Friday, May 28, 2010

True Crime

True crime is a phenomenally popular genre, even if it does seem to get a rather sniffy critical response. I love it personally - it was the subject of my panel last week in Crimefest - though I can't stand the sort of lipsmacking, prurient kind of true crime book that 'takes you inside the mind of Doncaster's most sadistic cat killer' or some such. The ones rushed into print when the latest big story hits the headlines. These books have always worked best, in my humble opinion, when emotions are less raw, the news carnival has moved on, and time has afforded people some insight. Take Dave Cullen's book about the Columbine high school killings. Cullen was wrapped up in the whole saga, reporting from the scene and aftermath. He could easily have hacked together an 'I was there' tome and sold a mint; instead, after years of research, having taken a step back to analyse his thoughts and his own role in the massacre - he admits the press got things mostly wrong from the start in the rush to instant judgement  - he has produced the definitive account of what was a shocking and bewildering crime.

It doesn't feature in this fascinating list, written by Todd Jensen, however. But as we know, lists are entirely subjective. Though I don't expect many of us would argue with their choice of number one. Like all the best books, In Cold Blood is a classic piece of literature of any kind. It broke the mould, by placing the reporter/author in the book's narrative. It has spawned more copycats than any serial killer. And authors have done what they can to insert themselves into the story, while others have washed up there inadvertently. I've just finished The Monster of Florence by Mario Spezzi and Douglas Preston. Preston moved to Florence to write a crime novel, met Spezzi, an Italian journalist who had covered a spate of savage, unsolved killings in the city going back to the early 1970s (and which became the influence behind Thomas Harris's Hannibal). The pair decided to write a book on the case, concentrating on the almost comically botched and disorganised police hunt for the killer. I won't spoil it for you here, but Spezzi and then Preston end up becoming embroiled in the investigation. It's a great read.

Other authors can try too hard to put themselves in the narrative. Joe McGinnis wrote a book about a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, called Fatal Visions. I've never read it. However, I have read a great little book called The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcom, which is the best book I have ever read about journalism (and includes the immortal opening line 'Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.'). The book covers the aftermath of case that MacDonald launched against McGinnis when his book was published. Basically, before, during and after, McGinnis flattered his subject, gained his trust, convinced him that he believed 100 per cent in his innocence, even when he was found guilty. Then, of course, when the book appeared, MacDonald discovered that McGinnis had stitched him up like the proverbial kipper and portrayed him as a monster. MacDonald filed a lawsuit and the jury believed that MacDonald's complaints were so compelling that five out of six of them were persuaded that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for murdering his wife and two small children was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who deceived him.

Looking down the Forensic Colleges list, I see a few more I've read, and many, many more that I haven't but now want to. I remember reading Helter Skelter as a teenager and being utterly terrified by it. Though not quite as terrified as I was by Silence of the Lambs around the same time, which tells you something about the power of both a good crime novel and the imagination. I'm glad Kate Whicher's book creeps on at 21, simply because the book has been such an unexplained success. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies here in the UK, quite an achievement for an historical true crime book. Look on Amazon UK and you will see hundreds of people complaining that they bought it expecting non-stop blood and guts, and instead got this slow, impeccably researched book which is ostensibly about a murder in Victorian England, but is really about the origins of modern detective work.

Notable absentees that would have made my list, other than some mentioned above, include Beyond Belief, Emlyn Williams book about the Moors Murderers, which manages to rise about the voyeuristic and exploitative. Likewise Gordon Burns' books about The West killings, Happy Like Murderers, and the Yorkshire Ripper, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son. Shot in the Heart by Mikhail Gilmore, which tells the Gary Gilmore story from the perspective of Gilmore's brother, and is better than Norman Mailer's book; finally, Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer's book about Mormon fundamentalists and their violent faith (which certainly set a few light bulbs popping above my head when I was writing Blood Atonement.)

I'd love to hear what you think and which books should have made it. Here's the whole list:

1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
2. Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)
3. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon (1991)
4. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson (2003)
5. Crime and Science: The New Frontier in Criminology, Jurgen Thorwald (1967)
6. Doctor Dealer: The Rise and Fall of an All-American Boy and His Multimillion-Dollar Cocaine Empire, Mark Bowden (2000)
7. Wiseguy, Nicholas Pileggi (1986)
8. Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, Joseph D. Pistone (1987)
9. Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster, Harold Schechter (1998)
10. Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of a Doctor Who Got Away With Murder, James B. Stewart (2000)
11. Finders Keepers: The True Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million, Mark Bowden (2002)
12. A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, Jeanine Cummins (2004)
13. The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule (1980)
14. Lethal Intent, Sue Russell (2002)
15. Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders, Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken (2000)
16. The Lives and Times of Bonnie & Clyde, E.R. Milner (1996)
17. Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean (1993)
18. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Bryan Burrough (2004)
19. Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox, Barbie Latza Nadeau (2010)
20. The Killing Season: A Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division, Miles Corwin (1997)
21. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale (2008)
22. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, Steve Oney (2003)
23. Confessions of Son of Sam, David Abrahamsen (1985)
24. Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill — The Story of Mary Bell, Gitta Sereny (1999)
25. Blood and Money, Thomas Thompson (2001)


Dan - Friday


  1. What are you even thinking having 'Angel Face' in any top book list ! It reads like a long tabloid magazine article and is full of inaccuracies.

    The best book to date about the Amanda Knox case is by far 'Murder in Italy' by Candace Dempsey.

  2. Great list, but although I like "Blood and Money," "Serpentine," the story of Southeast Asian con man and multiple murderer Charles Sobhraz, is Thomas Thompson's best book and belongs way up toward the top of the list, maybe just beneath the brilliant "Helter Skelter."

