Like many True Crime books, Murder by the Book starts with a bloody crime, a man with his throat cut in his own bed. London in 1840 was a pretty grim place, but the reason this crime became a veritable national sensation didn’t have much to do with the gore of the thing or the apparent brazenness of it, but the simple fact that it happened to a member of the uppermost crust, Lord William Russell. Forget the miserable and dangerous lives of the poor, when an aristocrat got murdered, the new consort, Prince Albert, and the old general, the Duke of Wellington, wanted to see the matter cleared up as soon as possible.
Kathryn Casey is America’s greatest living True Crime writer, as evidenced by the fact that her books have been reviewed more often by Aunt Agatha’s than any others in that genre. The reason for this is simple—Casey has a firm grasp of the most important ingredients for any writing, fiction or non. First and foremost is character, and her latest has a doozy of a cast. She has a real talent for presenting the histories of the major actors in such sharp detail that the fatal product of their collision seems somehow inevitable.
Ever since the loss of Ann Rule, the True Crime world has been in a bit of a funk. To some extent the books that used to come out by the dozens have been replaced by semi-documentaries that proliferate on television. Of course, like so many, these programs suffer from a lack of depth and a questionable “reality” show standard of journalism. So thank goodness for Rule’s friend Kathryn Casey, who with her new book Possessed: The Infamous Texas Stiletto Murder serves up a delectable slice of real life crime, detailed research, twisted personality and plain old you-couldn’t-make-this stuff-up goodness.
This is Steve Miller’s fourth true crime book, the second set in the Detroit area. The case he’s chosen to write about this time around concerns the brutal murder of Jane Bashera, a blameless wife and mother from Grosse Pointe Park who was found dead in her SUV in a not great area of Detroit. If you live in Southeastern Michigan there’s a pretty small chance you didn’t read about this case and end up following it in the newspaper, as details of her husband Bob’s sordid sex life leaked out. It quickly became apparent that Bob Bashera had paid a guy who did odd jobs for him to kill his wife.
Now that we’re in the middle of another political campaign, perhaps it’s time to examine the proposition that ostentatious religious piety is somehow indicative of inner virtue. To all those who boast of how devoted a church (or temple) goer their candidate is, how full of praise and prayer, how supportive of the precepts of their faith, I present Matt Baker, popular hardworking pastor, devoted family man and product of good Christian parents, the very embodiment of those old time Texas Baptist values – and also, oh yeah, a thoroughly depraved murderer.
There are more pleasures to be found in true crime than simply you couldn’t make this stuff up. Because the events described actually happened, true crime has the authority to make us question our assumptions about human nature and society in a way we wouldn’t accept from fiction. Two very fine and very different examples of this are the new paperback arrivals Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters by Timothy Masters with Steve Lehto and The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal. (They’re also examples of the genre’s predilection for long, explanatory subtitles!)
The best true crime books have a few things in common. One is a vivid setting, one that’s well described and felt. Even better is an unusual setting – in this case, the setting is Peking right before the Japanese took over in 1937. Another thing is a sense of outrage at what happened to the victim portrayed in the book – and the victim needs to be portrayed, not just presented as a dead body. Just like in a fictional mystery, investment in the victim is investment in the outcome of the story.
It’s no mystery—a book, any kind of book, has to contain certain key ingredients to be good and generally the more of these ingredients it has, the better it’s going to be. Look at the case of People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, which, although an example of the not always respected true crime genre, has more than enough of the right stuff to be a truly enthralling read.
Let’s start with plot, which, despite what the more literary than thou crowd says, is absolutely crucial, always has been, always will be. People Who Eat Darkness has a set up most thriller writers would kill for—Lucie Blackman, a twenty-one year old English blonde working in Japan as a bar hostess, goes on a date with a client (in Japan, as Parry explains, none of these terms require the ironic quotation marks they would over here) and fails to return. Her roommate, Louise Phillips, perturbed, asks around, learns nothing, contacts the disinterested police and eventually receives a disturbing phone call. The person on the other end says that Lucie is fine, but has decided to join a cult and has no interest in communicating with her old friends ever again. When Louise insists on speaking to her, the caller, a Japanese man, informs her that Lucie isn’t feeling very well at the moment and hangs up. He quickly calls back, saying Lucie is determined to start a new life and, by the way, what’s your address? He claims that he wants to return Lucie’s belongings, and when Louise points out that Lucie surely knows her own address, repeats that she’s not feeling well and can’t remember, and what did you say that address was again? A horrified Louise protests and the man hangs up for good.
From the very beginning real and fictive crime have had an inseparable relationship. Novels have influenced the way people think about crime almost as much as actual crimes have influenced novels. Obviously detective fiction couldn’t have started before there were detectives, but once it did, the public perception of what detectives are and what they do was very much determined by mystery books.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a fascinating work, not only for its vivid portrayal of an intriguing true crime in 1860’s England, but also for its deft examination of the parallels between the emerging real life detectives of the time and their literary doppelgangers. When three year old Saville Kent, the son of a prominent local functionary, is taken from his nursery and later found brutally murdered, it seems like the perfect set up for a classic English country house mystery.
In her day Mary Rogers was a well known figure, a humbled member of the upper classes who was reduced to selling cigars in a New York tobacco emporium, the crafty store owner knowing that a fetching face and fine figure would attract male clientele. (Robin, of course, serves a similar function here at Aunt Agatha’s.) Her employment was a sign of a changing social environment in which a woman could have a casual social relationship with men without being a member of the demi-monde, and her fame an indication of the novelty of her position.