True Crime Gets Pretty

Once trashy and compelling, true crime is now the realm of credentialed literary writers. Is that an improvement?

Lisa Larson-Walker

A woman learns that her best friend from childhood has been murdered. A woman dithering over her stalled career in a small town becomes preoccupied with a serial killer. A woman interning at a law firm specializing in death penalty defense is shocked to find herself wishing for the execution of one of the firm’s clients. A woman recalls the night when she, age 12, heard her mother being murdered in the next room.

These four books, all published in 2017, arrive three years into an upsurge of interest in true-crime narratives, spurred by the success of the podcast Serial. Once a seedy, slightly shameful taste fed by cheap paperbacks with screaming titles and grainy black-and-white photo inserts, true crime has recently decamped to a classier part of town. Among the authors described above, one has an MFA in nonfiction; one has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, and MacDowell; another works for New York magazine. They’re a far cry from the seasoned beat reporters, former police officers, and moonlighting prosecutors who used to churn out books with titles like Mommy’s Little Girl or Lust Killer, written in styles ranging from blunt, dateline exposition to the floridly sensational.

The authors of these new true crime/memoir hybrids also put themselves at the center of the story to an extent that surpasses even the questing Sarah Koenig, producer and narrator of Serial. Each has a personal connection to the crime, or attempts to persuade her readers that it speaks to her inner life in some irresistible way. But they are writers and memoirists first, unlike those victims of notorious crimes who publish a ghostwritten book or two. They spend less time describing how they tracked down facts or pored over forensic reports than they do scrutinizing their own feelings, turning them over and over like heirlooms.

They aren’t the first writers to bring literary aspirations to true crime, but their intense focus on their own relationship to violence and those who wreak it is striking. Not for them the tabloid gusto of the genre’s doyenne, Ann Rule (“The stalking, predatory animal cuts the weakest from the pack, and then kills at his leisure,” The Stranger Beside Me). They’re more likely to follow the lead of one of the first post-Serial memoirists to wrap a crime story in her own enveloping subjectivity, Amy Butcher, author of 2015’s Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder. Gazing out her motel window at the prison where the next day she will visit a college friend convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Butcher fancifully imagines “sea monsters with glinting teeth,” swimming through its shadows. Then she goes on gazing, out at the hills beyond the prison, picturing “women setting down casseroles on green linen tablecloths, children racing from darkened dens, family dogs curled beside brick fireplaces as logs first crackle and then begin to burn. I imagine them as if I know them because their peace was once my own, their quiet once my quiet, and because their imagined evenings are far preferable to the reality that is this dawn.”

Sometimes the line between good writing and bad writing can be as thin as the piano wire with which a madman garrotes his victims. The true-crime memoir, blending a genre known for its literary introspection with another notorious for its lurid excesses, lives on that line. There is a homey counterpart in Butcher’s motel-window reverie to Raymond Chandler’s famous passage about the hot Santa Ana winds rushing down through the San Gabriel Mountains and making “meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” But the tart observation turns sour when it reaches Butcher, posing against that window in all her tragic, world-weary glory. In Chandler’s version of this riff, Southern California’s hot winds kindle the angry beast inside everyone, but Butcher’s claims all that glamorous darkness for herself. The crime her friend committed is a horrifying deed that in Visiting Hours can never quite break free of the gravitational force of Butcher’s self-regard.

Memoirists, especially female memoirists, have long been subject to accusations of narcissism or exhibitionism, accusations deeply entangled with regressive ideas about what sort of women cause trouble or call attention to themselves. The intermingling of the reflective literary memoir with true crime’s blunt and murderous reality threatens to force an author’s self-absorption into relief. Butcher’s friend, in withdrawal from antidepressants, murdered his girlfriend during a psychotic break and immediately confessed to the crime. It is an act that baffles even him. Her death was a senseless tragedy, yet Butcher insists on inserting herself into the story as a potentially significant actor who might have somehow averted it all if she had only been more supportive. She also fiddles with the facts, stating through much of the book that she was the last person to see her friend before the murder—only to reveal near the end that after he left her he spent half an hour watching TV with someone else. At every high school ever stricken by a fatal senior-year automobile accident, there is always a girl eager to claim best-friend intimacy with the deceased; Butcher’s resemblance to such girls is a queasy undercurrent of Visiting Hours.

