Crime Magazine's Review of True-Crime Books
by Anneli Rufus
(Vol. 15, Nov. 5, 2003)
In late October I was fortunate to interview true-crime queen Ann Rule. She was in the Bay Area to promote her latest book, Heart Full of Lies. Rule told me that she "can't stand" mystery fiction: As we true-crime fans know, what's the point of reading about made-up murders when the real ones are more gripping? "When I read mystery novels, I'm always finding things wrong with the police procedures," sighed Rule, whose inability to pass the eyesight portion of the test that would have allowed her to become a cop still stands as "the greatest disappointment of my life." Her college major was creative writing, "but only because it was an easy A," she admits. "I never wanted to be a writer." But "as a young mother about to be divorced with four little kids," she started writing for since defunct True Detective magazine. Some 1,400 articles and many bestsellers later, Rule is working on a book about Washington State's Green River Killer case, about which she has filled an entire closet in her home with files and newspaper clippings. After 20 years and some 49 unsolved murders, a suspect has finally been arrested and tagged as the killer. When Gary Ridgway was first nabbed, "my daughter saw his picture on the news and said, 'Mom, that's the guy who used to come to all your book signings,'" Rule recalled with a shudder. "She said, 'He'd stand there leaning against the wall.'"
Heart Full of Lies, by Ann Rule (Free Press, 2003): Ex-cheerleader, screenwriter and mother of two Liysa Northon was a classic sociopath: roping friends, lovers and family members into a complex labyrinth of falsehood and deceit that made Liysa seem like a victim, a survivor, and a hero. After years spent convincing them all that her third husband was an abusive alcoholic, she quietly killed him at an Oregon campsite. Having already bought her stories of his abuse, many were also willing to believe her claim that the killing was in self-defense. Determined to clear Chris Northon's name, Rule investigates this domestic drama with her usual compassion and careful attention to character development.
An Evening with JonBenet Ramsey: A Play and Two Essays by Walter A. Davis (Xlibris, 2003): Davis, Professor Emeritus in the English Department at Ohio State University, does not mince words in his essays on the case. Before JonBenet was a murder victim, she was a victim of chronic sexual abuse, both physical and psychological. Davis, with erudite writing, debunks both prevailing theories about how the 6-tear-old beauty princess came to die: death was no accident and no intruder was involved. To Davis, the preponderance of the evidence points to Patsy Ramsey as the murderer in retaliation for the intimacies her husband John Ramsey took with JonBenet. "A sexualized child is at the center of this tale," Davis writes. "Sex is here the key to everything." In the play, Cowboy's Sweetheart, Davis imagines the life of a child who was murdered by her mother as it might have evolved if she had lived.
Mortal Evidence, by Cyril Wecht and Greg Saitz, with Mark Curriden (Prometheus Books, 2003): World-famous pathologist Wecht spotlights some of the high-profile cases with which he's been involved. From Sam Sheppard to JonBenet Ramsey to O.J. Simpson to Tammy Wynette, we meet once again the celebrity perps and victims of whom the press never seems to tire. Lest you suspect that you've already heard everything about these cases, Wecht proposes his own bracingly controversial theories about them, which keeps those pages turning. Making no bones about his belief that JonBenet died during sex play with someone she knew, he's also pretty sure O.J. had an accomplice.
Memoirs of Vidocq, by François Eugène Vidocq (AK Press, 2003): An international bestseller when first published almost 200 years ago, this autobiography of Paris's celebrated post-Revolutionary police chief introduces an irrepressible raconteur. Also a private detective, Vidocq was an unrepentant ex-criminal himself. French writers Alexandre Dumas, Honore de Balzac and Victor Hugo were his personal friends, so it comes as no surprise that Vidocq's firsthand accounts of clever crimes, perps, and convictions influenced their works, as well as those of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, whose literary debt to this bon vivant is made ever so clear by these lively memoirs.
Drake's Fortune, by Richard Rayner (Anchor, 2003): In the 1920s, farm-boy-turned-con-man Oscar Hartzell bilked tens of thousands of hapless Midwesterners out of their life savings. As Rayner recounts with breezy journalistic eloquence, Hartzell accomplished this by convincing his victims that they were the legitimate heirs of Sir Francis Drake, and thus entitled to a share of the 16th-century admiral's huge fortune, which was tied up in extensive legal red tape that Hartzell offered to untangle — at a cost. Of course the fortune was a myth, Drake's estate having been settled centuries before Hartzell and his victims were even born. The con man lived in luxury but died mad, as this swiftly paced biography of a determined criminal reveals while bringing a bygone era satisfyingly alive.
