A true crime story is never just about the crime. It’s about the context, the aftermath, and what the crime says about society at large.
Michelle Howry, executive editor at Putnam, is among those who see true crime as “a vehicle to talk about some of the big important issues in the world,” she says. “I like the idea that it can bring our attention to other topics.”
Here, we look at forthcoming books in which crime offers a window onto societal ills, family dynamics, and the ways law enforcement responds to criminal activity.
A Complex Conversation
While awaiting the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee worked as a research assistant for her childhood friend Truman Capote on In Cold Blood, a pioneering work in the true crime genre. Almost two decades later, she began researching what she hoped would become a true crime book of her own. Casey Cep, whose writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and elsewhere, documents this period of Lee’s life in Furious Hours (Knopf, May).
The case concerned Rev. Willie Maxwell, who was accused of killing five family members between 1970 and 1977. He was found not guilty four times and was shot to death at the funeral of his 16-year-old stepdaughter, and alleged fifth victim, by the girl’s uncle. The same lawyer who’d represented Maxwell represented the man who killed him, who was also found not guilty.
Cep points out that the Maxwell victims were marginalized, low-income black women. “Lee was interested in the complexities of this crime,” Cep says. “There were resonances between what she did in her fiction and what she tried to do with the Maxwell case. She was living through one of the most pivotal periods of Southern history, and true crime was one of the lenses for that.”
Race also figures into Highway of Tears (Atria, Nov.), Canadian journalist Jessica McDiarmid’s examination of a series of unsolved murders and disappearances along a stretch of highway in British Columbia, spanning 1989 to 2013. The majority of the cases involve indigenous girls and women, and, McDiarmid says, “nearly every family felt like the police didn’t take them seriously, didn’t respond quickly, didn’t really do anything.”
In 2015, after ongoing calls for a national investigation into the disappearances and murders, the Canadian government announced the launch of a public inquiry into the cases. The next day, RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson spoke to a group of First Nations leaders about racism in the ranks. “I understand that there are racists in my police force,” he said. “I don’t want them to be in my police force.”
Efforts have been made to address this issue, but, McDiarmid says, it’s a legacy that’s difficult to overcome. “There’s a larger society, and factors in that society,” she notes, “that are making particular people far more vulnerable than anyone else.”
Vanessa Brown, author of The Forest City Killer (ECW, Oct.), has a connection to her subject: a serial killer in London, Ontario, where she lives and works. After reading Michael Arntfield’s Murder City, in which the criminologist and former police officer calls London the murder capital of Canada, Brown’s interest was piqued. “This really terrifying set of crimes had happened in my city, and I had never heard of it,” she says.
Brown says she was surprised to learn that a serial killer, who appears to have become active in the 1960s and may have remained so into the 1980s, had never been caught. As a historian, she notes, she could see in hindsight the impact these crimes had on London. “These are stories about our communities as much as they are about crime, and how our communities deal with crime outside of law enforcement.”
Thriller writer Gregg Olsen’s nonfiction titles include, most recently, A Killing in Amish Country, in which he and coauthor Rebecca Morris looked at the effect of a crime on a community. In his next book, If You Tell (Thomas & Mercer, Nov.), he zeroes in on the Knotek sisters, whose abusive mother, Michelle, was sentenced in 2004 to 22 years in prison for her role in the deaths of two people who boarded with the family at their home in the Pacific Northwest.
Olsen spoke with the Knotek sisters and to their father, who was found guilty of one murder carried out at Michelle’s request, about the emotional and physical abuse they suffered at their mother’s hands. After years of silence, Knotek’s youngest daughter, who was 14 at the time of the murders, made the call to police that eventually resulted in her parents’ convictions.
“The best true crime books are those that are about something else beyond a murder,” Olsen says. If You Tell, he adds, “is about these terrible murders, but it’s really about these three sisters and how they coped with their mother.”
Interrogating the Investigation
Authors who conduct original research often work closely with law enforcement, and the relationship can be complicated. Sometimes, detectives and agents are forthcoming with information, but many writers’ investigations raise as many questions as they answer.
“We’re learning a lot about the way law enforcement works in this country, and the ways in which it falls short,” says investigative journalist Maureen Callahan, currently a critic-at-large at the New York Post. In American Predator (Viking, July), she looks at the little-known serial killer Israel Keyes. Soon after his 2012 arrest, Callahan says, it became clear to investigators that Keyes, whom they initially believed had committed one murder, was responsible for at least 11 over the course of 14 years.