Old-school true crime was frequently trashy, but rarely outright bad; true badness requires at least a soupçon of pretension. This is why the true-crime memoir can ascend to heights of awfulness to which its humbler predecessor could never aspire. A book like Claudia Rowe’s The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder, aspires to much more than, say, a legal procedural like Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. Bugliosi will tell you what Charles Manson thought he was doing when he sent his followers out into the night to murder total strangers (triggering a race war). He will tell you what he thinks is wrong with Manson himself (delusional megalomania). But he doesn’t even pretend to plumb the “meaning of murder.” He just prosecuted it.

Not so Claudia Rowe. Haunted by a vaguely described abusive upbringing, stuck in Poughkeepsie, New York, after her promising journalism career hit the skids, Rowe describes herself as “sleepwalking through life” in her 30s, loaded down with “shame, pounds of shame.” Her distress, at least, seems less theatrical than Butcher’s. Her self-loathing is entirely convincing and becomes her chief explanation for why she obsessed over and struck up a correspondence with Poughkeepsie serial killer Kendall Francois, who in the late 1990s murdered eight women and stashed their bodies around the house that he shared with his parents and sister. Francois was black, a rarity among serial killers and in Poughkeepsie itself, and Rowe seems determined to identify with his outcast status. “Alone at my desk,” she writes, “I stared at newspaper photos of his round face. I bored into his almond-shaped eyes and tried to fathom the brain inside, embroidering intricate pasts that might explain his impenetrable gaze. Was there anything we shared, any point on the spectrum of human emotion where once we might have met? I took the wounds of my own childhood and laid them over Kendall like a shroud, hoping to find an outline I could trace.”

Alas, this vein of moony, brooding, overwrought prose is all too common in true-crime memoirs, where authors seem to feel obliged to come up with a backstory that will justify their fascination with a particular crime or criminal. It’s enough to make a reader long for the old-fashioned, matter-of-fact cheesiness of Rule (“No one could have foreseen that the deadliest killer of all would choose a ten-mile stretch of this roadway as his personal hunting ground”). Rule felt no need to explain why she was intrigued by murder. Who isn’t? Rule is, in a way, the godmother of the true-crime memoir, although she later went on to write more strictly journalistic books. Her first big hit, The Stranger Beside Me, sprang from her friendship with Ted Bundy, whom she met when they both volunteered at a suicide hotline in the 1970s, long before his crimes came to light. Stranger contains its share of rumination on the nature of Bundy’s character and how Rule, a former police officer and crime writer, could have mistaken him for a normal human being. But, like Bugliosi, Rule rarely depicts herself as swamped by the feelings the case dredges up.

The true-crime memoir’s preoccupation with the stormy inner life of its author doesn’t have to be histrionic. Carolyn Murnick’s The Hot One is a rueful exploration of how two New Jersey girls, such close friends in fifth grade that they felt they were nearly the same person, found themselves on very different paths: one as a senior editor at New York magazine, the other a “party girl” murdered in her Los Angeles bungalow. Murnick recounts how her friendship with Ashley derailed as the girls grew up and Ashley acquired a heady sexual charisma that, while enviable, also seemed to hijack her life. Murnick’s account of the last time the two women saw each other—when they were just entering their 20s and Ashley came to visit Murnick in New York for a weekend—is an excruciatingly honest portrayal of what it’s like to find a person you once knew intimately utterly transformed by the way other people—including yourself—see her. Ashley, who had been making rent money doing short stints in a Las Vegas strip club, struck Murnick as “tan, toned, and feral.” When the two friends go out for a drink at a bar (carefully selected by Murnick for its urban sophistication), they are approached by man after man, men of every type and temperament, all focused like laser beams on Ashley. “I had never felt more invisible or irrelevant,” Murnick writes. “I felt as if I were seeing a portal to another world, one where it was apparently possible—if you were Ashley—to have invitations and affirmations and opportunities laid out in front of you without even having to try.” Ashley, on the other hand, was merely bored.

