The narrative thread of real-life crime
WHEN I WORKED at one of Manhattan’s independent mystery book shops a few years back, a prospective customer came in every so often with a request for a true crime book. The first time this happened I bounded from behind the cash register to hunt for a section that, much to my surprise, was nonexistent. The disappointed customer left (presumably for the nearby chain store) and I conferred with one of the store’s owners. True crime doesn’t sell very well in store, she explained, so unless it’s a blockbuster title -- think Patricia Cornwell’s “Portrait of a Killer” or John Grisham’s “The Innocent Man” -- stocking a full section makes no economic sense.
This reality check served as anecdotal confirmation of the prevailing truism: that crime fiction readers and crime nonfiction readers are two distinct camps separated by a chasm not unlike the River Styx. That chasm has always bothered me. If a premise is so potent, characters so vivid and an author’s way with language and voice so unique, why should it matter whether the crimes described actually happened or are a product of someone’s imagination? Such distinction lines didn’t stop Joseph Wambaugh, who has excelled with true (“The Onion Field”) and fictional (“The Choirboys”) accounts of police work, or Gregg Olsen, a bestselling true crime writer who crossed over to thriller waters with “A Wicked Snow” last year and his newest, “A Cold Dark Place” (Kensington: $6.99 paper).
But matter it does, for different reasons on either side. Crime fiction readers and writers express frustration about the lack of motivation and satisfying resolution of real cases, and prefer fictive escapism to reality’s lack of order; true crime enthusiasts wish fiction purveyors would pay more attention to the facts and appreciate the messiness and viscera of real murder. How, then, can this unbalanced equation be solved?
Perhaps the answer lies in old-fashioned narrative. True crime and crime fiction readers want to be entertained and enlightened, and both camps can be reached with a story featuring full-bodied humans that demands to be read to the finish. Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions of Dr. Whicher” (Walker: 380 pp., $24.95), deemed “a brilliant reconstruction of the obstacles facing detectives long before the advent of forensic technology” deemed in L.A. Times reviewer Nick Owchar’s most recent “Siren’s Call” column, certainly qualifies, as do three additional offerings that fall under my new catch-all category of narrative crime nonfiction.
“The Monster of Florence” (Grand Central Publishing: 318 pp., $25.99) is the latest book from Douglas Preston, an established narrative hand who has penned more than a dozen bestselling thrillers with co-writer Lincoln Child as well as a fair number on his own. A new partnership with Italian journalist Mario Spezi, borne out of Preston’s chance move to Italy nearly a decade ago, has produced a propulsive account of unsolved Zodiac-style series of murders between 1968 and 1985. The case is so needlessly complex, so full of false leads and wrongful convictions, it almost seems inevitable that both authors ended up ensnared in this proverbial spider web.
The problem, as the authors’ friend Count Niccolo makes clear, is that the investigation does not follow the rules of logic, but of “dietrologia”: “the idea that the obvious thing cannot be the truth [and] there is always something hidden behind.” The simplest interpretation of the evidence may point to a lone psychopath whose violent upbringing foreshadowed this series of brutal, sexually tinged double murders, but Italy’s “permanent climate of witch-hunting” brings suspicion on satanic cults, long-hidden conspiracies and even Spezi. One is hard-pressed not to feel outrage upon reading of Spezi’s 2006 arrest and the confiscation of his files, Preston’s interrogation by tight-lipped Italian police and the years and millions of dollars wasted, leaving a killer to walk free.
A similar feeling of frustration about the Byzantine legal workings of a foreign country sets in while reading Ted Botha’s “The Girl With the Crooked Nose” (Random House: 262 pp., $25). The vantage point of this stylized hybrid of biography and contemporary investigation belongs to Frank Bender, a motorcycle-driving college dropout from Philadelphia who, Botha says, resembles “the English actor Patrick Stewart with a goatee, or, in his more serious moments, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.” Bender, who transformed a fledgling career as a photographer-for-hire into one of the country’s leading forensic artists, has helped identify a score of unnamed victims and famous fugitives because of what he calls an innate ability to know when he’s got it right. “You can’t change one part of a face without taking the other parts of it into account,” he tells Botha. “If you go wrong, you can tell. It’s like a bad plastic surgery job.” But Bender’s instinct goes awry south of the border, where he is called to sculpt busts of five unidentified female victims (including the one described in the title) of Juarez’s unending feminicidos. Instead of “sculpting for justice, helping to bring closure to a case,” Bender finds himself a pawn of corruption and criminality that seems as deeply embedded as his own talents. The heartbreak of Juarez, as Botha makes clear from Bender’s perspective, is that some cycles of violence cannot be broken, even by haunting sculptures of dead women whose identities remain unknown.
Identity is a central issue in Edward Dolnick’s July book, “The Forger’s Spell” (Harper: 334 pp., $26.95), which has everything to do with art and nothing to do with murder, but is wrapped around a tale so gripping and absurd that the addition of one key player might have tipped the balance toward violent death. Dolnick’s Edgar-winning beat has long been the vagaries of art forgery; here he explores the well-mined tale of Han van Meegeren, a middling-to-dreadful Dutch artist who made a fortune by passing his paintings off as the handiwork of 17th century compatriot Johannes Vermeer.
Dolnick swiftly recounts van Meegeren’s duplicitousness, which fooled the likes of Nazi leader Hermann Goering, then wisely focuses less on what and more on how the painter became “perhaps the only forger whose most famous works a layman would immediately identify as fake.” But van Meegeren’s true gift was psychological; he preyed on an art world so desperate to uncover new Vermeer masterworks that they were willing to buy into what now seems like a laughable sleight of hand. The lesson applies as much to art forgery as it does to fake memoirs or baseball players on steroids. As Dolnick puts it: “Sometimes we prefer a fake to an original.”
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