Mini Reviews: Two New True Crime Anthologies

The Case of the Vanishing Blonde, by Mark Bowden (Amazon)
Unspeakable Acts, edited by Sarah Weinman (Amazon)

Two new books of long-form true crime nonfiction are out this month, and they’re both pretty good. Let’s get into it.

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First up is gifted narrative nonfiction author Mark Bowden’s The Case of the Vanishing Blonde. My introduction to Bowden was through his true crime stories, and I kind of prefer him there to his full-length books. He just has such a way with storytelling in this form.

None of the six pieces anthologized here from throughout his career are new, but they’re interesting to read together because they’re all so different. They’re also intriguing in that way that Bowden has in his writing: It’s clear that he takes on stories that genuinely interest him thanks to strange twists or unusual elements in how they were solved.

I loved the two of these I’d read previously: “The Body in Room 348,” a perplexing mystery of a sudden death in a locked hotel room that was solved by PI Ken Brennan, the central figure in three of these pieces, and “A Case So Cold It Was Blue,” about the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen and the arrest more than 20 years later of Stephanie Lazarus, an LAPD officer and Rasmussen’s husband’s ex-girlfriend. It’s a cold case that’s been covered endlessly across true crime programming since Lazarus’s arrest, but Bowden’s was my introduction to it and remains the best piece of journalism telling this story, in my opinion.

All the bad things said about [crime stories] are true–they exploit tragedy, they are voyeuristic, they generally lack any broader social import–but they are unfailingly fascinating.

In a brief introduction, Bowden lays out his feelings around crime stories clearly — that his editors, beginning when he worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, loved these stories for the age-old “if it bleeds, it leads” reasoning. And that’s certainly true for many lurid headline-grabbers, but I disagree on its applicability to plenty of stories too, especially nowadays and for the most part for the ones told here.

Not every piece has a wider-reaching social impact, but several do. “The Incident at Alpha Tau Omega,” which tells the story of the frat house gang rape of a Penn student in 1983, is haunting and has unfortunate echoes (the men were given laughably light sentences) in the present handling of campus sexual assault, like in the treatment of Chanel Miller and her rapist.

One surprising piece, “A Crime of Shadows,” describes an online undercover police detective’s sting operation to ensnare a child predator. Except Bowden shows that the trap and its results weren’t as black-and-white as the official narrative would have them seem, and neither is the accepted narrative around “the fear of online child predation,” which he says “has grown far out of proportion to the actual problem.” This was a fascinating and alarming story.

Unfortunately, Bowden doesn’t go deeper into why he’s so invested in telling true crime stories, which seems like a missed opportunity since he’s really so good at it. These are undeniably fascinating and hard to put down, but I would’ve loved to hear more about his work and choices. Nevertheless, this is an excellent collection and shows why he’s a master in the genre. The Case of the Vanishing Blonde: And Other True Crime Stories, published July 7, 2020 by Atlantic Monthly

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The Real Lolita author Sarah Weinman edits this collection of recent narrative true crime. Despite the hideous cover (It really rubs me the wrong way, I’m not even sure why) these are mostly quite good. Weinman divides the pieces into sections: narrative features, “Where Crime Meets Culture,” and justice and society. And it ends up feeling like a well curated selection, with no repetitive themes and always deeper, more thoughtful implications, which I really believe is why true crime has captivated, not just as a recent trend as some think, but since always.

Although all previously published, most of these were new to me, but one of the most affecting pieces here I wrote a bit about before. That’s “The Reckoning,” journalist Pamela Colloff’s 2016 story about Claire Wilson, who survived the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas. I’d also read the BuzzFeed story about Gypsy Rose Blanchard, which is interesting enough.

Several of the pieces here were exceptionally strong. Jason Fagone’s “What Bullets Do to Bodies,” which follows Dr. Amy Goldberg, a trauma surgeon and department chair at Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia, is haunting. Goldberg sees the absolute worst, and says “people have to confront the physical reality of gun violence without the polite filters.” It’s a story that stays with you, uncomfortably so.

Others look at dubious forensic science like blood spatter evidence, the lack of impetus in searching for missing trans people, a romance con artist, the story of missing children spotlighted in Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” music video, the bizarre story of two young girls who thought Slenderman, an internet character, had commanded them to kill, and an examination of Ted Bundy and the culture around him that manages to say something different and relevant despite how much has already been written to the point of exhaustion on him.

There are a few pieces that didn’t have quite the same impact as others, but overall it’s a solid collection that examines a range of moral, ethical, and social issues. Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession, published July 28, 2020 by Harper Collins

I received advance copies of both titles courtesy of their respective publishers for unbiased review.

18 thoughts on “Mini Reviews: Two New True Crime Anthologies

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  1. I’ve read so much crime fiction, but never any true crime. Both these books sound interesting, though, and it always gives a story an extra dimension, when you know it’s something which really happened.

