An American Anthology
Edited by Harold Schechter
Library of America: 816 pp., $40
The TITLE of this massive anthology, “True Crime,” is misleading. Within these pages the reader will find nothing of the rich American literature of the confidence trick and no stories of bank heists or gangland slayings, be they rub-outs from 1920s Chicago or drive-bys from 1990s Los Angeles. The offing of presidents receives scant due. Abraham Lincoln gets the nod, but only as a contributor.
Instead, editor Harold Schechter tightens the focus of his selection to murder, and not just any old murder, but, as he writes, “those peculiarly horrific and unsettling crimes that have, in the words of pioneer newspaperman James Gordon Bennett, ‘some of the sublime of horror’ about them” -- crimes that erupt into otherwise ordinary lives and stick in the minds of the public. Narrowness brings rich rewards here, as Schechter follows the development of a genre from the Puritan sermons and broadsides of Cotton Mather -- “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” -- to Truman Capote and Gay Talese, who brought overt forms of literary experiment to psychopathology.
Along the way, Schechter introduces ballads and now-forgotten writers such as Thomas Byrnes and Susan Glaspell together with a host of familiar names such as Herbert Asbury, Edmund Pearson, H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling, James Ellroy and Ann Rule, showing how writing about murder has changed and yet remained, in some fundamental way, the same. Cain killed Abel, and murder, like love, is a human ground-rule. Reports of murder, however written, constitute news that, at some basic psychological level, we need to hear. As readers of this stuff, we long for the shuddering thrill and some moral or artistic instruction.
“The wholesale murderer is of two kinds: the wandering and the stationary,” writes Edmund Pearson in “Hell Benders,” which tells the story of a Kansas family who had a nasty way with their guests in the 1870s, and, incidentally, defines the two basic types of serial killer long before FBI profilers existed. Pearson was a librarian, a Harvard-educated bibliophile who corresponded with Henry James and was a friend of Scottish murder-mandarin William Roughead. Like Roughead, Pearson brought to the subject of extreme violence a delicious style and a desire to create taxonomies. “The lonely farm, or better still the wayside tavern, where the solitary traveler comes but never departs -- this has been a favorite subject for stories, true or fictitious, ever since stories have been told. . . .” Pearson tells of the fiendish Bender family almost like a fairy-story: like a twisted real-life version of “Hansel and Gretel.” At the same time, he gets down to the essential nitty-gritty of how vile deeds were done: “The first blow, sufficient to stun [the victim] was delivered through the curtain. After that, the Benders worked rapidly. The body was dragged to the rear room, robbed and stripped. The trapdoor being opened, one of the family cut the victim’s throat and tumbled him into the cellar.”
At a different extreme stands the straightforward newspaper account, as exemplified by Meyer Berger’s “Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street,” a piece that appeared in the New York Times and won a Pulitzer in 1950: “Unruh fired into the closet where Mrs. Cohen was hidden. She fell dead behind the closed door, and he did not bother to open it. Mrs. Minnie Cohen tried to get to the telephone in an adjoining bathroom to call the police. Unruh fired shots into her head and body and she sprawled dead on the bed. Unruh walked down the stairs with his Luger reloaded and came out into the street again. . . . Unruh stared into the policeman’s eyes -- a level, steady stare. He said, ‘I’m no psycho. I have a good mind.’ ”
Berger’s account only seems to be “just the facts ma’am”; however, it’s just as thought out as Pearson’s. Berger deliberately slows down the action to heighten the shock we feel. That sentence -- “She fell dead behind the closed door, and he did not bother to open it” -- echoes Hemingway in its telling deadpan grace.
The plotted approach to writing about murder reached an apotheosis, inevitably, with the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s. In “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range,” Gay Talese brings alive the story of George Spahn, a blind rancher who owned the land, an old movie set in the California desert, only 20 miles northwest of Beverly Hills, on which a roaming tribe came to roost. “Then one day a school bus carrying hippies arrived at the ranch and parked in the woods, and young girls approached Spahn’s doorway and tapped lightly on the screen, and asked if they could stay for a few days,” Talese writes. “Later one of the girls offered to make the old man’s lunch, to clean out the shack, and was obviously an educated and very considerate young lady. Spahn was pleased.” Soon Spahn was familiar with the girls’ voices and also that of the young man who seemed to be in charge: “His name was Charles Manson.” Talese leans on our knowledge of what Manson and his followers would do to surround Spahn with an unnerving dread, re-creating a notorious crime from a brilliantly creepy new perspective.
Talese’s piece represents a strategy, writing about murder considered as a fine art, as Thomas de Quincey had wished in the early 1800s. Capote, in his interview with Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil, takes archness too far. “I never meant to . . . to . . . hurt Gary Hinman. But one thing happened. And another. And then it all came down,” Beausoleil said. We can’t help but wonder whether Beausoleil really did reference Banquo’s murderers from “Macbeth” or whether Capote was gilding the lily, as Capote was wont to do.
It was Capote’s “In Cold Blood” that gave the true crime genre new respectability and fresh commercial promise; Schechter includes nothing from that book, nor from Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” the magisterial saga of Gary Gilmore, deciding on the whole to eschew extracts in favor of self-contained pieces. As the author of many crime novels and several excellent nonfiction books with hammy titles such as “The Devil’s Gentleman” and “Deviant” (the latter a study of Ed Gein, the inspiration -- is that the right word? -- for the fictional killers Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter), Schechter gives appropriate space to nonfiction pulp masters W.T. Brannon and Jay Robert Nash, who boasted that he wrote 25,000 words a day and whose excellent “The Turner-Stompanato Killing” proves that writing about murder doesn’t require bells and whistles.
This is not only a shocking, endlessly entertaining anthology, but a thoughtful, careful one too. I haven’t mentioned suggestive short pieces by Frank Norris and Joseph Mitchell, nor Miriam Allen de Ford’s excellent re-creation of the Leopold/Loeb murder, nor Damon Runyon’s extensive on-the-spot reportage of the Ruth Snyder trial, a long chunk of Runyon-ese in print nowhere else. Those of us who believe that California is where the black heart of contemporary noir resides will note with satisfaction the increasingly westward tilt of this book, which concludes with Dominick Dunne on the Menendez brothers (the House of Atreus reconstituted in contemporary Beverly Hills).
“Subsequently, a rich woman in Los Angeles told me that her bodyguard, a former cop, had heard from a friend of his on the Beverly Hills police force that Kitty Menendez had been shot in the vagina. At a Malibu barbecue, a film star said to me, ‘I heard the mother was shot up the wazoo,’ ” Dunne writes, proving Schechter’s historical point. With murder, the style and lingo may evolve -- the instincts are basic.
Richard Rayner is the author of many books, including “The Devil’s Wind: A Novel” and “The Blue Suit: A Memoir of Crime.”