Tag Archives: true crime

{Books} Two from True Crime

Alligator Candy Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession

 

Why Did I Choose These Books?
I chose both of these books due to my continuing investigation into true crime as a genre. Savage Appetites was recommended to be by multiple people because it is very much what I want to learn about: why do we “like” true crime. Alligator Candy was a book I chose through Goodreads’ “Readers Also Enjoyed.”

Alligator Candy: A Memoir by David Kushner

Every life has a defining moment, a single act that charts the course we take and determines who we become. For Kushner, it was Jon’s disappearance—a tragedy that shocked his family and the community at large. Decades later, now a grown man with kids of his own, Kushner found himself unsatisfied with his own memories and decided to revisit the episode a different way: through the eyes of a reporter. His investigation brought him back to the places and people he once knew and slowly made him realize just how much his past had affected his present. After sifting through hundreds of documents and reports, conducting dozens of interviews, and poring over numerous firsthand accounts, he has produced a powerful and inspiring story of loss, perseverance, and memory. Alligator Candy is searing and unforgettable. (via Goodreads)

What Did I Think?
When David Kushner was four years old, his older brother went missing and was later found dead. Obviously, being so young at the time, his memories surrounding the events are very hazy and muddled. For example, did his brother go off on his bike to the store just to get David some Snappy Gator candy? And that’s what really intrigued me about this particular story. Kushner grows up in the shadow of his brother, but gradually realizes how unreliable memory is. The memoir is about family and personal survival and how he came to find some truths about the event.

I listened to Alligator Candy as an audio book narrated by the actor Bronson Pinchot. As I keep saying about these true crime books, this was a hard “read.” Pinchot does a wonderful job reading it.

Original Publishing info: Simon & Schuster 2016
My Copy: Audio, hoopla Digital Library
Genre: memoir

Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe

A provocative and original investigation of our cultural fascination with crime, linking four archetypes—Detective, Victim, Defender, Killer—to four true stories about women driven by obsession.

In this illuminating exploration of women, violence, and obsession, Rachel Monroe interrogates the appeal of true crime through four narratives of fixation. In the 1940s, a frustrated heiress began creating dollhouse crime scenes depicting murders, suicides, and accidental deaths. Known as the “Mother of Forensic Science,” she revolutionized the field of what was then called legal medicine. In the aftermath of the Manson Family murders, a young woman moved into Sharon Tate’s guesthouse and, over the next two decades, entwined herself with the Tate family. In the mid-nineties, a landscape architect in Brooklyn fell in love with a convicted murderer, the supposed ringleader of the West Memphis Three, through an intense series of letters. After they married, she devoted her life to getting him freed from death row. And in 2015, a teenager deeply involved in the online fandom for the Columbine killers planned a mass shooting of her own. (via Goodreads)

What Did I Think?
I hadn’t realized just how much the audience for true crime skewed toward female. I knew that it did, but when Rachel Monroe writes about the true crime convention that she attends, I didn’t expect that the vast majority of attendees would be women. Monroe writes about four case studies which illustrate what she finds to be archetypes of true crime fans: the detective, the defender, the victim, and the killer.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with Monroe’s theory that women especially are true crime fans because we slot into these types. It doesn’t quite feel right to me and, as Rennie from What’s Nonfiction, pointed out, it might be because these case studies are pretty  extreme. Monroe also floats the idea that because women taught at a young age to be wary and alert, true crime is sort of further training: maybe if we empathize alternately with the detectives, defenders, victims and killers, we can be better prepared for bad situations. Ironically, though true crime probably has never been more popular, violent crime rates are generally down.

My favorite of these four women profiled (which probably exposes my true crime archetype) was Francis Glessner Lee—the detective. Lee, an heiress, spent her later years creating miniature crime scenes to be used as a teaching tool. She also championed the cause of scientific investigation of crimes and is considered the mother of forensic science.

Original Publishing info: Scribner 2019
My Copy: Overdrive, Tempe Public Library

{Book} Columbine

Columbine

Columbine by Dave Cullen

EXPANDED WITH A NEW EPILOGUE “The tragedies keep coming. As we reel from the latest horror . . . ” So begins a new epilogue, illustrating how Columbine became the template for nearly two decades of “spectacle murders.” It is a false script, seized upon by a generation of new killers. In the wake of Newtown, Aurora, and Virginia Tech, the imperative to understand the crime that sparked this plague grows more urgent every year. What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we “know” is wrong. It wasn’t about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world’s leading forensic psychologists, and the killers’ own words and drawings-several reproduced in a new appendix. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Read This Book?
Columbine was probably the most recommended book I saw during this year’s Nonfiction November. I was in the market for true crime, though not necessarily this flavor of crime. Regardless, I saw the opportunity to check it out from the library and took it.

