This might be a good book for mothers to let their innocent teenage or older daughters read before they go out in the wide world. Perhaps it would help them to avoid a man like the clever, charming and murderous Allen Blackthorne, the focus of Rule’s latest tour de force. No one writes better true crime than Ann Rule, and the reason for that is a combination of good writing, careful and thorough research, and an ability to make the reader so able to empathize with the victim that the reader’s stake in seeing the killer brought to justice is nearly as high as the victim’s family’s.
This fast paced, well structured book will have you glued to the page no matter how familiar you may be with the Tara Grant case (and if you live in Michigan, that’s probably very familiar). Like the best true crime writers, Miller and Billups place their characters in context, detailing their personalities and giving depth to the story that’s more shallowly covered on the news and in the newspapers. In a nutshell, Steven and Tara Grant appeared to the outside world to be the “perfect” couple – two kids, a dog, an au pair, a nice house in the suburbs. Tara was attractive and vivacious, and Steven is also attractive and up until the murder of his wife an apparently devoted father and husband. Of course as any reader of true crime (or mystery) knows, a perfect family is rarely visited by the kind of carnage Steve Grant brought into his own home.
A dedicated newsman unraveling an almost forgotten case, a convicted felon who protests his innocence even after two decades in prison, an indifferent “justice” system, and dangerous men murderously opposed to the re-examination of an old crime – these are the elements of many a mystery bestseller, but Don Hale’s Town Without Pity has an unusual advantage – it’s true. The editor of a small town newspaper, Hale was approached in 1994 by the parents of Stephen Downing, who had been in prison since 1973 for the rape and murder of Wendy Sewell, a housewife in a neighboring village. Although Stephen, at the time twenty with the reading capacity of an 11 year old, confessed, he retracted the confession, and despite being convicted and imprisoned, had maintained his innocence though the years.
Although Tailspin is being pushed as the final solution to the Sam Sheppard case (and it is a believable one) I enjoyed it more as a character study of Major James Call, its existential anti-hero, a man without nerves, equally at home in country club or wilderness camp, a war hero who turned to crime to fuel his adrenaline habit. But Conners also shows the price of Call’s egotism, both to himself and society. Well written, with a central character no fiction writer could come up with, Tailspin is the True Crime book of the year.
I am an irregular true crime reader, and I have a filter – my husband, who reads furiously in this genre, and who is happy to point out the especially “good ones.” I read all of Ann Rule, of course, as she’s a master of characterization as much as any novelist, and Kathryn Casey, who dedicates her book to Ann Rule, certainly seems to be following in Rule’s footsteps, to which I can only give a cheer. Rule’s careful set up of a crime, reaching back into the pasts of the victims as well as the killers, her use of the settings, and her swift trial coverage all give her books that something extra which lots of true crime books don’t have. Some might say that the extra something is simple research, but that’s not all of it – she also has an ability to cast an almost novelistic eye on what she’s writing about to make it understandable and gripping. I’m happy to say that Kathryn Casey shares these skills.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – to me good books are all about CHARACTER. I don’t care if the characters in question are “sympathetic” or not, I just demand that they be interesting and credible, and nothing proves this literary maxim more than the genre generally considered the least literary, True Crime. In most True Crime there isn’t the standard intermediary of the virtuous detective mediating between the reader and the horrible deed, there’s just the victim, the institutions of justice, and most crucially, the criminal. The hook for True Crime is the inevitable question Who would do a thing like that? In the right hands, the reader can understand the person and their character, the flaws that brought them to cross the line, and, while not condoning it, can even begin to be able to conceive of the unthinkable. Ann “Golden” Rule is the ruler and yardstick of this world, and it was really her encounter with Ted Bundy, a man she called friend until she learned he was a serial killer, that gave her the insight to elevate a True Confessions type scribbler into the triumphant author of the ground breaking The Stranger Beside Me and from there to a string of excellent and best selling True Crime, the latest of which, Too Late to Say Goodbye: A True Story of Murder and Betrayal, is hitting the stores just as you read this. It’s the realization that even worst monsters are fellow humans that gives the best of contemporary True Crime its depth and fascination.
There’s something about decapitation that has a primal effect, abhorrent yet inescapably fascinating, possessing an atavistic kick. Although removing a fellow human’s head and displaying it as an object is an act, like cannibalism and incest, that most of us would prefer not to think about, anthropology testifies that there are certainly contemporary tribes of “head-hunters” or even “head-shrinkers,” who still indulge in such behavior, and it’s disingenuous to believe that our ancestors didn’t take part in similar ritual activity.
Technically, this isn’t a true crime book, as the crimes perpetrated are against butterflies, but the point Speart makes clear in her compulsively readable book is that crimes against wildlife are indeed a serious matter. A well researched, very inside look at the world of butterfly collecting and smuggling, Speart even supplies the reader with both a hero, Fish & Wildlife newbie Ed Newcomer, and a villain, Japanese butterfly smuggler Yoshi Kojima. Her threads are obsession; the virtual futility facing Wildlife enforcement officers, who are understaffed and whose punishments have little teeth; and the point that even the extinction of a butterfly causes an environmental ripple that affects us all. While the interactions between Ed and Yoshi take on the structure of an elaborate game, the stakes are high.
The femme fatale is a stock figure in our culture, enough of a cliche that a culture luminary like Britney Spears pasted the phrase on her latest piece of product. Some feminist scholars maintain that the concept itself is nothing but a social construct, the result of fin de siecle anxieties about the emancipation of women. I invite any savant who thinks that femme fatales are imaginary bogeywomen to make the acquaintance of Sarah Pender, the central figure of Steve Miller’s riveting new true crime book Girl, Wanted: The Chase For Sarah Pender – it’s a lot easier than learning the truth at the wrong end of a shot gun.