You'll find here Truman Capote, and James Thurber, and Dorothy Killgallen, and “the queen of true crime,” Ann Rule. You'll find here the literati, and the popular hacks, and the bored corporate lawyers with hobbies in unsolved murders, and the penny-a-word boys from the lurid old pulps, and the college-educated newspaper columnists struggling to perfect their tough-guy personas. You'll find here the puritanical murders of Cotton Mather's time, and the prairie crimes of Abraham Lincoln's day, and the rapes of young girls in the 1940s, and the clue-ridden corpses scattered like bread crumbs by the serial killers of the 1970s.
What you won't find, however, is much real story-the narrative drive that makes the reader want to turn the page. The Library of America's newest volume, True Crime, is an impressive anthology: fifty interesting selections, smartly chosen by Harold Schechter, a mystery writer who teaches at Queens College in New York. Arranged more or less chronologically, the selections begin with the murder of John Newcomin, as told by William Bradford in his 1651 History of Plymouth Plantation, and end with the Menendez brothers' 1989 slaughter of their wealthy parents in Beverly Hills, as told by Dominick Dunne in the pages of Vanity Fair.
And yet, there's something unreadable about this anthology—about all such anthologies, for that matter, which suggests that the whole genre of true crime is odd and corrupt in some important way. Maybe even in a way that reveals a theological point.
The simple truth is that, as a reader, you can't ask for anything better written than Damon Runyon's “The Eternal Blonde,” or H.L. Mencken's “More and Better Psychopaths,” or A.J. Liebling's “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman,” or Elizabeth Hardwick's “The Life and Death of Caryl Chessman.” You can ask, however, that you not have to read them all at once, for, though they tell of different crimes, they all begin to sound alike, after a while. The genre of true crime runs on the voice of the author, and it runs on the facts of the crime, and, with nothing else to use as fuel, it eventually runs into the ground.
Perhaps that's because true crime is false, or falser, anyway, than straightforward fiction. A novel has at least to pretend to make sense. But simple truth, the fact that events really did unfold a certain way, prohibits narrative logic and sometimes even plausibility. In the end, all true-crime accounts are forced to say: I know it sounds unlikely, but . . .
So, for example, I know it sounds unlikely, but the Son of Sam really did leave his gun visible in the back seat of the car on which he'd gotten a ticket when he parked in front of a fire hydrant near one of his crimes. Nathan Leopold really did drop his glasses in the weeds while he and Dickie Loeb were stuffing Bobbie Franks' body into a drain pipe. “Stupid beyond imagination,” says Damon Runyon of the pathetic attempts of Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray to cover up their 1927 murder of her husband Albert in that drab house on Long Island. “Bungling stupidity,” notes James Thurber of the 1922 case of the Rev. Mr. Hall and his choir-singer lover, shot down beneath an apple tree in Franklin, New Jersey.
Truman Capote's 1965 In Cold Blood taught every writer in America how to use the techniques of fiction in nonfiction writing, but the gambits for starting a true-crime story seem to have remained limited. Isn't it a sign that a genre has something wrong at its center, when it makes Abraham Lincoln and Calvin Trillin sound alike? “In the year 1841, there resided, at different points in the State of Illinois, three brothers by the name of Trailor,” a selection from Lincoln opens. “On a bright afternoon in September, in 1967, a five-man film crew working in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky stopped to take pictures of some people near a place called Jeremiah,” a selection from Trillin begins.
For that matter, the apparently unavoidable combination of titillation and moralism in true-crime writing grows quickly tiresome. “In the Year, 1698. Was executed at Springfield, one Sara Smith. Her Despising the continual Counsils and Warnings of her Godly Father-in-law laid the Foundation of her Destruction,” Cotton Mather starts his report of colonial crime in Massachusetts. “She was a lazy girl and irresponsible; and, when she chose to work, she drifted obscurely from one menial job to another,” Jack Webb begins his story of the 1947 Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles.
Mather is clearly present in Schechter's True Crime as a curiosity, or, at least, as a gesture toward providing the historical range that might allow the Library of America to congratulate itself on having some higher, documentary purpose with this anthology of American gore. The small selection of songs in the book, from the St. Louis killing blues of “Stackalee” to the Lizzie Borden newspaper ballad of “The Murder at Fall River,” are probably intended to serve the same function.
Jack Webb, however, is a surprise. However much he was known for the just-the-facts-ma'am persona he affected on the television show Dragnet, his 1958 collection of true-crime stories, The Badge, shows that he was a genuinely good writer. Good enough, anyway, that a copy of his book helped inspire the young James Ellroy to become a writer and pen such stand-out mysteries as The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential.
Of course, Ellroy's novels make better reading than Webb's nonfiction tales—just as those Ellroy novels are better than Ellroy's own true-crime stories, even the account of his mother's murder in his much admired 1996 nonfiction book, My Dark Places. Fiction offers capacities that nonfiction lacks: a chance to straighten out the narrative, an opportunity to heighten the suspense, a possibility to reach inside the killer's head and find a reason for it all.
The mystery writer Robert Bloch, for instance, has an excellent account in True Crime of the 1940s ghouleries of Ed Gein, but Psycho, Bloch's novel based on the crimes of that crazed necrophiliac, is much superior. Don Moser's “The Pied Piper of Tucson” is a fine tale of a murder caused apparently by sheer boredom, but the short story the crime generated, Joyce Carol Oates' “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” far outshines it. Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy is much more suggestive than any nonfiction rendering of Chester Gillette's 1906 drowning of his pregnant lover, Grace Brown, could ever be. James M. Cain's Double Indemnity almost makes the Snyder-Gray killing intelligible.
The hunger for an answer is the kind of thing that fiction can feed. After more than eight hundred pages, the reader of Schechter's True Crime will know only that blood is spilled simply because blood can be spilled.
For that matter, in the genre of true crime, the facts always seem to have a strange, half-religious light cast on them, as though, in the end, original sin alone provides much explanation of crime. If fiction is the great humanistic endeavor, seeking human reasons for human behavior, then true crime is not an art form but a sort of low-rent theology. In its American form, at least, it offers little more than a Christian worldview—or what the Christian worldview would be without the possibility of Christ: sin without redemption; the Fall without the Resurrection; justice, sometimes, but never mercy.
Ain't nothing, really, but a meanness in this world.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.