True Crime

Watching "The Wire" and reading "The Corner" (both David Simon productions): Part 1.

Okay, I think I'm ready to talk about watching The Wire.

The Wire, which is an HBO television drama that aired over five seasons, from 2002 to 2008, was created and largely written by David Simon. It is one of those shows you constantly hear about, often in the same breath as The Sopranos and The Simpsons and Breaking Bad as some of the best TV ever made (or at least those are the TV shows you hear about from all the male TV critics, of whom there are more than female TV critics). For that reason, and also because I have a severe British television addiction problem, I never got around to watching it. I knew I would get there eventually, but I wasn't in any hurry.

So what tripped the wire in the fall of 2019 and made me think, hey, it's time to watch The Wire? I don't know, really. Back in 2017 I read David Simon's nonfiction True Crime masterpiece Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and that knocked me over. It's a classic. And it briefly went through my mind then to watch The Wire, or even Homicide: Life on the Street (which was the TV show based on Simon's Homicide book). But again. Never got that far. What can I say? Freelance jobs needed to be done and CRjrs needed to be fed, taken to various enriching activities, and hosed down once in a while.

But last fall my littlest CRjr. went to school, meaning that I now had marginally more time during the day to work, and had a whole free hour of time (time I would have spent working in previous years) between 9 p.m., when the eldest goes to bed, and 10 p.m., when I go to bed. So Mr. CR and I, crazy kids that we are, decided to fill that hour with episodes of The Wire.

I don't think we're ever going to be quite the same.

Here's the deal. The Wire is about Baltimore. To say it is a show about cops and drug dealers misses so, SO much. Cops and drug dealers may be the majority of the characters, particularly in the show's first season, but The Wire, at its heart, is about Baltimore. It is about everything that is going wrong in Baltimore and has been going wrong in Baltimore for decades. But it's not even that narrow. The Wire explores so many characters and storylines and themes and tenets of basic human behavior that it's actually a show about America. But it's even bigger than that. The Wire is a show about people. The end. Everything is on showcase here: people you like, people you don't like, people being shitheads, people being pragmatic, people being sweethearts, people being weak, people starting out trying to do something good but ending up being shitheads, people being shitheads who in small moments try to do something good, people being hilarious, people being obnoxious, people being racist, people not being racist, people being really really dumb and people being really really smart. In its insistence on strong and complex characterization, The Wire is a lot like the very best of British TV: you never quite know what's going to happen. But then when it does, it makes total sense. And then, the next day when you're out living your life, you see someone doing something great or mean or stupid or hilarious, and you can think of a corresponding scene from The Wire that reminds you of what you're out in the world looking at.

If you can't tell, I loved this show a lot. I loved this show with the whole fiber of my introverted being that loves and needs television just a little bit more than the average well-adjusted extroverted person.

And then I went to Half Price Books and was lucky enough to find a copy of The Corner, also by David Simon. Then I read that while I watched The Wire and dear readers, then my mind was well and truly blown.

More to come.


Teeny Tiny Review: Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.

I did not like Harold Schechter's True Crime/history book Hell's Princess, about serial killer Belle Gunness.

The story is unpleasant (of course): Norwegian immigrant Belle Gunness was able to procure a farm and some acreage in Indiana in the late nineteenth century, and using that land as bait, she coerced men who were looking for a farm to invest in (or perhaps the farm's owner to marry) into coming to live with her, at which point she murdered them, took their money, and then dispensed of their bodies by chopping them up and burying (some of them, at least) in her hog yard.

Yes, I know. Most people reading that description are simply asking, "I'm sorry, how can you read True Crime? I just don't get it." And that's fair. But mostly, I find True Crime interesting, and I learn a lot from it. And, in all honesty, I don't find reading about crimes that really happened any more disturbing than reading fiction thrillers or mysteries, in which authors sit down and dream up horrific crimes so that people can read them and be entertained. (So there.) But I digress.

The story seems rather straightforward, which is one of the reasons I was surprised that I couldn't follow Schechter's narrative very well. It seemed to jump around oddly, chronologically, which is usually okay with me, but for some reason I just couldn't follow the timeline of crimes, basic character details like how many children Gunness had or what happened to them, and how the crimes were eventually discovered and investigated.

Also, the index is a mess, which really bugs me, because I firmly believe that any work of history, True Crime stories, included, should have good indexes. At one point I was looking up Gunness's daughter, to find out if anyone ever truly knew what happened to her (that is how confused I was by the book), and found her under two separate name headings, with different page number references. That's just plain sloppy indexing of a proper name, which is really one of the most basic things an index can provide.

Boo.

 


Stacy Horn's Damnation Island and more essay chat.

I've not yet reviewed it here, but I have read (and loved) Stacy Horn's new book Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. I also had the good fortune to interview Stacy about the book for The Millions. But the big news this morning is that her book got a great review in the New York Times! YAY, Stacy!