Keyes killed himself while awaiting trial and confirming his involvement in the murders has not been easy. He was “an analog killer,” Callahan says, who struck around the country, using cash and going dark while looking for victims. But, she adds, there were moments when Keyes could have raised a red flag for authorities, particularly in the increased scrutiny after 9/11. Plus, he buried kill kits around the country and abducted his victims in broad daylight. The investigation itself was troubled: the lead prosecutor, for instance, conducted interrogations of Keyes without proper training, which could have jeopardized the case had it gone to trial, and certain interviews with Keyes had been omitted from the record.
While the Keyes example illuminates blind spots that can plague law enforcement, Peter Houlahan’s new book, Norco ’80 (Counterpoint, June), looks at lessons learned. In 1980, an attempted bank robbery in Norco, Calif., turned into a shoot-out and car chase that killed three people and left several others wounded. Led by two men who, for differing reasons, believed that the end of civilization was approaching, the bank robbers had amassed a huge weapons cache that left the San Bernardino County and Riverside County police forces outgunned.
Houlahan, an EMT who has written about the impact of PTSD on first responders, explains that the incident set off a rapid militarization of police forces in California. At the time of the robbery, San Bernardino and Riverside had two semiautomatic high-power rifles between them; within one year, they had 120 military-grade weapons in their possession or on order.
The impact of the 1980 incident continues to be felt. Houlahan says that while he was researching his book, a representative for the sheriff of San Bernardino referred to the show of force brought to bear during the 2015 mass shooting at the city’s Inland Regional Center as a prime example of the lessons of Norco. “It was mentioned that they weren’t going to get caught out like that again,” he says.
Billy Jensen, author of Chase Darkness with Me (Sourcebooks, Aug.), says that one strength of modern true crime is that many books highlight those who fight and solve crimes in addition to those who commit them. Jensen, a crime reporter who developed a system of using targeted social media to identify unknown suspects, helped complete the bestseller I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, about the Golden State Killer, following the death of the book’s author, Michelle McNamara, before it was published. His memoir tracks his work with McNamara and his career transition from journalist to police consultant, and it explores the world of citizen detectives.
“The true crime genre in the past had a ton of supervillains but very few superheroes, because you don’t know their names,” Jensen says. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, by contrast, centered on the work of now-retired cold case investigator Paul Holes, with whom Jensen is launching a podcast, The Murder Squad, on April 1. The pair will highlight an unsolved murder each week and invite listeners to help them solve it.
Howry at Putnam says the recent true crime boom—and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, in particular—has opened her mind to ways in which these narratives can be told and has made her reconsider the place of the writer in the story. “She was able to put herself on the page a little bit,” Howry says of McNamara. “I loved that. A more personal lens into these horrific stories can bring more of that humanity into a narrative.”
Howry edited the U.S. edition of The Nature of Life and Death (Putnam, Sept.), Patricia Wiltshire’s memoir about her work in forensic ecology, or the use of organic matter in criminal investigations. A forensic ecologist, for instance, can use pollen residue on a shoe to link a suspect or victim to a particular location. Wiltshire has worked on a number of high-profile murder cases in the U.K., and her book, Howry says, highlights her personal perspective alongside an exploration of how forensic ecology is deployed in criminal investigations.
The Forest City Killer author Brown sees true crime shifting from “a sensationalist tabloid culture to a literary nonfiction culture”—one that favors analysis and investigation over dramatic retellings. She and others interviewed for this piece are aware of the responsibility they have to those who were impacted by the crimes they cover.
“There are families of victims who are ingrained in the community and you have to be very conscious of that,” Houlahan says of those affected by the events detailed in Norco ’80. There can be a perception gap, he explains, between how distant some true crime stories feel and how current they seem to those involved, heightening the need for empathy and sensitivity. “I’m writing about something that happened 40 years ago, so one could have a tendency to think it’s long history,” he says. “But the officers involved and their families are still alive, and they are still suffering.”
Olsen says that the Knotek sisters, now in their 30s and 40s, were eager to tell their story for the first time but nervous about it as well, and he kept that in mind while writing. “It’s a commitment to people who have gone through the worst possible thing anyone can go through,” he says. “I want this to be something good for them.”
Editors and authors whom PW spoke with agree that the true crime genre is evolving into a force not just for entertainment but for change. Relating these stories, journalist Callahan notes, can have a real-world impact: the miniseries The Jinx, the podcast Serial, and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark have all affected the outcomes of the cases they highlighted. “The genre is becoming richer,” she says. “The stories that are being told are very sophisticated, and very nuanced, and very smart.”
Bridey Heing is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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