“The human heart being what it is,” Truman Capote told George Plimpton in 1966 when discussing In Cold Blood, the story of a Kansas family’s murder that would become a landmark of the true crime genre, “murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.”
Capote called his book a nonfiction novel, a term perhaps as difficult to define then as the increasingly broad category of “true crime” is to define today. The label is applied both liberally (Is it nonfiction? Is murder a key event?) and sparingly, as a misguided bias often exists that books under the true crime heading will automatically be unnecessarily gory, overly sensational tales of sadistic serial killers. And some are. Yet because the crimes people commit are so varied, so are the books written about their aftermath, how to prevent them, why they happened, or some combination thereof.
True crime encompasses offshoots of cultural studies, sociology, law and legal theory, politics, history, and biography, subjects that are often no less entangled in murder and death than the stereotypical mass market “true crime” book, promising a case ripped from the headlines with a full photo spread of all the bloody details. Broken down to its most basic elements, “true crime” can simply be the story of a crime that has occurred. Sometimes that story is told soon after the events, as are the books in St. Martin’s mass market series, the True Crime Library. Other times, it takes years, decades even, for all the pieces to fall into place and the story to come to life. Either way, a crime is what drives all these stories forward. At the heart of Capote’s definition is the subject matter, because “if you intend to spend three or four or five years with a book, as [he] planned to do, then you want to be reasonably certain that the material does not soon ‘date.’” And he’s right. Published nearly half a century ago, In Cold Blood continues to enthrall; the slaughter of the Clutter family and the eventual execution of killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock is still chilling.
Crimes of the Past
Finding the right subject matter is at the heart of Minotaur Books publisher Andrew Martin’s new foray into what he calls crime nonfiction. As opposed to true crime, which St. Martin’s Press executive editor Charlie Spicer describes as “contemporary, usually sensational; a crime that’s of the moment,” Martin says he is looking for “historical, narrative, American crime nonfiction,” citing Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City as a key example. For Martin, the first acquisition, Daniel Stashower’s In the Hour of Peril (Jan. 2013), “seemed to be a perfect fit for Minotaur, a way to grow in a different direction. I wanted to look for books that captured crimes[, books] that were done in a very serious, well-researched way, that showed off the wonderful details of the time period and the place that it’s set.” Two-time Edgar Award–winner Stashower details a little-known plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln in Baltimore during Lincoln’s inaugural trip to Washington, D.C., in 1861. Martin’s second acquisition, by a former USA Today reporter, revolves around a 1933 kidnapping by Machine Gun Kelly and is tentatively scheduled for late 2013. These two titles will be the first nonfiction ever published by Minotaur; “they’re books that stand alone as great works of nonfiction where there’s a crime at the center, but they don’t exist just because of the crime,” says Martin. “In a way, they’re not exactly category books, but because they’re at Minotaur, I see them as crime nonfiction.”
While Minotaur’s nonfiction focus will be primarily events in America’s history, the University Press of New England—supported by a consortium of Brandeis University Press, University of New Hampshire Press, Tufts University Press, and Northeastern University Press—narrows its scope to crimes occurring in the Northeast as it makes a more concerted effort to publish titles in the true crime subgenre. “As a university press,” says David Corey, director of marketing and sales, “our development of this category comes with a few editorial requirements. The books must focus on the investigative and narrative elements, while also avoiding sensationalism or exploitation of the crime or victims.” For fall 2012, UPNE will publish John Barylick’s Killer Show, a definitive look at the Rhode Island nightclub fire in 2003 that killed 96 people and injured 200 more, as well as A Murder in Wellesley, Marty Foley and Tom Farmer’s examination of the murder of a Massachusetts woman by her Ivy League husband who was found to be leading a double life.
Staying within the United States is by no means a requirement for true crime stories, and one of the summer’s upcoming titles, arriving well-reviewed from its native U.K., is Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June) concerning the murder of a young English woman in Tokyo in 2001. Lloyd Parry, the Tokyo bureau chief and Asia editor of the London Times, spent a decade following the investigation, from Lucie Blackman’s disappearance through the arrest and trial of the man accused of murdering her, Joji Obara. Though he had no great interest in the genre before writing the book, Lloyd Parry says he “made a point of reading a few of the classics: In Cold Blood, The Executioner’s Song, and a couple of books about the Yorkshire Ripper.” But what surprised him after Darkness was published in the U.K. in 2011 was the “huge amount of snobbery toward the ‘true crime’ label,” particularly reviewers who “found it necessary to point out that they would never normally read this kind of thing, that they liked the book despite the generic label on the back cover.” While he’s grateful for the positive reviews, Lloyd Parry is puzzled by the thought process behind them. “The genre of a book,” he says, “tells you nothing about its quality, and any subject can make a great book in the right hands. Love stories, thrillers, memoirs, cookery books, and even the instruction manual for your toaster, each of them can be done well or badly.” True crime can be an inclusive rather than exclusive subcategory of nonfiction. Lloyd Parry hopes that Darkness “will be read and appreciated by readers who are interested in or curious about travel, suspense, psychology, foreign cultures, families, detective work, and the workings of the media, not only about violent crime and the minds of criminals.”
