True Crime, by Harold Schechter

True Crime

True Crime is an almost 800 page anthology of American non-fiction writings about crimes, ranging from an account of the Pilgrims executing a murderer, to the Menendez case and other recent tabloid fodder.

This isn’t a genre I’ve had much exposure to. Not just in book form, but even in other media. Once in a blue moon I might watch a 48 Hours Mystery-type show, but that’s about it. I don’t even bother to follow the “big” stories that “everyone” is talking about, like Scott Peterson or JonBenet Ramsey or whatever those other ones are. I probably watched less than 5% of the O.J. stuff that the true devotees did.

Which surprises some people, since I volunteered for several years in a prison, and I wrote an oral history book with some of the prisoners. So people assume I must be fascinated by crime. Not really. I was interested in helping some people who needed help, getting to know them as people, hearing their stories, and maybe influencing them away from harming others in the future, but the details of the crimes themselves only intrigued me to roughly the same degree that they repelled me.

I mean, their crimes are part of them, part of their stories, so we talk about them in my book. But the crimes aren’t the primary focus of the book, and crime in general is not an inordinately strong interest of mine.

But anyway, to get back to this book, the pieces are selected as much as anything for the prominence of their authors: Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Damon Runyan, Jack Webb, etc. The introductions I think encourage a reader to focus on this aspect of the pieces–“Oh, this is the Lincoln piece. What insight can this give me into Lincoln that maybe one couldn’t glean from the standard history book accounts of his life?” “To what extent does Jack Webb’s writing style remind one of the staccato delivery of Sergeant Friday?” Etc.

I found myself only moderately or a little less interested in the early going in this book, and I think one reason may be that I was thinking more about the authors than the stories themselves like that. Ultimately that wasn’t the best method of staying engaged, and I found that once I pushed that to the back of my mind and just focused on the stories as stories, it was a more enjoyable read.

And really in most cases I don’t know that it’s that big a deal who the writers are anyway. It functions more as a gimmick.

So some politician or famous person worked on a newspaper briefly when he was young. Is what he wrote really any better than the writings of whoever came before or after him in that job? Does it really help us to understand him and his later career better? I doubt it, at least any more than minimally. It’s just a curiosity.

Also, though, I may have gotten into the later stuff more because the writing style is more accessible.

I didn’t dislike the early stuff; it was just a little slower going, a little harder to stick with. But beyond the style, some of it’s interesting stuff to think about.

For example, Cotton Mather’s accounts of the Puritan criminal justice system are pieces that are to be used in sermons to make certain religious points. So the wrongdoer’s nefarious acts always stem from drinking and not obeying church authorities and such, he always sees the error of his ways eventually and repents and calls on others to be good Christians and not to follow in his path, and he still gets executed as justice demands, but at least with a cleaner soul due to his confession and acceptance of the required religious rituals.

And you wonder, to what extent does it show how brainwashed people can be by religion, that under extreme emotional duress–e.g., when facing execution–their mind goes to the religious teachings embedded in the community and they interpret their fate and everything else in those terms? Or, alternatively, how much is made up out of whole cloth, and there were no such people following a Christian script so perfectly as they went to their demise? Or did what Mather reports indeed happen, but it was just a matter of their being tortured or otherwise pressured, and insincerely saying what they knew the authorities wanted to hear (like Stalinist show trials)?

It’s kind of creepy, in any case.

I admit I generally didn’t see as much difference among the pieces as the introductions would lead one to expect. Supposedly some of them are tawdry, sensationalist lowbrow articles suited to the tabloids, and some are literary gems by folks who went on to be top novelists and such, but I’m just not all that perceptive about that stuff. If you were to cover up the author names and the introductions, I doubt I would have done much better than chance at categorizing the pieces according to their literary respectability.

The ones that were typically the best reads for me were probably the “mystery” ones, both solved and unsolved, where the writer describes the investigations and the emergence of clues in chronological order, and you can kind of follow along trying to get to the bottom of “whodunit.”

But really quite a few were at least fairly interesting. Calvin Trillin has a piece about a guy shot and killed making a movie in the South, for really no even remotely justified reason, and yet the local people are at least moderately supportive of the murderer, due to the fact that when it’s “one of us” versus one of the “outsiders” who come from a world that delights in making fun of hillbillies, you know where your loyalties are.

I also found interesting Truman Capote’s interview with Manson’s partner/rival who went to prison for murder before the more celebrated Manson Family murders. He claims that the later murders were staged to look like the murder he’d committed, so that the authorities would assume they were committed by the same people. And so since he was already in their custody at the time of those later murders, they’d conclude it must be someone else doing all the killing, and let him go.

I could give some more examples, but there’s no need for me to summarize the whole book. Suffice to say, the pieces were somewhat entertaining, and the pieces were somewhat valuable in informing and provoking thought about human nature, political and social policies, the nature of evil, and so on. Probably a little more the former than the latter–I experienced the book more as engaging stories than as educational–but certainly some of each.

Not great, but worthwhile.

I’m probably slightly but not substantially more likely to read books of the true crime genre in the future as a result of reading this book.

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