What Man Can Do to Man: 13 True Crime Books That Get It Right
All stories are worth telling well, but especially the difficult ones, when we need the writer's assurance as we walk down the dark passage
by Nancy Rommelmann
It occurred to me this morning, as I was cleaning up after an impromptu gathering of Fifth Column fans last night that resulted in my place smelling like McSorley's and the coat hooks being ripped off the wall (?), that when I offered up a list of our favorite true crime books, I did not give any hint as to why they were favorites.
Actually, that's not true; I realized at the time I should have offered even a capsule something something, but I was impatient, maybe I had some baking to do, whatever the case, I am now on the Amtrak riding north up the Hudson - a trip I highly recommend; grab a window seat - and will tell you why we love these books. One I have not read; Helter Skelter was Sarah's offering, but I've read the others, some more than once, and they have in common what very kind Smoke 'Em listener Don said in the comments last night, of the podcast: "It makes me think and feel without telling me what to think or feel."
Yes, exactly, for always, amen.
This approach becomes a little tricky when you're dealing with true crime, when there are people doing very obviously terrible things, things we fear and condemn. This leads to a lot of blunt renderings; the literary equivalent of a strobe light flashing HATE THIS PERSON NOW on the killer. While I've read a few of these pulp paperbacks myself (and also admit to having watched maybe every episode of Cold Case Files, mostly while baking and in large part because I have a crush on Bill Kurtis's voice), the indelicacy with which the stories are sometimes handled crosses over into sensationalism, deliberately so, something I cannot have much regard for. (And for more on that, cue up to 52:40 of episode 7 to hear some opinionating on the murder-as-snack podcasts out there.)
All stories are worth telling well, but maybe especially the difficult ones, when we need the writer's steadying presence, the assurance that it will be worth it to walk down this dark passage. We need them to underplay the hand. To talk of monstrous behavior but not monsters, thus caricaturing people in order to jumpstart emotions, which is beneath the reader and maybe beneath contempt. We are talking about murder here.
"We're in Krakauer territory, we need you as our guide," my sister-in-law told me, when I was writing To the Bridge, a True Story of Motherhood and Murder. So yes, you want the writer to, in a sense, hold your hand. But they also have a more primary responsibility, one that begins before one word is on the page, to the people to whom the crime has occurred, and to the dead. This requires figuring out what you are doing here - you will absolutely and 100% be told you are a ghoul, a parasite, that you have absolutely no right, that you will only make things worse. You may, during the writing of these stories, wonder if these things are true.
But then you realize what you’re writing is not for you, or not anymore, it’s for the reader, and also for something you didn’t know when you started, or maybe you did, which I wrote about in the essay “Atonement for a Murdered Child.”
It becomes a question of how we metabolize the murder of children, and here I qualify, other people’s children. I have not experienced the loss of a child and pray I never do, but I stand close to it and have for a long time. Writing organizes and reframes. We get to work out what our responsibilities are. Earlier this year I envisioned someone asking a room, “Who will accompany these children?” and saw that I raised my hand.
All of the books below are engaged in the act of remembering.
Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore: Gilmore was 23 when his older brother Gary was executed by a firing squad in Utah, for the murders of two men he’d never met. His execution was a sensation - the first in the U.S. in ten years - as was its method, which Gary himself petitioned for. Mikal Gilmore writes from the rotted core of the family corpus, tunneling through layer upon layer of deceit, cruelty, alcoholism, murder; it’s jarring and terrifying; we feel as though we’re strapped into a car that we know will crash, and does crash, only for it to pick up speed again. And yet Gilmore possesses so much raw ache for his family, even when he’s bewildered and betrayed by them. He’s also a profoundly good writer, and I could easily name the book the best of the best, but really, it’s in its own category.
Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker: Bob Kolker, who became a friend after I reviewed Lost Girls and he sent me a thank you note (!), is one of the fi journalists writing today; maybe you read his piece “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”, which caused a sensation last fall and asks what the writer should always be asking: How do we know what we think we know? Or maybe you read 2020’s Hidden Valley Road, which was an Oprah Book Club pick. Now go read Lost Girls, in which Kolker takes so seriously the obligation of caring for the murdered - in this case, the unsolved cases of missing sex workers, whose bodies kept turning up on a spit of land on the Long Island’s South Shore. The book is both rigorously researched and so, so tender. The series that was made from it is also exceptionally good. Bravo, Bob.
Blood Will Out, by Walter Kirn: Soon after Blood Will Out came out (and after I reviewed it), I was assigned to interview Kirn. It was 2014, real bloodbath days for newspapers, and in lieu of finding a cozy office for Kirn and I to speak, my editor at the Oregonian led us to the fourth floor of the iconic building, now denuded of cubicles and furniture. Sitting on two folding chairs, I asked Kirn about the absolute craziness that led him to be taken in, for years, by a con man posing as a member of the Rockefeller clan, a man who was accused of and would later be found guilty of murder. Kirn claimed, and I understand this now more now than I did then, that his life circumstances were such that he allowed the story to pull him places he might otherwise not have, and boy howdy, what a flippin’ ride. Pick this one up and give yourself the day because you are not going to put it down.
The Adversary, by Emmanuel Carrere: The most terrifying book I have read, an intimate look into what we sometimes, or what I sometimes, think of as the charming sociopath, the one whose life looks pretty normal from the outside, but inside, civilization is burning, and he or she is the fire starter. The book, which I highly recommend you buy right this minute, involves a family man living on the French-Swiss border, a man whose entire public-facing life is a lie, a man who, on the cusp of being discovered, cannot abide the shame and so decides he will kill everyone who might find him wanting. I cannot do the book justice, just read it; I’ve read it twice (three times?) and am ready to read it again and discuss it with you.
Columbine, by Dave Cullen: Talk about the opposite of sensational: Cullen spent ten years looking into the school killings at Columbine, in essence taking a tweezer to every part of this story: the town, the students, the culture, the parents, the nation, and mostly to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the young men who massacred 12 students and one teacher at their Colorado high school, before turning the guns on themselves. If collective memory wants to clump Klebold and Harris together, to think of them as joy killers, Cullen says, not so fast. He looks intimately at what brought them to do what they did, and even though we might assume it’s impossible feel one shred of sympathy for these boys, Cullen shows you, at least in the case of Klebold, why this is not so, rendering the book, on many levels, granularly sad for all involved.
Down City, by Leah Carroll: In 2010, I read a short essay entitled, “Helped to Heal by a Stranger’s Truth,” written by Leah Carroll, who was looking into the murder of her mother, when Carroll was four years old. I was moved by the piece and, just starting to research what would become To the Bridge, tucked the article into a file. When I was putting the finishing touches on the to-be-published book, I came upon Carroll’s piece and saw she had just published a book on her mother’s murder, which I reviewed for the WSJ, and while I am not exactly sure who contacted whom, Leah and I would become friends. Carroll is searching, of course, for answers about her mother, whom she was told as a child died in a car accident (untrue), but it’s her father into whose life we also walk. Down City is one of the stories I think of as the good ow, they hurt, oh man do they, but it’s the feeling of pushing on a bruise, you can’t stop doing it because there’s part of you that wants to feel the pain. Carroll is also a beautiful writer (and a good Twitter follow), clear-eyed and absolutely unshellacked, from the first sentence of the book - “On the night she died, my mom drove to a motel to buy cocaine with two men” - to the last thing her father says to her, which I am pretty much guaranteeing will both swell your heart and break it.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara (which I listened to on audio): McNamara, whose work I did not know when she died in 2016, had for years been obsessively investigating the case of the Golden State Killer. After her death, at age 46, people in her world put the last touches on I’ll Be Gone in the Dark; soon after, the killer, who Wikipedia tells me “committed at least 13 murders, 50 rapes, and 120 burglaries across California between 1974 and 1986,” was captured and convicted. The book is very scary, and the reader’s delivery - if you choose audio, here’s a link - perfectly calibrated to deliver the terrifying story. A highly recommended listen.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe (ditto, audio): I was driving cross-country in 2019, from Portland to NYC with a stop in Michigan, when I cued up Say Nothing in the car. Oh no, I thought, when I realized the narration was in a fairly pronounced Irish brogue; two minutes later, I could not imagine it being read any other way. This book, my god; what man can do to man, and I of course include women here; the stories they tell themselves to justify murdering their neighbors; the lies they can live with. I knew about as much as the next person about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, if not how incredibly brutal a time it was. Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer at the New Yorker, is one of best writers writing; I have another of his books, The Snakehead, which takes place in my neighborhood in Chinatown, queued up to start tonight. Say Nothing will haunt you, and that’s a good thing.