    No question about "In Cold Blood," though -- Capote not only invented the genre, but wrote the best example ever.

  3. zooks - not my list. Todd would have to answer that. I haven't read Angel Face, but given the proximity of the recent trial, I'd be worried about the kind of book we're getting. In the Monster of Florence, given his dealings with the, er, strange methods of the Italian police - indeed some of the same cops who worked on the Monster case are involved with the Kercher killing - Preston talks about the Knox case and casts a great deal of doubt over the investigation. Something stinks to high heaven about the whole thing...

  4. Dan - I read IN COLD BLOOD when it was first published and I have not read anything nearly as frightening since. Capote captured the "in cold blood" part of the crime to such an intensity that I can still remember reading every detail.

    The book that comes closest to IN COLD BLOOD is Thomas Thompson's SERPENTINE. I read BLOOD AND MONEY which was quite a story but the good guys and bad guys were within a closed circle. SERPENTINE is about a serial killer who preyed on tourists in the east, including Thailand, Hong Kong, and India. Charles Sobhraj was born in Vietnam in 1944 and is known to have killed 12 people between 1975 and 1976; he is suspected of having killed twice as many. The motive was theft and he killed so that there would be no witnesses. This book would make someone think more than twice about accepting the assistance of anyone in a foreign country.

    Erik Larson writes wonderful and interesting history about the Chicago World's Fair in THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY and in between all the descriptions of White City (stucco buildings and street lamps) and the assembly of the Ferris Wheel, he throws in the story of a serial killer who was compared to Jack the Ripper. Larson writes so well that the reader gets a thorough education about a particular subject without realizing it. If only all history could be taught so painlessly.

    In honor of the beginning of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season on June 1, I would like to suggest another Larson book, ISSAC'S STORM. Issac Cline was the chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau in Galveston, TX in September, 1900. No one believed Cline's interpretations of the weather instruments, leaving 6000 dead when the hurricane crossed over Galveston island and destroyed 1/3 of the city. The mystery here is why no one listened to the reports Cline was getting from Cuba warning the area of what was approaching.

    I have read 1,2,3,4,7,13,17,21,22, and 25. Thank you, Dan, for the other 15 suggestions.


  5. I started this post this morning and didn't realize Tim had commented on SERPENTINE. I feel vindicated in choosing that book over the other books Thompson wrote.


  6. I don't claim to have read a lot of true crime, but two were highly studied in Journalism school: Malcolm's 'The Journalist and The Murderer' and Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood." I remember deconstructing both books and having seemingly endless philosophical discussions about the repercussions of blah, blah, blah...

    But, in the end, they are both great reads and give great insight into journalism, murder and the authors--Capote, in particular.

    I have 'The Monster of Florence' on my bookshelf, just bought and to-be-read-very-soon. I also have Kate Summerscale's 'Whicher' and have tried TWICE to get through no avail. It really did sound interesting. I was so looking forward to learning about the origins of detection, but I just couldn't make it past a third.

    Seems we have similar reading taste. Another book on my TBR shelf? 'The Blood Detecive!' Just arrived. Looking forward to it.

    Oooh--another to add to the list, though I haven't read it yet--Jake Adelstein's 'Tokyo Vice.'

    Southern City Mysteries

  7. Dan,

    I will have to ask Todd !

    I read the 'Monster of Florence' also. It is such a brilliant book. The justice system described was almost as scary as the murders in Florence.

    You are right about the Amanda Knox case -"Something stinks to high heaven about the whole thing..."

    Read 'Murder in Italy' and let me know what you think ?

  8. My main problem with that list is that all the books are of relatively recent vintage. To me, any "best of" true crime list that doesn't include Edmund Lester Pearson or William Roughead is sadly deficient.

    And where's Jonathan Goodman?

  9. Interesting list, and comments. I like several of those, especially In Cold Blood--deservedly at #1--and Devil In The White City.

    Larson is a brilliant storyteller and I loved both stories, though I felt somewhat cheated about the psychopath story at the end. (It seemed that most of the story happened after, and was squeezed into a few pages. Huh?) I learned a lot from him, though, and he gave me the confidence to juggle nine storylines in mine.

    Thanks much for the shoutout on my book, too, and the kind words, Dan. Don't think I didn't TRY to spit it out in the first three years. Haha. It just wasn't gelling. I started over at year five, with a completely different approach. Then it took another five. I put my agent through hell. (Sorry, Betsy.)

    But you're right. The distance made all the difference.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful read.

  10. Michele - Hope you like TBD. I liked Mr Whicher, but I'm a sucker for anything set the seedy underbelly (just a thought - are underbelly's every wholesome?) in Victorian England. I'm stunned by its success though, because it is heavy going.

    zooks - you're right, Monster of Florence is the sort of book that makes you remember never to get arrested in Italy. I will definitely get Murder in Italy - thanks for the tip.

    Undine - valid points. All list reveal something of their compiler(s). In this case, that Todd and co have read predominantly modern true crime books. I don't know the authors you mention but I'm going to seek them out.

    Dave - thanks for popping by. Your book is great - it haunted me for ages afterwards. I'd like to think in future lists it will feature highly. Sounds like you put in the hard yards for it :)

  11. If it's Victorian true crime you're after they don't come much better than "The Nightingale Shore Murder - Life and Death of a Queens Nurse" by Rosemary Cook. Unlike "Mr Whicher" it is easy to read and full of period details that really set the scene without distracting from the plot. It is also brought right up to date by some recent suspect revalations! Try it - and get it on this list in the future!!