Dec. 12, 2012
Crime Magazine's Review of True-Crime Books
by Denise Noe
A multitude of approaches can be taken in crime writing. Crime is a subject that lends itself well to academic research. Thus, much writing on crime seeks to illuminate its history and the history of crime fighting techniques as well as to explore the social and psychological underpinnings of criminality. Humor is well known as a psychological defense mechanism. Much work on crime is written from a humorous slant as the most awful things in life can often inspire bursts of laughter. In addition, human weaknesses and faults of all kinds are always ripe for comedy. True crime books can also tell the stories of those victimized by crime and those who commit crimes. In this column, I examine a group of books that represent all of these diverse approaches to crime writing.
The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector by Geoffrey C. Bunn (The John Hopkins University Press, 2012) is a book that genuinely deserves to be called “extraordinary.” It is not merely the story of the polygraph. The first chapters make no mention of the machine. This “social history” demonstrates how popular views about criminality, and about lying, had to develop in order to facilitate the entire concept of a machine that can pinpoint truth. Bunn records the persistent tension between the view that criminality is the ugly manifestation of negative tendencies intrinsic to being human and the view that sees criminals as a species apart, perhaps even biological “throwbacks” to savage pre-history. Bunn shows how fiction writers planted the idea of the lie detector in the popular imagination. He observes, “The ‘invention of the lie detector’ was predominantly a matter not of technological advance, but rather of conceptual, procedural, and, to some extent, terminological innovation.” Bunn points out that the concept of a “lie detector” is, ironically enough, something of a lie. The Truth Machine is a thorough investigation into the search for truth. It is a solid achievement that should be read by anyone interested in criminology.
A Miscellany of Murder: From History and Literature to True Crime and Television, A Killer Selection of Trivia by The Monday Murder Club (Adams Media, 2011) is a delightful potpourri of shivery murder related information. Organized around the Seven Deadly Sins of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride, the book ransacks history and tradition, real cases and fictional, film and television, to provide its readers with items that never fail to fascinate. The book includes games inviting readers to match one thing with another such as sexy TV cops and the actors who play them or fictional victims to the books in which they are murdered. It is sprinkled with witty remarks such as Lee Israel’s “Hatchet murders were the house specialty of the [New York] Journal, whose front page was a virtual abattoir of murder most foul.” There are many sprightly paragraphs about murders most foul as well as about the odd twists and turns of justice (too often) most capricious. This book resembles a box of delicious and rich chocolate candies.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story by John O’Dowd (BearManor Media, 2006) is an enthralling book that is almost impossible to put down. It tells the heartbreaking story of Barbara Payton, a bountifully talented movie star whose life careened out of control through the tragic and interlocking factors of alcohol and violence. The book takes its title from the 1950 motion picture Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in which young Barbara Payton, a relative newcomer to the screen, played opposite Jimmy Cagney. In the difficult role of a naïve woman corrupted by her relationship with a gangster and driven to violence by their love-hate relationship, Payton gave a believable and nuanced performance. She had previously garnered rave reviews in her first major role in the 1949 thriller with Lloyd Bridges Trapped. After the release of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, many believed the beautiful and shapely Barbara Payton was poised for superstardom. But a little over a decade later, she was a decrepit and alcoholic has-been, a skid row prostitute selling her favors for as little as $5. In the aftermath of the success of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, she garnered a multitude of condemnatory headlines for a violent episode in her personal life. Lusty Barbara had been juggling boyfriends. One was the elegant A-list actor Franchot Tone and the other the muscular B-movie denizen Tom Neal. Infamy crashed down on all angles of the triangle when a