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More alive than dead

A new crime anthology drips with colorful language and insight, offering thrills and moral instruction.

October 19, 2008|Richard Rayner

True Crime

An American Anthology

Edited by Harold Schechter

Library of America: 816 pp., $40


The TITLE of this massive anthology, "True Crime," is misleading. Within these pages the reader will find nothing of the rich American literature of the confidence trick and no stories of bank heists or gangland slayings, be they rub-outs from 1920s Chicago or drive-bys from 1990s Los Angeles. The offing of presidents receives scant due. Abraham Lincoln gets the nod, but only as a contributor.

Instead, editor Harold Schechter tightens the focus of his selection to murder, and not just any old murder, but, as he writes, "those peculiarly horrific and unsettling crimes that have, in the words of pioneer newspaperman James Gordon Bennett, 'some of the sublime of horror' about them" -- crimes that erupt into otherwise ordinary lives and stick in the minds of the public. Narrowness brings rich rewards here, as Schechter follows the development of a genre from the Puritan sermons and broadsides of Cotton Mather -- "In the year, 1698. Was executed at Springfield, one Sara Smith. Her despising the continual Counsils and Warnings of Her Godly Father-in-Law laid the foundation of her destruction" -- to Truman Capote and Gay Talese, who brought overt forms of literary experiment to psychopathology.

Along the way, Schechter introduces ballads and now-forgotten writers such as Thomas Byrnes and Susan Glaspell together with a host of familiar names such as Herbert Asbury, Edmund Pearson, H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling, James Ellroy and Ann Rule, showing how writing about murder has changed and yet remained, in some fundamental way, the same. Cain killed Abel, and murder, like love, is a human ground-rule. Reports of murder, however written, constitute news that, at some basic psychological level, we need to hear. As readers of this stuff, we long for the shuddering thrill and some moral or artistic instruction.

"The wholesale murderer is of two kinds: the wandering and the stationary," writes Edmund Pearson in "Hell Benders," which tells the story of a Kansas family who had a nasty way with their guests in the 1870s, and, incidentally, defines the two basic types of serial killer long before FBI profilers existed. Pearson was a librarian, a Harvard-educated bibliophile who corresponded with Henry James and was a friend of Scottish murder-mandarin William Roughead. Like Roughead, Pearson brought to the subject of extreme violence a delicious style and a desire to create taxonomies. "The lonely farm, or better still the wayside tavern, where the solitary traveler comes but never departs -- this has been a favorite subject for stories, true or fictitious, ever since stories have been told. . . ." Pearson tells of the fiendish Bender family almost like a fairy-story: like a twisted real-life version of "Hansel and Gretel." At the same time, he gets down to the essential nitty-gritty of how vile deeds were done: "The first blow, sufficient to stun [the victim] was delivered through the curtain. After that, the Benders worked rapidly. The body was dragged to the rear room, robbed and stripped. The trapdoor being opened, one of the family cut the victim's throat and tumbled him into the cellar."

At a different extreme stands the straightforward newspaper account, as exemplified by Meyer Berger's "Veteran Kills 12 in Mad Rampage on Camden Street," a piece that appeared in the New York Times and won a Pulitzer in 1950: "Unruh fired into the closet where Mrs. Cohen was hidden. She fell dead behind the closed door, and he did not bother to open it. Mrs. Minnie Cohen tried to get to the telephone in an adjoining bathroom to call the police. Unruh fired shots into her head and body and she sprawled dead on the bed. Unruh walked down the stairs with his Luger reloaded and came out into the street again. . . . Unruh stared into the policeman's eyes -- a level, steady stare. He said, 'I'm no psycho. I have a good mind.' "

Berger's account only seems to be "just the facts ma'am"; however, it's just as thought out as Pearson's. Berger deliberately slows down the action to heighten the shock we feel. That sentence -- "She fell dead behind the closed door, and he did not bother to open it" -- echoes Hemingway in its telling deadpan grace.

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