(Vol. 14, Sept. 29, 2003)
Books about true crime are moving from the back to the front of bookstores and public libraries. All of a sudden, true crime is in. Major publishers are bringing out new crime books at an unprecedented rate, and promoting them feverishly. True-crime authors are snagging six-figure advances. It was bound to happen sometime. But why now? Because "CSI" and other forensics-based TV dramas are attracting more viewers than other shows? Or because we're all just feeling more fearful, in general, all the time?
The Master Con Man, by Robert Kyriakides (Headpress, 2003): Irish-born Syd Gottfried, a fearless crook, ran ever-more-complex con games in Europe and America for some 50 years, bilking every kind of mark from casino owners to diamond dealers to penis-enlargement-surgery patients. Told in the first person in a conversational style yet published under the byline of Gottfried's former lawyer, this (auto)biography gives the inside dope on how cons work — and begins, chillingly, with an account of the night Gottfried arrived home to find his young daughter murdered.
The Best American Crime Writing 2003, edited by John Berendt, Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook (Vintage, 2003): These nearly two dozen examples of the past year's finest crime reportage include pieces on pedophiles, pimps, terrorists, and other evaders of justice — even Enron executives. They span the globe; a story on the savage murder, in Pakistan, of journalist Daniel Pearl is sobering as is The Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger's article on an Eastern European prostitution racket into which trusting young women disappear without a trace.
A Deadly Secret, by Matt Birkbeck (Berkley, 2003): A seeming drifter arrested for shoplifting in Pennsylvania in 2001 was soon discovered to be New York billionaire Robert Durst, heir to a real-estate fortune and key suspect in the still-unsolved 1982 slaying of his wife. Shortly after his arrest, Durst was indicted for the grisly murder of a Texas man. As revealed in the new afterword of this nuts-and-bolts account by a People magazine reporter, Durst is now being eyed for investigation in unsolved vanishings elsewhere.
Journal of the Dead, by Jason Kersten (Harper Collins, 2003): Young city-boy college pals Raffi Kodikian and Dave Coughlin were driving cross-country, On the Road-style, when a campout near New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns took a deadly turn: As Kodikian later reported, the pair had run out of water and a dehydrated Coughlin had begged to be killed rather than endure another hour of thirst. Not as passionate as it could be, this effort by a Maxim writer recounts the incident and Kodikian's subsequent trial for murder; most gripping is the blow-by-blow of exactly what dehydration does to a human body.
Murder in Paradise, by Chris Loos and Rick Castberg (Avon, $7.50): Two Hilo-based writers cover the Christmas 1991 killing of 23-year-old Dana Ireland, who was knocked off her bicycle, raped and battered while visiting the Big Island of Hawaii from Virginia. A trio of neighborhood toughs was arrested for the crime; what elevates this book from standard fare is the detailed picture it paints of a Hawaii that few tourists see: lowdown housing projects and the hopeless Pidgin-speaking drug dealers and addicts who dwell there, preying on locals and outsiders alike.
Dead Center, by Frank J. Daniels (New Horizon, 2003): Hopelessly romantic and newly married for the first time at age 46, Bruce Dodson was shot to death near Snipe Mountain in western Colorado in 1995 on his first-ever hunting trip. His bride of 90 days, Janice, appeared to go into shock after discovering his body. The autopsy, though, showed that Dodson had been murdered: he had been shot three times not once. Suspicion soon fell on Janice, a crack shot who had recently taken out a large insurance policy on Bruce. Local prosecuting attorney Frank Daniels offers a belabored, cliched account of the crime and its subsequent four-and-a-half year investigation that led to Janice being convicted of first-degree murder.
(Vol. 13, July 7, 2003)
For true-crime readers, summer vacation means catching up on old but as-yet-unread favorites as well as scooping up the latest the genre has to offer. This season features some high-profile new releases based on high-profile cases — Aphrodite Jones's Red Zone is sure to score a lot of buzz. You might remember Jones as the author who sued the distributors of the Oscar-winning film Boys Don't Cry, claiming that her own account of the Brandon Teena murder case — a book called All She Wanted — afforded her special rights to the story and its principals. She settled for an undisclosed amount. The San Francisco dog-mauling case on which Red Zone is based made celebrities out of its perpetrators, their victims, and a passel of lawyers. Maria Flook's Invisible Eden banks on celebrity spin as well. The victim of the murder Flook recounts was a high-fashion reporter who hobnobbed with royalty. Buckets of blood, flashes of glitz — that's summer reading.
