Some things never seem to change– “True Crime” most often means murder, and most books of that ilk tell the story of homicide and its resolution. True Crime has a somewhat undeserved reputation for cheesiness, and many of its readers describe their taste for it as a guilty pleasure. Much of it is published in paperback, sometimes on cheap paper, and it often contains photos of the crime scene, the victims and perpetrators, and the investigation and legal team members. While true crime fans recognize the names of authors who have published more than a few of these books and know St. Martin’s Press as a popular true crime publisher, there have not been many famous writers linked with the topic.
Today’s batch of true crime writers, in my opinion, will be known as accomplished authors of multilayered nonfiction. Their books are as much memoir as crime story. The authors often bring themselves into the story, not in a self-promoting way so much as to explain their attraction to the subject and their connection with it. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) begins with the story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a rural Alabama preacher who killed five family members for insurance money and was himself murdered by a family member at the funeral of one of his victims. Maxwell’s story is only the beginning, the first 62 pages of the book. Cep makes the deep South a character in the book too, exploring racism and its role in the criminal justice system. The second section of the book is written about Tom Radney, at various times Maxwell’s defense attorney and prosecutor, and about the larger stage of Alabama politics. While Cep does not make herself a central character, she does make Harper Lee, the famous author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Capote’s childhood friend and research assistant while he wrote In Cold Blood, the primary subject of the book. Cep is not only a gifted writer, she is a meticulous researcher and her book will be counted among fine literature whose subject just happens to be murder.
Cep has lots of accomplished company in the community of authors who have written about true crime. Michelle McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was published after her unexpected death in 2016 and two years later, credited with having led to the arrest of the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo. Two authors, Joanne Drayton and Peter Graham, published true crime accounts in 2012 and 2016 respectively, The Search for Anne Perry (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012) and Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century (Awa Press, 2011), about the bestselling British mystery author. In another life, Perry was actually Juliet Hulme, the 15-year-old convicted killer who bludgeoned to death her friend Pauline Parker’s mother in Christchurch New Zealand in the early 1950s. Drayton and Graham wrote about a young girl who was Juliet, and later, the woman who wrote more than 100 mystery novels and sold twenty-six million books in fifteen languages worldwide. Their books do more than tell a story, they raise universal questions about moral responsibility and the treatment of mental illness.In 2012 well known documentarian Errol Morris published A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald (Penguin Group, LLC, 2012), his take on the murder conviction of a Green Beret physician who was convicted of stabbing to death his wife and two young daughters in their Fort Bragg North Carolina home in 1970. Morris’s book is cultural history and legal process indictment as much as it is a tale of crime and punishment.
So today’s homicide stories are embedded in a universal account of human behavior on this earth. They tell readers the life stories of victims, perpetrators, detectives, attorneys, witnesses, and writers of true crime. They reveal the impact of personal violence on the social fabric stained by it, and they hypothesize about the sociology and psychological forces behind it.
Yellow Twine, the book Charlie Wells and I are writing, is constructed of personal accounts told by witnesses, detectives and forensics experts, the perpetrator, family members, neighbors, and coworkers. The stories are varied and sometimes inconsistent. Just as they answer some questions, they raise a myriad of others: Is the impulse to violence hereditary? Does understanding the motive to kill help to prevent future murders? What purpose does knowing the details of these cases serve in society? The more people we talk to, the more evidence we study, the more interview transcripts we read, the more complex the issues become. We are living in an increasingly more violent society today, one where tiny children are shot in their school rooms, shoppers cannot be assured that a trip to Walmart will be safe, and families are sometimes prevented from worshiping in peace.
Can understanding crime help us to prevent it? How can law enforcement more effectively help us to prevent violence? What role do prisons play in reducing or expanding the flow of violence in the U.S.? We hope that our work will contribute to the body of knowledge that will answer some of those questions.