True Crime

Stories of real crimes can be exciting reading and viewing. Often however, it is incredibly sad and horrific.

The first time I saw the movie In Cold Blood, it terrified me. I stopped watching films like that again.  The subject matter does not have to be graphic to be jarring and upsetting; knowing the crime is true adds a major element of emotional horror.

Only occasionally have I indulged in true crime books. I still find them sad and horrific, but I can measure my reading to make it tolerable. So why even read them at all? Crime is big business, it contains all the human emotions and temptations. There is mystery, intrigue, passion and vulnerability. We are drawn in the same way we slow down to see a wreck or a fire. We do not want to see human tragedy, but a part of us cannot resist it.  And we cannot pretend that horrors like that do not happen.

This not a book review, it is a question about why crime stories are both appalling and appealing.

I just finished reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.  Larson is an incredible writer, and like filmmakers Hitchcock, Kubrick and Scorsese, in the hands of a talented storyteller, the subject matter gains an even deeper emotional gear.  Larson’s book intertwines two very opposite stories, both set in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century. A World’s Fair and a serial killer, what could these stories have in common? Surprisingly, quite a bit.

Chicago in the 1980s was a tough place in tough times. Landing the World’s Fair was a coup for the city, but the start of many challenges, including a major recession gripping the country, closing banks and throwing millions out of work. Chicago had a bit of an identity issue and staging a world event to rival Paris would give the city a huge lift. A fair of this magnitude requires land, buildings, exhibits and massive funding. In addition, there are many logistical nightmares to solve, some specific to Chicago itself. An event of this type requires originality and the support of visionary architects and engineers to surpass whatever the last world fair had, namely the Eiffel Tower.

Chicago, as the backdrop for both stories, is very much the story. Near the turn of the century, big cities struggled with modernization as growing urban problems like pollution, building construction safety, public health and crime were ahead of municipal officials’ ability to solve them. Chicago was a big, impersonal place where a person could easily disappear or wind up killed. For many, the city was known for the stockyards and the factory slaughterhouses. Ironically, a serial killer would also operate with such great kill efficiency.

I had never heard the serial killer story in this book.  Chicago was a perfect place for a conman like H. H. Holmes, who mainly preyed on young women but who also found other victims. There is no way to know the number of victims, although he is linked to nine, it was likely many times that. Holmes destroyed evidence and got rid of his bodies, so it’s anyone’s guess the number of disappearances attributed to him.

Holmes was a master manipulator, skilled in gaining the confidence and trust in others. He portrayed a gentleman of means and humility that attracted vulnerable young women. He courted them, married them, took their money and then made them disappear. As a man trained in medicine, he know how to kill and dispose of bodies. He designed a building with secret chambers to kill and prepare his victims for dismemberment. Gruesome? Absolutely. He was the Ted Bundy of his time.

Truly disturbing. Larson refrains from going over the top in his descriptions, just enough to convey the brutal and morbid facts.  A few years earlier, Jack the Ripper terrorized London with gruesome murders. Holmes was responsible for more murders, but because he hid his crimes, the public only later learned of his butchery.

James Ellroy wrote the book that the film L. A. Confidential is based. He has written fiction and nonfiction books centered on crime themes, including a fictionalized book on the real Black Dahlia unsolved murder.

Ellroy was one messed up young man, growing up in Southern California, involved in drugs and crime.  He lived with the fact that his mother was murdered, a crime also never solved.

My Dark Places traces Ellroy’s life, and his own attempt to solve his mother’s murder. It is a rather chilling read, as there were two victims: his mother and 10-year old Ellroy.

Somehow, Ellroy managed to get his shit together and became a writer.  He focused the pain and cruelty of life running through his veins onto the pages of stories.

His style is gritty, tough and graphic. His prose is difficult to read because it is herky-jerky, not quite stream-of-consciousness, but often hard to decipher. My Dark Places is easier to follow and more straight-forward storytelling than many of his other books.  I have read My Dark Places several times. You feel Ellroy’s pain and loss. You do not always understand his actions, but you see the wreckage on his life.  Maybe it is the fact that Ellroy “survived” that makes the book such a curiosity to me.

Ellroy used to live in the Kansas City area, owning a home in the tony Mission Hills area, when he was married to writer Helen Knode.  After they split, he moved back in California.  I went to a book signing of his, which was proceeded by a documentary about his life.  Then he spoke about his new book and answered questions from the audience.

So, back to the question: why do people indulge in true crime stories?  We like to be scared (to a point), and horror does fascinate us (again, to a point). Our pulse races and for a brief time the adrenaline flows.  There is another reason, as humans we are constantly reminded of the battle between good and evil.  We are taught that we are sinners and must constantly work to shed that veil.  As humans, we are susceptible to temptation, so you might say it is in our DNA.  Most of us will never commit crimes but on a psychological or moral level, we understand the underlying causation of crime.  Perhaps it is this understanding – and fear – that keeps us picking up the book or watching the screen.


One thought on “True Crime

  1. You’re right, all humans are fascinated by horror and tragedy. A lot of us lack the self-control to say “OK, I’m indulging in this way too much.” I read most of In Cold Blood as a freshman in the high school library and it kept me awake several nights. The film debuted on TV not long after (the airing was controversial, if I remember) and I refused to watch it. And only a few years ago I started researching the brutal murder of a girl I knew in college, with the intent of maybe doing a book, but I couldn’t carry on. Just too personal, I guess.

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