Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wickedness Proceedeth

The books one can not read but wish to are perhaps the largest part of any bookish person's mental inventory. The books I will never read in their original languages come first to mind. I'll never learn French, let alone Russian. More's the pity, but there it is. There are all the subjects for which the inclination is too slight, but present: the physical sciences, in my case, into which I finally peeked a few years back, and not without instruction and some surprising pleasure, or philosophy, moral or pure, for which I haven't a steady head. The most basic mathematics are well beyond me. There are any number of academic disciplines, newly coined in my own lifetime, that sound fascinating: bio-this and socio-that and anthro-the-other-thing, they might all be well worth a glancing investigation, but beyond quizzing customers in the bookstore as to just what any given subject new to me is, I know I will never go on to study a one of them.

Even within literature proper, there are authors in their hundreds if not their thousands, recommended by readers and writers whose opinions I well respect, but whose books I will never open. The shortest version of such a list would shameful to make, but to illustrate the point with but one recent example, Kobo Abe, who's Woman in the Dunes left me so exhausted from shoveling through its grim and endless story of shoveled sand that my arms ached every time I picked up the little book. Now Abe's name is enough to weigh my eyelids. And there are so many, many more.

But perhaps saddest for me personally are the genres in which I can no longer read. I've addressed before here my failure to sustain an interest in science fiction. Likewise most mysteries and thrillers are best met now in film and television where the supporting players are sorted for me by the screen-time each is given, by the number of close-ups, and the stature of the actor cast, etc. Film is so efficient.

True crime is wholly the invention of booksellers. As genre, it was born in the last century, when court reporting graduated from newspapers to magazines and thence to books. Some Scots reporter, who's name I don't recall, spent decades in court watching murder trials and making of them popular anthologies that sold and sold. Such of true crime as I can and do still read is now almost always of the length of one good magazine article. Needn't be a murder, the crime considered. I still look at "Vanity Fair Magazine" for the lovely pictures, but I tend to religiously read now only the monthly feature of criminality among the ridiculously rich. (Imagine my delight in having still a third part to which I may look forward in the ongoing profile of arch shit Bernie Madoff, King of All the Ponzis!) There's nothing so pleasant with my hand-packed lunch as another DuPont heir gone bad, or the grotesque divorces of billionaires, or the fall some powerful, respectable criminal with a yen to own an entire coastline so that he might upon the sands of Florida decree his Xanadu built without neighbors, common sewage or zoning regulation.

Some rare thing happens, now and again, and a good or even great writer, Truman Capote, say, or V. S. Naipaul, decides to take up the facts of a murder, a scandal or coup and make of it real literature. But this is not to be counted on. There is a standard though, for what makes plain crime reporting better than it ought to be. What's required is not genius but journalism of the first rank: disciplined and objective observation and review of the case, curiosity, doggedness, and wit, the drier the better, thank you. Crime reporting should never be breathless. All the emotion stirred: pity, outrage, sympathy, disgust, should be made to rise without inflation, naturally from the facts and in the reader, without pleading or manipulation, or seemingly so, on the part of the reporter. Wry, if not raw, is how crime is best served.

That's where TV usually gets things wrong. Voice-over-narration, unlike good reporting on the page, augmented if not often overwhelmed by sickeningly heavy musical clues, tends to signal every emotion, every suspicion, every revelation and break in the case with all the subtlety of a Baptist sermon, and with something of the same dry-mouthed, lip-smacking relish for sin, flagrantly detailed, complete with violent consequences, and then eventually, piously condemned. I watch the best of this sort of thing, like A&E's "First 48", but recorded, so as to skip as much as might be avoided of the repetitious narration and swelling score, as well as the commercials. (My favorite camp crime TV "reporting" is done by dear old Dominick Dunne on his own Tru TV show, Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice. He's filmed in inserts seated in well-earned his easy-chair, on a set presumably meant to be his fabulous NY apartment, and narrates throughout in a masterly drawl that ranges from a snappy rage to the weariest resignation. Dunne is the last of the "distangay" old gentleman-gossips, of the Clifton Webb school, the greatest example of sour-puissance on reality series television, now that Paul Winfield's dirty-minded baritone, alas, is no longer to be heard on A&E's "City Confidential." That queen could make the word "mailbox" sound filthy.)

Much if not most of what gets between the covers of a true crime book, by even the most seasoned or celebrated crime reporters, is so much padding. Few if any criminals, and fewer crimes, need ever be treated at book-length. Most true crime books are either cobbled reportage, or produced by specialized hacks, seemingly paid by the word. Even the bloated bestsellers by the most easily recognized practitioners tend to be pointlessly long winded, when not completely insipid. Dear ol' Ann Rule never met a cop who wasn't her hero, saw a female corpse that wasn't once "a great beauty" or at least "a pretty, innocent girl," or learned of a sexual deviation that wasn't "shocking."

The standard for me of what true crime reporting can and should be was set by Calvin Trillin in "The New Yorker," and in the 1984 collection of his crime stories, Killings. He still occasionally returns to a courtroom, but not often enough. But at least we have this one book. In its introduction, he explains, in his best, iconic laconic, the place of crime in the series he was then writing as he traveled around American, "I went every three weeks not to a place but to a story -- to an event or a controversy or, now and then, to a killing." He goes on to justify this curiosity by explaining, wickedly, "A killing often seemed to present the best opportunity to write about people one at a time." The word he uses later, to say this again, is "specificity," and in that word is all that is best in the best true crime reporting.

He describes place perfectly, as here, Coalport, Pennsylvania, in the piece "Called at Rushton":

"It is a small, gray town in a part of central Pennsylvania where the towns tend to be small and gray and to have movie houses that have been closed for years."

I grew up in just such a place.

And Trillin can address the criminal underclass without condescension, and still score a joke, as here, in "Jim, Tex, and the One-armed Man":

"Like Jim, Tex had ended up in his wife's home county, having come up from Dallas a couple of years before. He had three rifles and a pistol. Tex was a machinist by trade, but, like Jim, he didn't make a fetish out of steady work."

But Trillin's sympathy, if reserved, is real. His piece "Melisha Morganna Gibson" is a masterpiece of horror, of the real and usually too little recorded or reported kind, here reported without resort to commentary, exaggeration or a single wasted word. Trillin never claims to understand or explain the violence he tells of, but understands the real power of its consequences, for good and ill. It is not his place, as a reporter, to call this story a tragedy, but he communicates just how tragic the preventible death of a child feels, even to a stranger, even now, more than thirty years after a little girl's death at the hands of her parent.

Calvin Trillin spoils most other crime writing for me, when I reread him, by reminding me just how well it can be done.

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