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.
Harking back to our nation’s beginnings, Harold Schechter commences his survey of true crime literature in America
Let’s just stipulate this up front: the Library of America could not have chosen a better person to edit their true crime anthology. Harold Schechter‘ s deep knowledge of the literature of true crime and his distinguished contributions to the genre are well known, especially to aficionado’s of the genre. His selections for this volume have the power to disturb and to fascinate.
Not to mention, surprise. True Crime opens with an excerpt from William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation. In that famed document, completed in 1651, Bradford relates the story of one John Billington. Although he was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact, Billington was no earnest Puritan, but rather a ne’er-do-well who fled London with his creditors in hot pursuit. He seems to have been a thoroughly disreputable character. As he took up life in the New World, his continued bad behavior seemed to presage worse to come. And so it proved: in 1630, in the heat of a quarrel, he shot and killed a man. For this crime, he was executed. His fellow colonists took no pleasure in carrying out the sentence.
William Bradford writes:
This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a mater of great sadnes unto them. They used all due means about his triall, and tooke the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentle-men in the Bay of Massachusets, that were then new-ly come over, who concured with them that he ought to dye, and the land to be purged from blood.
It turns out that numbered among the descendants of John Billington is James A. Garfield, twentieth President of the United States. What an irony that from the line of such a rough character eventually issued a man of great courage and nobility of spirit – in every way a supremely admirable human being. I recommend – very highly – Candace Millard’s biography, Destiny of the Republic.
Here’s how Harold Schechter describes the next author to appear in the anthology; “Unfairly or not, Cotton Mather (1663-1728) has come to epitomize many of the least attractive traits of the colonial Puritan, from excessive self-righteousness to persecutive zeal.” Well, that about sums it up, except that there is more to Mather than meets the eye (or was presented to us in those long ago interminable high school history classes ). It turns out that he was something of a polymath, and an industrious one at that:
….he published as many as 17 books and pamphlets a year – an estimated 4,444 bound volumes all told – while turning out five sermons a week, conducting countless fasts, devoting himself to causes ranging from penal reform to the education of slaves, and raising 15 children by three wives.
Among the sermons Mather preached was one of particular type. The so-called execution sermon was preached on that very occasion, to provide a vivid illustration of the wages off sin. Mather’s execution sermons were published under the rubric Pillars of Salt.
Before the sentence was carried out, the malefactor was expected to express remorse and repentance, in his or her own words . These utterances would be incorporated into the sermon, to give it added power.This happened frequently, but not invariably. One who refused to follow the script was Margaret Gaulacher, condemned to hang in the 1715 for the crime of infanticide. The fact that she was bitter rather than penitent demonstrated to Mather that she had not made her peace with God.
Be that as it may, Pillars of Salt stands as a founding document of the literature of true crime in America. Cotton Mather’s signal contribution is commented on in this rather piquantly entitled essay, Cotton Mather…Pulp Writer?
There’s more to come, in subsequent posts.
[The first post in this series is Adventures in True Crime, Part One.]
In the course of reading and doing research in the area of true crime, I’ve become fascinated by the way in which actual crimes have served as the basis for fictional narratives. There are quite a few examples of this phenomenon in the literature of suspense and crime fiction – more than I had originally thought. So I decided to come up with some sort of schematic to help organize this information into a coherent form. Another part of my purpose here is to note instances where true crime narratives also exist.
I wanted to include two of my favorite films as well. And of course there’s plenty of relevant material on YouTube. Even an opera made it into the mix!
With the help of my computer whiz husband, I’ve created this grid. The tables were generated by Microsoft Word, and in the process of importing into the blog, I encountered a number of problems with spacing, some of which I was able to correct, but not all.
