There Will Always Be Blood: True Crime Writing | The Nation


There Will Always Be Blood: True Crime Writing

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In 1935 the novelist Edna Ferber (Show Boat, Giant) was scathing about the "Isn't this divine" set that thronged the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, alleged raptor of the Lindbergh baby. Ferber represents a new, feeling awareness of trauma. "Guilty or innocent," she wrote in the New York Times, "this man, when he was 17, his bones not yet a man's bones, his mind not yet a man's mind, saw and knew fear, agony, ruthlessness, murder, hunger, cold. He was a German soldier in the war and a product of war." This kind of sensibility aroused the scorn of H.L. Mencken. Invoking the endlessly paroled Baby Face Nelson, he sneered: "Of such sort are the abysmal brutes that the New Penology tells us ought to be handled more tenderly. They are not responsible, it appears, for their wanton and incessant felonies; the blame lies upon society." Though Mencken's gripe was with liberal attitudes to career crime, this divergence inaugurates a recognizable contemporary world: one split between those who seek the causes of wrongdoing in poverty or abuse, and those who would string up sociologists and therapists alongside their clients.

About the Author

Lorna Scott Fox
Lorna Scott Fox is a journalist and translator based in London.

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The debate was not made simpler by the growth of a violence that seemed arbitrary, or at least bearing no relation to America's twin mainstays of God and mammon. As Schechter says, "The human community, finding itself under assault from within, searches desperately for a framework or context to explain the apparently unexplainable." But what? Meyer Berger's Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the first "rampage," by a quiet World War II vet who gunned down twelve people on a New Jersey street in 1949, sticks to external facts with a velvet neutrality about unfathomable crises. The gunman gets home, a reporter from the Camden Evening Courier calls and there's an unhelpful glimpse into his mind:

Mr. Buxton asked how many persons Unruh had killed.
 The veteran answered. "I don't know. I haven't counted. Looks like a pretty good score."
  "Why are you killing people?"
  "I don't know," came the frank answer. "I can't answer that yet. I'll have to talk to you later. I'm too busy now."

I don't know. The story ends: "Men and women kept saying: 'We can't understand it. Just don't get it.'" Bewilderment all around is a repeated note from now on, perhaps the most authentic in such cases; "Superman's Crime," a clinical rationalization of the Leopold-Loeb crime published in 1965, seems unarguable and yet inadequate. In the era of postwar prosperity, more young killers begin to display the affectless nihilism we know so well. Take Charles "Smitty" Schmid, an early groover with pancake makeup and an unhealthy hold over the teens of Tucson: boredom, car culture and the glamour of decadence run through Don Moser's dark article for Life about the young serial killer. Boredom above all. And a kind of lostness, for the parents had no idea what their kids were up to, while the police "continued to assume that the [dead] girls had joined the ranks of Tucson's runaways"--caught up in the drifting lifestyle that defined the fate of the Black Dahlia years before.

Somewhat surprisingly, the police always get good press. Frantically trying to solve the Dahlia mystery, "during one three-day period, [Sergeant Brown] never got around to changing his shirt." This note of commendation is from Jack Webb's The Badge: True and Terrifying Crime Stories That Could Not Be Presented on TV, From the Creator and Star of Dragnet (a book that changed the life of 11-year-old James Ellroy); Schechter's introduction to the piece doesn't mention that Webb and Dragnet were tools for cleaning up the LAPD's image. It's true that Thomas Byrnes, a New York City police detective and the author of Professional Criminals of America (1886), is credited with inventing the interrogation method of the "third degree," yet in general the honest cops are always trying to get their man, only to see him sprung by Tammany Hall or the New Penologists. If a confession is ever tortured out of anyone, it's the sheriff's doing. In True Crime, the principal instance of police misbehavior occurs when impatience with staking out Alice Crimmins, the "Medea of Kew Gardens Hills," leads them to tip off jealous lovers, flatten tires and assist in the destruction of clothing.