jealous Tom Neal beat Franchot Tone into a coma, giving Barbara a black eye in the process. This was not the first time Barbara’s life would be upended by brutality and it would not be the last. A boyfriend had previously viciously assaulted Barbara’s landlady in a dispute over Barbara’s rent. After the end of her career, Barbara suffered a beating and near gang rape. Still later she was stabbed by a deranged trick. O’Dowd has written a brilliant book that brings Barbara Payton to life in all her glorious and inglorious contradictions: ambitious, sensuous, conniving, kind, generous, loving, exhibitionistic, and all-too-often utterly out of control. Stunningly attractive and tastefully attired in her youth, she gained weight and became sloppy as she entered middle age. O’Dowd draws the reader into this story of a young woman from the small town of Cloquet, Minnesota who headed for Hollywood to make her dreams come true and soon found herself trapped in a nightmare from which she could not escape. Raised in a family in which alcohol was habitually abused, she may have sought male approval to compensate for the lack of it from an emotionally distant father. O’Dowd points out that as long as Barbara had a movie career, she often gave fine performances even when the film itself hardly merited it as in the campy 1951 Bride of the Gorilla in which “the curvaceous Barbara smolders with a sexual intensity that is nothing less than riveting.” In the 1953 Run for the Hills, an oddball effort in which Sonny Tufts plays an insurance actuary who takes refuge in an old mining shaft because he fears the Cold War might burst into a hot one and Barbara plays his wife, she proves in her only comedy that she could be refreshingly funny. Indeed, Barbara Payton was multi-talented: a fine actress, a gourmet cook, a gifted interior decorator, and a skilled upholsterer. Her wealth of skills makes her end in alcoholic poverty all the more tragic.
Hands Through Stone: How Clarence Ray Allen Masterminded Murder from Behind Folsom’s Prison Walls by James A. Ardaiz (Craven Street Books, 2012) tells a frightening story with all the tension and color of a first-class mystery novel. However, it is no novel but the true story of a truly diabolical criminal. Clarence Ray Allen, leader of a robbery gang, bullied an associate, Eugene “Lee” Furrow, into committing the brutal murder of Mary Sue Kitts, 19, because Allen feared she might talk to the cops. While serving a life sentence in Folsom Prison for that murder, Allen talked another prisoner into carrying out a robbery that included the murder of three young people and the wounding of a third at Fran’s Market in Fresno, California in 1980. That robbery was a cover for the revenge murder of a witness who had testified against Clarence Ray Allen in the murder of Mary Sue Kitts. Ardaiz was the prosecutor who prosecuted Allen for the Kitts’s murder and won a sentence of life imprisonment and also prosecuted him for ordering the murders at Fran’s Market. That conviction got Allen the death penalty, a sentence that was carried out at San Quentin in 2006 with Ardaiz looking on as a formal witness. Allen, at age 76, was the oldest person ever executed by the State of California. He was also the last person executed in California; a moratorium on executions has been in effect since then due to the lethal-injection controversy. The book is a revealing insider’s view of the investigation in this case, but it could have been far better and more succinctly written by a professional writer as an “as told to” account.
Busted: Mug Shots and Arrest Records of the Famous and Infamous by Thomas J. Craughwell (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2012) is as advertised, from Frank William Abagnale to Yanni, with hundreds of others in between. Three of the Beatles (Lennon, Harrison and McCartney) were busted for marijuana possession in separate incidents. Chuck Berry jailed 20 months for violation of the Mann Act (interstate transportation of a white woman for “immoral” purposes). Mel Gibson, drunk driving. Gary Coleman, domestic violence. Tom Delay, conspiracy and money laundering. Zsa Zsa Gabor, assault for slapping a police officer who pulled her over for a traffic violation. O. Henry, embezzling $854.08 from the Austin, Tex., where he worked; sentenced to five years. Charles Keating, securities fraud. Rush Limbaugh, prescription fraud. Norman Mailer, felonious assault for stabbing his wife, Adele Morales, with a pen knife. Dudley Moore, domestic violence on his fourth wife, Nicole Richardson. And all the other usual suspects are in here from Mafia dons, to terrorists, to war criminals, to serial killers and assassins.