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.
In its closing entries, True Crime allows us to compare contemporary crime writing with its inarguably well-represented past. Gay Talese’s language flows nicely in his take on the Manson murders, “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range,” even if his reporting seems lazy—he opens with a description of a ranch hand and his girlfriend sitting on a fence that, while nicely drawn, has nothing to do with the story, and is distracting. (It felt like this vignette was the first thing he saw, so it was the first thing he wrote.) Jimmy Breslin, writing in the Daily News, brings the harrowing streets of late-1970s New York alive in “Son of Sam,” making me shudder as I remembered the dirty city in those days, yet also making me imagine with a twisted journalist’s envy how exciting it would have been to cover this particular story.
But it is James Ellroy, in the third-to-last entry, who is the real emotional closer of True Crime. So many children have been slain before his “My Mother’s Killer” begins on page 707 that it is oddly refreshing to have, here, a child seeking the details of his mother’s death. Ellroy’s writing is sharp and spare in the extreme: the story is only thirteen rat-a-tat-tat pages long, without a wasted consonant or vowel. Yet the turmoil of this successful writer reimagining his childhood, peering through investigative details, and looking at grisly crime-scene photographs of his murdered mother, is brought remarkably, and awfully, to life.
I read the piece when it appeared in GQ some years ago. On rereading, I was better able to appreciate Ellroy’s language and skill, but was still as haunted by the story as I was the first time—perhaps more so. If True Crime doesn’t cause my bookcase to collapse, I’m sure I’ll pick it up again to reread Ellroy’s little masterpiece. It will come in handy whenever I require a jolt of cruelty to remind me that my life isn’t so bad after all, or need to be inspired by some genuinely fine journalism.