The book is not a light read but I loved it for all the usual reasons I love Stacy Horn's nonfiction writing: It's thoughtful, it's well-organized, I know it's been exhaustively fact-checked. But she always brings a little something extra to her stories, even when they're about crime and horrible mistakes that all sorts of people make, not just criminals but also those seeking to reform criminals: sympathy. You finish this book and you're sad, mostly because if you read enough books like this you realize there have never really been any "good old days," but also because you can't believe how much how many people have suffered down through the ages. But at the same time, she never really seems to give up. I like her tenacity. In her last pages she points out how the struggle to figure out how best to incarcerate people still goes on, and that we first have to learn about these problems to start to consider how to approach them.

In other Essay Project news I'm now in David Sedaris's We Talk Pretty One Day. Anyone else read the Sedaris? What are your thoughts? In reading (re-reading? I think I've read it before but can't remember--never a good sign) I find that I'm feeling the same way about Sedaris that I have always felt about him: I largely don't understand the appeal. I think he's a good writer, and he sometimes makes me laugh (mainly when telling stories about his very...ahem...interesting family), but I've never quite understood why he became a huge best-selling essayist. Can someone explain the appeal?


Second great read of the year: Serpico.

Okay, I read Serpico: The Cop Who Defied the System in 2017, too, just like I read Prairie Fires, but frankly, I was ready to be done with 2017 a few weeks before it actually finished, so there's that. I was able to fly through Serpico because it was my book to take along when we stayed overnight at my in-laws' for the Christmas holiday. I love my in-laws and they are very nice to open their house to us, but for some reason I can never, ever sleep there. So I always make sure to take along a book that will keep me company from, roughly, the hours between 10 p.m. (when, if we're lucky, the CRjrs, after all the excitement of presents and cousins and too much food, oh my, finally drop into an exhausted half-sleep) and 4 a.m., when maybe, sometimes maybe, I can pass out and dream anxiety dreams because I know the boys will be up again in two hours and will wake me up with them.

Anyway. This book turned out to be perfect for that purpose, and a completely engrossing read in its own right!

Now, "Serpico" is one of those names I've hazily known about my whole life. Here's what I knew: 1. it was the title of a movie starring Al Pacino (that I have never seen). 2. Serpico was a cop.

And that is it.

But then, I saw a trailer for a new documentary about Serpico, titled Frank Serpico.

And I thought, wait a second, Frank Serpico was a WHISTLEBLOWER?

I am beyond fascinated by whistleblowers. I am, as a matter of fact, a whistleblower groupie. I don't know what this says about my personality, because I think whistleblowers are by and large really complex and really interesting and really important people, but I think they can also be very difficult people.

So immediately I thought, I've got to read the book Serpico: The Cop Who Defied the System*, by Peter Maas (on which the Pacino/Sidney Lumet movie was based). It's a straightforward account of Serpico's youth, desire to be a cop, journey to become a cop, and then his growing realization, after he became a cop, that nearly every other cop in New York City at that time (the 1960s and 70s) was either accepting bribes and payoffs from gamblers, organized crime types, and drug traffickers. Even the cops who weren't taking payouts were going along by acting like nothing was wrong, and this went all the way up to the highest ranks of the department.

Until, that is, Frank Serpico came along. And for a long time he tried to do his own thing, but eventually it became impossible. So he started trying to go to his superiors with his stories, and they were not interested. Then he went to someone in the mayor's office, and they weren't really interested, either, because the 1960s and 70s were not exactly happy sunshine-y times in the history of NYC, and the mayor kind of needed to keep the police department on his side. So then Serpico went to someone in the press, and of course then the shit pretty much hit the fan. And very shortly after that Serpico himself got shot in the face in a drug bust gone wrong, about which incident there is still some question about whether it was a set-up to get him killed or just an honest shitshow.

I just opened this book to find a good quote to use, and honestly, it's the type of book that's compelling wherever you dip into it. Here's the beginning of chapter two, which is the first page I flipped to:

"When he was shot, Serpico was a member of a plainclothes detail in the Police Department. Plainclothesmen are actually patrolmen working, as the name indicates, out of uniform and on special assignment, usually in narcotics, prostitution, or gambling. While corruption in the police force was by no means limited to those on plainclothes duty, the temptations and opportunities it afforded for graft had always been especially high--in narcotics because of the huge profits at stake, and in prostitution and gambling not only because of the money, but because they were two areas of illegal activity that a large segment, if not a majority, of the public constantly demanded." (p. 21.)

It was a great book. Read it. Anyone seen the movie with Al Pacino? I'm going to watch that too (as well as the documentary linked to above, when it's available on DVD).

*Evidently I never knew about this subtitle, which kind of tells you that he was a whistleblower.


Sarah Perry's After the Eclipse: A Mother's Murder, a Daughter's Search.