The project is not quite finished, but here’s what I’ve got so far:
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of Hannah Willix, New Hampshire, 1648||Drawn from a one-sentence entry in the journal of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop, dated June 4, 1648. Source: http://articles.latimes.com/1991-05-21/news/vw-2453_1_strange-death-of-mistress-coffinFrom a blog entitled My Maine Ancestry – http://mymaineancestry.blogspot.com/2012/03/unsolved-murder.html :My 10th Great Grandmother was murdered in New Hampshire in May or June of 1648. Her name was Hannah (or Annah) Willix. She was traveling from Dover to Exeter when she was attacked, robbed and her body “flung” into the river. I found a document online called “New Hampshire Homicides 1630-1774” that contains this information: Hannah “was founde in the [Piscataqua] River dead; 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.”||The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin, by Robert J. Begiebing – 1991http://youtu.beRHjr7sjFvhA********************|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|Murder by James Yates of his wife and four children in 1781 in Tomhanick, NY||“An Account of a Murder Committed by Mr. J————– Y———– Upon His Family, in December, A.D. 1781” Anonymous article appearing in The New-York Weekly Magazine, July 20, 1796*||Wieland: or The Transformation: An American Tale, By Charles Brockden Brown – 1798 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wieland_%28novel%29|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|Murder of Anethe Christensen and Karen Christensen by Louis Wagner at Smutty Nose, in the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, in 1873||“A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter, for the Atlantic Monthly Magazine* http://seacoastnh.com/smuttynose/memo.html||The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve – 1997
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|Eight unsolved murders, primarily of African American servant girls, in Austin, Texas, in late 1884 and 1885||“Capital Murder” by Skip Hollandsworth, in Texas Monthly, July 2000: http://www.texasmonthly.com/content/capital-murder||A Twist at the End, by Steven Saylor – 2000
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of New York City resident Mary Rogers in 1841||The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the invention of murder, by Daniel Stashower – 2006||“The Mystery of Marie Roget,” short story by Edgar Allan Poe – 1842 http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/rogetb.htm|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of John Hossack in Iowa, in 1900||“The Hossack Murder,” by Susan Glaspell, in the Des Moines Daily News, 1901*Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland, by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf – 2005||“A Jury of Her Peers,” short story by Susan Glaspell – 1917http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/story/fulltext.html|
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette, in Herkimer, New York (Adirondacks) -1906||Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, by Craig Brandon – 1986||An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser – 1925 A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly – 2003*********Film: A Place in the Sun – 1951 http://youtu.be/wEuFNnJSIw8
An American Tragedy: opera by Tobias Picker – 2005 http://youtu.be/2Um_jfEpjD0
|Actual Crime:||True Crime Narrative:||Fictionalized Version:|
|The murder of Albert Snyder by Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, in New York City – 1927||“The Eternal Blonde,” by Damon Runyan, from Trials and Other Tribulations – 1927*Included in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum – 2010||Double Indemnity by James M Cain – 1938****Film: Double Indemnity, from Cain’s novel, with Raymond Chandler writing the screenplay – 1944 http://youtu.be/yKrrAa2o9Eg
*Included in True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and published by Library of America in 2008
Why are we drawn to true crime narratives? The ready-to-hand answer to this question might be that we are by nature prurient creatures whose morbid curiosity can only be slaked by the rich helpings of horror and misfortune served up by these stories. While there may be some truth to this explanation, I don’t believe that it is the whole truth.
I was recently asked by my friend and fellow Usual Suspect Pauline if I might be interested in teaching a course in the literature of true crime. The course would be offered at a lifelong learning institute that has a local campus. (Pauline herself has been teaching there for a number years.) As soon as this proposition was put before me, my mind started to race: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher! Fatal Vision! The Executioner’s Song! The Devil in the White City! Midnight in Peking! The Poisoner’s Handbook! And, inevitably, In Cold Blood.
In addition to these, in the past several months I’ve read three notable true crime titles: Little Demon in the City of Light by Steven Levingston, The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter, and Blood Royal by Eric Jager. All three belong to the subgenre of historical true crime and though all were in varying degrees engrossing. I’d have to say that my favorite was Blood Royal, a book that combines elements of medieval history, crime, and detection to create a riveting narrative. It will rank as one of my best reads of this year, for certain.
So my mind is racing, filled with the myriad possibilities and approaches to such an undertaking, not to mention the sheer number of books to consider. For the first time, the vastness of the field became apparent to me. Where to begin? How to place limits?
With this decision made, everything else began to fall more or less neatly into place.
to begin with, I decided to highlight several of the 20th century’s more notorious crimes, as referenced in this collection.. There’s “The Black Dahlia,” subject of an essay written by Jack Webb. Yes, that Jack Webb, the man who created Dragnet and became a pioneer of realism in television police dramas.
In “Eternal Blonde,” Damon Runyon describes the murder trial of former lovers Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. In the heat of their affair, Snyder convinced Gray to help kill her husband for the insurance money. They had to make it look like an accident, so that they could get twice the amount in the payout. In insurance speak, that’s called double indemnity.
Sound familiar? It should:
Double Indemnity , a classic noir novel, was inspired by the Snyder-Gray case. In 1944, it became one of the greatest noir films ever made. The following clip, featuring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, is one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. The screenwriter was Raymond Chandler, and the rapid fire one liners were written by him, not Cain:
In the fifties and sixties, Dorothy Kilgallen was a panelist on a popular television quiz show called What’s My Line. Most of us who watched the show back then knew her only in that capacity. She was in fact an accomplished journalist who write about show business as well as politics and crime. Her piece in the True Crime anthology is called “Sex and the All-American Boy,” and all I can say is, read it for yourself. Tone, style, content – she absolutely nails it!
The eponymous all-American boy is one Robert Allen Edwards. In 1934 Robert found himself embroiled in a classic love triangle. The competing love interests were Freda McKechnie, the girl next door in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, and Margaret Crain, who resided with her parents in Aurora, New York. Freda became pregnant. Robert said he’d marry her, but he desperately did not want to.
One evening, Freda suggested that Robert take her to a lake for a swim….
A young man with two girlfriends. One of them becomes pregnant and insists that they marry. They go down to a nearby lake….
Once again, I ask: Sound familiar? It is almost the exact same scenario that describes the death of Grace Brown at the hands of Chester Gillette in upstate New York in 1906. One of the journalists present at the murder trial of Robert Allen Edwards was Theodore Dreiser. In 1925, Dreiser had written his magnum opus An American Tragedy, a fictional treatment of the Brown/Gillette story. How strange it must have seemed to him, sitting in that courtroom some twenty years later. He probably experienced a powerful sense of déja vu.
