Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Last week, a customer asked me to recommend a new true crime book. It took me a minute to think of one, because nobody has ever asked me that before. I don’t know why, because true crime books are really popular. In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter, The Executioner’s Song, The Devil in the White City, Under the Banner of Heaven — all bestsellers. But “true crime” sounds just a bit unsavory. Maybe readers think they’ll appear macabre or voyeuristic if they’re interested in true crime. Some true crime authors have been accused of profiting from other people’s misfortunes. Others have been criticized for falsely befriending criminals to extract information.
The 2014 podcast Serial, which tells the true story of the investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, has become the most popular podcast in history. According to the Wall Street Journal, Serial “gets people to drop everything and just listen . . . it’s a testament to the power of good storytelling”. Also, Serial is open-ended, like many true crime stories. In real life, often we don’t know what really happened. I think that’s part of the appeal of true crime. The loose ends are not as neatly tied up as they are in fictional murder mysteries. Certain details remain hidden. Even in situations when a criminal cooperates with an author, the criminal can’t be trusted to tell the truth.
I’ve always preferred true crime stories to fictional ones. Even as a child I didn’t care for Nancy Drew, but gravitated to encyclopedia entries about Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden. I think they reason may be that I’ve always been more interested in character than plot. In most true crime, the reader knows “whodunit” at the beginning of the book. True crime author Walter Walker said that Ann Rule, perhaps the best-known author in the genre, possessed “the narrative skill to create suspense from a situation in which the outcome is a matter of fact, known to many readers before they open the book.”
As a teenager, I discovered Ann Rule”s The Stranger Beside Me, a study of the serial killer Ted Bundy — who happened to be Rule’s colleague. When Bundy was arrested for a series of murders in the Seattle area, Rule initially didn’t believe her friend could be guilty. Rule, who died several months ago, wrote dozens of true crime books after the success of The Stranger Beside Me. Her books focus on the “why” of heinous crimes more than the “how”:
I look for true stories where, just when you think nothing else bizarre can happen, it does . . . What real people do is far more compelling than anything a novelist can think up! . . . I am drawn to cases where the suspect(s) is NOT the classic murderer. I’ve learned that my readers are as interested as I am in the psychopathology of the criminal mind.
Rule’s obituary says, “In a crowded field, she consistently led the pack, taking up most of the real estate in the true crime shelves of bookstores.” From what I’ve seen, most bookstores today don’t separate true crime into its own section. If you google “true crime books”, the same ones come up on every list. On a recent visit to the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois, I was surprised to see several shelves dedicated to true crime. Most were historical, rather than contemporary in the vein of Ann Rule, but what a treasure trove of new and exciting true crime:
Bizarre family secrets in 19th century England (The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception and Intrigue) by Piu Marie Eatwell
Arsenic poisoners (The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic Murder and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel and The Poisoner: The Life and Times of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates)
The previously unsolved murder of a Hollywood mogul (Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann)
A Prohibition-era kidnapping and the birth of the FBI (The Year of Fear: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt That Changed the Nation by Joe Urschel)
A father and son spy team (The Spy’s Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia by Bryan Denson)
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft (Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist by Stephen Kurkjian)
A murderous Parisian con man and his mistress (Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder in Belle Époque Paris by Steven Levingston)
Why do I enjoy true crime? Why does anyone? A few minutes of cursory Internet research was unenlightening, to say the least. An article in Psychology Today claims that women like true crime because the books “may provide important information and survival strategies should they ever be in a dangerous situation”. Hmmm, I don’t think so. Edmund L. Pearson, who wrote many nonfiction crime books in the early 20th century, including one on Lizzie Borden, said it best:
Writers of book reviews, sixty to eighty times a year, begin their articles with the grave inquiry: Why do people like to read about murder? After a discussion, in language that seems to be the result of profound thought, they come to the conclusion that people like to read such books because they do.