This?

This is a very, very good book.

After the eclipseI started After the Eclipse thinking it was going to be another pretty standard true crime memoir. I didn't mind; even when true crime is standard I usually learn something when I read it. But after reading parts of The Hot One (which seemed to me to get a lot more press than this book got), I thought, huh, I've got to give the true crime a rest for a while. So I thought I'd skim this one and return it to the library.

So then I read the first 100 pages and it was stupendous. But then I got antsy because this month I had the goal of doing less reading and more writing,* and here I was ignoring everything else to read this book. So I read the last few chapters to see if they caught the murderer of Perry's mother, and then I thought, okay, I can just take this book back now, I got what I need.

And then I promptly just read the rest of it.

And I'm so glad I did. The main story here is Perry's narrative of the night her mother Crystal was killed in their house, when the author was 12 years old and sleeping just down the hall. She also provides details from her mother's childhood, the relationships between her many extended family members, and the subsequent details of how the crime was investigated by the police and spoken about in the community. In a later part of the book she relates the story of the rest of her "growing up"--with whom she had to live, how she fought to keep depression and despair at bay, and a growing realization of how anger and violence make their presence felt in communities and in families (as well as within individuals).

This is also, bar none, the most quietly clearsighted and horrifying take on the unequal power dynamics between men and women that I have read this year. I stuck a bookmark in the book every time the author made an obviously heartfelt and (to my mind) right-on observation about women and men, and when I was done there were a LOT of bookmarks. Here's one part I marked:

"From this distance, I can look back and see, objectively, that Mom was not model-perfect. She was thin, with flaming hair and pretty eyes, but she also had pale eyebrows and crowded teeth. It takes my sharpest concentration to see these imperfections; like many daughters, I will always consider my mother to be the pinnacle of beauty. And she was truly striking. In the small town of Bridgton, many people agreed.

After Mom's death, when the police interviewed Earl Gagnon--a friend of Tom's who worked at the Shop--he said, 'A lot of guys looked at her--pleasing to the eye, you know.' The full record of interviews, and the stories of other townspeople, back him up. There are too many to detail in full, but here is a partial list of men who, in the days and weeks and years following Mom's death, were known by police or rumored by others to have been attracted to her..."

And then there is a list of SIXTEEN men. And this is a partial list. In a small Maine community. Not that there is anything wrong with attraction, really, or finding a person attractive. But the list includes items like this:

"Lloyd Poulin: who mentioned Mom's death from the back of a Bridgton police car after being picked up for drunk and disorderly. He asked the cop, 'How old is her little girl now, sixteen or seventeen? Crystal was a slut, wasn't she? That daughter is a sweet little thing." (pp. 196-197.)

Nice.

But even after immersing herself in this story, in her story, in her mother's story, in that kind of quote, Perry still concludes the book with a gentle touch, and at the same time explains one of the biggest reasons I read true crime (I'm leaving out the name she gives here in case you read the book and would rather not have me tell you the killer's name):

"It would be easier to think he was just a monster, an aberration; it would make us all feel a lot safer, now that he's locked away. But I think it's a lot more likely that [he] was born with a natural tendency to violence, which worsened in a violent home, and easily found a target in a world where many men are trained to exert power over women. Punishing him should not prevent us from trying to understand how he was made. I'm glad [he] is in jail. But I'll be more glad when there are no more [of him]." (p. 327.)

True crime is not about monsters. It is about our communities, our neighbors, our families. I for one am staggered at Sarah Perry's book, and her subtle but very strong call for us to try and start figuring this stuff out.

This is a very good book.

*I use books as an anti-anxiety drug, along with Zebra Cakes, reading them when I'm down and don't feel like doing anything else, although I should really pull my act together and do something else.


Moving on from True Crime.

I was just working on a review of Carolyn Murnick's true crime memoir The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, and no matter what I typed, it wasn't coming out right. So here's all I really have to say:

I didn't like it.

There. If you want to know what the book is about (beyond the title), this NPR blurb/interview with the author should tell you what you need to know. But I didn't really enjoy reading it and I don't want to think about it anymore and there you go: we're done here.*

*Sorry; I know this makes for not-very-exciting reading. I feel like DULLSVILLE this week so it makes sense my writing would be DULLSVILLE too.

 


David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

I read a lot of True Crime books, and I've tried to research True Crime classics, so how on earth did I miss David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets?

Simon is perhaps best known for being the creator, head writer, and show runner for the TV show "The Wire"* (or, before that, the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street"), but before he took on TV, he was a journalist working at The Baltimore Sun. While there he got the idea to shadow several homicide detectives on the Baltimore police force, and after a year of doing that he published this book.

