Crime stories are far more complex than a single news segment or newspaper article can capture. As podcasts, docuseries, and other broadcast formats are delving into the wider implications of criminal activity, so too are true crime authors. Some are shifting attention away from murderers and onto those who pursue them, while others are focusing on the victims and their struggles to find resolution in the face of violence.
“In stories about murder, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end,” says Kate Winkler Dawson, a longtime TV news producer and true crime author. “There’s drama, and there are characters, and people are changed. It’s important for us as a genre to go deeper.”
Here, we look at forthcoming books that examine the ways in which crimes are, and are not, investigated and prosecuted, and the impact a crime and the pursuit of justice can have on a larger community.
Many of the tools used by investigators today were developed decades ago, and the reliability of some methods, such as bloodstain pattern analysis, has been called into question in recent years.
One major force in the development of forensic science was Edward Oscar Heinrich, the subject of Dawson’s American Sherlock (Putnam, Feb. 2020). Heinrich worked as a criminologist from the early 1920s until his death in 1953. The book focuses on the early decades of his career, and the complicated legacy he left.
During Heinrich’s time, forensic science was still largely unregulated and lacking in standards for those entering the field. “They read some books or they took a class that didn’t really teach them about the science behind it, and they called themselves experts,” Dawson says. “There was no categorical way of organizing the evidence and looking at a crime scene.” One of the primary sources of evidence was interrogations, often conducted with coercion and violence.
Heinrich set out to change that. “He could walk into a crime scene and figure out an exact way to gather the evidence, how to store it, and then a methodological way of sifting through the evidence and cataloguing it,” Dawson says. The techniques he championed—fingerprinting, handwriting analysis, examining bullet striation—turned him into something of a forensic celebrity, and he was consulted on cases around the world. His credibility alone could sway a jury.
Today, evidence gathered by many of the procedures for which Heinrich was celebrated, such as handwriting analysis, is no longer admissible. “It’s a cautionary tale,” Winkler says of the power of Heinrich’s testimony as his celebrity grew, and of the methods he pioneered that have since fallen out of favor. “Don’t put somebody on the stand and believe everything they say.”
Frances Glessner Lee, the subject of Bruce Goldfarb’s 18 Tiny Deaths (Sourcebooks, Feb. 2020), was another of the field’s most influential early innovators. “She really is the mother of forensic science,” Goldfarb says. “Her impact is so profound and wide-reaching.”
In the 1930s, Lee began making dioramas of crime scenes, which she called “nutshell studies of unexplained deaths”; many are still used in teaching crime scene investigation. Her influence went beyond recreating murders: she established the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, where despite not having academic credentials she became one of the foremost teachers of crime scene investigation in the country.
Lee also was named a captain in the New Hampshire State Police, but she wasn’t out working in the field. “She did not solve murders,” Goldfarb says. “She was an educator, a reformer, and an advocate.”
Even as forensic science has advanced, the fate of an investigation still rests on the shoulders of people and is shaped by their competencies and shortcomings.
In How to Catch a Killer (Sterling, Mar. 2020), which launches the Profiles in Crime series, Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, draws on 300 cases of serial murder dating back a century. Advances in forensics have been key to solving crime, but so too, she writes, is the human factor.
Some criminals are betrayed by an accomplice; others make a damning mistake. An investigator may harbor biases that result in a criminal eluding capture, but another may work tirelessly to bring a perpetrator to justice. Ramsland cites cases including that of the BTK strangler, who was caught in large part due to the efforts of Wichita, Kans., homicide detective Kenneth Landwehr, who continued to pursue the serial killer long after the trail had gone cold. “The human element can have a negative impact,” she says, “but it certainly has had a highly positive influence on quite a few of these investigations.”
Attorney Laura James, in The Beauty Defense (Kent State Univ., Feb. 2020), explores how the human element plays out in the courtroom, specifically with women accused of murder. “Pretty faces have the power to tilt the scales of justice,” she says.
James looks at more than 30 cases from around the globe, spanning the mid-19th to late 20th centuries, and shows how gender bias has positively affected the outcome for defendants who, to name a few factors, are conventionally attractive, have no record, and appear not to have planned the crime. Literally, she writes, they get away with murder.
The book opens with the story of Beulah May Annan, the inspiration for the Roxie Hart character in Chicago, who in 1924 was acquitted on charges of murdering her lover. James says that when a trial involves a defendant, or even a victim, who fits a particular definition of beauty, the resulting media spectacle has a negative effect on the justice system. And when a crime goes unpunished, or is improperly punished, the resulting lack of closure can have long-term repercussions.
“There’s this idea that if you solve the case and create a satisfying ending—getting the guy and putting him in prison forever—then that is justice,” says reporter Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of The Third Rainbow Girl (Hachette, Jan. 2020), which follows the 1980 killing of Vicky Durian and Nancy Santomero in Pocahontas County, W.Va., in 1980.
After a 13-year investigation, Jacob Beard, a local farmer, was convicted of killing the young women. But numerous factors led to a retrial in 2000, including the insistence of convicted serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin that he, not Beard, had committed the murders. Franklin had a history of confessing to crimes he hadn’t committed and was deemed unable to stand trial due to schizophrenia. Beard was found not guilty and the murder remains officially unsolved.