The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcom: Every time I look at the little stack of loose notes I have from reporting in Portland in 2020, I think, yeah, I could throw those away, but look what happened to Janet Malcolm, who was taken to court for libel after not being able to produce some quotes she used (the litigant lost), but I digress! As if the case of Dr. Jeffery MacDonald, charged with the stabbing and bludgeoning deaths of his wife and two young daughters, was not convoluted enough, with MacDonald suing Fatal Vision author Joe McGinnis for in essence not telling the story of the crime the way MacDonald expected he would (cue Joan Didion’s, “Writers are always selling somebody out”), we have Malcolm covering the trial. It’s a quick read, perhaps of particular interest to journalists and anyone who trusts them. (NB: I think MacDonald is kind of right about McGinnis betraying him. Of course the writer has to gain the subject’s trust, but there are honest and dishonest ways to go about this [and for more on that, see In Cold Blood, below] and I might recommend Fatal Vision so you can tell me what you think.)
Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi: Ask Sarah in the comments!
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote: I think enough ink has been spilled about this one, said to be the true crime book to rule them all. I’m not so sure. Or more specifically, I was sure when I first read it at maybe age 25, but since learning more about Capote’s methods - flattering the killers, papering over the timeline, inventing scenes - and maybe being over-influenced by the 2005 film Capote (RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman), I get a kind of squiggy feeling about the whole thing. That said, the murder of the Clutter family is utterly harrowing, and the work as it stands (and if you squint just a little), a triumph of the genre.
Crossed Over, by Beverly Lowry: When you write about women who commit murder, as I’ve done more than once, people recommend books about other women who commit murder. I’d seen Crossing Over around but did not pick it up until a friend insisted, saying the relationship between author Beverly Lowry and death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker was an astonishment. She is correct. The care taken here, and what forms between the women, is an act of commemoration, and it is not an exaggeration to say you will come to feel something like love for Tucker, a tiny woman with a horrific backstory, who in 1998 became the first woman to be executed in Texas since 1863. Lowry is a profoundly empathetic writer, and you can feel her saving Lowry the only way she knows how.
Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer: I once read that most people harbor the fantasy of killing someone. Huh, I thought, I don’t have that, until I read Under the Banner of Heaven and had repeated daydreams (usually while running?) of murdering Joseph Smith; of seeing the founder of Mormonism on the scaffold, publicly shamed, killed. His lies and manipulations, the ease with which he made fools and slaves of others in order satisfy his lust and lust for power, made me so angry. People paid with their lives and are paying still, including the infant and her mother in Under the Banner of Heaven, whose throats were slashed in 1984 by two fundamentalist Mormon brothers who felt it was God’s will. Krakauer is at his best here, the work strenuously researched, the writing cinematic. And I just now see it’s been made into a miniseries that premiered last month. Let me know if you’ve watched it and if it’s worthwhile.
Thank you for sticking with this extra long book blast! Please share and subscribe, and and let me know in the comments of the true-crime books you love. Maybe we can read them together and discuss xx Nancy