An American Tragedy provided the plot line for yet another terrific film. Made in 1951, A Place in the Sun starred Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters and a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.
More on this subject will appear in a subsequent post. Now I’d like to address the way in which this subject has hijacked my personal reading program! Having promised myself that in future, I’d be buying as few hard copy books as possible, I’ve just purchased a slew of them. Several of the items I’ve become interested in as a result of my recent research on true crime are not owned by the local library; nor are they available for Kindle download.
A number are out of print. This is true of Murder One, the collection of pieces by Dorothy Kilgallen that includes “Sex and the All-American Boy.” I did not get this Dell paperback (75 cents!); rather, I got a used hardback. Rather ill-used, judging from the condition of its cover.
Blood and Ink: An International Guide to Fact Based Crime Literature, by Albert Borowitz. In print, published by Kent Stat University Press. A terrific but dangerous reference work. I was only in the A’s when I encountered Richard Altick, an author I remembered from my graduate school days. At that time, we’d been assigned to read The Scholar Adventurers. I recall finding Altick’s tales of literary sleuthing quite fascinating. What I don’t recall, and perhaps never knew, is that he had a special interest in Victorian Britain, specifically in crimes that occurred in that era. Hence, my ordering of Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations (available for Kindle download, thank goodness). No more poking around in Blood and Ink for me – at least, for the present! (“The Medea of Kew Gardens Hills” by Albert Borowitz is included in the True Crime anthology.)
And today I look forward to the arrival of two more items related to my true crime investigations. The first is The Badge by Jack Webb. Webb’s essay on the Black Dahlia murder case is included in this volume. I’m especially interested in reading James Ellroy’s introduction to the 2005 reissue of this book. In 1958, when he was ten years old, Ellroy’s mother was murdered. He then went to live with his father, something he was glad to do, as that feckless person pretty much left him alone to raise himself and later, to run wild. One thing his father did do for him was to give him the Jack Webb book for his eleventh birthday. On the face of it, this would seem an odd gift to give to a boy whose mother had recently met with violent death. And yet the book had a life changing effect on him, particularly the piece on the Black Dahlia:
The Badge got me hooked. I just followed Jack Webb’s lead.
He credits the book with motivating him to become, in his own words, the “Demon Dog of American literature.”
Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer” is included in the True Crime anthology. Originally published in GQ in 1994, the piece was later enlarged to become the memoir My Dark Places, published in 1996.
Jean Hilliker Ellroy’s killer. most probably the “swarthy man” with whom she’d gone out on a date the night of her death, has never been found.
I’ll keep you posted on further developments.
Naples Declared, A Walk Around the Bay. I’m grateful to Benjamin Taylor for this in depth look at the colorful and at times, awful history of this fascinating, unique, and under-appreciated city. My sojourn there in 2009 remains a vivid memory.
**Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French; *People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo – and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up; by Richard Lloyd Parry; and Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing, by Kate Colquhoun. It was a good year for true crime narratives, especially historical ones. Kate Summerscale made a notable contribution to this genre in 2008 with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Summerscale’s latest is Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. The book does not center on a crime; rather, it’s the story of a hapless woman’s tangled love life and marital misadventures, all of which occur in the context of a rigid, highly judgmental society.
It occurs to me that the above description of Isabella Robinson could likewise apply to Florence Bravo, the equally hapless protagonist of James Ruddick’s book Death at the Priory: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England. I first heard of Florence Bravo while watching a set of DVD’s called A Most Mysterious Murder, in which Julian Fellowes presents five of Britain’s most notorious unsolved killings from the past. At the conclusion of each segment, he states his own theory of what actually happened at the crime scene. Each episode is meticulously enacted. The production values are what we’ve come to expect from the BBC: beautifully appointed interiors and superbly costumed actors.
I came upon A Most Mysterious Murder at the library, quite by accident – I believe I was looking for Midsomer Murders at the time. At any rate, this is a first rate production, conceived, written and narrated by Fellowes in 2004. I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known, especially now that Sir Julian himself is rather a hot property, thanks to the huge success of his creation, Downton Abbey.
I found Death at the Priory while researching Florence Bravo. It’s a tight little page turner, highly recommended. (And isn’t that what you’d expect, given the book’s subtitle?)
Two books on current affairs captured my interest this year. In Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, James Howard Kunstler bewails the state of – well, pretty much everything. Although his primary concern is the profligate use of energy, which he sees as a finite resource, shale gas and shale oil notwithstanding, he also excoriates the financial system, land use, misplaced faith in technology, and a host of other collective missteps. At times he reminded me of a trope often seen in New Yorker cartoons. Some of Kunstler’s rants seem a bit over the top; nevertheless, the book is both entertaining and thought provoking.
