed that for P.D. James, the setting sometimes came first – at least, in her imagination. The characters and their story then emerged from that setting, which remained throughout a powerful element in the story.)
Generally speaking, with regard to the works of Agatha Christie, our groups spans the spectrum from those who are unabashed fans to those who – well, who for the most part are not fans, unabashed or otherwise. Most of us dwell somewhere in the middle ground. There are some Christie works for which I have genuine affection; numbered among them are several of the Poirot novels and stories and just about anything with Miss Marple in it. Among my favorites: The Labors of Hercules, Five Little Pigs, The Body in the Library, and Murder in Mesopotamia. Finally, in my view, some of Agatha Christie’s later works, featuring neither Poirot nor Miss Marple, are among her most powerful. I am thinking in particular of Endless Night and The Pale Horse.
Also we should keep in mind the jewel like quality of many of Dame Agatha’s short stories. Ann mentioned “Philomel Cottage.” This is one of the most chilling narratives in the canon. It can be found in two Christie collections: The Listerdale Mystery and Witness for the Prosecution. (It’s also included in an excellent if obscure collection that I acquired several years ago called Murder Short and Sweet.) “Philomel Cottage” has that atmosphere of dread that was so memorably evoked in The Pale Horse. In fact, my favorite works by Christie have this characteristic, which at times is characterized by supernatural overtones. My favorite story collection is The Tuesday Club Murders, aka The Thirteen Problems. One story in particular, “The Idol House of Astarte,” is especially haunting.
One of the most gratifying aspects of Tuesday night’s discussion was its wide ranging scope. In addition to Death on the Nile, we talked about other works by Christie and about the way in which she handles the various facets of crime fiction: primarily plot, character development, and setting. For the sake of comparison, other authors, such as P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and Theodore Dreiser, were brought into the conversation. (What this means, of course, is that in this post, I’ve by no means “covered” Tuesday’s discussion in its entirety – just the highlights, and what I’m at present able to recall.)
Marge recommended the 1978 film version of Death on the Nile, memorable largely because of its cast, among them David Niven, Mia Farrow, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, and Angela Lansbury, with Peter Ustinov in the role of the imperturbable Belgian detective. I very much enjoyed the 2004 version with David Suchet. It was gloriously photographed, displaying all the wonder of Egypt that was so lacking in the book. (In the Suchet film, Colonel Race is played by James Fox, brother of actor Edward Fox and father of Laurence Fox, who plays Hathaway in the Inspector Lewis series.)
This was Frank’s first time leading a discussion for our group, and to my mind, it went about as well as one could possibly wish. His open mindedness, genuine curiosity, and probing questions resulted in numerous lively and rewarding exchanges. Well done!
After its acquisition by the National Trust, Greenway, Agatha Christie’s country home, was opened to the public in 2009. For those of us who have met Christie scholar John Curran and toured Greenway Estate, any visiting – or revisiting – of her works must invariably evoke memories of these excursions.
Here’s a recently discovered (by me, at least) video featuring David Suchet and Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Agatha Christie, at Greenway:
Finally, in the “Everything is connected to everything else” department:
This article links the Christie novel N or M? with the top secret activities taking place at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Christie’s connection with Bletchley was not through Alan Turing, subject of the current film The Imitation Game,” but through Alfred Dilwyn Knox,at the time a leading British codebreaker. Knox is one of the subjects of The Knox Brothers, novelist Penelope Fitzgerald’s group biography of her gifted father Edmund Knox and his equally gifted siblings. It’s a wonderful, quintessentially British book. Fitzgerald is one of my favorite novelists, and I’ve lately been afraid of her slipping into obscurity. Happily this has been prevented by Hermione Lee’s celebrated new biography, which I very much look forward to reading.
This past Sunday, Ron Charles of the Washington Post enumerated the books he’s looking forward to reading in the coming year. The column was squeezed into a tiny space. I almost missed it, and in case you actually did miss it, click here.
Ron Charles, Michael Dirda, and Jonathan Yardley, all of the Washington Post, are the most wonderful and perceptive book reviewers. Together these three have continually promoted and celebrated the reading life on behalf of those of us who live in the greater Washington area. Just last month, Jonathan Yardley announced his impending retirement. Oh, no! One hopes that he’ll still grace the pages of Book World from time to time and share his literary knowledge and boundless enthusiasm with us.
As a gift to us on the occasion of his farewell, Mr. Yardley composed a list of titles that have become, over the years, his personal favorites. Like a little kid who does well on a test, I was delighted to find that out of the fifteen fiction titles on his list, I’d read eleven!
From 2003 to 2010, Jonathan Yardley wrote a column called Second Reading, which he describes as “an occasional series in which the Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.” One of my favorites from among these essays is entitled “Six Gifted Englishwomen.”
Mr. Yardley’s Second Reading pieces have been collected in a book by the same name.