True Crime – Genre Study

December 11, 2012

Ben, Faith, Janet, Susan, Paula, Dylan, Molly, Steven, Frank, Lisa, Jason Mazzotta, Julie

Most participants are “natural” non-fiction readers  with  topics of interest ranging from history, philosophy, physics, travel memoirs, psychology, rock biographies, popular science, women’s issues, true crime, parapsychology, cookbooks, chef memoirs, anthropology, reference works (“Dictionary of Phrase and Fable”).

What defines non-fiction? Author personality? “narrative non-fiction”? more than just raw data?

Benchmark Discussion

True-crime versus mysteries? The truth element is difficult for some to handle. Also, cozy readers will be really turned off depending on the nature of the true crime work. More journalistic than descriptive. Sensationalistic versus journalistic.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote follows the parallel story of the murder and the investigation of the gruesome murder of four members of a family in rural Kansas in 1959. Crime is introduced right from the start and yet the story unfolds during the course of the book.  The book ends with the criminal investigation. Considered the first “narrative non-fiction”.

There is controversy around this book because author includes conversations and motivations for murderers that would have to be “created” by author.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi is written by the prosecutor of Charles Manson for the Sharon Tate and other murders. Well written. Manson did not participate in murders but planned over 20 murders and Vincent Bugliosi uses the book to implicate Manson and prove his guilt. Gives the backstory of how victims were chosen, finding enough evidence to commit Manson, and background of communes involved.

What is the effect of media attention, whether by true crime books or court TV, on the cases, criminals?

Dylan – King of Heists by North J. Conway – Manhattan Savings Bank robbery. Same gang also committed Northampton bank robbery. Guilded age of NY. Does a good job of setting the time and scene. Well-researched. Strayed into the “narrative” non-fiction/fiction and seems as though some of the details such as criminal’s inner feelings and garb on any particular day could not possibly have come from research available.

Jason Mazzotta – Fake – the world’s greatest art forger. There is an Orsen Wells character based on this forger. Gives the backstory of the forger and how he got into a crime and follows him on his trevails. He was never actually convicted of this crime. Sense of humor, jet setting,

Steven – Evidence Of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin is about a man on trial in 1981 for 30+ murders of children although there was only evidence linking him to a couple of the crimes. Author brings up issues of race and crime. Raw, refined anger, race issues.

Frank – Judgment Ridge: The True Story Behind the Dartmouth Murders by Lehr and Zuckoff. What makes people fall into crime? This story is about two German professors who were very popular, generous and welcoming. This open nature ended up being what made them vulnerable to having criminals enter home. What started out as a robbery ended up turning into a savage murder. Gave background into what went into the making of these criminals. Matter of fact, well researched.

Lisa- Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett delves into the world and motivations for book thieves. Author follows a career book thief named John Gilkey who falls in and out of jail for his crimes. In the process of writing the book, the author ends up being quite involved in Gilkey’s story and develops bibliomania herself. This book also dives into the non-violent criminal mind and the delusional thinking involved. Would appeal to book collectors, bibliophiles and those interested in crimes of theft.

Ben – Midnight in Peking by Paul French reads almost like fiction. Has a tone similar to In Cold Blood although much different approach to storytelling because the facts of the crime are not revealed right away and the author includes red herrings. Crime is a brutal murder of young British female and it takes place in early 20th century, Beijing. Very interesting time and place in history. It feels like some of the tale might have been fictionalized. This book could be a crossover for mystery readers although the “trueness” factor might be hard to handle. Dark, gruesome, interesting time and place.

Susan Schaefer – Wise Guy by Nicholas Pileggi about Henry Hill who is a member of the infamous New York mob and gives the true story that  is the basis of the films Goodfellas by Morin Scorsese. Majority of work is in Hill’s own words. Author provides context and then quotes from Hill at length. Hill uses mob vernacular. Gives the backstory of how Hill got into crime. Centerpiece is a 6 million heist at JFK airport and the resulting murders of mob members mostly of those who spoke. Won an Edgar for True Crime.  Mob culture, action oriented, fascinating.

Faith- Catch Me if You Can, now a major motion picture is a memoir by Frank Abganale who is a criminal who committed fraud, impersonation and check forgery in the 1970s. The cleverness and charm he uses to commit these crimes is very interesting and enjoyable. Part of the book tells of his confinement in France under inhumane conditions. He is then sent to more than satisfactory conditions in Sweden among other prison sentences. At some point he goes on to work as a government consultant for this type of crime. Criminal mind, enjoyable, clever.

Janet – Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower takes place in NYC 1840 about a beautiful woman who worked in a cigar shop and is murdered. Sensational with lots of press coverage. Crime is never solved and author treatment was not very deep and available evidence is not as well. Author meanders. Brings in Edgar Allen Poe because Poe wrote a story about this crime although tie-in is not strong. Not recommended.

Paula – Black fire : the true story of the original Tom Sawyer and of the mysterious fires that baptized gold rush era San Francisco by Robert Graysmith. About an arsonist who used wind to spread fire among tents and paper settlements in San Francisco. Sawyer was a fire fighter from NY who knew he wasn’t getting anywhere.

Julie – Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester is about the man who made the OED. Bestseller, not very likable characters. Professor is the original editor and it takes place in 1890s. The madman is someone the professor has been corresponding with for years but never met. Nice setting and scenes. Professor goes to meet him and it turns out he lives in an insane asylum for murder.

Molly – The rescue artist : a true story of art, thieves, and the hunt for a missing masterpiece by Edward Dolnick is about the theft of the Scream which was stolen during the opening day of museum in Oslo during the winter Olympic games.  Gives background of the undercover investigator who solved this crime. Was interesting although did drag.

True crime is interspersed among the stacks at Forbes so booklists and other tools would be helpful to help patrons discovery titles in this genre.

Molly suggests everyone read an article about getting up to speed in true crime from Novelist and she will send a link. (http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=neh&tg=UI&an=436551&site=novp-live)

Next time we’ll meet about travel writing in March. The benchmark is any of the travel writing books by Bill Bryson. Molly will post options on the blog. Pick a second book and be sure to post on the blog.

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