Red Zone, by Aphrodite Jones (Morrow, 2003): Few crimes are as all-around sordid as San Francisco's dog-mauling case, in which two huge dogs killed a young lacrosse coach in 2001. A pair of down-and-out lawyers was raising the hounds for an incarcerated armed robber who was scheming to sell guard dogs to meth-lab operators. Days after the killing, the lawyers legally adopted the prisoner, who was the object of their fervent sexual fantasies. Rumors of bestiality spice the bloody story even further. Jones luxuriates in the gory details, effectively exposing the pair whom a trial judge dubbed "the most hated couple in San Francisco." But victim Diane Whipple gets jarringly little coverage: a glaring omission that leaves us wondering. Also, even some diehard true-crime fans will find the close-up photographs of Whipple's lethal wounds in bad taste.
Invisible Eden, by Maria Flook (Broadway, 2003): A less forgettable title would attract more readers to this intriguing account of a still-unsolved year-old crime in which a celebrated fashion journalist was killed in her serene Cape Cod bungalow. When Christa Worthington's corpse was discovered 36 hours later, her toddler daughter was suckling at its breast. Flook, a Cape Cod denizen herself, is a powerful, evocative writer who thrives in this "literary investigation." Although some readers may have little patience for first-person passages in which Flook recounts her own history (strikingly parallel to Worthington's in various aspects), the dogged attentiveness with which she investigates Worthington's character outweighs that nuisance. Worthington is a complex victim: always unlucky in love, aristocratic yet unsatisfied, an inveterate pursuer of married men, she defies categorization — as even her closest friends told the author.
Held Captive, by Maggie Haberman and Jeane MacIntosh (Avon, 2003): After vanishing one night from her well-appointed Salt Lake City home in 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart became the subject of a massive search. That she was recovered nine months later, alive, marked a rare moment in child-abduction cases. This mass-market paperback adopts a predictable breathless tone while recounting the tale of the teen's abduction and the back stories of the husband-and-wife Christian zealots with whom she was eventually found. Conspiracy theorists and scandalmongers — and this case spurred more than a few — will find little to go on in this by-the-book book about a very strange crime.
Lethal Intent, by Sue Russell (Kensington, 2003): Yes, women can be serial killers, and Russell shows how Aileen Wuornos emerged from childhood traumas to become one of the nation's most notorious. Executed this year in Florida, Wuornos murdered seven men in that state (wives, warn your husbands not to pick up hitchhiking prostitutes) and declared after her capture that she would gladly kill again. Lambasted in the world press as a "man-hating lesbian," she gave gays a bad name. Interviewing many participants in the saga, including men who, as teenage boys, were initiated sexually by Wuornos, Russell writes with empathy for killer and victims alike. That Wuornos was the daughter of a convicted kidnapper and child molester whom she never met gives the nature-not-nurture folks grist for the mill.
Gangs, edited by Sean Donahue (Adrenaline, 2003): Famous fictional excerpts such as part of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange supplement thoughtful, true, journalistic accounts of gang life and its violent consequences. Particularly gripping is an inside look at New York's Chinese gangs, in which senseless murders wreck the dreams that brought immigrants halfway around the world. A startling commonality in many of these essays and articles is how young the gang members are. Parents of teens will read this book with especial horror.
(Vol. 12, May 28, 2003)
After a long legal struggle, British courts have granted notorious child-murderer Mary Bell the right to lifelong anonymity. Retold in the fascinating book Children Who Kill, which was covered in the last installment of this column, Bell's is a harrowing tale in which an 11-year-old girl murdered a 4-year-old boy and a 3-year-old boy in 1968. Now a mother herself, living under a different name, the former Mary Bell was incarcerated until 1980. The parents of her young victims are among many now protesting the court's decision, arguing that the killer forfeited any right to public mercy when she was paid some $100,000 recently for contributing to a book based on her life. This situation brings up a ticklish topic for true-crime buffs. Sure, most books include a short-term epilogue. But after a book goes to press and hits the stores, the story it started to tell goes on and on and on. Just as we wonder "Where are they now?" about vanished celebrities, we might also ponder the long-term fates of victims' families and perps of every stripe. Those stories would make for good books too.
Dangerous Attractions, by Robert Scott (Pinnacle, 2003). Ever-so-prolific Scott takes on an 11-year-old case in which a white-supremacist ex-con gangbanger murdered his on-again, off-again girlfriend in idyllic coastal Southern California. Prosewise, it's not top-notch, but this nuts-and-bolts rendering of an utterly pointless killing enters the violent, drug-addled minds of neo-Nazi skinheads. What it finds there is scarier than any isolated crime.