HomicideAnd it's a really, REALLY good book. I had difficulty putting it down (the younger CRjr was not best pleased that I was reading it at breakfast, until I went and got him his own book to look at while he ate his Cheerios--I know, I know, I'm a terrible mother, but I'm going to call that our "modeling the enjoyment of reading" for the day) even though it was not a lighthearted read. Mr. CR was also not best pleased because I simply had to tell him some of the stories in this book--and they were not cheery stories. There is something about what I think of as the "cop sense of humor" (read: DARK) that I really, really enjoy. Like how the detectives in this book called a riot and round of looting that took place in Baltimore during the winter of 1979 simply "the Winter Olympics."

I'm sorry. That's funny.**

But most of this book is NOT funny. And years before there was as much conversation about race and community policing as there is now (the book was published in 1991), the reader can quite clearly see where some issues between the police and the policed are going to come to a head.

Simon does a good job of introducing his characters, primarily homicide detectives and their many bosses, and he does a very good job of describing their investigative techniques and the heartbreaking details of the cases involved (including the rape/murder of an 11-year-old girl, as well as numerous shootings, knifings, a prison riot, and any number of other tragedies). But the structure of the book is what's really something to behold; Simon relates what he saw in a linear fashion throughout each chapter, but each chapter/month of the year also showcases a broader theme. How a case can get away from you and go cold, even if it's a high-priority case. Interrogation techniques. Investigating when cops are shot and when cops engage in "bad shoots." What happens at the morgue. How the legal system works. If you forget the details involved, this is really quite a stunning work of nonfiction reportage and writing. And that is rare. Many journalists tell fascinating stories well; many nonfiction authors put their larger narratives together beautifully. David Simon does both things at once.

It's not a happy read. But it is a fascinating one; I think it'll end up being one of the best books I read this year. (Although I'd like to do you this favor: if you do read this book, and you should, just skip pages 547-548, or the first few pages of the section headed Thursday, December 15. It is very, very hard to read, and you don't actually need to read the details there to understand the bigger narrative.)

*Actually, I've always kind of wanted to see "The Wire," but this trailer makes me feel like I don't want to. After reading this book, I don't think I'm in the mood to see these stories "dramatized," complete with soundtrack. The trailer makes me feel a little dirty, like the drug war and cop investigations are being played for my entertainment. Hmm.

**This is my other favorite story--on one case the main suspect actually called in and confessed, and one of the detectives thought another detective was playing a joke on him:

"'This is James Baskerville. I'm calling to surrender to you for killing Lucille.'

'Goddammit Constantine, you bald-headed motherfucker, I'm up here trying to do a crime scene and all you can find to do is fuck with me. Either come up here and help or--'

Click. Mark Tomlin listens to a dead phone line for a moment, then turns to a family member. 'What did you say was the name of Lucille's boyfriend?'

'Baskerville. James Baskerville.'

When the second call comes, Tomlin catches it on the first ring. 'Mr. Baskerville, listen, I'm real sorry about that. I thought you were someone else...Where are you now?'

Later that night, in the large interrogation room, James Baskerville--who would later agree to life plus twenty years at his arraignment--offers no excuses and readily initials each page of his statement of confession. 'I've committed a serious crime and I should be punished,' he says.

'Mr. Baskerville,' asks Tomlin, 'are there any more like you at home?'" (p. 164.)


You've gotta read this: Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It.

I read a lot of nonfiction.

So yeah, this is not news. I read a lot of nonfiction, and a lot of it I find interesting, and a lot of it I enjoy. But sometimes I read nonfiction that, even if it isn't a particularly great book as such, still makes me go, holy fuck. Everybody should really read this.* One of the best examples of a book like that (for me), was John Bowe's title Nobodies. In addition to being a mind-bending read, that one was also a great book, well reported and written, so it was a twofer. But that's the book where Bowe trotted this little truth out for me (and yes, I'm paraphrasing, one of these days I have to get that book back and find the exact quote): people figure the system is broken and could be fixed. What they actually don't realize is that the system is working exactly the way the system was set up to work. (Italics mine.) As I said: Holy fuck. I'm still recovering from that devastating nugget. I can't decide if reading that was the exact moment I gave up on politics, or if that was coming for me anyway.

Future crimesBut I digress. Another one of these types of books that I read a while back was Future Crimes (paperback subtitle: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World), by Marc Goodman. This is a dense brick of a book all about the security vulnerabilities in the current version of our Internet and in all our online systems. It is also about the many ways that criminals can find and use our personal information (and how hard it is to prosecute them, particularly if they are executing crimes in different countries from the ones in which they are sitting at their computers--who has jurisdiction over a hacking job taking place in Russia when the victims are elsewhere, for example?), and, even worse, how perfectly legal companies collect and exploit our personal information as well. Oh, and let's not forget the information about how most programming and coding these days is done fast and sloppy (by design), which leaves big holes and vulnerable bugs in most software and online applications. Also: the chapter on the Dark Web, which still gives me nightmares.