A distinct late twentieth-century thread is the inability to cope with change. Nice fundamentalist boy blows himself up because his sweetheart has gone to college; upwardly mobile hillbilly shoots filmmaker he thinks is out to exploit the picturesque misery of the Appalachians. The old America's friction with the new is marvelously suggested in Gay Talese's "Charlie Manson's Home on the Range," published in Esquire in 1970 and based on an interview with the old-timer George Spahn, who ran the movie sets and then the ranch where the Manson tribe briefly settled. Talese focuses mostly on Spahn's rootless, resourceful life, emblematic of millions of others. Now he is blind, so that the new arrivals are sensed as voices and smells. He was mystified by spiritual nuggets from Charlie and intrigued by the girls' submissiveness despite their education, so unlike the women he'd known; but as the air turns into "a blend of horse manure and marijuana," even the wranglers start speaking with an irritating softness and "describing him as a 'beautiful person.'" When the crowds and cameras arrive, "lighting up the rickety Hollywood sets, it was like old times"--and when they've gone, the wranglers are still whispering. (For a horrible postscript to hippiedom, see Truman Capote's prison interview with Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil, who brags to Capote about fame, cool and white power.)

This is one of several episodes in True Crime that stand out as documentary literature, over and above the sanguinary aspect. Zora Neale Hurston's report for the Pittsburgh Courier on the trial of Ruby McCollum, during the late Jim Crow era, is remarkable not just in the absence of any other reflection on racism but for its painful collage of registers and moods. McCollum has shot a white physician. The judge disallows all testimony that might expose the systemic truth of her sexual bondage to the victim, the very relationship being denied by the prosecution as "unthinkable!" And the black community sides with "that nice Dr. Adams," partly because of Ruby's middle-class status; mostly out of a fearful, obsequious caution, unflinchingly ventriloquized.

For some hilarious horror, there's the reconstruction by Edmund Pearson, in the sophisticated spirit of the Roaring Twenties, of an 1870s "wayside tavern" trap in Kansas--an imported Gothic setup (those German immigrants again), complete with curtain behind which one member of the family lurked with a sledgehammer, while another beguiled the traveler with what we'd call New Age nonsense. Here is one of two cases in which innocent washerwomen are mistaken, years later, for murderesses who got away.

Great historical writing like Pearson's builds off the core gore to bring place and period to life, and it's unforgettably done in the finest selection of all, by the author and diplomat John Bartlow Martin (President Kennedy's ambassador to the Dominican Republic). Schechter tells us that Martin wrote at one time for mass-circulation magazines, "powerful stories on...muckraking subjects [that] led, in a number of cases, to major public policy changes." Published in 1950, "Butcher's Dozen" explores the ravaged underworlds of Depression-era Cleveland in hallucinatory prose that chronicles the appearance of surgically dismembered bodies whose butcher was never found and, though he operated in a blasted landscape where "people prowl all night," never even glimpsed--but not for want of looking. "The detectives often took two or three hundred hobos off a big freight train; each was a suspect, each a potential victim," and the long, fruitless hunt is as riveting as the characters it flushes out around the blank space left by "that almost unknown creature, a master criminal.... The greatest murderer of all time."

The Butcher lives eternal: no catharsis there. Or as Lincoln ruefully said of his own unsolved mystery, "a writer of novels could bring a story to a more perfect climax." Loose ends are as appropriate in life, of course, as they are annoying in fiction, yet many of these stories do describe a perfect arc from buildup to denouement, and subsequent artists couldn't resist them for what they said about the soul of society and the astounding strangeness of people. It turns out that some of our culture's most iconic products were written by reality before becoming novels or plays, and then, more lastingly, films: Psycho, Rope, Double Indemnity: the originals are all here. Farmer Yates inspired an early novel; Anita Shreve used the Shoals tragedy in a late novel; "Smitty" was the model for Joyce Carol Oates's wonderfully named Arnold Friend; Glaspell followed her report on the Hossack murder with a one-act feminist play, inspired by the case. Theodore Dreiser based An American Tragedy on a boy who drowned his pregnant girlfriend in a lake, causing a collective gasp when nine years later the story was replayed, with added sexual delirium, in the case of Robert Allen Edwards, which Dreiser dubbed "the Real American Tragedy." Life, like art, runs periodically short on ideas.

The closing piece, "Nightmare on Elm Drive" (2001), is by Dominick Dunne, developing his Vanity Fair work on the Menendez brothers. If the result is diligent but dull, it's surely, in part, because print had already ceased to be the default medium, for crime as well as proper news. Today, more Americans get their information online than from the papers, and 70 percent get it from TV--which garbles instant updates on scandals that once rolled, not quite as hot but a great deal more polished, off the presses. Yet it's clear from this collection that the bedrock for the whole edifice of stylish, literate crime reportage (with that essential dash of low thrills) was the once-captive public of numberless Couriers, Gazettes and Enquirers. Murder will out, but maybe no longer as such a bloody great read.

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