The New York Times published a book review earlier this month that spills blood.
The victim: True Crime.
The murderer: reviewer Marilyn Stasio.
In a fluffy piece promoting various fiction crime titles, the reviewer takes a broad swipe at true crime: (link requires registration).
SAFE HARBOR: A Murder in Nantucket (St. Martin's, $24.95) is Brian McDonald's account of an actual killing that took place there in 2004, but it reads like a mystery, so it might go into my laundry basket — except that the language of true crime is so inelegant it seems to dishonor the dead. Unlike the civilized fictional villainy on the Vineyard, the real-life murder of Elizabeth Lochtefeld, who was stabbed to death, was cold and cruel. Both the victim and the man accused of killing her came from good families and had money, but as Asey Mayo says in another, fictional, context, "re-fined people do murders sometimes." Yet McDonald doesn't say it anywhere near as well; his book is sodden with the droopy prose and weepy sentiments that afflict most true-crime accounts of murder. ("Beth's life was still a race. It was as though, somewhere deep inside, she knew time was running out.") I'll take fiction, thanks.
Marilyn Stasio's comments were apparently intended to rankle. After all, the true crime genre almost never gets play in the (sniff) New York Times. In fact, the phrase "true crime" has appeared in that paper exactly eight times so far this year, and seven of the references were metaphoric and not about true crime: the genre or true crime: the phenomenon or true crime: the abiding interest of millions the world over.
Two true crime authors, Gregg Olsen and M. William Phelps, have recently decided to delve into blogging together (!), and the first post at their new blog, Crime Rant: Deliberating Crime Coast to Coast, takes on the New York Times book review.
Bringing in a mystery author’s prose and comparing them to that of Mr. McDonald’s is like allowing CSI actor William Peterson, who plays Grissom on the hit CBS show, underneath the yellow crime-scene tape at a real murder scene. We don’t James Frey-it, Marilyn [I’m coining that]. We spend countless hours interviewing sources, traveling, working the phones and reviewing documents, so we can then shape it all into a compelling, entertaining (and factual) narrative.
Phelps goes on to defend the genre and attack the exploitation accusations better than I could.
I'm a true crime fan, and I have been known to enjoy a good mystery, but I’ve been puzzled by the strong walls separating the readers and writers of mystery fiction from the readers and writers of true crime. Paul Bauer of Archer’s Used and Rare Books put it this way: “As a bookseller, I've always been intrigued by the general unwillingness of most mystery readers to cross-over to true crime. Little old ladies who are never happier than when cozied up with a Christie recoil at true crime. College professors who rightly bow before Colin Dexter and Ellis Peters wave away crime history.”
Sure, there are occasional forays over the wall. Once in a while, a mystery writer will draw on the facts of a true case for a novel. But generally, mystery writers and avid readers have absolutely no interest in true crime. As a member of Sisters in Crime, I’ve tried to strike up discussions of true crime. But the mystery writers who belong to the group just don’t care to delve into reality. The exact same thing is true of the very popular mystery discussion list Dorothy-L.
In fact, I went so far as to post the Paul Bauer quote above to Dorothy-L, and this was the cruel assessment of true crime from the point of view of a published mystery writer:
The problem is real life often doesn't make for good fiction, and this is my difficulty with true crime, which is often simply brutal and stupid--and very often without satisfying resolution or motivation. Motivation is the most fascinating aspect of crime to me--and often what is lacking when you watch those TV documentaries or listen to real cops talk. Very often murder is done spur of the moment or by people who just aren't smart enough to realize they have other options. Or lunatics. There are exceptions, of course--master criminals and crime-of-the-century kind of things that make for fascinating reading, but they're generally too grand scale for the type of story I want to tell, which is more about character and relationships.
Hmm.... Maybe it's just me, but I get the strong impression that a lot of mystery authors have never read much true crime. And I’m afraid to say that it really, really shows.
In my opinion, many mystery writers today display an unforgivable ignorance of the history of crime and the denominators common to certain types of killers (with the notable exception of Caleb Carr, who extensively studied true crime cases involving mothers who kill before penning his masterpiece, Angel of Darkness).
I once had an interest in mysteries, especially the historical mystery subgenre, but so many authors commit such grotesque errors – in their rendering of criminal personalities and of historical methods of crime detection -- that it’s thoroughly ruined my ability to suspend disbelief.
I'll take non-fiction, thanks.
P.S. Investigative reporter Steve Huff of the ever-popular Huff Crime Blog weighs in with his take on things here. Author Gregg Olsen offers his thoughts at his Amazon blog. A group blog called The Rap Sheet, which covers news in the crime fiction realm, is also following the fallout.