Kunstler began his career as a gadfly in 1993 with The Road To Nowhere, a blistering criticism of suburbia, strips malls, and the idiocy of overdevelopment. I learned a great deal from that book. In Too Much Magic, Kunstler returns to this theme with a vengeance, denouncing suburbia as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” (author’s italics). He goes on, with almost gleeful outrage:
There’s no way to calculate exactly how much money we misspent building the far-flung housing tracts, strip malls, big box ensembles, office parks, muffler shop outparcels, giant centralized schools with gold-plated sports facilities, countless roadways of all sizes, vast water, sewer, and electric systems, and all the other accessories and furnishings of that development pattern, but anybody can tell it was an awful lot. And it came out of the richest society in the history of the world.
I think there is much truth in this observation:
As the geographical spaces rapidly filled in with ever more subdivisions and strip malls, even the scraps of undeveloped landscape were erased as casual play areas. Boys especially were prevented from the adventures of roaming and discovery that are so crucial to their development as sovereign personalities. They could not easily venture beyond the obstacles of the six-lane connector boulevards; even if they did, what was there to discover besides the parking lots and other bewildering subdivisions of identical houses?
Well, you get the idea. This spare tome is fairly bursting with similar pronouncements. You may not agree with all of Kunstler’s assertions, but they’ll stimulate your thinking nonetheless. As you can see, they stimulated mine: (I love the phrase “sovereign personalities.”)
What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel. Sandel examines the extent to which various transactions have been monetized. This book was a real eye opener for me, starting with the introduction:
There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many. Today, almost everything is up for sale. Here are a few examples:
• A prison cell upgrade: $ 82 per night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for better accommodations— a clean, quiet jail cell, away from the cells for nonpaying prisoners. …
• The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy: $ 6,250. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, where the practice is legal and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States. …
• The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $ 150,000. South Africa has begun letting ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species….
Sandel also enumerates some new and unusual ways to earn money:
• Rent out space on your forehead (or elsewhere on your body) to display commercial advertising: $ 777. Air New Zealand hired thirty people to shave their heads and wear temporary tattoos with the slogan “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand…”
• Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $ 15– $ 20 per hour. The lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up….
Sandel’s book is a hugely provocative and very accessible. And like James Howard Kunstler, he makes you laugh from time to time as he expounds on the vagaries of human nature. But Sandel is less judgmental than Kunstler, in that he sets the facts before you, examines them from various angles, and lets you the reader draw your own conclusions.
This was an excellent year for books about great artists and their families and associates.
Velasquez and The Surrender of Breda: The Making of a Masterpiece, by Anthony Bailey. Bailey had his work cut out for him in tracing the movements of the elusive Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez. As the jacket copy states: “Though his professional career as court painter is fairly well documented, letters and accounts about how he felt, thought, and lived are nearly nonexistent.” ( The court, by the way, was that of King Philip IV of Spain, 1605-1665). Bailey met a similar challenge, very successfully in my view, in Vermeer: A View of Delft.
Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais, by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. The film based on the lives of these fascinating and gifted individuals is slated to open in the UK in May of next year. Among the performers featured in Effie are Dakota Fanning (in the title role), Greg Wise, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Derek Jacobi,and David Suchet. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay; if it’s anything like the stellar work she did with Sense and Sensibility, it ought to be outstanding.
**The Last Pre-Raphaelite , by Fiona MacCarthy. This book produced the kind of total immersion reading experience that I treasure. MacCarthy brings an entire world to life, and what an amazing world it was, fairly bursting with prodigiously gifted – and in some cases, wildly eccentric – artists and writers.
*included in the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2012
**included in the Washington Post list of 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction for 2012
Finally, there is Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra. When I first read a review of this book, I knew I wanted to read it. I also knew that I’d get much more out of it if I reread Portrait of a Lady first. Now, having done both, I can say with confidence that this is the right way: first, Portrait of a Lady; then, Michael Gorra’s biography of the writer and his first real masterpiece.
Henry James does not need my praise, but I do want to say that this time around, Portrait of a Lady was superb: riveting, suspenseful, filled with beautiful imagery and fascinating characters. I was completely drawn into the world so vividly created by one of America’s greatest writers.
Toward the novel’s denouement, there is a scene between Gilbert Osmond and Isabel Archer that made me so upset, I had to put the book down. I wanted Gilbert Osmond to materialize before me at that very moment, so that I could pummel him with my fists. I was seething! It took the entire length of the novel – some 550 pages – to invigorate this situation and make these characters live for me. It was worth every page, every word. Not long after this scene, there is another so heartbreaking, it’s hard to bear. Michael Gorra simply says: “I cannot read this scene without tears.”
Excerpt from Portrait of a Lady:
The lamps were on brackets, at intervals, and if the light was imperfect it was genial. It fell upon the vague squares of rich colour and on the faded gilding of heavy frames; it made a sheen on the polished floor of the gallery. Ralph took a candlestick and moved about, pointing out the things he liked; Isabel, inclining to one picture after another, indulged in little exclamations and murmurs. She was evidently a judge; she had a natural taste; he was struck with that. She took a candlestick herself and held it slowly here and there; she lifted it high, and as she did so he found himself pausing in the middle of the place and bending his eyes much less upon the pictures than on her presence. He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall; when people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always called her the willowy one. Her hair, which was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver moments, had an enchanting range of concession. They walked slowly up one side of the gallery and down the other, and then she said: ‘Well, now I know more than I did when I began!”