Murnick does torment herself over her belief that Ashley had been relegated to the position of “the hot one” in their dyad, as distinguished from Murnick’s “the smart one,” and that this made Murnick somehow complicit in the turn her old friend’s life took, and perhaps even her death. But Ashley’s murderer turns out to be a serial killer—not a rejected lover or obsessed strip club patron. He had already killed another woman whose only commonality with Ashley was her beauty. What placed Ashley in his sights was nothing more than bad luck, and whatever compelled him to stab her more than 40 times had no connection with her friends, her ex-friends, or how she chose to make her way through the world. In fact, her murderer’s motives were and remain opaque, as is the case with many such killers. They are seldom able to explain themselves. Kendall Francois told authorities that he was “angry” at the sex workers he murdered because they “ripped me off,” as if homicide were a form of consumer complaint. Rule, who maintained that she probably knew Bundy better than anyone else, threw up her hands and pronounced his behavior “incomprehensible.”

Well, one explanation does present itself. It’s surely no coincidence that each of these books is written by a woman, and is devoted to contemplating the crimes of a man. If this burgeoning genre has a central preoccupation, it is women trying to fathom the capacity in certain men for terrible violence when their desires are thwarted. (It’s true that sexual assault represents an attempt to establish power and control, but in these cases, it was the men’s own desires that made them feel powerless.) All of these murders were connected with sex and all of the victims but one were women.

That exception, Jeremy Guillory, was a 6-year-old Louisiana boy who was strangled in 1992 by an admitted pedophile, a jug-eared misfit named Ricky Langley. Langley was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime. Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, then a law student, was working for the summer at a firm seeking to commute Langley’s sentence to life imprisonment. Marzano-Lesnevich is staunchly opposed to capital punishment, yet as she writes in The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, when she saw a videotape of Langley discussing the murder, she was overcome with a single thought: “I want Ricky to die.”

Langley’s case dredges up Marzano-Lesnevich’s own history of sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather, abuse that her parents never directly addressed, although when they found out about it, they made sure the old man never had the opportunity to do it again. The Fact of a Body recounts how Marzano-Lesnevich reconstructed Langley’s history in an attempt to understand how he came to commit his unspeakable crime, intertwined with an autobiographical narrative about the repercussions of the abuse she suffered on her own life. Marzano-Lesnevich doesn’t uncover anything so reductive as a similar history of abuse in Langley himself, but his was a childhood shadowed by poverty, alcoholism, mental illness, and a ghastly car crash that killed two of his siblings and cost his mother her leg. Perhaps most poignantly, as an adult Langley repeatedly requested therapy and, on more than one occasion, incarceration, protesting that he did not think he could prevent himself from molesting children if left to his own devices.

Marzano-Lesnevich begins and ends The Fact of a Body with a consideration of the legal principle called “proximate cause,” which tries to establish who and what are responsible when an event (in the case used as an example, an accident on a railway platform) occurs. Marzano-Lesnevich’s grandfather, when she confronted him as an adult, claimed that he had himself been abused as a child. Such arguments, and the law itself, Marzano-Lesnevich argues, are narratives we use to make sense of a chaotic, confusing world. We decide, for convenience’s sake, where they begin and end. Her reconstruction of Langley’s life and family history, told in novelistic detail, represents for her a similar effort at understanding how he came to do what he did. Yet these are the least effective parts of a book that, for all the cumulative power it generates, often feels padded with unnecessary bids for literary credibility. “The Louisiana night,” she writes, imagining a time Langley went out for a drive, “is thick with cicadas, with stars, with the silencing of the man-made that can make possibility stretch out before you.” If Langley ever actually entertained such a prettified thought, which seems unlikely, it would be one of the least interesting things about him.

