Saturday, June 11, 2011

New True

I've mentioned the fact here before, but there just are not too many living writers I read without a thought given to subject matter, genre, form or type of publication. John McPhee, Mario Vargas Llosa, Joseph Epstein, Javier Marias, are the first that come to mind. Paul Collins is another such a one. Ever since Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, I've read every book as it was published, if not before. (His first book, Banvard's Folly: Thirteen People Who Didn't Change the World, I was lucky enough to find in a nice hardcover on the bargain table, right around the time I had determined to read the lot of him. Still a favorite, that one. Nothing like a good, brave failure.) Obviously, it was Collins' bibliophilia that drew me to that first book, and the theme of old books and new runs throughout his work. Whether discussing bookselling, autism, or Tom Paine, Collins' writing is a history of his reading, and so he is very much my kind of guy. However, he is also a much more adventurous and peripatetic fellow than the average bookworm, and this means that he is never content to just sit in reading rooms and the like, as I might do in his place. No. Paul Collins goes, and goes as far afield as his curiosity takes him; not just to visit The Village of Books in Wales, but to run a shop there, not just to libraries in search of Tom Paine's publishing history, but off to England to explore the places from which came Paine, etc. In his last, The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World , Collins basically set off in search of every First Folio he could get a look at. Makes the whole enterprise of writing about old books sound, well... enterprising.

Just out now, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars, despite that unfortunate first part of the title, this is obviously an original undertaking. Not that the historical territory has not been addressed before, in everything from True Crime reporting to biographies of Hearst, to Citizen Kane, but not by this writer. There is perhaps no other so perfectly suited to study the influence of the story on not just the events subsequent to the murder, but to the ways in which the writing of newspaper story after story after story about this one murder, has influenced not just the way a murder becomes a celebrated case, but also may continue to influence the way we still write, and read, and think about murder to this day. Who better to appreciate the reading of a crime? There is also every indication that yet again Paul Collins really gets around, not just in the back stacks of old newspaper collections, but off in search of the origins of the modern crime story, this time unearthing not just the details of a largely forgotten murder plot, and the birth of truly national coverage, but the City that made it famous.

Seattle writer, Scott Miller, has a new book out this week as well. It looks to be exactly my sort of American history. I always like neglected corners and dusty alcoves, so long as there's a bit of neglected criminal history, and specifically a murder tucked up somewhere to keep things exciting. The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century looks to be just the ticket.

Anyone who has been dealing in used books in the past decade or two will have had the unhappy task of disappointing the now elderly sellers who bring in their treasured collection of JFK memorials: books, newspapers, special editions of Time Magazine and Life, carefully preserved in tissue like as not, only to find that nobody much cares anymore. The stuff is still as common as as half-dollars, and about as welcome as collectibles. One of the modern consequences of modern political assassination, it would seem, was the secular hagiography. In the United States, it may be traced, I should think, to Lincoln, but as a modern publishing phenomenon, a closer parallel would probably be McKinley. Not a name now to be much conjured with, is it? Well, as Miller shows in his new book, for his contemporaries, love the man or loath his politics -- and the country was about evenly divided at one time before his death -- McKinley was the dead President never to be forgotten. Again, any used dealer of any experience will have come across any number of beautiful, cumbersome, old, unread and unreadable memorial volumes published in tribute to the slain Republican leader. As to some extent with Kennedy, history has decided that whatever the achievements and shortcomings of the man, much that was really interesting in the period actually happened on the watch of his successor. Poor McKinley, the affable Ohio pol and clumsy architect of the American Empire, had one of the most powerful personalities in American history, Theodore Roosevelt, to follow him.

What Miller does rather well in his new book is restore to McKinley something of his shine as a major personality of the day, no easy task, this despite McKinley having been the most popular American President since Lincoln, (had it not been, of course, for Teddy thereafter.) By also detailing not just the sad biography of McKinley's assassin, but giving that deluded bumpkin credit for whatever revolutionary intent he represented for the radicals of his day, Miller recreates something of the danger and excitement the events surrounding the assassination had for a now all but forgotten generation. It is a fascinating portrait of a period in American politics all too recognizably like our own.

One category of True Crime I generally avoid is anything to do with the abuse of children. Beyond the sordid nature of the crime, my experience of the books that get written about it is that they are almost invariably tainted, one way and another, by contact with the perpetrators. Whatever the origins of pedophilia, however necessary a better understanding of the disorder and its proper treatment and containment may be to a healthy society, there simply is no way to write about it without describing both the crime and the criminal in some detail, none of which, frankly, is welcome. I extend my sympathy not only to the survivors of abuse, but to those that study it. Unimaginable, the suffering that seems to be the inevitable consequence of such behavior. I can't imagine the intestinal fortitude necessary to study such things. As nonfiction for the general reader, it is hard to find anything very palatable in such sad, coarsening encounters with inexplicable tragedy.

