Tuesday, April 14, 2009

True Crime

I've been out of town for a few days, visiting with relatives. And though I have a copy of Kafka's The Castle in my suitcase (because about a dozen people, in inquiring about my new novel, have asked how direct the influence is, and I have had to say a dozen times, in total humiliation, that I have never read it), I've mostly spent my time reading true crime books.

Rhian loves true crime, and typically that's what she's reading when I'm reading police procedurals. But this time I'm all over it. Man, the writing is often quite bad. But these things are fascinating. The thing that really gets me about them is the utterly bizarre, unpredictable details. No matter how desperately the author wishes to adhere to the conventions of the genre, all these ridiculous elements of real life keep intruding.

I just read a few by Joe McGinniss--they're really not bad, by the low standards of the form. In one, we watch the aftermath of a husband's murder-for-hire of his wife, from the point of view of their three teenage sons. The kids' grandmother's friend moves in to become their unofficial guardian; she's a loony Bible-thumper who invites the accused gunman's wife to live with them, out of charity. Imagine--the wife of the guy who probably just killed your mom is there in the kitchen when you get up every morning.

Or, in another McGinniss book, a wealthy wife murders her wealthy husband during an affair with a home theater installer. While she rots in prison, the home theater installer marries a blond woman with "a silver sports car," as a Chinese news magazine reports. The article ends with this man mowing his lawn: "The sweating Michael took off his shirt and walked around with his fat belly bouncing around."

Bad crime fiction is all cliché--the bad writer doesn't have the skill to stray from the norm. But bad true crime, in all its coarseness, can't help but let life spill out all over the place, like Michael's fat bouncing belly. I'll take a good novel over a good true crime any day (with the possible exception of the stupendously awesome Black Dahlia Avenger), but when only the bad is available, give me the truth.

8 comments:

jon said...

One of my favorites is 'The World's Worst Women', about murderesses. It's an old book. One story is The Acid Bath Murders. Two sisters and their sleezy boy friend, to prevent being blackmailed by an accomplice in a previous murder, kill the accomplice and his girl friend, disposing of the bodies in a bathtub full of acid. First the boy friend goes, then the girlfriend whom "They throw into the disintegrating arms of her lover."

AC said...

Somehow true crime seems less icky and depressing when it's on tv (like 48 Hours Mystery). Maybe because the production standards are up to par for network tv, whereas the quality of writing in a true crime book is often surreally bad.

That said, there are two true crime books I will love forever: 1) Bloodletters and Badmen, by Jay Robert Nash. My fifth grade teacher kept a copy in the classroom, and my friends and I pored over the encyclopedia of serial killers, gangsters, and child rapists. Did you know that Babyface Nelson was literally shot in half during his final battle with the Gmen? And his body was found later, dumped by the side of the road and tied together with a trash bag? I don't remember anything else I learned in 5th grade.

2)The Silent Twins, by Marjorie Wallace. Bizarre story of two British teens who withdrew into a world of their own, speaking a secret language and writing novels that they published through vanity presses without the knowledge of their family (shades of the Brontes!). When they tried to reconnect with the world, they unfortunately chose the medium of petty crime and wound up serving long sentences in a psychiatric hospital. I think there was some kind of death pact involved also, but one of them is still alive.

rmellis said...

What is great about true crime is also what's great about truly excellent fiction: its obsession with character and motivation.

Bad fiction, both genre and "literary," thinks characters can just be puppeted around however an author wants. But it's not true. People are really, really complicated and weird and always do things for reasons that make sense to them.

Seeing how consequences unfurl from a person's particular character is fascinating.

jon said...

What about books like In Cold Blood, The Executioner's Song or even Helter Skelter? They are all true crime stories, and despite the brilliance of the first two anyway the fascination is the same. And then there's James Ellroy's My Dark Places, which bored me. I don't think he made the transition from fiction to reality.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, Jon, I like all three of those, especially Helter Skelter, though I've never really entirely trusted Bugliosi. Haven't read the Ellroy out of a fear that you just confirmed...

The Ann Rule Bundy book was really good, too, even though I'm not terribly interested in serial killers. She's ordinarily not a favorite writer of mine, but her personal relationship with Bundy really made that one special.

Art O.T. Grid said...

uh, and of course the true crime work of Dallas journalist Jim Schutze, which is well-written and insightful, and I'm saying this even though he told me I was a spoiled brat with a bad personality once when we were kids...

jrlennon said...

Ha ha Peggy! Actually we just bought, and plowed through, three of Jim's books (we have been on vacation).

What I like about his writing is, he really gets a froth up about criminals and corrupt cops. That twin book, I had to stop reading it, I was so mad...

Art O.T. Grid said...

Yeah, he's still an old-fashioned bleeding heart liberal. (He now writes a column about city politics in Dallas for the Dallas Observer. I think he's not so popular in City Hall there.) And I'm totally over the brat comment. Never even think about it anymore.

that often.