Book review by Patrick H. Moore
True crime is a broad and immensely popular genre. Literally millions of Americans raptly follow the hot crime stories of the day, week and month. It is also a literary genre, often focusing on real life serial killers and mass murderers. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song are prime examples of non-fiction, true crime narratives that have etched their way into the national psyche.
Now comes a new true crime narrative, True Crime: Real-Life Stories of Abduction, Addiction, Obsession, Murder, Grave-Robbing and More, edited by Lee Gutkind. The book consists of 13 separate true crime narratives on 13 different topics book-ended by an introduction by Mr. Gutkind, “Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream?” in which he tackles the thorny question of why we — as a nation of readers – are so fascinated with true crime, and an interview with noted non-fiction writer Erik Larson, “I Didn’t Want to Write Crime Porn,” in which he describes the circuitous route which ultimately led him to take up the often harrowing task of writing about true crime.
In this review, I want to focus briefly on four of the narratives that make up this work, with an eye to connecting them to what I perceive as the central theme of the book — the uncanny and unsettling manner in which true crime singles out more or less innocent, everyday people, enters into their lives, and leave them ravaged and hopeless. I note that my choice of four narratives is somewhat arbitrary. It could be 8 or 12 or all 13.
“Origami & the Art of Identity Folding,” by AC Fraser
This is a vivid first-hand account of a day in the life of a Downeast Vancouver female jailbird meth head and how the correctional community, as embodied by a guard the narrator nicknames Officer Porridge, is watching you no matter how hard you try to escape into either “Freedom” with its endless pitfalls, or the comfortable yet numbing security of Institutionalization which, although as familiar as an old pair of shoes to a jailbird, nevertheless never stops reminding you that you are not free.
AC Fraser’s prose combines a cool chick’s ironic stance with a kind of tragic knowingness:
“True, on the outside you got to hang out with Freedom. Freedom was a cool chick — totally outside the box. She had a penchant for all-night dancing, ice cream for breakfast and black platform boots. The problem with freedom was the questionable company she kept.
Freedom rolled with her junkie friend, Chaos. Chaos had no idea who you were, nor did she care. She was an instigator par excellence. Just when you started having fun, Chaos broke a window, smoked the rent money, and got into a fistfight with your boyfriend. Midnight moves were her trademark, and she always waved to you as the hauled your ass off to jail.”
Yup, like they say, very little good occurs after midnight, not on the mean streets of rabid meth addiction.
So how did true crime come to Fraser, who is both narrator and the subject of the narrative? Very simple – it came in the form of crystal meth and once it had burrowed its razor’s edge into Fraser’s soul and psyche, there was no turning back. Identity is lost until Freedom becomes Chaos and Institutionalization one’s sole and only comfort.
“Leviathan” by David McGlynn
“Leviathan” is the deceptively simple tale of how when true crime arrives in a community it affects not only the lives of its immediate victims, but like the spokes of a wheel, radiates outward until it infects the entire community in which the victims once existed.
The narrator has a close friend named Jeremy. Unlike the narrator, who lives in a typically dysfunctional household, Jeremy lives a life of privilege “in a red brick house , as impenetrable as an army fort, on a quiet cul-de-sac tucked deep within a labyrinth of cud-de-sacs filled with red brick homes.”
Or should I say, Jeremy lives a life or privilege until true crime comes calling:
“When the violence came, however, it came not to my house but to Jeremy’s. One night at the end of September, the beginning of our sophomore year, two men arrived at his house. They tied Jeremy to his brother, Greg, with a nylon cord and forced them to kneel on the living room carpet, side by side, near the entryway. Jeremy’s father sat on the fireplace with a gun to his head.”
“Jeremy watched his brother’s murder before his own, with four bullets instead of three. His father was beaten with the handle of the gun, made to kneel beside his sons and shot six times.”
Once the community has been corrupted by true crime, there is no going back. A kind of anarchy, a thoroughgoing meaninglessness, infiltrates what had formerly been conventionally-ordered lives. The narrator begins to cut school and the swim team falls apart. One member, Curt Wood, locks himself in his car and won’t come out. Another member wrecks his Hondo twice and ultimately sends “his girlfriend through the windshield.” Trey Smith, the swim captain, becomes a skinhead. The mosh pit of an inner-city Houston punk club becomes the boys new home now that “mere anarchy has been loosed” upon their world.
In desperation, the narrator, whose parents are divorced, visits his father in a distant city and discovers his father has been born-again and now follows Rush Limbaugh. Lost, the narrator vows to do the same. Anything to escape from the world of true crime:
“I felt safer than I had in months. I didn’t hesitate to promise God my entire life. I’d take up his cross and deny my every want and desire to follow him. I’d remain celibate until my wedding night. I’d vote Republican in every election. It seemed to me a fair trade.”
