Reblogged from myimaginarybrooklyn: Murder by the Book, mystery bookstore in Houston, Texas.
A few of the blogs I follow are blogging about murder. I don’t know how many of these bloggers are in Richmond, but here it is rainy, gray, and fall is very close at hand.
I have always been a loving reader of mysteries, but last winter I decided to spend some time exploring true crime, a genre that seems to exist in the darkest recesses of our unspoken guilty pleasures. The true crime section of bookstores is not easy to find, and when you do find it, the covers and the company you find there are equally shaming.
It’s rainy, and it’s fall, so if you have a hankering to read about crime, here are some highlights:
Erik Larson - Devil in the White City. A great survey of the Chicago world’s fair. If Holmes hadn’t been so sensational a serial killer, the world’s fair coverage would cast a long shadow over any other narrative in this book. Unfortunately, Holmes is quite a stand-out figure, even among serial killers. His particular profile, though, allows this entire book to be about architecture.
Truman Capote - In Cold Blood (links to an article version of the longer text). Obviously. Frequently cited as the birth of the genre, but:
Library of America - True Crime: An Anthology. The real birth of the genre. On the off chance someone might accuse Puritanical religious pamphlets of dogmatic prudishness, the Library of American has gracefully included a surprising text on bestiality that should disabuse anyone of such notions. Bonus: if the Library of America has an anthology of a subject, it is no longer trashy to read about that subject.
PD James - The Maul and The Pear Tree. Possibly the finest survey of 19th century British legal culture I have ever read, and one of the few that is not bogged down with Jack the Ripper. If you have any desire to know about the world that predates an organized police force or human-rights-minded attempts to impose order on an egregiously punitive judicial system, this is the book to read. It is also something of a love letter to archival research, written as only a devoted documentarian could.
James Baldwin - The Evidence of Things Not Seen. A fantastic account of race and its impact on the trial of the Atlanta Child Murders (I use the word “trial” loosely, as the book notes a tragic lack thereof). Both James and Baldwin’s books instill in the reader the kind of overwhelming dread that comes from an ever-declining confidence that least *some* murderers have been taken off the streets through legal conviction. This is a relatively unknown book by Baldwin, which is a shame as it’s passionately written and profoundly disconcerting.
If you’re like me and find that all paths on the internet will (past 2am) lead to serial killer research, these books are a great place to start.
A final note on true crime: last year I happend to see Fallon Williams’s entry in Ester Knows, and it served to remind me how much of what we construe as the “true narrative” of crime is always framed in aesthetic choices. Crime scene photographers are documentarians and public servants, yes, but they are also photographers. In some cases they were once art students. What I found in reading the books above isn’t surprising: the narratives we write about our crimes are some of the most revealing about the times and places in which we live.This month I reflected on that each week when I called in to check my jury duty status, and each week when I went to OAR to talk with people who have committed crimes and have to choose how to represent that history to the public today. Once it is past, crimes exist in narrative, and those narratives are fascinating.