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NONFICTION

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Stories illustrate the march of crime

Well-chosen tales highlight some notorious criminals in U.S. history.

By Adam Bell
abell@charlotteobserver.com

TRUE CRIME: AN AMERICAN ANTHOLOGY

Edited by Harold Schechter. Library of America. 788 pages. $40.

It was murder they wrote. And wrote quite well.

In fact, “True Crime” provides both a fascinating look at crime from colonial America through current times, and insight into the evolution of nonfiction writing. If all that sounds a little academic, well, relax. There are plenty of whopping good tales here.

Besides, what's not to love about an anthology whose authors include the likes of Cotton Mather and Truman Capote, Abe Lincoln and Bonnie Parker (yes, of “Bonnie and Clyde” fame)? The cases cover some of the most notorious criminals in American history – from Leopold and Loeb, President Garfield's assassin and the Lindbergh baby killer, to Charles Manson, the Menendez brothers and the guy who inspired the creation of Norman Bates in “Psycho.” But the book does equally well when its subjects are ordinary people doing really bad things, like the overly suspicious eastern Kentucky man firing at a documentary film crew.

Across the scope of crimes, methods may vary but motivations remain the same through the years – greed, lust, stupidity or just plain evil.

This is decidedly not a beach book, weighing in with nearly 800 pages. Stories range in length from a few pages to novella length.

With each chapter, editor Harold Schechter provides a brief, illuminating overview on both author and subject. He has chosen well in both regards.

Mather, the most Puritan of the Puritan preachers, leads off with an execution sermon, typically delivered during hangings.

Lincoln offers a portrait of a man he defended during a murder trial, which ended after the supposed victim turns up in court. Despite the dryness of his prose, Lincoln's humanity shines through with the story he chose to describe.

Parker is represented by her murder ballad, which Schechter said is a tradition that dates to the Middle Ages. She called hers “Trail's End.”

One of the most fascinating chapters is Damon Runyon's take on the case that inspired the film noir classic “Double Indemnity.” In real life, they were Mrs. Ruth Snyder and her lover, Henry Judd Gray, a corset salesman (really). They killed her husband for the insurance money in what they thought was the perfect crime. It wasn't, and they wound up in Sing Sing's electric chair.

In “The Eternal Blonde,” Runyon's pitch-perfect take on the notorious Jazz Age trial sets the tone from the start: “A chilly looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble, you-bet-you-will chins, and an inert, scare-drunk fellow that you couldn't miss among any hundred men as a dead set-up for a blonde, or the shell game, or maybe a gold brick.”

Another fascinating chapter comes from Gay Talese, who helped pioneer the “New Journalism” use of literary techniques buttressed by vibrant journalistic research. He writes of Manson's former ranch outside of Los Angeles. But Talese spends nearly as much time on the blind old man who rented Manson the property, once used in old Westerns populated by the likes of Tom Mix and the Cisco Kid.

Jimmy Breslin takes us into the mindset of Son of Sam. And in one of the most moving, yet hard-boiled accounts, crime writer James Ellroy writes about “My Mother's Killer.”

As Ellroy said of his mother, “The woman refused to grant me a reprieve. Her grounds were simple: My death gave you a voice, and I need you to recognize me past your exploitation of it.” He does.

It's another example of Schechter's expertly choosing stories to illuminate the continuing march of crime in our country.

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