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.
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.