Excerpt from Portrait of a Novel; Michael Gorra writes about the death of Henry James’s mother:
He believed it impossible to describe “all that has gone down into the grave with her. She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch. She held us together, and without her we are scattered reeds. She was patience, she was wisdom, she was exquisite maternity.” Yet in that loss he also felt himself possessed by a memory so powerful that it amounted to a sense of her presence, and he could not believe that death alone might bring an end to her love. Her being was immanent still. Henry James had nothing like an orthodox religious faith; no child of his father did, or could. But as William would write about the belief in an unseen world in his Varieties of Religious Experience and test the claims of psychics in a way that grew steadily less skeptical, so with the years the novelist defined his own sense of the numinous in a series of extraordinary ghost stories. The dead may exist only in the psychology of the living; that doesn’t make them any less real.
I don’t have enough superlatives at my command to praise Portrait of a Novel. It brought me back to my English major days in the 1960s, to the work of great literary critics like I.A. Richards, Northrop Frye, M.H. Abrams, Walter Jackson Bate, and F.R. Leavis. I am somewhat dismayed that Michael Gorra’s book has not made any of the “Best of 2012” lists that I’ve so far seen. Has literary criticism, even of this caliber, become so marginalized in our culture, even among the cognoscenti? I want to shout it from the rooftops: This book is a triumph!
This past Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the (newly reinvigorated ) AAUW Readers. The selection for this session was Midnight in Peking by Paul French. I admit I was a bit uncertain as to how well this book would lend itself to the reading group discussion format. In the event, I need not have worried. Participants were eager to dive in with their observations and questions, most of which concerned aspects of the character of Pamela Werner, the young victim of a horrendous crime, and of her father ETC Werner.
The year was 1937, and Pamela Werner seems not to have thought of the way of life she and her father shared as especially unusual. And yet it might seem so to contemporary readers. Her mother had died when Pamela was three years old. ETC Werner, a distinguished Sinologist already in his forties when she was born, seemed bookish and remote, leaving most of the child care duties to the household servants.
A fluent speaker of Mandarin, Pamela was a curious mixture of innocent schoolgirl and budding womanliness. Her existence in Peking was literally freewheeling: she navigated the streets and alley ways of the city on her bicycle, often alone, sometimes at night.
Author Paul French studied history, economics, and Mandarin language; in addition, he has an advanced degree in economics from the University of Glasgow. He is currently a business consultant and analyst in Shanghai. In the ‘Q and A’ section of the reading guide, French recounts how he first came upon the story of Pamela Werner while reading a biography of American journalist Edgar Snow. Ultimately, his search for information about Pamela’s murder led him to Britain’s National Archives in Kew:
I was looking through a box of jumbled up and unnumbered documents from the British Embassy in China in the 1940s when I found a 150 page or so long document sent to the Foreign Office by ETC Werner, Pamela’s father. These documents were the notes of a detailed private investigation he had conducted after the Japanese occupation of Peking until he was himself interned by the Japanese along with all other Allied foreigners after Pearl Harbor.
Those papers proved revelatory. This is the kind of find that every researcher dreams of.
Members of our group were much taken with Paul French’s vivid depiction of old Peking, an exotic and mysterious city about to be overrun by the Japanese army. They wished they knew more about the history of the region, but the fact is that French preferred to focus with laser like intensity on the murder of Pamela Werner and its immediate aftermath. The result is a tightly wound narrative that grabs the reader by the lapels (do we still have lapels?) and never lets go. As a fact crime narrative, it reminded me of People Who Eat Darkness. That book is set in present day Tokyo and is quite a bit longer than Midnight in Peking. But the riveting storytelling and the pathos of the human drama are vividly bodied forth in both books.
The investigation of the murder of Pamela Werner was a simultaneous undertaking conducted by a Chinese policeman and Scotland Yard detective. This was a very unusual instance of the two forces collaborating in the work of solving a crime. The trail of leads they followed was labyrinthine, and some provocative information was uncovered, especially as regarded the seedy underbelly of expatriate life in the city. Soon however the Japanese invaded, global war followed, and the search for Pamela Werner’s killer was lost in the chaotic currents of world events. In addition, the inquiry was subverted in several ways by people in powerful positions who did not want any ugly or incriminating truths to emerge.
And there matters might have rested permanently – except for the advent of a determined researcher decades later….
In the reading group guide, Paul French makes several suggestions for further reading. Among these are the novels Rickshaw Boy by Lao She, Moment in Peking by Lin Yutang, and The Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Varé. Numbered among the nonfiction accounts are Ponies and Peonies by Harold Acton, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China by Davis Kidd, and City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures by Jon Blofeld. (Click here for additional titles.)