Just as Lloyd Parry’s years spent living in Tokyo before covering the Lucie Blackman investigation made Darkness as much about Japanese culture as about a young woman’s murder, the power of place was an equally compelling motivator for Elyssa East, whose 2009 Free Press book, Dogtown, examined the former colonial village in Gloucester, Mass., of the title, the inspiration for underappreciated modernist painter Mardsen Hartley and the site of a 1984 murder. “The murder served a larger point about place,” says East, “rather than the place serving the story of the murder. I never set out to write a book about a crime. I wanted to write about a painter whose life had been changed by a place that is incredibly eerie, if not haunted. It just so happened that the murder illustrated this same point, only more dramatically.” Like Lloyd Parry, she struggled with the label “true crime,” though her apprehension came before publication. “I absolutely struggled with the nomenclature ‘true crime’ and worried that Dogtown would get pigeonholed as salacious,” she says, adding that she resisted learning about the murder for years because she didn’t want the stigma for her book. “The funny thing is that the point I wanted to make with Dogtown—that place affects us—is a point that is often made about crime, that it’s the product of place.”
In Robert Zorn’s Cemetery John (Overlook Press, June), the crime that’s the focal point is the so-called “Crime of the Century,” the Lindbergh kidnapping. What separates Zorn’s book from myriad others involving the kidnapping and murder of Charlie Lindbergh, the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and the trial and eventual execution of German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann is Zorn’s personal connection to the case. His father, Eugene Zorn Jr., grew up near another German immigrant, John Knoll, and witnessed a conversation between Knoll and a man he later believed to be Hauptmann discussing an event in New Jersey that turned out to be the Lindbergh kidnapping.
Over the years, other clues fell into place, and the elder Zorn believed that Knoll was the mastermind of the kidnapping and let Hauptmann take the blame. In Cemetery John, Zorn takes up his deceased father’s quest, presenting compelling evidence—handwriting samples, criminal profiling, stories from relatives—that Knoll was pulling the strings. When it came to how to tell both his father’s story and present a new theory regarding one of the country’s most famous cases, Zorn says he “intentionally wanted to avoid the sensationalistic approach taken by the authors of many true crime books. It also seemed important to emphasize the all-too-short, 618-day-long life of Charlie Lindbergh. During an interview a few years ago, Reeve Lindbergh, asked of her murdered brother, ‘Who speaks for him?’ To the best of my ability, I’ve tried to. His memory deserves no less.” In a similar fashion, Zorn, who describes writing the book as his destiny (“I did not find a subject that interested me, then simply decided to write a book about it: the subject found me”), is carrying on the work and the memory of his late father, who never stopped believing that his Bronx neighbor orchestrated one of America’s most famous crimes.
A kidnapping is also at the heart of Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutwright’s A Case for Solomon (Free Press, Aug.). First heard as a story on NPR’s This American Life in 2008, Solomon explores the 1912 disappearance of four-year-old Bobby Dunbar in Louisiana, the frantic search for him and the unexpected discovery of a small boy in the care of a tramp eight months later. Identified by Lessie Dunbar as her son, Bobby, the boy was whisked off to the Dunbar house, and the piano tuner was arrested for kidnapping. But then another woman, Julia Anderson, arrived on the scene and claimed the boy was her son, Bruce. Not unexpectedly, the Dunbars’ money and social class trumped poor, single mother Julia Anderson and the boy grew up as Bobby Dunbar. Until Cutwright, who’s Bobby’s granddaughter, started digging deeper into the story, arranged for DNA testing, and discovered that her grandfather really was Bruce Anderson. Crime is at the heart of this story—the abduction of a child, the legal kidnapping of Bruce Anderson by the Dunbars despite the positive identification by Julia Anderson—but like Robert Zorn, there’s little emphasis on violence or blood, often thought to be the stock qualities of “true crime.” Instead, McThenia and Cutwright’s book demonstrates perfectly the intersection between the nebulous category of true crime and the more recognizable heading of history, or American history to be more specific.
More recent American history collides with crime head-on in T.J. English’s The Savage City (Morrow, 2011; Morrow paperback, Apr. 2012) with a new afterword. Dirty cops and black militants in 1960s and ’70s New York City battle in a city of racial violence, and English structures his tale as a gritty police procedural, full of period details and tidbits from the gruesome “Career Girl Murders.” Of course, English is no stranger to violence on the page, having written three earlier mob-themed books (two on the Irish mob in New York and one on the Italian-American mob in Cuba). Also accustomed to particularly grisly subject matter is Harold Schechter, and his Psycho USA (Ballantine, Aug.) introduces readers to, as the subtitle promises, Famous American Killers You’ve Never Heard Of. One of the best-known names in true crime writing, Schechter has penned more than 30 books, many of them historical as well as titles like The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers and The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End.
Whether one is writing fiction or nonfiction, the goal is to tell a story. Sometimes those stories are true and sometimes they’re imagined. A crime can hook a reader, pull you along for whatever ride the writer has in store. But the crime can also hook a writer. This is all it took for Capote to take a second look at the New York Times’s headline: “Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain.” Nothing sensational, just a few paragraphs. “Murder remains the most extreme human act,” says East. “On the level of narrative, that’s hard to top. It’s all in the telling, though. You can have a riveting story, full of well-researched history, but it can still come off as utterly sensational, even if the crimes that are described are over a century old.” In the end, it’s not the crime or where a book about that crime will end up on a shelf that counts, as Richard Lloyd Parry underscores. “What interests me is the job a writer is doing, how he or she handles plot, character, pace, and above all language—not an artificial system of classification.”