Tuesday, February 01, 2011

True Crime


Randy Johnson mentioned last Monday that he rarely read true crime books and I don't either. I don't even like writing stories based too closely on true crimes. I'm not sure why because other members of my family love them.

Do you read true crime? If not, why? I can't quite pinpoint the reason. Perhaps because what I most love to read is a story someone invented-not a recounting of a real crime. A story that comes from another place in a writer's head entirely pleases me most. Perhaps this is why the true crime I enjoyed most was IN COLD BLOOD, which sort of bent the genre.

30 comments:

Charlieopera said...

Interesting ... I think they all bend something, though. I've read a few true crimes (one for the background to the one screeplay I wrote for coin) and it seems to me there's a lot of poetic license in all of it (outside of statistics and even some of those weren't all that reliable, as it turned out). Murder Machine, a book about the Roy DeMeo Crew (Gambino family) where I grew up, was considered one of the better ones (I used it for background with the screenplay) but then it turned out to be somewhat "interpreted" as well. My feeling now is, you might as well go with outright fiction ... because you're getting a form of it anyway. That's not to say all of it (true crime) should be disregarded, of course.

Todd Mason said...

Charlie, you're not too far from the nub for me, as well...entirely too much narrative nonfiction (or should we say "nonfiction") takes the tack of "recreating" conversations that are convenient fictions (and not just when they strain the bounds of credulity, as with Woodward's deathbed chat with Casey)--as occasionally are challenged, as with Edmund Morris's Reagan bio. Since the usual run of true crime I've seen has run more along the lines of "fact" "using the forms of fiction" (the curse of TIME magazine, among so many others), I find it very easy to ignore most of it...though I suspect I might enjoy the Boucher/McComas true-crime magazine (at the time a stablemate of EQMM and F&SF) were I to pick up a copy, hoping they would do a rather better job than most such editors...and still hope to read some of Avram Davidson's accounts, often written with extensive research for markets that didn't care as long as women in censor-baiting rags could be portrayed being victimized by convenient monsters in the illos. Robert Bloch's occasional true-crime writing was also restrained and engaging.

Al Tucher said...

I do sometimes read true crime, despite the fact that it often makes me cringe. In fact, I read it because it makes me cringe. If I write about murder, I feel obligated to remember how terrible it is.

Fleur Bradley: said...

Not much, though I agree it's good to keep in touch with the reality of crime as a writer.

I once started a project about a serial killer and did so much research, I didn't want to write the story anymore. It was just too real.

John McFetridge said...

It's interesting how there's such a trend in literature these days to include real people - often the writers themselves. The blurring of fiction and non-fiction proceeds, I guess.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I guess Doctorow was the first real practitioner of using real people. I did like DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, which was based on a real crime, but it was interesting for other reasons as well as the crime.
I just wrote a story based on a real crime, but I finally had to leave it behind and find my own story. It was very hard.

Charlieopera said...

John, exactly. In Jess Walter's case a few years ago it worked to perfection (the mix of politics/witness protection and the Gambino family). I'm blanking on the title, but I remember really enjoying it. But it was fiction and not to be taken as true crime; yet it did have that flavor because of the celebrity factor.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - There really is a difference, isn't there, between true crime and fictional when it comes to what we like to read. Don't get me wrong; I've read some true crime. But my preference, too, is for fictional crime. I think it's because when it's true crime, real people are hurting. Real people's lives are ruined. That makes me too sad. Fictional crime doesn't kill real people.

Todd Mason said...

Well, no, Patti--that was always the case with historical fiction, which Doctorow certainly didn't invent. Might as well give that nod to Robert Coover for THE PUBLIC BURNING and other similar work, and you wouldn't be any more mistaken.

Todd Mason said...

Or, of course, one of my favorites in several contexts, Donald Barthelme's "The Joker's Greatest Triumph," which uses a (very intentionally parodic) Fredric Brown as a character.

pattinase (abbott) said...

No Ragtime combined an imaginary family with historical characters. It was not historical fiction precisely.
The fictional sections formed the thrust of the novel rather than vice-versa.

Charlieopera said...

