In my desperate attempt to finish endless back reviews (and I mean way, way back — these are from 2019, dare we even cast our memories back to such a halcyon time?) I’m rounding up a few true crime-themed titles that are worth discussing even if I couldn’t form them into full-fledged reviews. You know how that goes.
Are these detailed and insightful? Not as much as I’d like them to be, but nevertheless. That hasn’t stopped me from giving my opinion before anyway. Onward!
Killings, by Calvin Trillin (1984)
So many journalists have cited Calvin Trillin’s writing and narrative structure as being influential in how they approach their own reporting. So it’s fitting that the final essay in Killings, his unfortunately-titled collected pieces for the New Yorker that are less about how people died and more about the circumstances around how they lived that led to it, is a tribute to Edna Buchanan, a Miami reporter Trillin admires. It underscored Trillin’s feelings about his profession, highlighting what he considers significant in this line of work and Buchanan’s embodiment of it. It’s also a testament to a now somewhat old-fashioned journalistic style, that Trillin and Buchanan represent but which of course has gone the way of the dinosaur in today’s 24-hour news cycle and the constant blitz of online news.
These pieces, long considered classics in the genre and dubbed “true stories of sudden death” were written over 15 years beginning in 1967, and weren’t all standouts for me. Trillin’s talent in a turn of phrase, catchy leads and shining a light onto details that would be overlooked in just-the-facts reporting styles is abundant. But not all of the stories drew me in, some were a bit dry, particularly when elements of legal proceedings were involved. As far as “true crime” goes it’s much more geared towards ideas of process and looking at systems in place, including social ones and very much around setting. Which is of course interesting in its own right, as well as important. It just wasn’t always engaging. I could imagine this would appeal much more to those with a journalistic bent or background, perhaps looking for the right angle from which to approach a story or how to tell a story that ostensibly begins with one subject but after some digging turns out to be about something else entirely. Trillin is a master there.
I found it hard to believe these were written by the same person who wrote The Tummy Trilogy, Trillin’s food writing celebrating the vast landscape of American local cuisines and specialties. That was so funny and weird and irreverent, not at all the mostly-serious tone here. I suppose a lofty testament to his range as a writer and journalist.
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, David Grann (2010)
Part of Holmes’s appeal is that he restores order to a bewildering universe. But it is the messiness of life, and the human struggle to make sense of it, that drew me to the subjects in this collection.
Another collection of long-form journalism from the New Yorker, in these 12 essays David Grann focuses on “tales of murder, madness, and obsession,” as the subtitle promises, but that sells it short — rather, these are stories of rampant injustice, haunting decisions, and frightening glimpses into the murky depths of the natural world (“The Squid Hunter” about the “squid squad” on the hunt for the elusive giant squid is a highlight — Grann writes that it has “tentacles sometimes as long as a city bus and eyes about the size of human heads” and for this overwhelming size we know so little about that it still retains a mythlike status).
He also covers the con artist Frédéric Bourdin, who, if you don’t know him yet from the documentary The Imposter, please watch it immediately or read “The Chameleon,” Grann’s piece. What a fucking story. He also covers the curious death of a man obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, a haunting story about whether a man in Texas was executed for “murders” that were actually an accidental fire (he was; it’s horrible) and a range of other stories. So they always hold your interest thanks to the wildly different topics, but as with most essay collections I found a few far more compelling than others.
Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, by Charles Bowden (2010)
Surely, we know that even at our best we can only know little pieces of life.
Veteran journalist Charles Bowden spent years taking the pulse in Juarez, a place that always strikes me as both menacing and mysterious. So it’s fitting that this one is so notably stylistic in the writing, often dreamy and surreal. Even to the point of being unsure what’s reality and what’s not. It certainly mimics the uncertain atmosphere of the notoriously dangerous border city, especially as he references la gente, “the collective unconsciousness of the city, a hoodoo conjured up out of murder, rape, poverty, corruption and deceit.”
A new day had begun and it looks like night.
One recurring figure, Miss Sinaloa, is a young woman and former beauty queen who was gang raped at a party. She ended up at the home of El Pastor — an evangelist, real name José Antonio Galvan, whose desert refuge serves to help the mentally ill and variously troubled. Whether she exists as a single person or is meant to stand in as a composite isn’t quite clear, but the effect of her story is wholly powerful and lingers.
The reasons for the problems in Juarez are many-fold: primarily connected to the drug cartels but from there it gets complicated, and political. Although there’s been publicity around the murdered women of Juarez (as well there should be) Bowden argues that we allow “brief flickers of interest” in it then pat ourselves on the back for caring in order to avoid confronting some uncomfortable truths, something he says “lives in the limbo land of issues rather than of solutions or action”:
Over the past ten years or so, four hundred women have been found murdered, the majority of them victims of husbands and lovers and hardly mysterious cases, This number represents 10 or 12 percent of the official kill rate. Two movies have been made about the dead women. Focusing on the dead women enables Americans to ignore the dead men, and ignoring the dead men enables the United States to ignore the failure of its free-trade schemes, which in Juarez are producing poor people and dead people faster than any other product.
It’s overall a powerful read if it is shot through with a somewhat macho-writing style, perhaps odd considering the sympathy Bowden obviously has for the plight of the women in this beleaguered region, and in trying to emphasize the broken social structure that’s allowed a “slaughter” to happen there for years. I guess it’s just more of the tone, one that I notice is typical in certain older male writers but which I tend to associate more with fiction.
I still had a lot of respect for his journalistic style and ability to paint a vivid picture of settings while driving home the brutality of this area and its social failures in a visceral way. This is a surprisingly artistic introduction to the issues here, and made me curious about Bowden’s other work — his gift for description alone is exceptional.
Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins (2011)
Paul Collins is one of those authors that I decided I wanted to read absolutely everything from after his 2019 historical true crime, Blood & Ivy. I love how he tells a story and the odd but intriguing topics he picks.
In the summer of 1897, body parts began turning up around New York City and Long Island. A murder mystery was quickly afoot, but the titular murder — result of a love triangle gone awry — actually takes a backseat to the newspaper tabloid wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst that erupted around its reporting. Collins identifies that this was the first time color was used on a breaking news story, among other firsts and unprecedented bits of history connected to this sensational news story.
And the trial becomes an oddity all its own: “an unprecedented capital case hinging on circumstantial evidence around a victim whom the police couldn’t identify with certainty, and who the defense claimed wasn’t even dead.”
Collins is one of those especially skilled writers that knows exactly the details to pluck from an obscure history to bring the era to life. (My favorite is his quoting of one newspaper editor as saying someone had “invaded the city […] as quietly as a wooden-legged burglar having a fit on a tin roof.”)
I have some qualms with the title (not necessarily the author’s fault, I know). Although we learn what a big deal this murder and trial were when they happened, that’s all virtually unknown now. So can it really be called “the murder of the century”? Especially from the Gilded Age, wouldn’t that be Lizzie Borden? Or Stanford White?
Historical true crime isn’t always my favorite but Collins is the best teller of it I’ve read. He finds so many illuminating, sometimes outright hilarious details, weaves a fascinating narrative, and underscores why stories that are no longer household names once changed so much of the course of history. This book is a perfect example of that.