Five true-crime plane reads to snag from the used bookstore…or leave for another victim
To bring you the crime material you love faster, we’ve created a system: find a theme (drug-crime documentaries, Ed Gein, eg.), pick at least five relevant pieces, watch the first 10 minutes/read the first 10 pages of each, and recommend whether you should continue, or ditch it. Sort of a true-crime Tinder, if you will — what you should watch/read/download, but also what you really shouldn’t.
This time around, I’ve grabbed five true-crime paperbacks…with, coincidentally, a heavy dose of Ivy-League intrigue. Which ones are page-turners, which ones useless doorstops? Let’s get into it.
John Dunning, Strange Deaths
Even for 1981, when the book was published, some of the prose seems…”quaint”? To wit, Dunning’s explanation of why a man is not necessarily free to stop the rape of his wife, in his home, by clouting the perp with a TV set: “A liberally constituted society does not regard the wife as the property of her husband. In theory, she is entitled to engage in sex with the casual passing burglar if she so chooses.” Uh…huh?
But something about the vintage quality of the writing, and of the attitude towards various baroquely plotted crimes involving incest and/or disarticulation around the world, is compelling — not good, exactly, but I started the book under foils at the salon, and kept right on reading after I got home. Not worth seeking out specifically, but if you find it in a 50-cent box or at your vacay rental, it’ll do the trick.
Stella Sands, Murder At Yale: The True Story Of A Beautiful Grad Student And A Cold-Blooded Crime
Murder At Yale seems in its first 10 pages like a parody of true-crime writing; alas, it is evidently a straightforward, unsatirical book. The murder of Annie Le took place in 2009, and the book’s pub date is 2010, which could explain the substandard writing and inadequate picture section; more likely, the reading equivalent of being spoken too just a bit too slowly and loudly may derive from the author’s day job as the editor of a kids’ magazine.
In any event, while there’s a good story here, Sands isn’t the woman for the job. The very first sentence is a shot across the bow of the USS Histrionics: “The story of Annie Marie Le’s disappearance grabbed the nation by the gut — and from the very beginning, it was a mystery that boded ill.” 1. “Gut”? 2. One of those sets of clauses, maybe; not both. 3. Do mysteries involving missing women tend to bode well?
Two pages (and many performative and emphatic paragraph breaks) later — and this problem extends to the “chaptering”; some chapters consist of barely a page and a half — Le’s body is found. “There wasn’t going to be any wedding. No rings or vows would be exchanged. Her friends would never catch her bouquet as she excitedly tossed it over her shoulder.” I am a nationally-ranked generator of filler BS, but there is an art to doing it so that it’s not quite so flagrant, and everything after “exchanged” merely pads out the first sentence. Between the repetition; the lists of national headlines used in lieu of original prose; and superfluous chaptering and carriage-returning designed either to take up space or to create the suspense Sands’s sentences haven’t, it’s immediately and fatally off-putting.
Ben MacIntyre, The Napoleon Of Crime: The Life And Times Of Adam Worth, Master Thief
Worth was a Victorian art (and identity) thief, raised in abject poverty in 1840s Cambridge, MA and determined as a result to attain the finer trappings in life — by any means necessary. MacIntyre is sincerely fascinated by his subject, upon whom he happened while researching a much different story in Los Angeles, and his engagement comes through in his tart prose. I was won over at the phrase “malodorous hovel” on page 8, and blew right past the 10-page mark thanks to MacIntyre’s dry takedown of Boston-Brahmin pretentions.
The title is, of course, a nod to Sherlock Holmes’s description of Moriarty — and a worthwhile addition to your list.
Melanie Thernstrom, Halfway Heaven: Diary Of A Harvard Murder
Crime properties centered around Ivy League institutions more often than not oversubscribe the mythos of these institutions, or think the setting or the matriculation of one of the players in the drama has more to do with the story than it does. Lyle Menendez’s time at Princeton was really only a footnote to everything else that was going on (and he to it, more to the point), but good luck finding a 40 Hours on the topic that doesn’t include 90 seconds of loving B-roll of Nassau Hall.
Halfway Heaven, lent to me by my esteemed colleague Stephanie Early Green, threatens to fall into the same trap, opening as it does with a respectful description of Harvard Commencement and its bona fides — but the story it tells, of two students and a co-dependent version of the American dream that ended in a murder-suicide, is related to what Thernstrom calls a Harvard degree’s “destiny to do significant, lucrative work, a kind of good luck charm whose spell is always new.” The sometimes-culty effects of an Ivy League school are relevant here, and as an Ivy grad who 1) went to girls’ school for 12 years before that, and is familiar with the sometimes stunting effects of “Girl World”; and 2) marked the unexpected death of a classmate just days before her own commencement, one year before these events took place, I’m quite interested to see how the story unfolds.
Jon Blackwell, Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales Of Murders And Mobster, Scandals And Scoundrels
I didn’t have high hopes for this one, starting with the font, a vaguely old-tymey serif affair with large capitals that isn’t very easy to read. As well, the book starts with “Crime And Villainy Before 1900,” and even the best prose stylists can have difficulty un-slogging narratives from before radio.
NNJ gets off to a solid start, though, describing the reign of terror of “New Netherlands”‘s first territorial governor, Willem Kieft, who “combined the charm of a drill instructor with the ethics of an embezzler.” Blackwell moves on to the likes of Captain Kidd, as well as Edward Hyde, governor and “pompous ass” with a then-scandalous alleged taste for women’s clothing. Blackwell is knowledgeable, but doesn’t burden the reader with every single fillip of research, and strikes the right gossipy tone. A solid travel read to dip in and out of and a great gift for the native of God’s Little Acre in your life.
Blotter publisher Sarah D. Bunting is also a “pompous ass” with a taste for women’s clothing.