Such is the cost of the desperate desire to escape from the world of true crime.
“Regret” by Vance Voyles
This is the frightening and skillfully told tale of how true crime can enter and permanently destroy the lives of more or less innocent “perpetrators/victims” even when no actual crime has been committed. It is told by a basically good-hearted Sex Crimes detective who is called upon to investigate a rape accusation. The detective quickly realizes that the alleged victim is lying and that there was no rape, merely a drunken coupling followed by “buyer’s remorse” on the part of the “victim.”
The irony in this narrative is so thick that it obliterates all reason and logic. Because the detective quickly realizes the victim is lying, he could and wants to save the alleged perpetrator from what will undoubtedly be a long state prison sentence. All it would take would be for the alleged perp to talk to the detective, tell his side of the story before the detective follows protocol and writes up the police report. But no, the perp refuses to make a statement. Instead, he wants a lawyer and demands to be Mirandized and the detective has no choice other than to write up his report. The wheels of (in)justice are set in motion and the perp ultimately receives a five-year state prison sentence for a crime he did not commit.
True crime is so powerful that it destroys lives even when no crime has been committed. In short, “the dog will have its day.”
“Parrish, Rawlings, Hollis, and Flythe, 2008” by David McConnell
This oddly-titled narrative is the story of how the children of earnest, middle-class black families, who have worked hard to escape inner-city Baltimore and live successful suburban lives, cannot escape the shadow of true crime, which invades their lives through the simple desire of their adolescent children to “be cool”, an age-old desire which opens the door to true crime and leaves destruction in its wake.
The teenage boys, who are perfectly decent kids, fall prey to the aberrant desire to form a gang, not a real gang, but a pretend gang. It’s all for the sake of appearance; these kids are not gangsters; they simply want to pretend to be. At the same time, they make the fatal mistake of trying to “make it real.” This contradiction is subtle and defies logic; that’s how true crime works. The boys, several of whom are high school football players, make the mistake of choosing Timothy Rawlings Jr, moniker “Hood”, the former starting quarterback of their high school, to lead them:
“He was four years older… He was much smaller as well, only five-nine and 157 pounds. He looked like a kid, an extremely grave kid. His hair was cropped short, no fancy dreads or cornrows of the gumball-sized twists Loco wore. His humorless charisma was just the kind to win young men over. Small as he was, he’d been the quarterback of the Parkville High football team. He had a still, wild form of leadership, self-conscious of his power, forever poised, permanently insecure.”
Once the boys chose Hood to lead them, their desire to impersonate gangsters slowly morphs into the desire and willingness to become the real thing.
True crime always invades where the victims are weakest; in this case it plays on the adolescent boys’ somewhat tenuous sense of sexual identity. One of the boys, Steven “Scooby” Parrish, perhaps the most psychologically solid of the whole group, has a birthday party at his very middle-class/upper middle-class residence. “Soon enough Scooby disappeared upstairs with his girlfriend. It was his birthday after all.”
Tragically, Scooby leaves his cell phone downstairs. The other boys pick it up and click their way through his photos. To their surprise, they come across a photo of his penis, presumably erect. Keep in mind that while this is transpiring, Scooby’s penis is undoubtedly erect upstairs where he is having sex with his girlfriend.
None of this would have been a problem, merely a good excuse to razz Scooby in the jocular fashion of young men, was it not for the text messages between Scooby “and Jimmie, the older gay guy who worked at the Liberty Road pharmacy. The exchange was humorous, if anything. …it went something along the lines of:
Jimmie, u see wat I got here? U wishin huh?
I don see nuthin much. Dat all u got for me f our bday?
U see it good enuf.
The code has been broken, at least in the other boy’ collective mind. Whether Scooby was actually engaged in a sexual relationship with Jimmie is inconsequential. They report this transgression to Hood who lays gives the order to whack Scooby. Thus, Scooby Parrish is murdered and the perpetrators are inevitably apprehended when one of the boys turns state’s evidence.
Thus, once again true crime invades otherwise decent, ordinary lives when – at least initially – no real crime has been committed.
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I believe that True Crime is probably quite unique thematically in the subtle yet irrevocable way it reveals how true crime invades the minds and lives of human beings. This underlying theme combined with the diverse yet constant excellence of the writing make this compendium of true crime stories far more than simply another “true crime” book. This is a work of literature that will make you think even as it simultaneously entertains and horrifies. We here at All things Crime Blog heartily recommend it; it is a must read for every true crime fan.
* * * * *
True Crime: Real-Life Stories of Abduction, Addiction, Obsession, Murder, Grave-Robbing and More is published by In Fact Books. In Fact Book titles help create an understanding of our world through thoughtful, engaging narratives on a wide variety of topics and real-life experiences. All titles are distributed by Publishers Group West. For more information, please visit www.infactbooks.com.
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