Perhaps the one satisfying development in the recent books addressing this crime has been the focus on the wholly satisfying consequences of class action suits against the institutions that protected the perpetrators. In The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church, by Lisa Davis, the legal battle for restitution to the victims takes this story in a new and unexpected direction. This was a story I had not encountered before. If the crime is sickeningly familiar, Davis has the good sense to spare little focus on the criminal, keeping the story for the better part to the efforts of the attorneys involved most closely in investigating and pursuing their case through the courts. That the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints behaved no better than the priesthood, hierarchy and bureaucracy of her older, more established elder, was no surprise. Seems self-evident by now that it is the nature of the patriarchal institution, when threatened with the exposure of its inherent corruption and the consequent loss of institutional infallibility and money, no effort will be spared to ensure its survival at the expense of its most vulnerable charges. Davis draws no such larger conclusions, mind. What the author does do is give an excellent history of the legal case and the lawyers who fought so long and hard to win some admission of responsibility from the church that harbored, and hid a vile predator for years and then resisted any effort to comfort or compensate his victims.

Finally, let me unreservedly recommend what has to be one of the most fascinating and truly eccentric books of True Crime I've ever read. Anyone who knows baseball, as I most assuredly do not, or anyone who has sold baseball books for the better part of last three decades, as I have, will recognize the name Bill James. Seems he invented much of the statistical apparatus that brings such pleasure to the serious fans of the national pastime, and such deathly boredom to everyone else who has ever had to listen to a game broadcast, or found himself with nothing but the Sports Page to read in, shall we say, an available stall. For whatever previously unsuspected reasons, it turns out that the great Bill James, when not making baseball into something of a science, reads True Crime. Who knew? Moreover, it also turns out that for a decade or two, he has been making notes of what he's read in the way of crime reporting, comparing various books on the same crime for instance, but also reading quite widely in the genre as a whole, and he's been pondering not just the nature of criminality, but the books that get written about crime. To say that the author perspective on all this is unique is to understate considerably the weird pleasure of his new book, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. Never have I read such a book; part anthology of famous crimes, part cultural criticism and book review, Bill James' is the ultimate fan book.

I know how odd that sounds. It is odd. Please do not misunderstand. James is, if anything a rather conventional sort of guy, perfectly disgusted not only by the violence all to common to American society, but also actively, and eloquently disapproving of the sensationalism and prurience all too common to the genre of True Crime. James admires, as I do, writing that actually examines honestly the curious business of murder. He invariably gives the True Crime writers he's read their due, even when, as with someone like Ann Rule, what's due is a raspberry for breathlessly excitable prose and an overly romantic infatuation with law enforcement. (Dear ol' Ann just can't resist a handsome lug with a bag, bless 'er.) One of the persistent themes of James' book is not only how badly much if not most crime is investigated in this country, but how bad are so many of the books then written about these investigations. Those two points alone would have been enough to make me like Mr. James. More than this though, I thoroughly enjoyed the strangely logical, yet elliptical way the man writes; circling each famous crime not so much to just retell it as straightforwardly as possible, but to examine each iteration of its telling, to check and recheck the facts, explore the consequences, and question the process by which something so ugly, and yet, often as not, banal as a murder becomes, to use his word, "celebrated."

I can't imagine any other writer at this late date finding anything worth saying about the murder of Jonbenet Ramsey, or the coverage that crime generated, likewise any number of other, infamous crimes, solved and unsolved, including Lizzie Borden et al. Something about the author's bluntly methodical examination of even the most trampled crime scenes, and his winning insistence on common sense over dramatic elaboration as the best means to address a subject so complex as the individual criminal at his very worst, makes Mr. James a most uncharacteristic contributor to the genre, and perhaps it's first serious critic.

There we are, then. That brief list of new True Crime should satisfy even the most jaded reader of what is, after all, a rather depressingly unimpressive, and guilty byway of nonfiction. See? I needn't feel completely ashamed to read this stuff.

Some people actually find baseball exciting, I understand. Go figure, egh, Bill?


  1. Yay, summer reading recommendations! May I print these for Neal to use as shelf talkers?

  2. I will. I just called to see if they had Popular Crime, the one I want to read first. It's $30.00!!!! When will publishers understand they overprice books?

  3. In answer to your question, evidently when they're out of business.