Monthly Archives: January 2014

Coming Out of the True-Crime Closet


When you are a reader and writer of literary fiction, confessing to a fondness for certain ‘lesser’ writing genres casts one’s tastes and sensibilities into question. But I’m going to admit it here: I am a reader of many, many classics and an avid follower of some of the most brilliant writing minds of our day– and yet I cannot enter a bookstore or library without scouting out its true crime section to see if there are any titles I’ve missed.

If you are a ‘serious’ reader or writer, you might understand why I am hesitant to own up to this secret obsession of mine. True crime books deal with ugly subject matter– so ugly, in fact, that some stores won’t even sell them. I recently had this is experience in a large used bookstore when I asked where I might find the true crime section; the shopkeeper looked at me as though I had laid an egg and icily responded, “We don’t carry true crime. The owner doesn’t like it.” Suddenly, I felt the same shame I used to witness on men’s faces when I walked past them, as a nubile youngster, perusing the dirty magazines at the local book chain (this, before the days of plastic wrappings and easy-access Internet sites).

Why true crime, you might ask? (Or, for that matter, why any crime at all?) The protagonist of my upcoming novel, What Has Become of You, has this to say on the subject of committing crimes and writing original works: “It’s all about creation vs. anti-creation. Building vs. destroying. They both require a lot of energy, don’t they? The difference between the two vocations might as well be arrived at by a coin toss.” I am happy that my vocation falls on the creative side rather than the anti-creative one, but I have always wanted to understand the mind that takes the darker road in hopes that perhaps we can stop the anti-creation folks in their paths. It is because of this that my second novel is partly a crime novel, though to call it a ‘thriller’ or ‘psychological suspense’ seems a little reductive.

There are many crime books that have influenced and affected me over the years; more commonly, I have seen those pulp-ish, quickly churned out true crime tomes that come and go and have bypassed most of them. You know the ones I am talking about– the ones with the slick paperback covers, the tawdry titles, and “22 pages of never-before-seen photos” (usually consisting of a blood spatter snapshot and the exterior of somebody’s death house). In order for a true crime book to speak to me, it has to offer a bit more than a salacious headline. Generally, these are the criteria that help me decide whether a true crime book is worth my while:

-1. Does the book teach me something about human nature that I might not have known before? Or, alternately, does it reinforce a belief I had about human nature– one that seems fairly credible?

I will give you an example of a book that did exactly that. Killing for Company, by Brian Masters, is an account of Scottish killer Dennis Nilsen, who slaughtered and dismembered fifteen men between 1978 and 1983. A pre-Dahmer-esque figure, Nilsen attempted to preserve men’s bodies in hopes that he might be able to keep these people with him always– until, of course, the decomposition process made this impossible. Nilsen’s diaries figure heavily into the text of Killing for Company and add stunning insight into the tormented mind of the serial killer:

“I did it all for me. Purely selfish. I worshipped the art of death… Afterwards it was all sexual confusion, symbolism, honoring the ‘fallen.’ I was honoring myself. I hated the decay and the dessication.”

And later, poignantly, Nilsen stated: “It must be the most wonderful gift to be able to throw your arms around someone and just weep.”

Anyone with a heart and soul cannot help but weep (metaphorically, at least) for those  whose lives were lost at the hands of Dennis Nilsen. But the more we hear his words, the more we understand the fractured psyche that created the monster– and while that may not make us feel compassion for him, it certainly adds to the layers of grief.

  1. Is the book beautifully written?                                                                                                               When I think of beautifully written true crime books, the canonical ones come to mind: The Executioner’s Song; In Cold Blood. But the one that often gets overlooked– the one I would like to mention today– is Emlyn Williams’s Beyond Belief, a novelization of the Moors Murderers.

The so-called Moors Murderers were Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, a young couple who had tortured and slaughtered at least five young persons between 1963 and 1965 and buried the bodies in the moors of Northern England. By all reports, Ian, who was a devotee of Nietzsche and of Mein Kampf, was the brains behind the killings,, while Myra– a pliable young woman who was used to rough ways– became his devoted accomplice, resulting in the perfect folie a deux that is the hallmark of many serial crimes. The fact that Emlyn Williams took on this subject matter is interesting in and of itself; Williams was an extraordinary writer and actor and bon vivant, perhaps best remembered for his plays and film work (The Corn Is Green and the tragically neglected Night Must Fall, starring Rosalind Russell).  For such a distinguished man to easily assume the voice of a working class killer with grandiose aspirations must have been a stretch, and the results are not only colloquially accurate but almost Joycean in its poetry.