The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease (Feral House, 2003). If it's not JFK's brain in the official autopsy X-rays, then whose is it? If Sirhan Sirhan continues to allege his innocence, should we believe him? If James Earl Ray didn't kill MLK, then who did? This collection of dozens of essays previously published in Probe magazine pours new fuel into the ongoing furor vis-a-vis snafus, cover-ups, conspiracies, and alternative endings to the most famous American assassination cases of the last 50 years.
The True Intrepid, by Bill Macdonald (Raincoast, 2001). Said to be the flesh-and-blood model for James Bond, Manitoba-born master spy William Stephenson attracted a bit of attention 30 years back as the putative subject of another book, A Man Called Intrepid. But spy that he was, Stephenson moved amid a constantly changing and continually remade series of state secrets, false fronts, and duck blinds. CIA historian Macdonald tracked down the genuine article, a crime fighter of the old school and a nonpareil WWII character.
The Rabbi and the Hit Man, by Arthur J. Magida (Harper Collins, 2003). Southern New Jersey's Jewish community had its faith shaken to the core when, in 1994, beloved Reform Rabbi Fred Neulander hired a ne'er-do-well to murder his mild-mannered, cake-baking wife. A shanda to end all shandas, entailing multiple affairs and a complex web of lies, the crime landed both clergyman and killer behind bars for the long haul. This book could have used an editor with a firm hand, and Magida's characterization of certain key players, including the victim, falls far short of what they — and this story — deserve.
Crimes of New York, edited by Clint Willis (Adrenaline, 2003). This collection — part of a series whose many other titles include Mob and NYPD — includes the work of many illustrious writers, who riff on gangsters, hoods, and wrong-place/wrong-time situations in the city that never sleeps. Lillian Ross writes about 10th-grade girls in trouble; Calvin Trillin unveils wrongdoing on Wall Street. Drugs and guns punctuate a high-caliber reading experience, but the inclusion of fictional works in what is mostly a true-crime anthology is unsettling; we might like P.G. Wodehouse but we don't want him here.
Guillotine: The Timbers of Justice, by Robert Frederick Opie (Sutton, 2003). From a British publisher comes this unique 200-year history of a device whose ingenious and grisly efficiency has, as Opie tells us, captivated the public unlike no other method of execution. Examining its use during the French Revolution, by the Nazis during WWII, and beyond — including its last official deployment in the 1970s — this serious work affords insights into politics, crime, and human nature. Illustrations bring us almost to the present day by including a photograph of France's last public execution: the 1939 guillotining of murderer Eugène Weidmann.
Born to Steal, by Gary Weiss (Warner Books, 2003). Crooked, Mob-connected brokerage houses known as "chop houses" use cold-calling to loot millions from the gullible and greedy all over the United States. Weiss, an investigative reporter for Business Week, melodramatically traces the improbable rise and inevitable fall of one young broker. The stupidity of investors is as astounding as the lack of government enforcement.
(Vol. 11, April 7, 2003)
For the last 30-plus years, women have been struggling to escape, change, or adapt the traditional roles set in place by society and history. But in the world of crime — and true-crime writing — women and girls have traditional roles as well. By an astounding majority, we are the victims. It is we who are abducted, tortured, raped, easily overpowered by men with or without weapons. It is we who fall in love with the wrong men, we who pay dearly when we try to break up with them. It is we who become the subject of sexual fantasies — either in the minds of strangers who stalk us, or in the minds of acquaintances who mistake our friendliness or politeness for flirting. Yet, as two new books reveal unflinchingly, it is an emerging fact of life in the modern world that females can be vicious, heartless perps too.
Murderous Women, by Frank Jones (Firefly, 2003): Updating a work originally published in 1991, journalist and true-crime veteran Jones has added several chapters about more recent cases, as well as epilogues to some of the earlier ones. Much-loathed Canadian sex-killer Karla Homolka and South African Mariette Bosch, hanged for shooting her best friend because she wanted his husband, are among the new additions. The Myra Hindley/Ian Brady case might seem like such old hat that you're tempted to skip Jones's chapter on it, but don't. Interviews with investigators cast a fresh light, as do the personal insights, visual details and analysis that make this and the rest of the book a thoughtful, absorbing read.
