It Happened To Me

On the True Crime Memoir

       True crime has two kinds of readers. The first kind are drawn to the procedural elements: the clues and evidence, possible suspects, forensic techniques, psychological profiling, and trial strategy. Books that foreground these elements investigate the criminal mind, describe the hunt, and celebrate the capture. They’re generally written from the point of view of police investigators, and sympathetic to the prosecution.

        To the second type of reader—and I count myself among them—the lure of true crime is the way it cracks open the heart of human relationships. After all, the passions that lead to murder are those that, albeit in a less extreme form, we’re all familiar with: envy, greed, lust, longing, desire, despair. Our feelings for one another are writ large in these acts; by looking closely at those who commit them, we can better understand ourselves. As George Bernard Shaw reminded us, “When we want to read of the deeds that are done for love, whither do we turn?” His answer: “To the murder column.”

                  Personally, I particularly enjoy those books in which the crime, while it remains at the heart of the book, becomes a catalyst for reflection, anecdote, observation, and speculation. If I like the way an author thinks, I don’t mind where she takes me. Readers accustomed to the kind of books published by the Pinnacle True Crime imprint—mass market paperbacks with glossy covers and a well-established structure—may be confused or irritated by these narrative excursions. Many prefer their true crime neat, not mixed, or with a twist.

         These readers may not be fans of the true crime memoir (first-person narratives recounting a case in which the author is involved, sometimes loosely, or after the fact.) There’s a delicate balance involved in writing a book that combines these genres—there are a lot of ways it can go wrong—and the prime architects of the form are women. This may be because both true crime and memoir are genres dominated by female writers, or it may be that women are better than men at keeping themselves in the background, listening and observing, resisting the urge to play detective. To win our sympathy, the narrator of a book like this must be subtle, gently encouraging us to take a certain view of the case without coming between the reader and the story. This is best achieved by the quiet accumulation of small details rather than a piling up of forensic facts. Those who read true crime for its human elements may be bored by ballistics, and while convoluted scientific evidence may help solve the case, too much of it can slow things down. 

The success of the true crime memoir balances on the author’s voice. Many fascinating stories are spoiled by an author who seems indulgent and self-involved, especially if her tie to the case seems tangential. Such authors often seem to be exploiting a loose or vague connection to a high-profile murder. Juxtaposed with the trauma experienced by the victim, details of the writer’s daily life can seem trivial, her own unhappiness exaggerated or overblown.

Authors with a minor connection with the case are most successful when they take a background role. A good example is Emmanuel Carrère, in his book The Adversary–A True Story of Monstrous Deception (Folio, 2001, translated by Linda Coverdale), the story of an epic and finally murderous imposter. Carrère has no direct connection to the case of Jean-Claude Romand, a seemingly wealthy and successful doctor who proves to be a cowardly fraud, although his life had certain parallels (the book begins, “On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son”). Fascinated and disturbed by this local case, Carrère begins corresponding with Roland, learning more about his past, expressing sympathy on occasions, but never defending of justifying. Where appropriate, the author includes personal anecdotes and observations, but his voice is restrained, and he stays in the background.

When the author is more deeply involved in the story, a self-deprecating tone helps allay accusations of egotism. In The Spider and the Fly—A Writer, a Murderer, and the Story of an Obsession (HarperCollins 2017), journalist Claudia Rowe writes frankly about the insecurities and unfulfilled needs, that, during her twenties, led her to become involved with a man named Kendall Francois. Rowe was in her twenties and unhappily exiled in Poughkeepsie, New York, when Francois, an awkward, overweight African-American man, confessed to strangling eight local women after paying them for sex. Rowe wanted to learn more about Francois, his victims, and how their bodies remained undiscovered for so long in the home he shared with his parents and sister. The two began exchanging letters, then talking on the phone. Finally, Rowe began traveling to Attica to visit Francois. Her account of the relationship, and what she learned from it, is frank and incisive.

