Publishing true crime can be a delicate proposition: satisfy the reader’s appetite for thrills, drama, and bad guys being brought to justice, but also present the story factually and conscientiously. By way of example: The True Crime File (Workman, May) is a gift book assemblage of sensational stories, trivia, quizzes, and more. It’s also informed by Workman copy chief Kim Daly’s work as a rape counselor. Daly, who compiled the book, has headed initiatives at Workman to ensure the publisher’s house style avoids outdated or hurtful language, says senior editor John Meils.
“True crime is not always handled with a respectful hand,” Meils notes. “It plays to the gore without trying to understand how the monster came to be or to see the side of the victim. There’s been so much not-terribly-responsible use of language, especially around the victims, and an over-focus on the murderers, not the people they kill or leave behind.”
Authors can counteract these impulses by heeding the societal factors surrounding crime, victimhood, and punishment. PW spoke with editors about forthcoming books that reach for nuanced portrayals of real-life crimes.
In Trailed, a May release from Algonquin, journalist Kathryn Miles delves into the 1996 murder of 24-year-old Julie Williams and her partner, 26-year-old Lollie Winans, who were killed while backpacking in Shenandoah National Park. An avid hiker and a survivor of sexual assault, Miles “wanted to talk about women hikers in the back country, the crimes that are committed, the way they’re investigated,” says Betsy Gleick, publisher and editorial director at Algonquin. “Hiking developed as a white male activity, and there’s a lot of discussion about safety for underrepresented people in the wilderness.”
Despite the efforts of local and federal authorities, as well as National Park Service experts, the case remained unsolved for years. In 2002, then–attorney general John Ashcroft, under pressure to crack down on hate crimes, pushed for the death penalty for Darrell David Rice, a man already in prison for another Shenandoah assault, despite a dearth of direct evidence linking him to the crime. Two years later, federal prosecutors dropped the case because the DNA evidence didn’t match. The murders remained unsolved, and Miles, who began looking into the case in 2016, names a different killer in the book.
We Carry Their Bones, a June release from Morrow, likewise unearths a crime that took far too long to come to light. Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle’s work on the grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., is now well-known for having informed Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. The school was established in 1900 and not shut down until 2011, despite numerous stories of abuse and the disappearance and death of many of its “students,” Black boys who were hired out as labor to local farmers and tortured.
“The ongoing metaphor is excavation,” says Mauro DiPreta, senior v-p and executive editor at William Morrow. “As you exhume the graves you’re exhuming the truth.” DiPreta says Kimmerle had to get permission to excavate in the area, and was met with some resistance from locals who “just wanted to let sleeping dogs lie.” DiPreta adds: “We all have an abstract sense of the shame of American history when it comes to race, but this is a concrete example of the legacy of racism. She’s correcting the historical record. School management reported thirty graves; with her sonar, she saw at least twice that number. She’s still not sure she knows the extent of it.”
Guilty until proven innocent
Some authors are taking to task a legal system whose workings they’ve seen from the inside. M. Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation for the Innocence Project in New York, wants to hold judges and juries accountable for confirming that the scientific testimony and evidence offered at trial is actually sound. In Junk Science and the Criminal Justice System, an April release from Akashic, he breaks down the “pseudoscience, the fake science, that’s used by so-called forensic experts in courtrooms,” says Akashic publisher Johnny Temple. People serve decades in prison based on testimony about bite marks, hair microscopy, and burn evidence, he says, and “shows like CSI have unwittingly propagated the notion that this is real science, but it’s not.”
PW’s starred review called the book “an impressive debut” in which “chilling sections expose the lack of any reliable scientific basis for bite-mark identifications, as well as relied-upon arson investigative methods, and detail how the cases Fabricant and his colleagues labored to resolve justly represent but the tip of the iceberg.”
Valena Beety, a former federal prosecutor, West Virginia Innocence Project founding director, and law professor, has seen many such instances in her legal career, one of which she details in Manifesting Justice, which Citadel is releasing in June. When Beety was with the Mississippi Innocence Project, she took on the case of Leigh Stubbs, whose assault conviction was based in part on since-discredited bite-mark evidence and discussions of her sexuality.
Through Stubbs’s case, Beety “pinpoints the problems that arise when prosecutors rely on false information and forensic fraud, cases of police and prosecutor misconduct,” says Citadel editor-in-chief Michaela Hamilton. “We need to encourage legislatures to allow defendants to challenge charges, recognize ableism as a cause of wrongful convictions, and draft and pass junk science guidelines.”
The heart of the matter
Ben Westhoff’s Little Brother, which PW’s review called “a thought-provoking look at the ‘ever-turning wheel of violence,’ ” investigates the entrenched systems that led a teenager to crime. In the mid-aughts, journalist Westoff signed up as a mentor in St. Louis’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program and was paired with eight-year-old Jorrell Cleveland, one of nine children from an impoverished family in a violence-stricken neighborhood. They had a strong relationship for years, until, in 2016, Jorrell was shot and killed. Devastated, Westoff decided to investigate his death, and learned that Jorrell had a whole life he didn’t know about, involving drug dealing and guns.
“There’s a fascination with traditional true crime—how did this terrible thing happen? Could it happen to me?” says Brant Rumble, executive editor at Hachette Books, which is releasing the title in May. “That’s where the genre emerged from, and now it’s going much broader.” Even so, he says, Westhoff is “not suggesting a solution; he’s shining a light on the problem.”
Another look at what brings people to the breaking point comes from Alia Trabucco Zerán in When Women Kill, translated by Sophie Hughes and due out from Coffee House Press in April (the author-translator team’s 2019 novel, The Remainder, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize). Upon its 2020 release in Zéran’s native Chile as Las Homicidas, many people misread the title as “women who are killed” rather than “women killers,” according to Lizzie Davis, Zéran’s editor; the author, she says, realized that it’s easier for people to imagine a dead woman than a woman who’s prepared to kill. The book examines four homicides by Chilean women in the 20th century, and “the ways that women’s anger can be taken seriously, not dismissed as hysterical,” Davis says. “She highlights this parallel narrative of society and the media’s portrayal of women, plus the reaction of the political establishment and how they were prosecuted. She engages seriously with sociopolitical structures.”
Davis positions the book with other forthcoming titles that emphasize cause and effect over shock value: “This is for true crime fans who want to get deeply into the crimes and the ramifications,” she says, “who want more than only guilty pleasure.”
Liz Scheier’s debut, the memoir Never Simple (Holt), was released March 1.
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