Midnight in Peking is an example of what is currently referred to in publishing parlance as historic true crime. “Prior Misconduct,” an article on this subgenre, appeared in a September issue of Library Journal. The author of the piece named several titles that I’ve very much enjoyed in the past several years:
. The question arises as to where in a bookstore (or on library shelves) titles such as these belong: history or crime? In actuality they partake of both classifications, and that’s one of the things that makes them so uniquely fascinating. I admit t hat I thought of Destiny of the Republic, Candace Millard’s superb biography of President James A. Garfield, as primarily a work of history, and yet it recently won the Edgar Award for ‘Best Fact Crime.‘ (Actually I think that book should win an award for being the best everything – it was simply terrific!) There is one other title not mentioned in the Library Journal that I (and a number of other reviewers) thought was exceptionally well done: The Fall of the House of Walworth, by Geoffrey O’Brien.
Toward the end of our discussion, I mentioned how much I’ve been enjoying my return to the classics. It’s something I’d promised myself I’d do when I retired, and it is proving to be an extremely rewarding experience. Since being reconstituted, AAUW’s book group has discussed two classics: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather and The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. Lorraine inquired as to whether I could come up with any other titles other titles of that ilk for the group. So glad you asked, Lorraine! Keeping in mind the issues of length and readability, here are some suggestions, for starters:
Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy
Une Vie ( A Life) and Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (really just about anything by Jane Austen!)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (These two were suggested by Doris, and I heartily concur .)
This delightful and articulate group of book lovers seemed to agree that Midnight in Peking was a great read and an excellent choice for discussion. Since I was the one who proposed it, I was most gratified by this outcome!
Last month, an article entitled “Prior Misconduct” appeared in Library Journal. In it, Sarah Statz Cords surveys the field of historical true crime, limiting the titles under discussion to narratives of events occurring prior to the Second World War.
Ms Cords seems genuinely puzzled by the rising popularity of this nonfiction subgenre:
In recent years, titles such as Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher have become best sellers, but why do readers enjoy them so? Is it the emphasis on various historical eras? That the crimes described are more safely (or so we like to think) removed from our own time? Or is it simply that compelling stories, well told, will always command our interest, even if they include violence, theft, kidnapping, assassination, and murder?
All of the above, Ms. Cords; all of the above, though that part about the crime being at a somewhat safe remove is rather less compelling than the other two suggested rationales, in my view.
Out of 28 titles (not counting the anthologies), I’ve read seven. (My tally would have been considerably higher if I’d read any of the books about Jack the Ripper.):
With its compelling cast of characters, rich literary allusions, and the atrocious murder at the dead center of the action – not to mention its keenly evocative portrait of mid-nineteenth century England – The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher makes for very compelling reading. It also proved a great reading group selection, as did The Poisoner’s Handbook.
Kate Summerscale followed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher with Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Although this later title is not specifically about a crime, Summerscale does once again bring life in Victorian England into sharp focus in this tale of one woman’s disastrous and very public fall from respectable society.
Erik Larson has carved out a niche for himself as a teller of tales that people should know about but somehow don’t. For many of us, Isaac’s Storm was the first we’d heard of the disastrous hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900 and caused the death of some eight thousand people. In The Devil in the White City, Larson’s storytelling gifts are once again on vivid display. (And what a terrific title, one of my all time favorites.)
Midnight in Peking was riveting; I read it in three days.
Destiny of the Republic is superb. While I was reading it, I was not thinking of it as primarily a work of true crime but an absorbing depiction of an era in American history and even more than that, a portrait of a man – James A. Garfield – who was possessed of such intelligence, courage, and generosity of spirit that I longed to have known him. Among its many accolades, this book won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.
At any rate, the Library Journal article has some intriguing title recommendations. I for one will certainly be returning to it.
Pamela Werner lived in the storied Chinese city of Peking, on a street called Armour Factory Alley, with her father E.T. C. Werner, a retired consul and noted expert on Chinese language, history, and culture. In 1911, Werner had married Gladys Nina Ravenshaw, “a girl of the British Empire.” She was 22; he was 45.
In 1919, they adopted Pamela. Gladys lived a mere three years longer, dying at age 35 and leaving her three-year-old daughter in the care of her husband and various servants of the household.
Paul French sets the stage for a tragedy by describing the strange and exotic world of prewar Peking, a place where men in traditional garb strolled the ancient avenues displaying their song birds in cages, Above the streets there loomed a sinister building known as the Fox Tower, a remnant of the walls that once encircled the city. The Chinese shunned this edifice, believing it to be inhabited by malign spirits. At night, it was populated by bats and wild dogs. It was here, in the early morning hours of January 8, 1937, in the vicinity of the Tower, that Pamela Werner’s body was first discovered:
When daylight broke on another freezing day, the tower was deserted once more. The colony of bats circled one last time before the creeping sun sent them back to their eaves. But in the icy wasteland between the road and the tower, the wild dogs–the huang gou–were prowling curiously, sniffing at something alongside a ditch.
It was the body of a young women, lying at an odd angle and covered by a layer of frost.
Paul French describes a murder scene that is acutely horrific. In terms of sheer savagery, it put me in mind of the victims of Jack the Ripper and also of the so-called Black Dahlia murder. I wasn’t prepared for that, and it nearly put me off the book altogether. But as often happens in such situations, there were sufficiently compelling reasons to read on, and so I did.
