The surprises in True Crime are even more striking, and start early. The writer of the second piece, “The Murder of a Daughter,” engages in the worst kind of base sensationalism when he recounts how parents fed their girl excrement before killing her. (Parents beware: lots of kids die in this book.) The detail has no reason to exist beyond the author’s desire to shock the reader. If that story had come across my desk, I would have trimmed the excrement line in an instant. Its author? Benjamin Franklin.
A hundred or so pages later, one of the legends of the so-called New Journalism is deflated, at least in my mind. Truman Capote has been quoted as saying he wanted In Cold Blood to be a new genre: the first true-crime saga to use literary techniques to tell its story. But in the late 1800s, Celia Thaxter turned a double slaying off the coast of New England into a perfect little novella called “A Memorable Murder.” It’s all there: rich, novelistic descriptions of the sea and the barren island on which the killings took place, internal monologues from the characters (hypothetical, of course), and a remarkable feeling of suspense, especially considering that the author reveals the ending on the first page. (This is actually a quirk of many of the early selections here.)
Other high points in True Crime include Abraham Lincoln’s wry tale of three brothers accused of a slaying that apparently did not happen; a series of “Murder Ballads” that describe killings in song; an excerpt from Herbert Asbury’s evocative “Gangs of New York”; Jim Thompson’s Texas-spare “Ditch of Doom”; and Joseph Mitchell’s “Execution,” whose ice-clear prose throws some of the flowery language elsewhere into stark, unfortunate relief. And therein lies the biggest flaw in this anthology: it’s an anthology—its best offerings can’t help but put some of the lesser examples to shame, no matter how well they might have stood on their own.
I feel sorry, for example, for the anonymous author of “Jesse Harding Pomeroy, The Boy Fiend,” which recounts the crimes of a young torturer and murderer of small children (see note to parents above) in Boston in 1871. That selection just happens to come after an entry from Mark Twain, who describes a well-known Nevada desperado in the following manner:
When he moved along the sidewalk in his excessively long-tailed frock-coat, shiny stump-toed boots, and with dainty little slouch hat tipped over left eye, the small-fry toughs made room for his majesty; when he entered the restaurant, the waiters deserted bankers and merchants to overwhelm him with obsequious service; when he shouldered his way to a bar, the shouldered parties wheeled indignantly, recognized him, and—apologized.
No matter how many times you’ve read Twain, his easy grace with words, his sense of humor, and his handle on details never cease to amaze. Mr. Anonymous didn’t stand a chance.
In one case, at least, Schechter puts the varying talents and viewpoints of different writers to good use. He has chosen two entries about the trial of Robert Allen Edwards, who drowned his girlfriend in 1915, a case remarkably similar to the one that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy.
Because of this similarity, in fact, Dreiser himself was hired to cover the Edwards trial for the New York Post, and a portion of his coverage is included here. It is ponderous, puffed up, and lacking in drama. Not so Dorothy Kilgallen’s coverage of the same trial, which follows Dreiser’s. Hers is shot through with suspense from start to finish. If her prose sounds a bit dated, with a distinctly pulpish accent, this was still a woman who didn’t let words get in the way of a great story. “Next on the stand for the prosecution was Rosetta Culver,” writes Kilgallen. “She was everything Freda was not—blond, attractive, poised. I wondered if handsome Bobby had ever tried to lead her down the cemetery path.”
Of course, both Dreiser and Kilgallen faced a challenge known to all crime writers (and all detectives) since time immemorial: they didn’t see the crime itself. So they spent a lot of time in court. Numerous entries here are actually more about court reporting than crime reporting, and much of what unfolds does so in front of a judge, jury, and press box. Kilgallen smartly used many direct quotes from the transcript to build tension. Not all the other writers are so canny. Some of the courtroom selections could have been trimmed, and the same thing could be said of Cotton Mather’s sermons, which run to thirty-one thunderous, exhausting pages.