Here then a dilemma for the coming weekend. One of the true signs of Summer is the itch not to be bad -- rather past that, if I ever truly felt it -- but to read about bad guys. Something about the long, languid afternoons, the sun blazing away, even the birds quietly retired to the shade, that makes reading True Crime somehow safe and more satisfying. Psychologically I suppose nothing too bad can happen with a long glass of iced tea sweating at my elbow and the fan ruffling the pages of mayhem and general criminality. Not to say I may not read this sort of thing year 'round, but, yeah, I'm in the mood for bare-feet and bad men.
One of the more satisfying aspects of True Crime has to be the straight forward right and wrong of the thing. I know that traditionally this is one of the arguments for reading mystery novels, and I get that, I do. The body is in the library, Poirot's in his element and all's right with the world. But that isn't quite the kind of tidy, clockwork moral universe in which I wish to dwell just now. Heat makes me uncomfortable, irritable and frankly cynical about living in a just universe. So, what I have been doing instead has been reading a fair amount of the grittier, funnier and more morally and ethically ambiguous Swedish police procedurals of the Seventies and Eighties. Good stuff. But the focus of those books is on the cops, not really the criminals, and in their way, even the Swedes don't care to linger too long in the devil's shadow. Whereas, True Crime reporting, when it is done right, is pretty much all about the bad, in fact the very worst of us. Yes, in the best of it there can be nuanced reporting and complex story, but in the end, bad things happen, somebody's done or is still doing something wrong and the good is in the telling; bringing the bad to light. There need not even be a hero in a good True Crime book, except maybe the reporter who brings us the facts (which is why so often real heroes have written not very good True Crime.)
Actually, that's the other attraction. When it is done right, True Crime can be one of the last really satisfying reads in contemporary journalism. Whatever the actual crime, the larger issues shouldn't be a distraction from the events. Nobody should need an explanation of why this, whatever it is, was bad. This is what reporting, good reporting, looks like: unadorned prose narrative, about fundamental conflicts, researched down to the ground and reliably referenced throughout. You want a good True Crime story? Read the acknowledgements and review the notes. No True Crime book worth reading has ever been written outside of a decent library, a newspaper-morgue and without reference to the stories of other crime reporters. (Even if the story is obscure, somebody else wrote something. You don't see that fact reflected in the acknowledgements and the notes? What you're about to read isn't True Crime, it's either fantasy or fiction.)
Luckily, I have some excellent reading options just now, three new books of True Crime, each well reviewed, about unfamiliar crimes and just waiting for a few uninterrupted hours reading. I took each of the three to lunch on three separate days, just to get a taste and the first fifty pages of each promised a pretty good read.
First up, a big blowhard of a book, about a relentless Mafia sonofabitch, his FBI "handler", and the corrupt relationship that seems to have somehow kept them both out of jail. This is classic True Crime material. A good indication of both content and tone can be had from just a few Chapter headings: Chapter One, "The Kiss of Death", Chapter Five, "Sinatra, Capote, and the Animal", Chapter Eighteen, "I Shot Him a Couple of Times", Chapter Thirty Six, "Gaspipe's Confession". How you gonna not want to hear Gaspipe's confession? From the first 60 pages I can already tell you this Peter Lance character is very much of the Breslin school, though to be fair, considerably more disciplined and less garrulous altogether. Still, while I don't think he's actually called anyone either an asshole or a jamoke, the reader should not be surprised should he do so. (Though it's worth noting the righteous indignation would seem higher than the style here. None of loveable losers that would actually put Lance in the line from Runyon to Liebling to Breslin. These are murders, not a lot of charming rascals and comical hoods.) The writer's research is referenced roughly every other page, and details a string of nasty hits in an almost impossibly long criminal career, based on recently released FBI documents, eyewitness testimony from cops and robbers, and review, review, review of the record. One of the traditions in mafia stories is having the inside dope, which invariably means discounting the "official" version of events, so at least part of every chapter seems to be either supporting or discounting some previous authority on the mafia. Nothing a mafia authority likes better than calling "bullshit" on friend and foe alike; lends an old-school newspaperman's verisimilitude to proceedings. From the look of it so far, Lance backs up his mob gossip like a pro, when and wherever he can. It's all a big, bad-ass and bellicose affair, and there's even a still rather inexplicable promise of Al-Queda cross-criminality by the end. Stay tuned. It makes for a riveting story. Meanwhile, it's the Columbo crime family and the Machiavellian hoodlum who managed to keep robbing, killing and ratting out his enemies and friends to the Feds for forty years. I'm hooked.
The first sentence of the Prologue in the next book is the kind of pastoral prose that quite nearly put me off the lot: "When the song of the snowmachine had faded down the valley, the sisters got ready to go." There's that Alaskan/Sarah Palin localism, "snowmachine" -- one word -- substituted for the more common "snowmobile", and that phrase, "song of the snowmachine" that has all the clunky charmlessness of a Robert W. Service poem. Happily, context being nearly all in this sort of thing, the nature of the story that follows comes near to justifying, or at least makes more forgivable the occasional lyric excess. This is a book all about place, here the so-called "last frontier" in the United States, Alaska. It's the story of a classic American type: the Lilliputian prophet or self-annointed messiah, leading his tatterdemalion clan off into the wilderness to fight... the Forest Service? Okay, that last provides a rather unusual twist, I'll admit. Nevertheless, there are few more American stories than the pernicious influence of visionary religious fanaticism coming into direct conflict with even the most seemingly benignant federalism. So, here's "Papa Pilgrim" bringing in his heavenly host and his heavy equipment to park-land, the idea being presumably to bring a bit o' Kingdom Come to the Great white North, and I'm betting that didn't work out. Clearly, from even just the first few chapters here, there's tragedy coming to the ghost-town of McCarthy, Alaska. (Again, one can't help thinking the tourist posters should read: "Alaska: the State Where Irony Gets You Stopped at the Border.")
I can't say that my pleasure in this kind of clown show isn't abated a bit by what looks to be some genuine horrors. No one would wish any further harm to the kids raised in such madness. Still, the long Alaska night seems as inevitable a metaphor here as the disaster of following some messianic hobo into the woods. I want to know.
And finally, to an author I heard on the radio. Fascinating, frustrating and frightening story he had to tell too. An important story, come to that, of an unsolved series of murders in Long Island. The writer talked most eloquently of his attempt to reclaims the victims, and their deaths, from the careless oblivion of crime-statistics and indifference. This last is yet another standard subject for True Crime, the unsolved serial murder case. (Think Zodiac.) This is usually yet another variation of journalist as hero common to some of the mafia books: a writer works to solve what the police can't or won't. Here though the subject would really seem to be the ways in which moral judgements made about these murdered women, all prostitutes, made finding their killer somehow less important. Of the three new books, this is the one of which I have read the least. I feel confident in suggesting after even so cursory a reading that this may well be not only the most important of the three, but the one that will probably stay with me.