True crime isn’t new. It wasn’t invented by Truman Capote for In Cold Blood, although Capote certainly raised the bar for many crime writers. True crime has evolved from 19th century police procedural nonfiction, popularized in weekly journals like the Police Gazette, and later in crime pulps of the 1930s and 1940s which depicted the glamorized lives of contemporary criminals. True crime books, like popular mysteries, combine page-turning depictions of violence, the tribulations of a fictional or real investigator on a case, and obsessive rants on the nature of human evil. What better antidote to excessive family cheer than wondering if the relative you’re passing the Christmas turkey to is actually a serial killer?
This genre feeds suspicions like these. But true crime takes equal pains to reassure us that evil can be subdued by brilliant investigators (like the authors) who are armed with modern forensic techniques and pop-psychology. The popularity of true crime books doesn’t necessarily depend on how well authors objectively convey their pursuit of crime, justice, or truth. The more tenuous the theory, the more the same author is compelled to speculate imaginatively to fill those logical gaps for the reader. Two best-selling authors in the genre, Steven Hodel and Patricia Cornwell, offer obsessive narrative styles, digressions into alternative theories, and a relentless insistence of the veracity of their claims.
One of the more engaging thematic threads in true crime is for an investigator to reveal the evil at the heart of a family or in the most respectable community. For former LAPD homicide detective Steven Hodel, in his Black Dahlia Avenger (2003), that unexpected place is his own family tree. He begins his book by confessing a personal obsession with his father’s unexplained estrangement from his family. In a book he subtitles, “The True Story,” Hodel implicates his father, now conveniently dead and silent, in the brutal murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed by the press as “The Black Dahlia.” Although Hodel admits to never personally witnessing his father’s “evilness,” he constructs a portrait of his psychologist father as a serial killer, from potentially damning but circumstantial evidence. He concludes: “I have just returned from the horrors of my father’s private hell and now know and am convinced that nothing more than a hair trigger separates the heaven of a Dr. Schweitzer from the hell of a Dr. Hodel.”
In contrast, Patricia Cornwell, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed (2002), holds the true crime genre at arms length and takes pains to insist that a personal mission for truth rather than financial gain motivated her writing. In her words, she had no financial motive to pursue the dubious and critically damaging project. As a best-selling mystery writer, Cornwell knows how to hold the reader riveted. Cornwell had unprecedented access to Scotland Yard papers and permission to use modern forensic methods on evidence. Although she could not conclusively “close” the Jack the Ripper case, as her subtitle would suggest, Cornwell also admits that she was disappointed that she could not objectively state beyond doubt that British artist Walter Sickert was the White Chapel murderer. Her DNA and fingerprint evidence was not conclusive. Like Hodel, she finds the family dynamics and secrets of Sickert to be the most compelling circumstantial evidence on the case. She concludes in two hundred more pages that Sickert was a monumental bastard in his personal life who had opportunity to commit the crimes, offered “realistically” violent themes in his art, and was suspiciously obsessed with the public portraits of Jack the Ripper.
Patricia Cornwell has stated that the pursuit
of the truth, rather than financial gain, compelled her to finish her true
crime book. Her subtitle to the book, Case Closed, should signal her purpose: to end reader fascination with the murders and if possible to bring the successful industry surrounding the White Chapel murders to an end. Cornwell is an accomplished writer who makes the gruesome details highly compelling. Still, chastising readers for their curiosity, as she does throughout Portrait of a Killer, would seem to be an odd tactic for its author. She insists, while lingering over the daily lives of these victims, that her motives were to honour the dead victims, women who have so often been misrepresented or under-represented in Jack the Ripper’s “story.” Many if not most of her readers would have known at least one account of the White Chapel murders, whether in the form of a popular documentary, true crime book, or film. Cornwell points out that both author and readers unwittingly perpetuate his story and remain pawns of Jack the Ripper’s malevolence, a murderer she calls the “gamesman of all gamesman”: “His murders, his clues and taunts to the press and the police, his antics—all were such fun”.
True crime books, as first-person accounts of criminal cases, are often self-aggrandizing and peculiarly compelling explorations into our fascination with evil. To vicariously share in these revelations is gratifying. More often, however, true crime offers highly entertaining, if not sometimes ludicrously unfounded, conjectures into criminal motives and the real criminal identities in unsolved cases. This pull between an author’s claims of objectivity, outrageous speculations into motives, and the sincere moral reassurances to the readers creates an undeniably fascinating narrative tension. Quite a bit more fascinating than listening to Aunt Edna bicker with Uncle Albert over whether the turkey stuffing should be cooked inside or outside the bird.
This month’s Gutter Guest has been Nancy Johnston. She is writing a Toronto true crime history suitable for holiday giving. If you have an idea for a maligned art form you’d like to write about, email us!
Categories: Guest Star