In Blood Will OutThe True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade (Liveright Publishing, 2014), Walter Kirn describes how he fell for the eccentric charm of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a murderous con-man who went by the name of Clark Rockefeller. Like The Spider and the Fly, Kirn’s book is partly a confessional; both authors, looking back, see how their own self-doubt made them easy targets. Rowe’s style of self-deprecation is brooding and introspective; Kirn, on the other hand, is constantly slapping himself on the forehead, scarcely able to credit his own gullibility. The con-man’s lies are brazen and audacious—during a dinner in New York, the charlatan shows Kirn what he claims to be his own private key to the Rockefeller Center—and Kirn laps it up. He admits he was a sitting duck, so easily impressed by the illusion of wealth and a family name that he never stops to wonder why “Rockefeller” never picks up the check.

            Those who disliked Blood Will Out complained that the author “loses track of the story,” but this assumes Kirn set out to write a book about Christian Gerhartsreiter. In fact, it’s about the effect Gerhartsreiter had on Kirn, and how the author’s insecurities and projections turned a con game into a folie à deux. It’s beside the point to distinguish between the “story” and the anecdotes, detours and personal observations it generates.

            In some cases, these tangents become abstract, taking us into the territory of philosophy, psychology, and religion. Some brainy true crime books may even call for footnotes and bibliographies, as in Nicole Ward Jouve’s The Streetcleaner—The Yorkshire Ripper Case on Trial (Marion Boyars, 1986). In this book, Jouve, a French academic and essayist, writes about the thirteen violent killings committed in the 1970s by a man known as the Yorkshire Ripper. The Streetcleaner is a heady combination of true crime, memoir, feminist theory, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and myth. When I first read the book about ten years ago, I found it powerful and captivating, but I was in the minority; it didn’t sell widely, and is now out of print.

Critical theory is blended more successfully with true crime in The Red Parts—Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson, published in 2007 by Soft Skull, and re-released by Graywolf in 2016. The criminal case described in this book is one in which the author was closely—if not directly—involved. The book describes Nelson’s experience attending the trial of a man accused of strangling her Aunt Jane to death in 1969. Although Nelson never met her aunt, she’d always been fascinated and horrified by the murder; in fact, when she got news of the trial, she’d recently finished a verse narrative about Jane’s life and death. The Red Parts is elegiac and expansive, moving between present and past, weaving observations about the trial with family memories, reflections on a broken love affair, and meditations on violence, time, and the female body.

         Nelson’s voice and viewpoint bring the trial to life, but most trials—even most murder trials—are not interesting. When they are, I’d rather know the details first-hand than have them filtered down through the voice of an author whose writing is flat or hyperbolic. Traditional true crime books side with the prosecution, and I don’t trust them to give me the whole story. Peripheral elements of the trial—off-the-record comments and sidebar conferences—are often more interesting to me than the more obviously “dramatic” courtroom moments like the verdict and sentencing, both of which, in most instances, can be predicted from the outset.

            These days, trial transcripts are unnecessary, since courtroom proceedings are usually recorded and sometimes filmed. In an earlier time, however, anthologies of trial transcripts were extremely popular—collections like Famous Trials, Notable Trials and Notable British Trials offered subscriptions in the manner of magazines. Each series of these long-running anthologies was carefully edited by a professional author, journalist, lawyer, or doctor who would also write the volume’s introductory essay.

Some of the Notable Trials anthologies are edited and introduced by a “British lady reporter” named F. Tennyson Jesse, an early twentieth century criminologist and pioneer of first-person trial writing. Jesse is a captivating, if eccentric, narrator. She has an intriguing way of observing the small moments and physical details that are often overlooked by those courtroom reporters more concerned with the implications of legal arguments. This quality is shared by Diana Trilling in Mrs. Harris, an engrossing account of a murder trial. Trilling confesses that she was sympathetic to Mrs. Harris, a middle-aged headmistress accused of murdering the lover—“diet doctor” Herman Tarnower—who had rejected her in favor of a younger woman. But when Mrs. Harris takes the stand, her self-absorption and emotional disengagement lead Trilling to have a change of heart.