At the age of 19, Pamela Werner was still in school, yet at the same time she was on the brink of womanhood. A fluent speaker of Mandarin, she came and went from various venues in the city on her bicycle. She loved to go ice skating with her friends; in fact, this was the activity she was engaged in on the last night of her life. On that cold, dark evening, as Pamela prepared to cycle back home, one of those friends asked if she was scared to be making the trip all by herself. She responded:
‘I’ve been alone all my life….I am afraid of nothing–nothing! And besides, Peking is the safest city in the world.’
That last statement of course proved to be tragically wrong – at least it was, for Pamela Werner. But what of the first comment, about being alone all her life? At the time of her death, Pamela was just shy of twenty years of age. Her father was in his early seventies. Since the age of three, she’d had no mother.
My initial impression of E.T.C. Werner was that of a fusty old scholar only minimally concerned in the life of his sole offspring. And indeed, he may have enacted that part from time to time. But as Midnight in Peking ultimately reveals, there was a whole other side to the man. In the course of the investigation into Pamela’s murder, the seamy underbelly of expatriate life in the Chinese city had been exposed to considerably scrutiny. As a result, several possible suspects were identified, but there was never sufficient evidence to tie any of them definitively to the crime. Then, as the tides of history engulfed China, the murder of the young Englishwoman was relegated to the status of one of history’s footnotes. The case went cold. Everyone concerned seemed to give up on it, to be ready to forget about it. Everyone, that is, except her father, E.T.C. Werner.
The Guardian review of Midnight in Peking calls French’s account of the investigation ‘spellbinding.’ I agree completely. The whole book was spellbinding. Once I started it – and overcame my initial revulsion at the description of the crime scene – I could scarcely put it down.
In this video, author Paul French, a resident of Shanghai, talks about how he came to write Midnight in Peking. He also points out some of the locations crucial to the narrative. You may feel that he’s telling you too much, but believe me, he’s only scratching the surface.
Click here for the full text of Myths & Legends of China, written by E.T.C. Werner and originally published in 1922.
In July of the year 2000, two young Englishwomen, Lucie Blackman and Louise Phillips, went to Tokyo to work as hostesses in a night club called Casablanca, in the city’s Roppongi district. The girls’ chief duties at the Casablanca involved entertaining ‘salarymen’ after work: flattering and cajoling them, mixing their drinks, performing karaoke with them, and just generally helping them relax and let off steam after a presumably hard day at the office. It’s a setup that has no precise equivalent in the West.
Lucie and Louise had several reasons for embarking on this line of work. First, there was the element of adventure. Second, there was the chance to make good money by expending minimal effort. This was especially true for Lucie, who had racked up an impressive amount of credit card debt that she couldn’t seem to get out from under.
Hostesses were expected to go out on dinner dates with the club’s clients. This activity actually had a name: dohan. It brought the club additional revenue, and the women got a free dinner out of the deal. But that is as far as things were supposed to go. Hostesses were not expected to get into the client’s car and go elsewhere with him. Yet that was exactly what Lucie proposed to do on July 1, 2000. She called Louise that afternoon to apprise her of those plans, and to assure her that their own plans for later that evening could still go forward. Lucie called Louise again early that evening to let her know how her ‘date’ was going. The client had made her a gift of a much-needed cell phone! Sounding excited and happy, Lucie told Louise that she’ll be returning to their apartment within the hour. About ten minutes after that conversation, she left a message on the cell phone belonging to her boyfriend Scott.
That was the last anyone heard from her.
[From this point forward, you may encounter ‘spoilers,’ although I feel that I’m barely scratching the surface of this dense, complex narrative.]
When Lucie Blackman failed to return to the apartment that evening, Louise Phillips knew at once that something was wrong. It wasn’t merely that Lucie hadn’t returned: she had failed to call to say she would be late. This was totally unlike her. She always let people know where she was, always kept in contact. This was especially true where Louise was concerned. The two had been extremely close friends, having known each other since they were girls. Lucie would not fall silent in this way – not unless something were wrong.
Lucie was only an hour late when Louise called her mother in Britain to tell her: “Something has happened to Lucie.” Gradually, ineluctably, this mystery spread outward, engulfing all those who knew and loved Lucie Blackman in a world of anguish and anxiety, and then almost unimaginable pain and grief. As for her immediate family, already fractured by her parents’ acrimonious divorce, things went from bad to worse.
In the prologue to People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry sets out the basic circumstances of Lucie’s disappearance. This is followed by the story of Lucie’s childhood and youth. Her early history is unremarkable, and for me this was the least interesting part of the book. But in Part Two, Lucie and Louise arrive in Tokyo. Richard Lloyd Parry is the Tokyo Bureau Chief of The Times of London, and when he writes about this fascinating, teeming metropolis, he is clearly in his element. The writing is compelling; the story even more so. Parry has had to sift through a tangle of material in an effort to present a coherent narrative. He succeeds brilliantly in this effort. Moreover, he renders a society unfamiliar to many of us in vibrant, convincing hues.