Every page of this book was more horrifying than the last. I'm sorry I don't have any more concrete examples for you--I had a whole bunch of pages bookmarked but the youngest CRjr views it as his personal mission to pull all the bookmarks out of my books--but trust me, you don't have to read for more than two pages at any point in the book to be appalled.

That in fact was one of the criticisms of this book that I read in several reviews: it is just too dense, and reads like a laundry list of examples. And that is true. There is not much of an overarching narrative structure here. But I found each example to have its own little storyline, and I read the book slowly, over the course of a few weeks (as noted: it is dense), so that was no problem. It's full of information, but none of it is particularly hard information to understand. Criminals? Here's how they take and use all of your information, sometimes including your identity. Companies? Here's what they are all collecting on you, and what that means (I DO remember one particular example of people who joined what they thought was an anonymous health web site/community, and eventually companies were able to track down their identities just by parsing the information they gave the site).

Oh, and the last little bit on things you can do to protect yourself from the vulnerabilities in the coming Internet of Things, and all the other ways in which our privacy is violated, is pretty laughable. "Use strong passwords" and all that jazz. So yeah. This book was not perfect.

But overall? I think you should read it. I think you should skip the chapter on the dark web, so you can keep on living without despair eating away at your soul, but still, at least give it a skim. One of my favorite outcomes of reading it is that I'm much more aware of privacy and Internet security articles and news items whenever I come across them, and I don't think that's a bad thing. Have you been reading the "Passcode" section of the online Christian Science Monitor? Great articles on this topic. Damn, I love the CSM.

*Yes, I'm assuming that everyone reads. And has ample time to do so. I am informed by many reliable sources that neither of those statements are really true.


Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker: True crime you simply must read.

I know, I know, nobody really wants to read True Crime.

And yet, people do. I do. And when I come across True Crime books that I think you should read, even if you have an aversion to the genre, I feel I have to tell you about them.

One such book is Robert Colker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.

The book originally began life as an article in New York Magazine, about the Long Island serial killer and his victims. It's a complex story, making it a complex book: Kolker opens the narrative by describing five of the killer's victims (the four whose bodies were found on a New York barrier island off the shore of Long Island, in similar burlap sacks, and another victim, whom authorities can't confirm was or was not killed by the same perpetrator) and their lives, most of which were filled with details of complex and abusive family relationships, struggles to find "honest" work, eventual turns to escort services and prostitution to make money, addiction problems, and a host of unstable relationships. I found this part of the book the most challenging one to read; all of the women advertised their services as escorts under different names, so keeping their stories straight was a bit of a challenge.

Kolker structures his narrative a bit differently than most True Crime narratives, which tend to be very straightforward and story-driven. In this book he starts with the character portraits and narratives of the victims, and from there he works outward to consider their family circumstances and how their bodies were eventually found. In the latter half of the book, he examines the community life in the gated community of Oak Beach, on Jones Island, near which the remains (and the remains of several other unidentified individuals) were found, focusing particularly on the residents who have come to be viewed with suspicion by other residents, the police, and the media.

It's a challenging read, and it's a really sad read, but I still think you should look into it. Just to look through this window of how so many people (women, in particular) live their lives constantly at the edge of despair and bad luck and no good choices is educational, and important. Here's one thing that struck me about the book: Kolker (and many others) make the point that serial killers often target prostitutes and other individuals at the edge of society, because they have such tenuous connections and are often "not missed." To me this always made it sound like sex workers had no connections. But what is really clear in this narrative is that they DO have connections to other people--a ton of them. They've got parents and stepparents; siblings and step-siblings; often they have babies or children of their own; they've got friends; they often have pimps or boyfriends or guys who drive them to jobs. The greater problem is that those connections often exert pressures of their own: at least one of these victims was working to give her mother and family money; they are trying to support and raise children, and this job seems to offer the most pay for the fewest hours; they develop drug problems because of friends and pimps and dealers they know, and because johns often request drug use at the same time as escort services. So they're not really alone--they're just with all the (arguably) wrong people, all the time.

For some reason that gave me pause.

I also liked Kolker's writing style. It's direct. And I thought one of his conclusions was about as much as you could hope for:

"The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the Internet; they're stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What's clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on." (p. 381.)

Yes, it's hard to read. It's a heartbreaking story, and a heartbreaking book. You should read it.


Goodbye, Vincent Bugliosi.

Helter Skelter: TheTrue Story Of the Manson Murders
by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry

Powells.com

Vincent Bugliosi, the attorney who prosecuted at the Charles Manson trial and then wrote the True Crime classic Helter Skelter, about the crimes and the trial, has died.

I only read Helter Skelter when I was researching my reader's advisory guide The Real Story because I thought I should.* And then I kept reading it, because it was a really, really good book. And then I went on to read another True Crime book of his, And the Sea Will Tell. Which I also enjoyed.