         In Linda Spalding’s Who Named the Knife? A True Story of Murder and Memory (Anchor, 2006), described by the New York Times as “creepily fascinating”, the author describes how, when she was living in Hawai’i in 1982, she was selected as second alternate on a jury. The case was a murder trial; the defendant, Maryann Acker, was convicted, although Spalding was not convinced of her guilt. Eighteen years later, the author revisits the case, and begins writing to Acker, who is serving a life sentence in Californian. The two women become friends; Spalding’s account of her quest to reverse the conviction is commingled with an account of the Acker’s story, her own memories, and reflections on the act of remembering.

              Who Named the Knife is absorbing and sympathetic; it reminded me of Helen Garner’s book This House of Grief—The Story of a Murder Trial (Text Publishing, 2014). In this book, Garner, an Australian author, describes reading a newspaper story about an apparently loving father who drove into a dam, causing his three children to drown, although he himself escaped unharmed. Some believed the tragedy was a horrible accident; others saw it as well-planned murder. Garner keeps an open mind as she attends the trial and interviews the defendant’s friends and family. A discreet and genial narrator, she stays mostly out of sight; nonetheless, we come to trust her judgement in the case.

              Janet Malcolm’s narrative voice is equally restrained. In Iphigenia in Forest Hills–Anatomy of a Murder Trial (Yale University Press, 2011), she describes the case of a woman accused of arranging the murder of her dentist husband who had recently won custody of the couple’s four-year-old daughter. Absorbed by the story, Malcolm attends the trial; she also conducts interviews with family members and other participants in the case, which, along with her observations about the courtroom drama, add to the power of her engrossing account.

             Books in which the author is directly involved in the case—at least, engaging and well-written books—are, to fans of the genre, rare and precious. One such gem was published this year. Michelle McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark—One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (Harper, 2018) is compelling—surprisingly so, since it was the author’s first book. Sadly, there will not be another; Michelle McNamara died unexpectedly in 2016 from an accidental overdose. Her addiction to true crime began when a murder—still unsolved—took place two blocks from the home she lived in as a child. Later, she became fascinated by a violent psychopath who committed a series of rapes and murders over ten years in California. An amateur sleuth, McNamara got deeply involved in the case, and the book was completed from her research notes. It was released posthumously, in February 2018, and is currently being adapted as an HBO documentary series. The Golden State Killer—the name McNamara gave to the mysterious perpetrator—was unmasked and arrested in April 2018, thanks in part to the author’s meticulous research.

              Another true crime memoir recently adapted for the screen, My Friend Dahmer, by Derf Backderf (Harry N. Abrams, 2012) is a very different kind of book from McNamara’s, but equally riveting. In the form of a graphic novel, the author relives his time at school, when one of his classmates was the future serial-killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Backderf depicts Dahmer an unhappy kid beset by problems, driven by a desperate need for attention, and different from other teenagers—but not all that different. When, in 1991, an old friend calls Backderf and asks him to guess which one of their former classmates has been found with body parts in his fridge, Dahmer’s name is definitely on the list—but it’s not at the top.

                 The rarest of all true crime memoirs are those written by people directly involved in the case. There are plenty of books written (more often co-written, or ghost-written) by the families of victims, or by those who survived, but most are sentimental and formulaic. Although there are some interesting books by a perpetrator’s family and friends (most notably Lionel Dahmer’s A Father’s Story, published by Time Warner in 1994), it’s almost impossible to find a well-written, thoughtful autobiography by a perpetrator. This is partly because many states have legislation preventing criminals from profiting from the publicity of their crimes, but it’s also because such a book would be almost impossible to market. The criminal memoirs that do exist tend to be either self-serving monologues, or sanctimonious tales of redemption. 

            The only exception I’ve ever come across is Life Plus 99 Years by Nathan Leopold, Jr., published in 1958 by Doubleday, and long out of print. Leopold (“of the Leopold and Loeb case,” the book jacket–surely unnecessarily–reminds us), was arrested and imprisoned in 1925, and spent 35 years behind bars for the crime (Loeb was killed in prison in 1936). This is the true crime story that begins where others end. After the trial is over, the sentence is pronounced, and the perpetrator disappears from public view into the netherworld of death row, maximum-security prison, or forensic hospital. But for the criminal, this is not the end of the story. Even in these grim places—as Leopold’s fascinating book remind us—life goes on.