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Obituaries

Jack Olsen, 77; Prolific Master of the True-Crime Genre

July 19, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Olsen, whose well-researched nonfiction portraits of serial killers, rapists and assorted other criminals and their victims earned him a reputation as "the dean of true-crime writers," has died. He was 77.

Olsen died of a heart attack Tuesday at his home on Bainbridge Island in Washington state.

A former Time magazine bureau chief and senior writer for Sports Illustrated, Olsen wrote 31 books on topics ranging from bridge to boxing.

But he is best known for the true-crime books, particularly those dealing with rape.

"Son: A Psychopath and His Victims," earned him a special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. "Predator: Rape, Madness, and Injustice in Seattle," was an American Mystery Award winner for best true crime book. And "Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell" won an Edgar for best fact crime book.

Among Olsen's other books are "The Bridge at Chappaquiddick," "Charmer: The True Story of a Ladies' Man and his Victims," "Salt of the Earth: One Family's Journey Through the Violent American Landscape," "Hastened to the Grave: The Gypsy Murder Investigation" and "Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt."

"Jack Olsen and Ann Rule are the best-known true-crime writers ever," said Charles Spicer, Olsen's editor at St. Martin's Press.

"Jack was dedicated to the truth, and he was an absolutely elegant writer."

As a crime book writer, "he refused to embroider," Spicer said.

"A lot of true-crime books now sort of blur the line between fact and fiction. They tend to re-dramatize action, whereas Jack was a purist. He insisted that everything in his books absolutely be based on research and fact."

Ann Rule, who is best known for "The Stranger Beside Me" about serial killer Ted Bundy, called Olsen "a major talent."

"The first thing any true-crime writer needs to be able to do is pick an interesting case, and Jack unerringly could spot the cases that would be interesting to readers," Rule said. "He wrote about the east side rapist in Spokane ['Son'] and the one in the San Francisco area about gypsies who conned older men out of their money ['Hastened to the Grave'] and of course, the doctor in Utah who was sexually abusing patients ['Doc'].

"So it was his instinct to pick a case, and he was a brilliant writer who had a strong narrative style."

Those who knew Olsen recall an outspoken man of integrity with a mischievous sense of humor and a love of practical jokes.

"He was also extremely combative," Rule said. "He would not suffer bad reviews gladly. He was always in a battle."

In an interview, Olsen said he was disappointed with the state of the genre he helped popularize.

"What now passes for true crime is a weakly researched overblown kind of National Enquirer writing with a heavy emphasis on fictionalization and blighted romance."

Crime "is an important, meaningful and revealing subject, and good books will continue to be written on the subject, but they won't be formula works and they won't be junk. They'll be carefully researched and skillfully written, probably by bright and scholarly young writers just coming into their own."

A Philadelphia native, his interest in crime was triggered at the University of Pennsylvania during a criminology class field trip to Holmesburg Prison.

"I'm 19 years old and we get inside and I see all these guys who look just like me. I thought that criminals looked different," he told the New York Times.

"I start every book with the idea that I want to explain how this seven or eight pounds of protoplasm went from his mommy's arms to become a serial rapist or serial killer."

He is survived by his wife, Su; seven children, Jack, of Niwot, Colo., Susan Jetley, of Boulder, Colo., Julia, of Denver, Evan, of Little Rock, Ark., Barrie, of New York City, Emily Sara Bischoff, of Bainbridge Island, and Harper, of Seattle; his mother, Florence Mae Olsen; a sister, Carolyn Grentz, of Havertown, Pa.; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. A son, Jonathan, died last year.

A private memorial service is planned .The family suggests remembrances be made to the Sierra Club.

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