    Btw. I read Dark Towers on your recommendation – amazing stuff! In a way it was super depressing, but at the same time so fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you haven’t read true crime I think essays like this are a good place to start and see if you like the genre. A couple of the authors in the multi-author anthology as well as Mark Bowden have written full-length books so you can get an idea of whether the genre is for you 🙂

      That makes me so happy to hear, that you read and liked it!!! I really felt I had to try and show what the value was in reading that one, it seemed like it could be a bit of a hard sell. But I thought it was completely fascinating, if yes, very depressing. But I’d rather know this stuff – it makes me feel more informed and aware of what’s going on behind the scenes. Amazing that so much of the story of his connection and unusual relationship to Deutsche Bank isn’t widely known.

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      1. Absolutely, true crime essays might actually be a very good place to start.

        I may not like to admit it, but I work in the financial sector and am familiar with many of the names, which were mentioned in the book. The story in itself was so amazing (I was literally gasping from time to time finding it hard to believe what I was reading) but it’s probably easier to relate to it, when you are familiar with some of the names and products mentioned in the book. Anyway, I am so glad you recommended it, because I had a blast reading it.

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      2. Same! Most of my work is technically in the financial sector too, although I think mine is more peripheral (I do editing and translations). But I was also familiar with a lot of the products and people and it made it that much more affecting. I was also totally gobsmacked by so much of it. It’s just astonishing. So glad I could help you find that one!

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  2. these both sound so interesting! i do agree with you that i hate the cover on the second one for whatever reason. have you seen the documentary for Gypsy Rose Blanchard, Mommy Dead and Dearest? i’ve watched it a couple times and it’s so heartbreaking.

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    1. Isn’t that cover repelling? I can’t stand it. I have seen Mommy Dead and Dearest and actually preferred that telling to the piece here. I tried to write something about it in the review originally but gave up when I couldn’t explain myself well 😂 It was such a sad situation and I felt for her. I always wondered why she didn’t try reaching out to her dad and stepmom who seemed so concerned and invested in her well-being. I’m glad she has them on her side now and I hope she can build a normal life for herself once she’s released.

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  3. Ooh, Unspeakable Acts looks like a great collection! I like that it covers such a range of ideas and implications, without becoming repetitive. The little snippets covering so many different crimes really appeals. I think I’ll add it to my list. Nice reviews!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, I like a collection like this that covers stories in snippets but it’s not been so common for true crime anthologies, for some reason! And it’s very thoughtful in the issues it addresses. I think you’d like it. Glad I could put it on your radar!

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  4. These are such good reviews they actually make me think I might read these books! Which I probably still won’t, because I can’t stomach true crime. I get the fascination of it, though, and the idea that telling the victims’ stories can illuminate societal problems.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you! What a compliment! I completely understand you, true crime isn’t for everyone and I didn’t read as much of it before there was a shift towards interest in the victims and social issues as opposed to gawking at the scary stories of serial killers. So these feel like they’re in service of something better, and are very compellingly written. But you have to read something much more uplifting afterwards! Particularly after the gun violence story I just feel depleted.

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  5. I’m sold! Have already bought The Vanishing Blonde based on your review (so no pressure there😜 ) and will get the other one soon too. I think I like true crime as it cuts to the core of what motivates people and shows what is really going on behind the net curtains. Also one gets a good flavour of the life style and culture of the place and people involved in the crime. Like a travelogue with a dead body. Ok, time to go, late for my sensitivity in communication training..

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    1. It’s really good, I think you’ll like that one! I loved the stories of his I’d read before and really all of them here were quite compelling. He has a good way of how he lets the story unfold, if that makes sense. And I’m dying — “a travelogue with a dead body” 🤣 but it’s strangely fitting and I know exactly what you mean!

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  6. Your reviews make me realize how little short-form true crime I’ve read. Most of my reading choices have been full length. But going back to what you and I were talking about … months? ago—I have no idea; time has lost all meaning—while I’m not always into authors injected themselves into the story, the Bowden book seems like the perfect format for that. Why these particular stories? How do they connect in the author’s mind? That kind of thing. So, without reading it, I wish there was some of that going on!

    Still, these sound fascinating. And the breadth of cases seems like they give plenty for readers to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so funny because yes, we were discussing that (and exactly — who knows when and what even is time anymore) and I always feel like I’m complaining in reviews about authors making these stories all about themselves, but his are ones where, surprisingly, I would love to see more of that! He almost kind of brushes off any kind of reasoning about it in the introduction, but it clearly exists for why he’s so passionate about specific stories. Unfortunately we can only wonder.

      And it’s definitely worth giving shorter form true crime a try. A drawback I sometimes find in book-length is that authors don’t know where to stop with all the details they’ve gotten from their research and it’s distracting or just not interesting and relevant. Never a problem here, and there are some really fascinating stories and great writing highlighted too.

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  7. Ooh, these sound fascinating, although I am still figuring out for myself what true crime stories I’m willing to read. Mostly I pass on rape cases like the one you mention in the first collection. These both sound like really well done collections though. I definitely like essays that have more to say rather than just being voyeuristic and it seems like both of these collections have that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s the same for me, even having read a lot of true crime I recognize there are certain cases or instances that I can’t do and it takes some figuring out what those limits are. It was not easy to read about the rape case, particularly because of the frustration that so little has changed. It just adds insult to injury. In general these all took an interesting angle to examine each case, and looked at the social implications quite well. I liked them a lot for that!

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