What Did I Think?
The Columbine High School shootings happened at a time when I had stopped watching TV for the most part (I had no cable and OTA in Lincoln, NE was sketchy) and I hadn’t become a regular consumer of online news—there was relatively little of anything to be had online in 1999. I knew the shootings had happened and that they were at the time the most fatal such incident, but honestly after it had left the immediate news cycle, I never followed up. I knew what happened right?

Well, honestly, even in the moment I was skeptical of some of the media’s conclusions. Music and video games weren’t the cause. The rest seemed plausible enough, though, didn’t it? Two outcasts had had enough and plotted their revenge.  But that wasn’t what happened. That was a narrative the media latched on to based on not-very-good early information. It was easy and it made sense in the moment. Law enforcement didn’t do much to counter that narrative. They had their own problems. Alas, the story is more complex and nuanced, as reality often is.

I am rather awed by the amount of compassion that Dave Cullen has in his writing for everyone, including the shooters and their families. There are many things that are still unknown and will never be known, but Cullen doesn’t luridly speculate. It would be easy to do so.

I’ve been thinking about why anyone should read a book like Columbine. Perhaps, yes, knowing the minds of these killers might be valuable, even to the general populous. The stories of the victims’ families and the triumphs of the injured are by turns tragic and inspiring. More broadly though, I hope that Columbine serves as a reminder that, as uncomfortable as it might be, nothing is ever as simple as one might think. That is a valuable thing to keep in mind.

Original Publishing info: Grand Central Publishing, 2009
My Copy: Overdrive, Tempe Public Library
Genre: nonfiction, true crime

Review ~ I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll Be Gone in the Dark cover

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Utterly original and compelling, it has been hailed as a modern true crime classic—one which fulfilled Michelle’s dream: helping unmask the Golden State Killer. (via Goodreads)

Common conversations between my husband and I over the last few years revolve around two true crime investigations/court cases. The first is the murder of Hae Min Lee and the incarceration of Adnan Syed, which was profiled in season one of the podcast Serial and more recently an HBO docu-series. The second is the  murder of Teresa Halbach and incarceration of  Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, the subject of the docu-series Making a Murderer. To me, both of these cases reflect the actions of a (at best) desperate and (at worst) corrupt justice system where putting someone in jail for a terrible crime takes precedence over discovering what truly happened.

A variation on this came up in The Man from the Train. When faced with the possibility of truly random murders, police and other investigators reached for whatever fall guy they could find even when evidence didn’t fit. In the case of the Man from the Train, not only were men and women falsely accused and imprisoned, but they ended up dead at the hands of lynch mobs.

We humans don’t like uncertainty. And we absolutely want closure.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is about the Golden State Killer, but it’s also about Michelle McNamara and a bevy of investigators who tenaciously pursued the truth in spite of uncertainty. They didn’t want “a” guy for the rapes and murders that occurred for over a decade in California, they wanted “the” guy. McNamara writes honestly about her obsession with this cluster of crimes that took place in the 70s and early 80s. She had no personal connection to those specific crimes; she grew up in Oak Park, Illinois and the murder of a girl in her neighborhood was the spark of her interest in the hows and whys of these types of crimes.

While McNamara’s narrative doesn’t shy away from details, it doesn’t revel in them either. To contrast, The Man from the Train was very specific about the details of each murder and how they overlapped, but there the author is laying out the case that murders were the work of one man. In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, we’re stepping into a investigation in progress. McNamara doesn’t need to supply each and every detail. Instead, she is freer to tell the story of the investigations; where they failed in the past and what hope there might be for catching a killer by combing over every piece of information.

Michelle McNamara died suddenly before finishing this book. While writer Paul Haynes and journalist Billy Jensen organized her prodigious notes, the chapters that aren’t written by McNamara (they are clearly noted) provide information, but lack her deft touch as a writer. The third part of the book includes several methods that were being used to find the Golden State Killer, including the use of online genealogy tools to match DNA markers. Shortly after the book’s publication, Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested for the murders, tracked down using a similar technique.

McNamara wrote this book fueled by uncertainty and never got closure. Some of the police who originally worked the case retired before seeing this breakthrough. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for the victims and their families. But it seems strange to me that I should find their patience and their resistance to finding “a” guy for the crimes to be downright heroic.

Publishing info: Harper Perennial, 2018
My Copy: Kindle/Overdrive, Tempe Public Library
Genre: true crime, memoir


All the Details: 2019 Nonfiction Reading Challenge