Children Who Kill, by Carol Anne Davis (Allison & Busby, 2003): The Scots author of Women Who Kill comes back with a bracing new follow-up. School shooters, teenage sex killers, kidnappers who were kids themselves: They did the unthinkable, yet rather than take the easy route and demonize them, Davis delves deeply into their lives before and after their crimes. It's rare for authors of any kind to pay such intense, authentic attention to kids' feelings and characters; Davis's doing so makes these crimes and criminals all the more interesting. Complex yet so simple, these two dozen or so stories implicate abusive parents and other irresponsible adults who might have saved these kids — and thus their victims — but didn't.
The Montesi Scandal, by Karen Pinkus (University of Chicago, 2003): Mild-mannered Roman ingénue Wilma Montesi was found dead on a beach outside the city one day in 1953. At first called an accidental drowning, as there were no signs of assault, the mysterious death spawned a huge scandal in which all of Italy buzzed with talk of orgies, drugs, movie stars — and murder. Comparative literature professor Pinkus reexamines the case and its aftermath in what many if not most readers will find a daunting format: as the production notes for a never-made film. Characters are introduced, scenes are described, and the story gets told — but the film-notes conceit makes for a long and not-so-rewarding effort.
Con Men, edited by Ian Jackman (Simon & Schuster, 2003): Mike Wallace wrote the introduction to this collection of profiles, from the "60 Minutes" archive, of swindlers and flim-flam men, forgers and fakers, mail-order ministers and pyramid-scheme pirates. Dating back several decades, these range from a phony doctor running a phony health spa in Southern California to the case of Santé and Kenny Kimes, mother-and-son scammers-cum-killers, whose plan to steal a wealthy woman's Manhattan apartment house ended with their convictions for her murder. Each case includes background details on how "60 Minutes" investigators pulled off their "sting" operations and exposés. Not a deep read, but a quick, fun one.
(Vol. 10, Jan. 25, 2003)
As the old year slid into a new year, the headlines were as much about corporate crime as about the other, more familiar and more personal kind. Corporate crime – its dynamics, terminology, and mechanisms – presents a much more complex picture than that other kind, an almost abstract image onto which it is difficult to put a real human face.
Best Business Crime Writing of the Year, edited by James Surowiecki. (Vintage, 2002): In an earlier era, the very idea of such a book would be implausible and far from exciting. But the fact that this collection even exists, that its contributing writers include some of America's top reporters, and that it makes for a whole new kind of thrilling true-crime book says a lot about our times. Previously published in the likes of Vanity Fair and Newsweek, these stories include the stock scandal involving Martha Stewart, the Enron debacle, and more.
Finders Keepers, by Mark Bowden. (Atlantic Monthly, 2002): By the author of Black Hawk Down, this true tale of a South Philly down-and-outer who had a lucky break explores the age-old question: What would you do if you found a million dollars? After coming across a full bag that had fallen out of an armored vehicle, this guy made choices that led straight to misery, as the author reveals in a scintillating blow-by-blow.
Mr. Nice, by Howard Marks. (Canongate, 2002): Some 20 years back, the author had dozens of aliases, dozens of phone lines, and dozens of businesses that were used to launder the earnings from his true avocation: drug-dealing. In this engaging memoir, Marks – who really does seem to live up to the book's title – starts with his childhood in Wales, then tells the whole story, through his capture and incarceration, and then beyond.
Dangerous Waters, by John S. Burnett. (Dutton, 2002): If you think pirates went extinct with Captain Hook, think again. Terrifying anecdotes fill this journalist's in-depth account of modern-day piracy on today's high seas. From fishing boats to oil tankers, vessels of all kinds around the world are fair game for professional thieves who board them by stealth and will stop at nothing in their quest for cargo and cash.
Like Father, Like Son, by Robert Scott. (Pinnacle, 2002): Depravity takes on a whole new meaning in this tale of a killer who turned his own son into a sex slave, then as the boy grew the father turned him first into a pimp, then into a partner in crime. Together, father and son abducted, abused, and slew a 9-year-old girl, making their crime Nevada's first father-and-son death-penalty case.
Portrait of a Killer, by Patricia Cornwell. (Putnam, 2002): The best-selling author of mystery novels spent many years and lots of money pursuing her personal theory about Jack the Ripper's true identity. In this nonfiction account of that pursuit, Cornwell makes the case that Jack was actually the famous British artist Walter Sickert. Cornwell's purchase and subsequent slashing of a Sickert painting raised eyebrows and rampant criticism last year; she tells her side of the story in this big and somewhat self-indulgent book.