Thieves, Murderers, and Psychopaths: Why I Like True Crime

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 CityUnder 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.

15749967517_c304ed6a38_bThe 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.

IMG_1807Rule’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)

9780062273475A teenage psychopath in 19th century Boston (The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo)

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.

10 Books to Read This Winter

A few months ago, I shared a list of 10 books to read in the fall. I’ve read most of them — and Jane Smiley and Colm Tóibín, I apologize! I’ll get to Some Luck and Nora Webster very soon, I promise. I know they’re both going to be wonderful. (I really need to read Some Luck because the second book in Smiley’s trilogy, Early Warning, is coming out in April. )

Even though I still have many, many books from 2014 (and before) in my to-read stack, the publishing industry is not going to wait for me, or anyone, to catch up. So here’s a list of 10 exciting new books with winter 2015 publication dates. Is it a coincidence that three of them have “girl” in the title? Did the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl convince publishers and authors that “girl” is the magic word? I’ve already found several intriguing “girl” books coming out this spring — Hyacinth Girls, Girl Underwater, Girl at War . . .

962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98First of all, happy publication day to Christopher Scotton, whose debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, is undoubtedly going to be one of my favorite books of 2015. It’s a  coming-of-age story set in Appalachia 30 years ago. Following a family tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin is sent to spend the summer with his veterinarian grandfather (“Pops”) in Medgar, Kentucky. Pops, whose life has brought him wisdom and an unwavering moral compass, will remind readers of Atticus Finch. Medgar is a depressed coal town facing a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills, backfilling the hollows — and deeply dividing the townspeople. The violent events of that summer will begin Kevin’s transformation from a wounded boy into an adult.9781594633669M

If you’re in the mood for a very smart, well-plotted psychological thriller, I recommend The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (due next Tuesday, January 13). I read the entire book on one cold, rainy Sunday, thanks to a suggestion from my friend Sue at the Cottage Book Shop. The New York Times says: “The Girl on the Train has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl, the book still entrenched on best-seller lists two and a half years after publication because nothing better has come along. The Girl on the Train has Gone Girl-type fun with unreliable spouses, too.” I’m not sure I’d agree that “nothing better has come along” — what about The Headmaster’s Wife?

Tim Johnston has written a YA novel and a collection of short stories, but Descent (published today) is his first novel for adults. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s been receiving great reviews. Here’s what NPR has to say, including the inevitable Gone Girl comparison:

The premise of Descent may sound pretty straightforward: One summer morning while vacationing with her family in the foothills of the Rockies, a young girl, a high-school athlete in her senior year, goes out for a run in the higher altitudes — and disappears.

And Moby-Dick‘s about the whaling industry.

A good genre writer might have turned this into a conventional suspense novel, making us worry about the missing girl with every page that goes by — but Tim Johnston has written a book that makes Gone Girl seem gimmicky and forced. I worried about the missing girl with every page, yes. But I also suffered every torment felt by her family, father, mother, brother, and those linked to the family. So this is a thriller plus!

I’m currently reading and enjoying West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan (due January 13) about the last few years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, when he tried to rejuvenate his career by working as a Hollywood screenwriter. I think O’Nan, author of 15 novels, is a brilliant and unappreciated writer. He writes beautifully about everything from the quiet days of an elderly widow (Emily, Alone) to a diphtheria outbreak in mid-19th century Wisconsin (A Prayer for the Dying) to a bankrupt couple trying to save their marriage (The Odds).

1402298684.01.LZZZZZZZThe Magician’s Lie (due January 13), by Greer Macallister, has been described as a cross between Water for Elephants and The Night Circus — sounds intriguing! Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review, calling it “top-notch”:

This well-paced, evocative, and adventurous historical novel from Macallister, a poet and short story writer, chronicles the career of America’s preeminent female stage illusionist at the turn of the 20th century, who, as the Amazing Arden, created the lurid, controversial stage act known as the Halved Man. When Arden’s husband is found murdered following her performance in Waterloo, Iowa, she falls under suspicion, particularly after she goes on the lam.

As I’ve mentioned before, I can never resist a boarding school novel. Some are excellent (Old School) and some are not (The Starboard Sea), but I read them all. The Half Brother, by Holly LeCraw, (due February 17) has an unusual perspective: it’s about a young teacher coming of age, not a student. The plot twists are truly amazing. The website The Millions just published its “Great Book Preview” for 2015, listing The Half Brother as one of its most anticipated releases:

The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory.

My friend and coworker Kathy, who has impeccable taste in books, recommends Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, (due February 3). Funny Girl, about a young TV starlet in 1960s London, is “both a heartfelt defence and a wholly convincing example of what popular entertainment can achieve”, according to the London Telegraph. I love Nick Hornby for the comments 9781594205415Hhe made recently when speaking about his new novel at the Cheltenham Literary Festival:

My real campaign is to get everybody – adult, kids, everybody – to read something that they’re loving. And if they’re not loving it, stop reading it . . . Every time we pick up a book for a sense of duty and we find that we’re struggling to get through it, we’re reinforcing the notion that reading is something you should do but telly is something you want to do. It shouldn’t be like that. Novels should be like TV. It shouldn’t be hard work and we should do ourselves a favour. It doesn’t mean you have to read easy books, because you can have very complicated connections to very difficult books, but as long as you’re racing through it, that’s the thing.

Girl Runner, by Carrie Snyder, (due February 3) was recommended to me by another trusted source (also named Cathy), our HarperCollins sales rep. Inspired by the 1928 Canadian Olympic women’s track team, Girl Runner is the story of female athletes in the 1920s, an era when women’s sports became popular. According to the Canadian publication Quill and Quire:

Girl Runner is a plot-driven narrative of one of those forgotten women, fictional 104-year-old Aganetha “Aggie” Smart. Now wheelchair-bound, alone and abandoned in a nursing home, Aggie asks, “Who will write my obituary?” now that everyone who knew her is gone. The ambitious and uncompromising Aggie reflects on her rich and storied life: her childhood in rural Ontario, her work at the Rosebud Confectionery factory, the friendships she forged, her brief fame as a 1920s Olympic track star and Canadian darling, and her failures and triumphs along the way.

9781250043962Doesn’t everyone sometimes dream of running off to an idyllic tropical island? (Especially if you live in Chicago and the temperature is hovering near zero . . .) The Last Good Paradise, by Tatjana Soli (due February 10) Is about a group of people who have done just that. Soli has one of the best author websites I’ve ever seen, and she introduces her latest novel with a beautiful letter:

Dear Reader:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” 
Mark Twain

A successful attorney at a big Los Angeles law firm is about to open a restaurant with her chef husband. Suddenly they take off, and you find they have gone to the South Pacific with one-way tickets. How does that happen? I find it fascinating when someone starts one life to start another entirely different one, one of the most famous examples being Gauguin . . .

I know March seems far away, but I have to mention Erik Larson’s upcoming book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (due March 10). I’ve loved every one of Larson’s books (In the Garden of Beasts is his most recent, published four years ago) and I have high hopes for Dead Wake. Here’s what Kirkus Reviews has to say:

Larson once again demonstrates his expert researching skills and writing abilities, this time shedding light on nagging questions about the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 . . . An intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster. Compared to Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Lusitania (2014), also publishing to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, Larson’s is the superior account.

What’s on your winter reading list?