  1. Is the writer objective where objectivity is needed and compassionate where compassion is called for?

A book that meets this criteria, to my thinking, is Gitta Sereny’s Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell. This is is a biographical account of a young girl from Newcastle-on-Tyne who was convicted of the strangulation deaths of two young boys (ages 3 and 4) when she herself was only eleven years old. When this conviction went down in 1968, the child killer was an unknown phenomenon, and Mary herself was regarded (rightly or wrongly) as a ‘bad seed.’ Sereny explores Mary’s early childhood and later years in a manner that balances fact with heart and makes a compelling case for the notion that this was a young girl who simply had too many strikes against her from the get-go.

I tend to believe that anyone who reads should not be ashamed of his or her reading choices; after all, in a society where fewer and fewer people take the time for ‘pleasure reading,’ shouldn’t we applaud those who endeavor to read for the sheer joy of it, regardless of subject matter? And in the case of true crime readers, I would say that that they still stand a chance of stumbling upon some human truths, some aesthetic beauty, and an all-embracing compassion that, in the right hands, can equal that found in our finest artistic works.

The Not-So-Fine Art of Blurbing, OR: Why Writers Are Actually Nice People


There are many tasks in a writer’s life which go against the grain of their very nature, which often is introverted, self-effacing, and loath to call attention to itself. (This does not take into account those sunny, extroverted writers who bask in being the center of attention; much as I envy them, I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that writing is a private act that I feel compelled to make public.) For the shy and retiring writer who is at the early stage in her career, asking other writers for blurbs carries the shame and humiliation of those elementary school days when she was forced to shill magazine subscriptions door to door in order to raise money for upgrading the school gym. In my own case, those door to door excursions were nothing short of excruciating. I would slouch in the doorway, mumbling ‘Would you like to buy a magazine subscription?’ with the defeatist air that sealed my fate: a firm, quick, unrepentant No, and a closed door in my face.

Maybe I’ve honed my sales pitch since then, or maybe my fellow writers are nicer people than many people may realize. (The stereotype of the drunken, miserly writer holds true in a few cases, but for the most part, I’m finding, even the most successful writers are kind people who remember how dismal it was to ask for favors when they were still a relative unknown.) In the process of seeking out blurbs for What Has Become of You, I have had a largely warm reception from people who owe me absolutely nothing– and I find that humbling, and heartening. After all, most writers have a lot on their plate. Most have tight deadlines, and many teach full-time or offer editorial services that absorb a good many of their hours when they are not writing. Some of them might even have actual lives. So why would they offer a blurb to Joe Schmoe (or in this case, Jan Schmoe) at no personal gain to them? I don’t know the answer, but if and when the time comes for people to ask me for blurbs, I hope I will be as gracious.

For the reader who might be asking himself, “What the hell is a blurb and why does it matter?”, I will tell you, Grasshopper, exactly what and why. A blurb is one of those nifty quotes and endorsements you see on the back covers of books– a seal of approval that gives the book credibility, piques interest, and even tells the potential reader what they might expect from the book they hold in their hands (or are contemplating adding to their Kindle). Some people, I’m told, don’t even bother to look at blurbs. To me, this is a little shocking– like buying a house without having it inspected first– but maybe that’s just me. I like to read endorsements, and from my own writer’s perspective, I enjoy seeing who blurbs what and what these blurbing writers have to say for themselves.

With my first novel, Asta in the Wings, I was not personally engaged in the blurbing process; it all happened behind closed doors, as it were. Taking a more active role in this process has taught me a lot about other writers and has restored my faith in the profession in ways that I hadn’t expected. Even the “No’s” which I’ve received thus far have been kind and supportive. And as for the silences– those writers who don’t respond at all to the blurb request– I respect that, too, because (A) the writer might not even have time to respond, and (B) a non-response is easier for some people than saying ‘No,’ and a person who dislikes saying ‘No’ directly must be a softhearted sort. I have yet to receive a response from any writer saying, “Who do you think you are, bothering me? Go away, you filthy peon.” (Which some of these esteemed writers certainly could say, if they wanted to.) I think this says a lot about the industry and the people who comprise it. We might be a flaky lot, but we aren’t bad people. Take it from me– arguably, as flaky and as nice a person as you could ever meet.