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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Crimes of the Centuries: True Crime: An American Anthology


True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter

Among true crime writers, there are those who pride themselves on their lack of literary flourish and color, and those who sensationalize every gory detail. Some focus on the victims, and others on the perpetrators. Some present a crime story with objective balance, while others are more than willing to serve as judge, jury, and executioner to perpetrator and victim alike.

In True Crime: An American Anthology, literature professor, novelist, and true crime writer Harold Schechter plucks examples from all of these types, and creates a loosely chronological record of American true crime writing over the past 350 years, from Puritan leaders William Bradford and Cotton Mather, to recent pieces from James Ellroy and Ann Rule. The anthology also includes selections from a number of figures you'd never consider to be true crime writers: Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Calvin Trillin, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Some of the cases are still well-known today, some have faded from recent memory, and others were obscure and ignored, even in their time. Hurston's piece, "The Trial of Ruby McCollum," about an African-American woman accused of murdering her white lover, a prominent, married physician, with whom she'd had a child, is one of the collection's high points. Hurston focuses on how the black and white communities gradually come to the same consensus about how justice ought to be served (though for very different reasons), and on the show trial that's more about placating the community than uncovering the truth.

Meyer Berger won a Pulitzer for "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street," an account of the shooting spree carried out by a psychologically unhinged man named Howard Unruh against people he believed had "talked about him." The piece is masterfully written, and Berger's minute-by-minute account of the massacre is chilling, especially given some of its similarities to murders committed by Michael McLendon in Alabama this week.

Another excellent piece is John Bartlow Martin's "Butcher's Dozen," about the police investigation of the Cleveland "torso murders," where the murderer was never caught, and most of his victims never identified. Martin, later an ambassador and a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, focuses on police efforts to infiltrate the most poverty-stricken parts of Depression era Cleveland - shantytowns, hobo camps, and clapboard rooming houses - both to find the killer, and to protect the city's most vulnerable residents from becoming victims themselves.

Schechter collects an exceptional range of pieces in this anthology, and some very good, thoughtful, complex writing at that.

1 comment:

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