When you see the line-up of writers whose works are contained in this well-produced book, you will want it for yourself, your crime-loving sister, your boss - but not for that really weird guy across the street who keeps his shutters closed and whose garden plot has an odd odor. You don't want to give him any ideas.
Here are some of the stars in this show: James Thurber, Cotton Mather, Edna Ferber, Zora Neale Hurston, Jose Marti, Abraham Lincoln, Truman Capote, Gay Talese. They have all at one time
(or more than once) turned their hand to the reportage of real-life blood lettings. Revolutionary Jose Marti, for example, wrote a long and passionate treatise on the personality of Charles Guiteau, a religious fanatic who murdered President James Garfield in a fit of vengeance because the President had not offered him a place in his cabinet;
he justified the killing by asserting that it was an inspiration from God to clean up the Republican party. Cotton Mather's
Pillars of Salt was but one of his prodigious output of books, pamphlets and sermons, here the subject matter being murder most foul (and of course, the spiritual ramifications). Stark and grim, Mather's crime reportage was as close to dangerously non-puritanical sensationalism as he was willing to get, and we must assume that he did not write about crime to satisfy the prurient tastes, but merely to provide suitable moral instruction.
Some of the crimes described in the collection are famous, if the particular writer is less so. W.T. Brannon, a noted crime writer of his era but less read today, picked up the story of Richard Speck's beastly crimes and developed it like a gripping novel, building the suspense and terror little by little in "Eight Girls, All Pretty, All Nurses, All Slain." Local reporter Don Moser, in "The Pied Piper of Tucson," highlighted the bizarre tale of sick, bloody-minded Charles Schmid, a tortured and torturing teen who seemed to have the ability to drag other youngsters into his insane crime sprees, making of them victims and abettors as he chose.
Miriam Allen Deford wrote about the "Superman's Crime: Loeb and Leopold," the well known saga of a psychopathic teen and his homosexual lover who killed a little boy in the 1920s, just to prove they could. Her story includes the ignoble death of Loeb in prison after being spurned in a homosexual advance on a fellow inmate, and the ultimate rehabilitation of "superman" Leopold who became a teacher in Puerto Rico after being released from prison, having proved his willingness to help humanity by participating in a life-threatening experiment with anti-malarial medicines. Co-founder of the
New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick, is creator of "The Life and Death of Caryl Chessman," a psychological look at the man who dressed up as a cop and went on a robbing
and killing spree. He was an early exemplar of the prolonged wait (in his case, 12 years) that many condemned criminals face, and while in jail became a legal expert and produced
three bestselling memoirs - before his trip to the gas chamber in 1960.
Celia Thaxter was a budding author whose musings about her childhood home, the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire, garnered her fame. Her chilling, heart-rending account ("A Memorable Murder") of a savage and pointless ax slaying that took place one of those lonely islands stands out as "one of the first pieces to apply literary sensibility to the narraticve re-creation of a horrifying murder." It was first published in 1875.
The editor of this collection, Harold Schechter, is a professor of American literature at Queens College, the City University of New York, whose interest in the dark world of crime is evidenced by his mystery novels and true-crime books such as
The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison and the Trial that Ushered in the Twentieth Century. True Crime is published by
the Library of America, a non-profit organization "dedicated to publishing and keeping permanently in print authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing." If you have a passion for murder and mayhem with some psychology and retribution thrown in
and composed by some of our best writers, this fine book will be one of your keepers.