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Fun with Murder

Anthology provides fascinating stories of true crime

Dec. 22, 2008
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To quote Mark Twain: If truth is stranger than fiction, it is only because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth is not. True Crime: An American Anthology (Library of America), edited by Harold Schechter, is an outstanding collection of ghastly American crimes ranging from Puritan times to our own day. The anthology is evidence of the gruesome possibilities that truth can reach when it comes to one human being dispatching another-or, usually, many others.

Truth can also be as readable as fiction. To trot out another clich, I could not stop at just one selection. By the end of three days, I had exhausted all 50 entries.

Schechter, professor of American literature at Queens College and author of two-dozen true-crime books and crime novels, points out that truth is often the model for fiction. Close to half of the cases in this collection became the subject of a novel and/or film, sometimes more than once.

Schechter's introductions to the volume and each entry prove to be quite helpful. For the most part he deals not in gangsters, assassins and other professional bad guys, but "those peculiarly horrific and unsettling crimes that have from the beginning haunted the American imagination."

One such case is "The Black Dahlia," the unsolved 1947 Los Angeles murder of Elizabeth Short, who was tortured, slashed and sliced in half. It became one of the most written about crimes of the 20th century. Here it is told by Jack Webb, the actor who pioneered true-crime stories as television drama in "Dragnet." It's written surprisingly well, in a businesslike recounting of the facts that recalls Webb's monotone delivery as an actor.

Many of the crimes remain unsolved, including the garroting of James Ellroy's mother, which became linked in Ellroy's mind with the "Black Dahlia" when he read Webb's piece as a boy. Ellroy, now of course a prominent crime novelist, writes about it in "My Mother's Killer."

Awful as those homicides are, they pale in comparison to the atrocities of Ed Gein and the Bender family. Schechter rightly says that "all modern American horror comes from the outrages of Ed Gein," the creepy, reclusive psychopath in central Wisconsin who in the 1940s and '50s robbed the fresh graves of women, or murdered them, and turned their body parts "into various appalling artifacts."

Gein was the inspiration for the novel and subsequent movie Psycho, as well as for other fictional monsters. The late Milwaukeean Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, writes about him in "The Shambles of Ed Gein."

Edmund Pearson, whom Schechter calls the dean of American true-crime writing, describes the depredations of the Bender family of Labette County, Kan., in "Hell Benders, or the Story of a Wayside Tavern." In 1872-'73 they robbed and bludgeoned to death travelers-10 or 12, no one is sure-before they absconded or were killed, no one is sure.

Aside from the macabre fascination of the subject matter, the other attraction of this volume is the excellent writing. The most amazing reportage is that of longtime New York Times staffer Meyer ("Mike") Berger about a 28-year-old World War II veteran who went berserk in Camden, N.J., shooting 13 people fatally and wounding three others.

Arriving early on the scene, Berger retraced the man's steps, interviewed 50 witnesses, raced back to the office and in two hours hammered out a 4,000-word story. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 and remains a thrilling read today.

There are more than 750 pages of similarly solid work to dip into: Damon Runyon, in writing about the Ruth Snyder/Judd Gray "Trial of the Century" in 1927, displays the wit and drama that would later make his "Guys and Dolls" stories so popular; Miriam Allen deFord explains the Chicago "thrill killers" Leopold and Loeb; W.T. Brannon writes about another Chicago case, Richard Speck's savage killing of eight student nurses in 1966; and H.L. Mencken provides "More and Better Psychopaths."

My favorite is A.J. Liebling's rollicking "The Case of the Scattered Dutchman," a 1955 New Yorker article about an 1897 murder in which the victim is revealed to police and reporters (and to the reader) in separate pieces found wrapped in oilcloth and floating in the East River. Liebling does what he does best: write about his beloved New York City and its oddities, both animate and inanimate, with great brio.

To have such fun with murder-why, it's almost criminal.


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