The potency of the best true-crime writing, from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to recent masterpieces like Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, arises from its lacunae, from the places where the scrupulous writer cannot establish what happened but resists the urge to fill in the blanks. Of course the reader’s imagination and presupposition slip in, and of course, if we keep ourselves honest, none of that ever finds solid footing in our understanding of what happened. With true crime, as with all great writing, knowing what to leave out is even more important than knowing what to tell. Marzano-Lesnevich’s inclination to fill up her narrative’s emptiness with the stuff of fiction—for example, a scene in which Jeremy’s mother is reminded by the condensation on a cold soda can of “the way the water crawls through the bushes of Henderson Swamp” doesn’t increase her book’s verisimilitude; rather, it subtracts from it, turning every character’s inner voice into a version of her own. At this particular intersection of memoir, which aims to shape the random experiences of a life into a narrative, and true crime, a form that works best when it steps back from such interventions, the result is an abundance—of words, images, metaphors, and elegant sentences—that nevertheless often fails to satisfy because it tries too hard to do just that.

Sarah Perry’s After the Eclipse, on the other hand, is stripped of superfluity. Perhaps that’s because Perry is not, like Marzano-Lesnevich or Rowe, obliged to provide an elaborate explanation for her interest in the atrocities and sufferings of strangers. This is her story. The victim was her mother, and Sarah trembled in her bedroom as an assailant she could not see stabbed Crystal Perry to death in the kitchen. Sarah and Crystal, who was divorced from Sarah’s father, lived together in a small but cozy prefabricated house on a quiet road in rural Maine. The house and the land it stood on were this little family’s hard-won prize, bought with savings from Crystal’s job hand-sewing shoes in a local shop. Several men she had known were suspected of killing her, but it would be 12 years before DNA analysis conclusively identified her murderer.

Sarah Perry has an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University, and while those years of study haven’t made Perry’s writing self-consciously “beautiful” in the stereotypical fashion of workshopped prose, perhaps her years at Columbia helped her acquire the craft and the strength to write “The Night,” the chapter in After the Eclipse describing the night of her mother’s death. Those nine pages are carved from a solid block of nightmare, both raw and perfect: “Then. Boots thundering across the linoleum. A drawer pulled to the end of its runners, slamming at the end. Metal on metal, a knife pulled out, surely.” I’ve never read a better depiction of how a sudden, violent event rips through a human being’s apprehension of reality while, at the same time, some stubborn version of the self soldiers on, doing what it takes to survive. “A new part of me is born right here in the kitchen,” Perry writes, then switches to the first person plural as she recounts running out onto the darkened street in search of help.

The rest of After the Eclipse could not possibly be as hair-raising, but it’s something nearly as good: an unfussy, richly textured remembrance of a town, a family, a particular place on the planet that its author knows all the way down to her bones—the strengths of a classic memoir. Crystal’s feckless exes (one with a dangerously jealous drunk for a new girlfriend); her raucous, loving but only intermittently dependable gaggle of sisters; the friends, as Sarah grew into adolescence, who had to be carefully vetted before she confided the truth about her past; and underneath it all, the nagging fear that her mother’s killer might return—all of this fills the book as Perry grows into young adulthood. The years are punctuated by occasional visits from the police, and then finally, when she has almost given up hope, an arrest, a trial, a conviction. But mysteries remain, about her mother’s relationship to her murderer and, most painfully for Perry, everything of the evening leading up to the moment he walked in their door. She has no memory of what happened during that handful of hours, and most likely they have nothing to do with the crime itself. Their irretrievable absence gives After the Eclipse an eerie, heartbreaking power that it shares with the very best of true crime. They were the last bit of ordinary life Perry shared with her mother, more elusive and more precious than any clue.

Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder by Amy Butcher. Blue Rider Press.

The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe. Dey Street Books.

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder by Carolyn Murnick. Simon & Schuster.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. Flatiron Books.

After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, a Daughter’s Search by Sarah Perry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.