In addition to noting the problems with the investigation, Eisenberg says that the narrative of the crime was shaded by the way the rest of the country sees Appalachia and the people who live there. “People in Appalachia are used to having the media portray them negatively, with no respect or dignity,” she says. Reporting on the case, she adds, leaned on tropes about hicks rather than nuanced depictions of the community impacted by the murders. “The articles that covered this crime did so from a very outsider perspective, and made the people in the community extremely othered.”
When an outsider reports on a marginalized or insular community, collaboration with those who know it intimately can be invaluable. Broken Faith by AP journalists Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr (Hanover Square, Feb. 2020) grew out of the pair’s investigations of the Word of Faith Fellowship, which preacher Jane Whaley founded in North Carolina in 1979. In the decades since, she’s amassed thousands of followers and also has faced numerous allegations of abuse by former congregants who call the church a cult. Investigating the case, the authors say, has presented particular challenges.
“Most of the books that have been written about cults were written after the fact,” Weiss says. “This cult is still around. They’re still active and thriving.”
Weiss and Mohr knew that Whaley and her followers would denounce their reporting, which the group had done in the past when confronted with accusations of wrongdoing. Still, the reporters were able to speak with some 100 former followers, many of whom left behind family members when they fled. Some interviewees had been born into Word of Faith and had known no other life until they left; their determination to have their stories heard, Weiss and Mohr say, was crucial to their completing the book. “A lot of these folks are alone in the world and saw what they believe to be ongoing abuses,” Mohr notes. “They want to put an end to it.”
David Parrish straddles the line between reporter and community member with Losing Jon (Citadel, Apr. 2020). The book recounts the 1990 death of 19-year-old Jon Bowie, which was ruled a suicide by local police in Columbia, Md. Parrish, who’d coached Bowie and his twin brother on a local baseball team, writes that in January 1990, Bowie had been in an altercation with police, who were responding to a complaint about a motel party. He ended up in the hospital as a result, and after he and his brother filed charges against the police, Bowie told friends and family he believed he was being followed. Within five months of the motel party he was found dead.
Howard County officials quickly ruled the case a suicide, but many in the community, including Parrish, found the idea of Bowie dying by suicide difficult to believe. The family called for an independent investigation, and the case was reclassified as an “unattended death.” During the investigation, those who knew the family rallied together in the hope of finding answers. But the more people looked to authorities, Parrish says, the less likely it seemed that the case would be resolved. The independent investigation concluded in August 1990, finding no foul play.
“Things just did not add up,” Parrish says. “To my way of thinking, the investigations just were not adequate.” The investigation moved quickly, he explains, and discounted out of hand evidence of potential foul play. Seeing the process play out in this way was eye-opening. “I thought, you go to the justice system and you explain what’s going on and they look into it and they come back and give you honest answers,” he notes. “That was not my experience.”
Nearly two decades after Bowie’s death, the community struggles with a lack of closure; discussions of the case continue on social media. That ongoing disquiet, Parrish says, is what prompted him to write the book, in an effort to capture not just the facts about the case but also the feelings around how the investigation had played out.
While researching The Third Rainbow Girl, Eisenberg found a similar emotional benefit to offering community members the chance to discuss the crime. “As people talked about it to me and to each other, there was some healing that came from their speaking honestly,” she says. “My hope is that the more these truths are spoken, even if they’re complicated and maybe not a satisfying story, the more healing can happen.”
Journalist Sierra Crane Murdoch, in Yellow Bird (Random House, Feb. 2020), also explores links between investigation and healing. Lissa Yellowbird-Chase began investigating a missing persons case on her reservation in 2012. She had been released from prison three years earlier, and her interest in the case, which involved a white oil worker named Kristopher Clarke who had been part of a recent oil boom in North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation area, surprised her friends and family, as well as Murdoch. “She was so obsessed with finding this person,” Murdoch explains. “She didn’t know him, he was white, he was not from the reservation she was from.”
After serving time on drug charges, Yellowbird-Chase had become isolated from her own community. Her interest in the case, and subsequent drive to solve it, was less about one missing person and more about the way people, herself included, can be marginalized by the larger community. “She was very much driven by this sense that some people in society are forgotten,” Murdoch says. “She found that unacceptable, realizing that she was someone who at one point in her life might not have been looked for.”
Yellowbird-Chase has become a dogged advocate for missing indigenous persons, conducting investigations through her organization Sahnish Scouts. “This seemingly random obsession,” Murdoch says, “has become her cause and her calling.”
The disappearances that Yellowbird-Chase looks into offer limited opportunity for closure. “So many true crime stories are about solving something,” Murdoch says. “What’s different about missing persons cases, and particularly about many missing persons cases that involve indigenous victims, is that so often there isn’t a resolution.”
The desire for a narrative that provides closure is a strong one. It can both drive the pursuit of justice and, as these books show, pervert it. Finding ways to heal in the absence of answers is a tall order, but one that might open up opportunities to understand justice differently. “The more we can deal with the unknown and competing stories, the more we can learn about the mechanisms that make these tragedies happen,” Eisenberg says. “Not knowing, or the unknown, or a confusing, messy story to which we will never know the answer, is fine.”
Below, more on the subject of True Crime books.
Bridey Heing is a writer in Washington, D.C.