But then Vincent Bugliosi wrote something that will make me love him forever. And that book? Was titled The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder.

RIP, Vincent Bugliosi. I know no higher compliment than one that my brother uses: you were a true supertalent.

*I'd heard about the title a lot, and considered it a True Crime classic. This is the way I ended up reading a lot of True Crime--thinking I should, but then ending by finding that a lot of True Crime books are really well written.


That's a sad book, mama.

Although I don't typically choose my reading material because it's been included on those yearly "best of" lists, I saw Jesmyn Ward's title Men We Reaped: A Memoir on so many of last year's lists that I felt compelled to check it out. Ward's novel Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award in 2010, and I always wanted to read that one, but never got around to it.

In this short and heartbreaking memoir, Ward explores her relationships with and the deaths of five young black men to whom she was close, including her younger brother. It's a memoir written in two parts, interspersed, with half of the chapters moving forward in time and the others moving back. In the chapters moving forward, Ward explores her own childhood and the lives of those in her tightly knit small-town Mississippi community (in chapters with headings like "We Are Born, 1977-1984" and "We Are Wounded, 1984-1987"), in those moving back she details the lives and deaths of the five men, starting with her friend Roger Eric Daniels III, who died in 2004, and ending with her brother Joshua, who died in 2000.

As you can probably guess, it's a heartbreaking book. Bless her, Ward is not really a melodramatic writer, but how on earth do you write about the deaths of five young men in four years and have it NOT be depressing? And it's not like the death stories are the only sad ones--there's also the stories of Ward's parents' rocky relationship, her single mother's unending work and jobs to keep she and her siblings fed, and tales of poverty and of drug and alcohol abuse galore.

Ward also provides the small details of what makes her community, to the extent that it is, cohesive--the funeral t-shirts they make up (for funerals families contribute pictures to be printed on t-shirts, that are then sold, just to cover costs, to other mourners); driving around her small town with friends; their practice of taking picnics to cemeteries when they visit graves to "feed the dead." For very personal reasons--including the death of my own brother at too young an age--as I was finishing this one up, it actually made me tear up a bit. And books hardly EVER do that to me--I am not a sentimental reader and I do not look for weepies in either my fiction or my nonfiction.

It just so happened that I was finishing this one up at the breakfast table. CRjr likes to take his time with his Cheerios and his fruit, so I sometimes sneak in a chapter or two of my current book while he eats. So when I closed the book and looked up, sad, thinking about the cultural divides in our country and the death of my own brother, CRjr looked over and saw my tears. And this is what he said:

"That's a sad book, Mama."

And I said yes, it was, but it was a good book. And then he said, "Mama needs a new book."

Well, true enough. But I'll be thinking about this one for a while yet.


Here's the problem with True Crime.

There's just no way to say to anyone: "Hey, I just read this unbelievably good book about Jeffrey Dahmer."* The book could indeed be very good. But once you insert "Jeffrey Dahmer" into any sentence, let's face it, the gut reaction "ick factor" is going to scare a lot of people away.

My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf
Powells.com

So, I'm well aware of what you might think of me when I say this: I just read this unbelievably good book about Jeffrey Dahmer.

The book in question is Derf Backderf's graphic novel/memoir/true crime title My Friend Dahmer. Backderf attended high school in Ohio with Dahmer in the 1970s, and knew him as a strange guy who went from flying way under the radar to adopting a strange persona based on speech and movement tics (some thought he was imitating a local interior decorator, a businessman who suffered from cerebral palsy, while later it was thought he was perhaps imitating his mother, who suffered from seizures). Backderf and his friends even were part of something they called the Dahmer Fan Club, in which they egged him on while he did his persona, and who sneaked him into a variety of club and activity (to which he did not belong) photos from the yearbook. So this is not just some, "Hey, I went to the same high school as Dahmer, how weird is that" anecdotal memoir.

It is a memoir, so of course it is told from Backderf's point of view, and for many of the scenes portraying Dahmer's inner and personal life he had to depend on other sources, like later confessions of and interviews with Dahmer. But it's done very well, and the fact that it is in graphic novel format makes it all the more disturbing. In a way it's the best possible format--it allows the story to be read quickly, so you don't have to spend a lot of time in the story**, and it also sets the right tone. Dahmer's huge glasses, for instance, are often drawn throughout so they obscure the reader's view of his eyes.

Like most good True Crime, it'll make you think. Particularly when you learn things like Dahmer actually talked his way into a guided tour of Vice President Mondale's office for him and his friends when they were on a school trip to Washington, D.C. Dahmer and Walter Mondale in the same room: it boggles the mind.

*Unless that someone is my brother. I knew he had read Lionel Dahmer's strange but compelling memoir A Father's Story, so I knew we could discuss it.

**I think this is a large part of True Crime's appeal, actually. It often is very quickly paced, which is good, so you don't have to live with the stories too long.