In the prologue we’re told that Louise found Lucie’s actions in getting into a car with a strange man rather peculiar. Parry states that in his experience, Japanese men generally come across, in social situations at least, as more reserved and less aggressive than their Western counterparts. He has a theory about how this difference in temperament affects the mindset of hostesses from other countries:
The effect of this, for many foreigners, is to disable instincts of caution and suspicion that guide and protect them at home….Japan felt safe; Japan was safe; and under its enchantment they made decisions that they would never have made anywhere else.
One cannot help concluding that this perception – or rather, misperception – made possible the cunning manipulations of Joji Obara and his ilk. (Obara was not the only one to victimize young foreign women, but he seems to have been the most prolific and the most heartless.) A Japanese judge put it succinctly:
‘To violate the dignity of so many victims, in order to satisfy his lust, is unprecedented and extremely evil….There are no extenuating circumstances whatsoever for acts based on determined and twisted motives.’
Richard Lloyd Parry covered this story from its beginning. His book was published in the UK last year. For over a decade, he followed the twists and turns of the Lucie Blackman case: her disappearance, the discovery of her remains, the arrest, the court case, and much else. The crime seems to have acquired a personal dimension for him; he shared, at least to a degree, in the suffering of those who loved this unfortunate young woman. Indeed, what else can one conclude, from a cri de coeur such as this:
What if Obara had admitted guilt, begged forgiveness, wept out his black heart?…Imagine the most extreme vindication and retribution-nothing that mattered would be alleviated or improved by it. There was no satisfaction that could be imagined, only greater and lesser degrees of humiliation and pain. Lucie had been a unique being, a precious, beloved human creature. She was dead, and nothing would ever bring her back.
This is not to imply that Parry lost his objectivity. On the contrary, People Who Eat Darkness is a masterpiece of scrupulous reportage, investigative journalism at its finest.
Parry is able to elucidate many aspects of this crime, but not the mystery at the very heart of it, as he himself admits:
Humans are conditioned to look for truth that is singular and focused, hanging for all to see like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nu. But as a subject, Joji Obara sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut.
In other words, one gazed and gazed, and beheld only darkness – the heart of darkness embodied in Obara, a darkness that we all hope, for ourselves and our loved ones, never to encounter in this life.
I am aware that this is not a book for all readers. Parts of it are difficult to read. It kept me up some nights. Yet I am not sorry to have read it. I believe that People Who Eat Darkness belongs in that select pantheon of true crime classics inhabited by books such as Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson, The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, and of course, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
Below is footage of a talk presented by Richard Lloyd Parry at Temple University’s Japan campus in September of 2011:
Lucie’s father Tim Blackman has established the Lucie Blackman Trust.
‘The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment….’ – Murder in the First-Class Carriage, by Kate Colquhoun
These are the main elements of a story told with exceptional skill by Kate Colquhoun. The year is 1864. The crime is both violent and perplexing. And one of its most baffling aspects, both for those who were reading about it and the investigators, is contained in the book’s title. How on earth could such a dastardly deed be done in a First Class Carriage?
Murder in the First-Class Carriage reminded me in many ways of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. As in Kate Summerscale’s fascinating narrative, we learn from Colquhoun about advances being made in the art and science of police work in mid-Victorian Britain. For instance, in 1842, Police Commissioner Sir Richard Mayne and another highly placed official in the force, Charles Rowan, were tasked with creating a different kind of policeman:
No longer concerned primarily with the prevention of crime and without the visible authority of a uniform, these were the first detectives: eight conscientious men were selected, including Stephen Thornton and Jack Whicher. Encouraged by the adulation of writers like Dickens, Britain had broadly allowed itself to be seduced into a belief in the brilliance of these perspicacious, dogged, plain-clothed detectives.
Colquhoun then appends this cautionary note: “Scepticism…was growing, and admiration was balanced by distrust and delays and irresolution from the elite investigators emphasised their fallibility.” Ironically, it was doubts like these that were responsible for derailing Jack Whicher’s investigation of the murder at Road Hill House. (The suspicions of Mr. Whicher concerning this terrible murder, which occurred in1860, were ultimately proven to be only too well founded.)
Victorians were both fascinated and repelled by the triumphant speed and ruthless efficiency of the railroads:
Woven into the excitement of railway travel, a corresponding nervousness had developed about the loss of individual control. The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment, whirled along at speed and treated like just one in a stream of disposable, moveable goods was, at best, disorientating and, at worst, threatening.
Colquhoun cites the fears of Dombey, as articulated by his creator Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son:
‘The power that forced itself upon its iron way…defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it…was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.’
Murder in the First-Class Carriage is subtitled, “The First Victorian Railway Killing.” This raised the question in my mind as to how many more such crimes had occurred. Helpful information on this topic is provided by the British Transport Police, in the history section of that organization’s website. (Really, one can only be grateful to the British for their obsession with the minutiae of their own history. It benefits all of us Anglophiles no end!)
Murder in the First-Class Carriage lacks the element of pathos that made The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher such a riveting and affecting read. Still, Kate Colquhoun’s writing, by turns incisive and lyrical, is every bit as good as Kate Summerscale’s. In addition to the telling a riveting story, Murder in the First-Class Carriage is a rich compendium of the mores and folkways that characterized the denizens of mid-Victorian England. I loved it.