Friday, September 18, 2009


Russel D McLean

Next week I will be talking to Alexander McGregor, a journalist whose book, THE LAW KILLERS, went straight to number one in the Scottish book charts and stayed there… for over ten weeks! THE LAW KILLERS is, of course, a true crime book concerning itself with crimes in the city of Dundee.

And, yes, that’s the same Dundee I’m writing about.

True crime is a strange genre. Sometimes it can feel manipulative, exploiting others’ pain for a few hours entertainment and fascination. But when done well, with compassion intelligence and respect, true crime can be a fascinating form of reportage from the darker side of the human experience.

Carol Anne Davis – a Dundonian author by birth, but these days, I believe living somewhere south of the border – tends to be published under seemingly exploitative titles that disguise her thoughtful, reflective and often illuminating case studies. Couples Who Kill, as a title, reeks of schlock, but then you open the pages and realise that this woman is dedicated not to feeding the shock-horror factor but is deliberately setting out to discover – in a sober and respectful fashion – what makes criminals and killers tick. Her interviews, analyses and reconstructions are gripping and above all unbiased. She is not here to titillate you. She is here to make you think. About the nature of the violence. About who these people are who could commit such acts.

I like Davis’s style, because what fascinates about crime is what it says about the way that people think and the society that could produce such people. It’s why I love crime fiction, and it’s why I love well written true crime.

Joseph Wambaugh, of course, truly fascinates me both with his fiction and his true crime. I think his cop’s eye view of proceedings provided the right kind of distance, and it helped that he could just naturally write up a storm. Moments from his true crime have often stayed with me, particularly Lines and Shadows and, of course, Echoes in the Darkness.

At this year’s Harrogate Crime Festival I foolishly didn’t get up the guts to just stride over and speak to David Simon. I had just come off reading THE CORNER, and as I said to many people, I have rarely felt such anger when closing a book. Not anger at the author or the people involved in the book, but at the way we as a society could allow such things to happen on our watch. And anger that we find it so hard to provide an alternative, to undo this mess that we have created in our cities. I felt angry because I was not reading simply about Baltimore, but about cities all over the world. With variations, regional and personal, the stories of THE CORNER could easily take place anywhere and with the same indifference from authority and society. This was true crime as true social commentary, and it made me mad – precisely the point, I think, of the book.

Talking to Alexander McGregor in advance of our event next week, I’ve been fascinated to hear how, for the new edition, he’s had to update cases as new evidence has come to light, been forced to include new studies that caught his attention and generally had to ensure the book kept pace with the world around it. Because true crime is not written in a vacuum. The players and their situations are always in flux long after a book has been published. He has not abandoned his cases, left his words set in stone. How could he? Unlike fictional thrillers, true crime cases reverberate long after the dust has settled. And in so many cases, it seems that the possibility of the dust ever settling is truly remote.

I don’t know that I could ever write a true crime book. I don’t know that I could do true life tragedy justice. Not many people can, but those who write truly compelling and intelligent analyses of the terrible things we do to each other, making sense of reasoning and motive that can often seem bizarre and terrifying, have my utmost respect and admiration.


Steve Weddle said...

Good stuff.

I think "true crime" as a designation tends to get a bum rap because folks associate it with the pulpy mags of sex and violence. (Not FHM/Maxim. The older stuff with 'painted' covers, not the airbrushed ones.)

But you seem to have it spot on when you suggest that "true crime" is scarier than the traditional mystery novel because it is closer to us, making more of a comment on us as a society.

I'll have to check out the books/authors you mention that I haven't read yet.

Jay Stringer said...

Interesting read.

I came to true crime from a very snooty position. Part of it was the kind of bias that's all to easy to fall into when you're a bookseller -judging the material and the people who are buying it. I was the crime buyer for the shop, and it could often be depressing.

People coming in to pick up the latest book about the local football firm, or the crime families, they'd wink at you and say proudly "my dads on page fifteen."

And after i moved, and for a short time worked in a bookshop on a deprived housing estate in glasgow, the store was laid out so that the true crime section was pride of place, first section the customers would come to when they walked in.

At the same time, the kind of snobbery that created in me is no different to the kind i rail against in other genres, so it was a double standard.

Once you actually start exploring it, as you've described above, you start to find some real gems. And, as my current writing style leans heavily toward realism and social issues, the true crime section is an invaluable resource.

I have a new approach. Every time i visit somewhere new, a new city or country, i seek out the bookshop and ask for recommendations on the best local crime and true crime writers. I feel i learn far more about the place this way.