Any historical true crime readers out there?

If so, I need your help.

I'm working on a project involving historical true crime nonfiction,* and I've got some questions about it. This is a genre that includes such popular bestsellers as Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook. Normally I find True Crime somewhat interesting nonfiction, but it's a hard nonfiction genre to research--nobody really talks about what it is or how it attracts readers.

My biggest question is mainly how to group similar Historical True Crime titles together. Would you say historical true crime readers are more interested in the types of crimes and criminals (e.g., serial killers), or are they more interested in the historical period (e.g., modern European history or the American Civil War)? What is it, do you think, that readers find compelling about historical true crime and true crime in general?

Thanks for any insight on this matter!

Oh, and I can't resist: read Matt Taibbi's latest article on the post office. Amen, Matt Taibbi. I for one LOVE the postal service and think they're getting a raw deal. I have always opined that anyone who thinks the post office is a rip-off has not sent anything by UPS or FedEx lately. Once I had to return a book I worked on to a publisher by UPS (the publisher's rule), and it cost me $30 bucks to send a package the USPS could have sent, taking one day longer, for about 6 dollars. And while you're at it, send someone a card or letter today. They'll enjoy it, and so will the post office. Happy weekend, all.

*I'll be glad to be done with the project--reading all this true crime, all at once, is starting to freak me out just a little bit.


Ah, those Victorians.

A few weeks back a friend and I went to see the new movie Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) is starring in, a horror movie titled The Woman in Black (based on novel by Susan Hill). It had been ages since I saw a movie in the theater, and I enjoyed it, even though it was so-so. But man, that Victorian age. Talk about an era made for ghost and horror stories: everyone's wearing black; pollution in London and England was terrible; and they made some of the world's creepiest wind-up toys, evidently.

MurderSo it was a pleasure to go to the library not long thereafter and find Kate Colquhoun's historical true crime thriller Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing waiting for me. It tells the story of the murder of a respectable City of London businessman, Thomas Briggs, the investigation of the crime, and the chase and apprehension of the prime suspect, a German expat named Franz Muller.

The book is divided into three parts: a description of the crime; the investigation of Muller (which included several detectives and witnesses following him across the ocean to America); and Muller's trial. I wouldn't say it's a great book--it dragged a bit in parts--but it was still sufficiently interesting to keep me reading until the end. And of course, who can say no to that good old Victorian atmosphere:

"The sun was low and swallows wheeled in the sky as the banker alighted from his omnibus to walk back through the City's stone warrens. Above him, the thin sliver of a bright new moon pulsed from between the clouds. The sounds of the metropolis had thinned. Passing under the great clock on the facade of Fenchurch Street Station and into the station with its modern vaulted roof, he nodded to the newsvendor. Eating his supper on a stool near the booking office, the ticket collector Thomas Fishbourne looked up as Briggs touched him on the shoulder and said goodnight. Alone, the old man mounted the stairs to the platforms, his empty black bag in one hand and his ivory-knobbed cane in the other." (p. 17.)

Rail travel! Stations called Fenchurch Street! Omnibuses! Old men carrying ivory-knobbed canes! It's the details that make this one interesting (I was going to say "fun" but that doesn't seem like the right word) and thought-provoking: imagine traveling on train cars that weren't connected to one another by doors and in which you had no way of alerting anyone to a problem (which is how early train cars in Britain were, evidently). Imagine a world before the telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean, when the detectives had no way to alert anyone in America that they needed someone apprehended as he got off a ship in New York. Wild stuff.


100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Nonfiction Novels and Politics

I know, you're starting to be just as sick of Time magazine's list of the 100 Best Nonfiction titles as I am, aren't you? I'm also getting sick of my lists. Lists get old, I find, which is part of why I can never quite believe how much people seem to like lists for everything. Evidently you need to be a more organized person than I am. Or, perhaps, all things in moderation, and this has been just too many lists.

But, we have started. And because I never finish anything, I feel that we need to finish this. But that doesn't mean I can't cheat. Take today's categories: Nonfiction Novels and Politics. Christ. Can you think of more boring categories? I can't. And what does "nonfiction novel" mean, anyway? Yet another category I disagree with. So today I'll tell you Time's picks, but I'm not listing my own. If I can think of any Politics titles that didn't make me puke, I will add them to an Investigative Writing list I still plan to do.

In the meantime, please do discuss the below, or suggest any title picks of your own in these categories!

NONFICTION NOVELS

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer (This one should be True Crime, guys, it just SHOULD)
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (Again: TRUE CRIME. Just call it a genre already, for the love of God.)
Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen

POLITICS

All the President's Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel P. Huntington
The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater
God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley, Jr.
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
The Making of the President 1960, Theodore H. White
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt
The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter
What it Takes, Richard Ben Cramer


Here's an attention-grabbing title: Fist Stick Knife Gun

Gun The book Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, by Geoffrey Canada, has been sitting on my table for weeks now. I can't figure out what I want to say about it.

