Who reads stories of true crime? One imagines a furtive audience of sad saps and sadists, trench-coated lurkers and wan shut-ins. Friends reacted with funny looks when I tried to share my pleasure in True Crime: An American Anthology, forcing me to offer a defensive recital of the names on the back cover. Who writes them, then? Bloody deeds are as American as Jesus or money, and often connected to both. Yet it comes as a surprise that so many notable Americans–most, but not all, best known for their fiction–were apprenticed in murder reportage or cultivated a thoughtful sideline in the subject. Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, even José Martí grace the first third of this anthology of fifty pieces. The roster of writers from the twentieth century includes H.L. Mencken, James Thurber and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as Truman Capote and James Ellroy, amid fascinating pros and hacks, forgotten “murder fanciers” and brilliant dabblers.
Thus the charm of the book is that it appeals to both the culture vulture and the plain old vulture in us, while constructing an oblique, perverse history of America. From the day in 1630 when Pilgrim Father John Billington was regretfully hanged for murder so that the new land of Plimoth Plantation could “be purged from blood,” blood continued to be spilled in lavish quantities. Observers recorded the spillage from every angle, and the public lapped it up. The collective guilt that cements this ritual is summed up by editor Harold Schechter in his introduction. As Plato, Freud and Durkheim agreed (although one may feel it still hasn’t sunk in), “violent lawbreakers make it possible for the rest of us to adapt to the demands of normality by acting out, and being punished for, our own unacknowledged impulses.” For catharsis to occur, society needs to read all about it. Here is some of the best that was ever read, in one thick hardcover tome you could brain someone with.
Organized crime figures in just a minority of the selections. And rightly so, because it’s ordinary individuals we most want to know about, people like us who suddenly crack. As their stories inch forward through some unremarkable day or life toward a climax announced, or sweep back from the glare of the dock or the morgue in search of a truth that may or may not be uncovered, every detail–the great staple of this genre–acquires symbolic weight. The most haunting pieces slow down time under a spotlight, creating a nerve-shredding suspense. As a sequence, enriched by Schechter’s presentation of each author and his or her fait divers, the selections illuminate the changing frameworks for, and attitudes toward, violent transgression. They reflect developments in police work and the justice system, and in journalism itself. Shifting patterns echo back and forth, but a historical evolution of sorts emerges.