In his fascinating new book, Scoundrel: How a convicted murderer persuaded the women who loved him, the conservative establishment and the courts to set him free, Sarah Weinman does a masterful job of resurrecting a stranger-than-fiction chapter of American criminal justice. In 1957, unemployed veteran Edgar Smith was convicted of murdering 15-year-old Victoria Zielinski in New Jersey and sentenced to death. After conservative intellectual William F. Buckley learned that Smith was an admirer of Buckley’s magazine, National exam, Buckley began corresponding with Smith, which led to an unlikely friendship and financial support for legal efforts to spare Smith’s life. Smith, who published both a book about his case and a crime novel behind bars, was released in 1971 to serve time. Five years later, he stabbed a woman nearly to death in California. Weinman’s relentless research, which included correspondence with Smith, who died in prison in 2017, allows him to craft a deeply disturbing account of how a clever killer manipulated the justice system and conservative media to his advantage.
How long do the moments last? For the true crime genre, this current moment is about seven and a half years old, dating back to the immense popularity of the podcast. Serialis the first season since it dropped in the fall of 2014. But crime and murder are an undying fascination, dating back centuries. Think of the pamphlets of preacher Cotton Mather in the late 17th century, or the early yellow journalism of Benjamin Franklin. Or, the Bible. We like to consume stories about the worst that humanity can do and seek to understand how and why it happened.
Murder is, of course, an ugly and ugly affair, and Americans in particular continue to wring their necks to get a look at the worst of shipwrecks. We want answers, we want justice, we want heroes, we want villains, and real-life crime offers so much and more. Detective fiction may yearn for order out of chaos, but true crime struggles with chaos while hoping for catharsis in the meantime.
These larger issues and the connections between crime, society and human behavior have preoccupied me for much of my life. Peeking into the abyss and hoping that same abyss won’t swallow me up if I take the wrong step or cross a fine line. These 10 books have helped me understand the darkest corners of the world.
1. Classic crimes by William Roughead (1951)
Modern true crime could not exist without the writings of Roughead (1870–1952), a Scottish lawyer with a passion for criminal trials. His accounts of the legal proceedings he witnessed and the cases he investigated, collected in this one volume, are imbued with joy and brilliance, as well as outbursts of indignation at obvious wrongs (including that of ‘Oscar Slater, subject of Margalit Fox’s exceptional book Conan Doyle for Defense.)
2. Crime and science by Jürgen Thorwald (1966)
My freshman roommate gave me a copy of this book for my birthday, and I know it played a huge part in why I pursued a master’s degree in forensic science (even though it didn’t). is one I have never used except as writing material on crimes of all kinds.) Thorwald writes with exceptional clarity about obscure and famous cases solved with forensic techniques like blood typing and elemental analysis of gunshot residue. DNA and ITUCThe glamorization of style makes these older techniques seem quaint, but today’s criminals owe much to their chemically-minded pioneers. I am still amazed that this book and its previous volume, The Age of the Detective– who lost the Edgar Award for Best Factual Crime to In cold blood– have not yet been rescued from exhausted oblivion.
3. A dead man in Canaan by Joan Barthel (1977)
This infuriating story of a son wrongly convicted of murdering his mother, and the campaign by William Styron, Renata Adler, Philip Roth and Arthur Miller to free him, was of great concern to me as I wrote. Scoundrel. Barthel’s book, first published in 1977 and re-released digitally in 2016, focuses on the 1973 murder of Barbara Gibbons in Connecticut and how her 18-year-old son, Peter Reilly, became found in the crosshairs of the police and local prosecutors. Their continued mess means it’s unlikely, if not impossible, that we’ll ever know (with proof) who killed Gibbons.
4. The Journalist and the Assassin by Janet Malcolm (1989)
That searing opening paragraph. This excoriating criticism of the methods of Joe McGinniss where he had access to Jeffrey MacDonald, the alleged assassin of his wife and children, by professing to believe in his innocence only to turn against him in the press. But I always thought that Malcolm’s brilliant and unforgiving book didn’t really care about the MacDonald case – it was just a perfect, legally weighted example of the failings of the journalist-subject relationship. And that’s why I came back to it while working on Scoundrel— my own account of the porous ties between a journalist and a murderer.
5. Redrum the Innocent by Kirk Makin (1992)
I wish this true Canadian crime story, admittedly an 800-page door stopper, was made more widely available, or reprinted with updates. It deals, exhaustively and comprehensively, with one of the most disturbing criminal chapters in the history of this country. Nine-year-old Christine Jessop was raped and strangled to death in 1984, and law enforcement became convinced her neighbor Guy Paul Morin had killed her. He was acquitted, then convicted (Canada has no double jeopardy), then DNA testing freed him for good in 1995. Jessop’s real killer was eventually discovered via genetic genealogy, and knowing that makes the systemic failure to capture a live suspect in plain sight all the more infuriating.
6. Under the bridge by Rebecca Godfrey (2005)
Here is another true criminal work of a fellow Canadian. Godfrey, whose novel The torn skirt is an underground classic, she essentially learned journalism in order to report this harrowing account of the 1997 murder of Reena Virk, an Indigenous teenager living in Victoria, British Columbia, and the subsequent arrests and trials of several fellow prisoners. class. Godfrey renders victim and perpetrators in stunning three-dimensional detail, an acuity rendered more sensitive as befits a novelist.
7. true crime edited by Harold Schechter (2008)
When a genre finally arrives in the hallowed halls of the Library of America, it’s a sign of its growing respectability. (Psychological thriller made with my own two-volume box set, female detective writers, in 2015.) As a writer, Schechter has done more work and research on historical serial murderers than anyone (and has become, alas, ripe for looting by true crime podcasters.) Publishing of this volume demonstrates the extent of his knowledge and his astute choice of other authors of detective novels and their favorite cases. One day, I hope, there will be a follow-up anthology.
8. The five by Hallie Rubenhold (2019)
The more time passes, the more I am in awe of this book. Rubenhold flips the usual script and elevates the stories of the five women known to have been murdered by a wandering man through the streets of East London’s Whitechapel in 1888. In doing so, she restores them: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary. -Jane – as complex and flawed human figures struggling to live in a world plagued by poverty, homelessness and cruelty to women, while shattering many myths about who and what they were not.
9. We keep the dead close by Becky Cooper (2020)
I have often thought of this book in the wake of the sexual misconduct lawsuit recently launched by three Harvard anthropology graduate students, an ominous reminder that that same department – and the school – have been plagued by gross power imbalances. , sexism and criminal misdeeds for decades, if not more. Cooper delves into the life of Jane Britton, abruptly cut short by her murder at age 21 in 1969 and unresolved for decades. There is resolution, but what matters most are the unstable consequences, the lingering suspicions, and the ongoing guilt.
ten. Last call by Elon Green (2021)
Green is a good friend (we also share literary agents) and it’s worth divulging these details as he has read several drafts of Scoundrel just as I read several drafts of Last call. Here’s the thing: every time I read this book, I felt sucked in like it was the first time. The way Green writes about queer subcultures in late 1980s New York, and how he portrays the lives of the four men known to be victims of the Last Call Killer while giving that person little narrative weight, is a revelation and another model for true crime. following directions.