I can't remember how I originally found the book, but I think I saw the title and felt that I had to read it. (I abhor violence and yet can't stop reading about it.) If you've never heard of him, Geoffrey Canada is the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, and you may remember him from this American Express Members Project spot:

The book is a memoir, and short: 181 pages, so it can be read fairly quickly. Canada describes his childhood growing up in the Bronx, and how he learned early on the neighborhood codes of how and when to fight, how to gain a rep so he didn't have to fight, and how quickly things can spiral out of control once violence is introduced. Thinking of children across America, across decades, having to learn these lessons made me very, very sad.* This description of what happened before the fight really got to me, for some reason:

"During the time I was sizing up my situation I made a serious error. I showed on my face what was going on in my head. My fear and my confusion were obvious to anyone paying attention. This, I would later learn, was a rookie mistake and could have deadly consequences on the streets." (p. 20.)

It's a pretty shitty world where a kid can't let what he's feeling show on his face without having the fear that he'll get the shit kicked out of him.

About half of this book is Canada's coming-of-age memoir, and the other half is more about his experiences with the Harlem Children's Zone and his opinions about what is going on in today's inner cities (and he is not shy about saying that everything on the streets changed and became exponentially more violent as handguns became ever more available).

Do consider reading it. Oddly enough, it's not nearly as depressing as it sounds. I salute this guy and believe more firmly than ever that people like him are much more worthy of attention and charitable giving than any asshole politicians.

*Not least because I know if I'd grown up in these surroundings I'd have been toast--I cried easily as a kid, no matter how much I fought it.


Edgar award, baby!

Scoreboard I'm so excited--a book I indexed last year, Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, is up for an Edgar Award in the True Fact Crime category.* I hope it wins--it was a great and thought-provoking read, if disturbing, which pretty much describes all good True Crime. If you do read it you should be warned: you'll probably never look at college football players the same way again.

The full list of Edgar nominees is up at the Reader's Advisor Online, if you're a mystery/crime/true crime reader and are looking for some good suggestions. Now: go forth and have a great weekend.

*I'm really excited and all I did was index the book. I'd hate to think how excited I'd be if I'd actually written the book.


Too much prison nonfiction.

Here's a high-level nonfiction reading tip: Don't read two prison memoirs in a row.

Orange This week I started Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, by Piper Kerman. And I really liked it. She doesn't waste any time explaining how she ended up with her fifteen-month sentence, explaining how she wanted some excitement after college, met a thrilling woman who seemed to have plenty of money, and eventually became involved in a drug and money smuggling ring. Although her own experience of carrying a suitcase of money to a certain airport was on the very fringes of the ring's activity, drug sentencing laws mandated that her crime be considered part of the much bigger picture. I like the way she described her crime; she takes responsibility for it right from the start,* and moves through that part of the narrative quickly.

The bulk of the story centers on her experiences in a Danbury, Connecticut, prison. (I've not read it closely enough to say for certain, but she seems to be in some sort of minimum security prison camp, as opposed to the facility's more maximum security area. It's still prison, though.) The story moves right along and Kerman has good powers of description; she draws a good picture of how loud the women's prison dorms are and how lousy the food is. And, I'll give her credit: she kept her memoir to 300 pages.

BUT...I'm on page 117, and I just don't want to read any more. I think this is a function of just having read Avi Steinberg's memoir Running the Books, about his work as a librarian in a prison, and I just simply don't want to read any more about prisons. The thought of all these people locked up and just killing days and months of time is even more disturbing to me than any of the more violent stories in Steinberg's memoir or the tales of guards and bureaucratic prison staff lording it over the prisoners in Kerman's. Maybe someday I'll come back and finish this one--it really does hurt me to put it down, as it's interesting, but I just don't want to think about the subject anymore. That happens sometimes with nonfiction.

*Our local bleeding heart liberal weekly newspaper sometimes is too quick to excuse people--I still remember a feature they ran about someone who got caught either taking drugs into or using drugs in a foreign country, and the guy was complaining about being prosecuted too harshly. Me, I figure if you're mucking about with drugs in any foreign country, well, you shouldn't be too surprised about whatever prosecution they hook up for you.


Follow-up: Running the Books

If you'll remember, a while back I briefly reviewed Avi Steinberg's Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.

When I reviewed it, I hadn't quite finished it. I just wanted to follow up here and say I did finish it, and I really did like it all the way through. The last 25 pages are actually quite spectacular, which is noteworthy (so many memoirs start strong, and then start sputtering on to less-than-memorable endings). My one quibble with the book is that I think it could be about 75-100 pages shorter, but that's primarily because I believe most memoirs shouldn't be longer than 300 pages.*

Still and all: a good read.

*This is a corollary to my rule about movies only needing to be 90 minutes long.