I just realized I "kind of" did it with my last dopey book ... sort of as a prequel in case I wanted to do it again (speaking of Roy DeMeo ...).

No wonder they don't make me a partner at the firm where I work ...

Kent Morgan said...

Ace Atkins has been using true crime stories in his novels. As for true crime books, I used to read them occasionally, but haven't for a few years. One I can recommend is Conspiracy of Silence by Lisa Priest about the murder of an Aborginal student by one or more (only one of the four involved went to prison) local boys from the small town in northern Manitoba where I grew up. The title refers to the belief that people in the community knew who were involved, but kept quiet.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And of course, Craig MacDonald. And whoops, my daughter.
But it is true crime I don't much read. Not the mix, which can make it zing.
I will look for that, Kent. We have a good bookstore here in LaJolla and another down the road. I am buying way too many books.

Dorte H said...

No, I don´t. I have tried once in a while, but with ONE exception they have struck me as boring and rarely very well written. It seems that some authors think that having an intriguing real-life plot is enough - of course it isn´t. Writing a good crime story takes so much more than that.

And the one exception is of course Megan´s wonderful Bury Me Deep. I just checked, and I can see it was a year ago, but I remember the character of Marion Seeley vividly. I really wanted to shout to her: take care, this will go wrong!

Todd Mason said...

Again, that wasn't exactly news, with RAGTIME--there was a fair undercurrent of historical fiction wherein the actual characters and even the actual historical events aren't the focus of the story...Forbes's JOHNNY TREMAIN is an obvious YA example. Howard Fast was prone to this from time to time before Doctorow, as well, while also writing that other sort of historical fiction.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can remember my kids reading Johnny Tremain and I bet I still have a copy.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for the kind words, Dorte. Her forthcoming book is scarier but not fact-based.

Chris Rhatigan said...

I'm also not into true crime either. From my experience in journalism, reading true crime just seems like more work.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I do think it lack the artfulness of crime fiction. I did like the one about Jeffrey McDonald though. Good TV movie too.

Anonymous said...

It's funny, because I've read several books (including short series) about true crime writers. I have read a number of true crime books over the years, mostly the big name ones, like HELTER SKELTER and IN COLD BLOOD and THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG and DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY.

But no, I don't read true crime books about serial killers or Mafioso as a general rule. I guess it would take an exceptional writer to get me interested enough to read one.

Jeff M.

Todd Mason said...

Well, when it's not Stewart O'Nan or William Buckley or Elizabeth Hand writing true crime...or Wambaugh, to give him his due... it's usually the likes of Ann Rule...who don't have much incentive to strive for better prose. TED Klein edited a true-crime magazine in the late '90s or thereabouts that had some panache, but that didn't last long. Just no market to support it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The ones Jeff mentioned are in a category of their own. Many of the others seem of a lesser ilk.
And now with the Internet, there would be even less audience for a true crime mag, I bet.

Dana King said...

I rarely read true crime books that deal with only one crime. I do read crime or police books that deal with the culture or extended periods of time. I've read all of Connie Fletcher's and William Roemer's books, as well as David Simon's HOMICIDE, and others that cover more than one crime, such as WISEGUY and UNDERBOSS, etc.

Not only do these books interest me more--general fewer "creative non-fiction" aspects--they provide more of a sense of the lives, which I find more useful as a writer.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh, HOMICIDE, another great one.

Anonymous said...

Yes, McGinniss's FATAL VISION on Jeffrey MacDonald was quite interesting too.

Jeff M.

Todd Mason said...

David Simon is certainly an odd omission for me to make, given how much I enjoy the series spun off from his journalism.

Todd Mason said...

While Bugliosi is definitely in my Questionable pile, there was Ed Sanders's THE FAMILY.

Deb said...

I have never been interested in reading about "real" crime--I guess because so much of it seems to be about one spouse trying to kill another. On the other hand, I'll occasionally watch one of those true crime forensic investigation shows on A&E or Discovery.

On the whole, I prefer my crime to be fictional.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't read true crime because it is real. You can do anything you want to people in fiction. I know the difference between reality and fiction. but in my line of work I've seen many people horribly damaged by true crime. It's just too much to read about it too.