Showing posts with label nonfiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nonfiction. Show all posts

17 September 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part One


I don't read or write True Crime. At least not anymore. And not for a long time. Given the popularity of the genre, and the subject matter of this site, I do not expect this to be a popular opinion.

But bear with me. Let me explain.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington. During my early teens the city was terrorized by the "South Hill Rapist," a serial rapist who focused mostly on the aforementioned South Hill, an affluent walking suburb of the city. When he was finally caught and convicted, the South Hill Rapist turned out to be Frederick Harlan {"Kevin") Coe, the son of the managing editor of the one the city's two major newspapers, Gordon Coe. In a twist right out of a Hollywood movie, Coe Sr. was responsible for monitoring a tip line set up by his paper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle, intended to help find the rapist who turned out to be his own son.

By the time the Spokane police caught up with him, Kevin Coe had been running amok for the better part of three years, and brutally raped dozens of women. His parents were socially prominent, "pillars of the community," and his mother was also a whack-job (who first tried to give her son an absurd alibi, and then went to jail herself for trying to hire a hitman to kill both the presiding judge and the prosecutor in her son's court case), so his trial, where the brutality of his rapes was put on lurid display, was a regular media circus.

As such it is unsurprising that Coe's crimes, capture and subsequent trial attracted the attention of one of America's great True Crime writers, Jack Olsen. Olsen, who had famously written for publications from Sports Illustrated to Vanity Fair, and everything in between, spent eighteen months researching and writing a book about Coe, the critically acclaimed Son: A Psychopath and His Victims.

I was sixteen when Coe was caught and convicted, working my first real job, at a hospital which sat right at the foot of the South Hill. And my parents bought and read Son when it came out a couple of years later. And once they had finished it, I did too.

Olsen, a Washington state transplant who passed away on Bainbridge Island at the age of seventy-seven in 2002, was a hell of a writer. I was transfixed by Son, both recognizing and not recognizing the setting as my own hometown. This monster, Kevin Coe, drove the streets where I drove, ate where I ate, hung out in the parks I and my friends frequented, shopped where I shopped, and raped a whole bunch of innocent women along the South Hill's High Drive, where I dated a few girls and attended more than my share of parties.

It was not the start of a lifetime spent reading True Crime books though. And it wasn't until years later that I even gave much thought to the question of why. I found the story compelling. The setting, Spokane, was a place I thought I knew well, and yet I learned a lot about it I might have otherwise never learned, simply by reading Olsen's book. And, as I said above, Olsen could tell a story.

I just didn't find anything particularly compelling about the psychopath at the heart of the story. As I got older this proved to be the case with the relatively few other well-written, exhaustively researched True Crime books I read: Vincent Bugliosi's superb take on Charles Manson and his cult in Helter Skelter. A compelling account, and horrifying in the details of the things those hippies did on Manson's orders. And it's a story rendered all the more remarkable because it was written by the man who brought the whole lot of them to justice (Bugliosi prosecuted Manson and his followers for their killing spree). And yet Manson? A career petty criminal who never killed anyone himself, but somehow managed to convince others to kill for him. I was no more interested in him than I was in Coe.

The guy who prosecuted Manson and then wrote one hell of a book about it.

I started Ann Rule's classic The Stranger Beside Me, which dealt with her collegial relationship volunteering at a Puget Sound suicide hotline with eventually convicted and executed serial killer Ted Bundy, but didn't finish it. Something about the way Rule both documented her relationship with Bundy and also excused herself for profiting from that relationship, which she continued to cultivate for her own ends long after Bundy had been arrested and sentenced put me off. I just found it gross. All of these poor women who suffered at Bundy's hands, terrorized, tortured, and brutally murdered, and Ann Rule's giving the guy publishing advice while he's in jail awaiting sentencing on kidnapping charges. 

Did Rule have any inkling what Bundy had done? She mentions earlier in the book that she discussed with a police detective the possibility of Bundy being the killer the police were searching for who had identified himself as "Ted" to a potential victim at a popular Lake Washington park where another woman disappeared that same day. But after his kidnapping conviction she withheld opinion (at least for the time being), and even offered to co-write something about his experiences and split the profits with him.

I stopped reading not long after that.

And in this particular profit motive, Rule was something of a trailblazer. Nowadays you have popular podcasts such as "My Favorite Murder," which bills itself as a "true crime comedy" podcast, and boasts thousands of fans ("Murderinos," in the show's parlance). I thought it only fair to sample this podcast before mentioning it in this post, so I listened to a few of its episodes. Definitely not my thing.

And then I mentioned in passing that I was writing about both True Crime and the current True Crime podcasting craze during a conversation with a friend and fellow writer who once harbored ambitions of writing within the genre (he has since moved on to other genres). His response was worth quoting, so here it is, with his permission:

I especially dislike the hybrid true-crime memoir. If I’m immersed in a compelling story of murder, I don’t want to see the storyteller run the camera on themselves and tell us all about their relationship problems or their ailing grandparents or their struggles to get into grad school unless they have a direct and compelling connection to the people, places and events of the murder story.  (And “she was my second cousin, two twins over, we hung out a couple times at summer camp” doesn’t cut it.) It is cognitively dissonant in the extreme; it is the bait-and-switch technique of a literary used-car salesman. “Murder, grief, loss, community impact ... but let’s talk about my ex-boyfriend for the next fifteen pages and then weave in the fact that I lived in the murder town for a few months.” Who decided there was an audience for that?

The comfort food of a literary non-snob
Now let me be clear: I have things I love to read that would likely make you laugh out loud. I am not above diving in to pure escapism strictly for escapism's sake. I am many things: but a literary snob is not one of them. And I'm not slagging people who like to read this stuff, or enjoy these podcasts. I just don't, and I figured if I was going to broadcast this opinion, I really ought to deeply examine why. 

When I was in college I took a philosophy class in which the professor had us read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, and Hannah Arendt's stunning Eichmann in Jerusalem wherein she explored the seeming ordinariness of fugitive Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, an architect of Hitler's "Final Solution" (extermination of the Jews), had fled Nazi Germany shortly after the end of World War II, and successfully evaded capture in South America for nearly two decades until Israeli intelligence agents tracked him down and captured him outside Buenos Aires, Argentina in May, 1960. Then they smuggled him out of Argentina, to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government put him on trial for war crimes. For her portrait of Eichmann, who was soft-spoken, slightly built, balding, near-sighted, and possessed of the demeanor of a clerk, Arendt coined the phrase, "The banality of evil."

Which takes me full circle: Coe, Manson, Bundy.  A hundred naked meth addicts running from the police in a variety of episodes of "COPS." Banal, bland, uninteresting monsters, not worth giving a second glance or a moment's attention.

Why should their willingness to visit untold misery and pain on innocent people profit them in the slightest? What is it about their innate viciousness that renders them worth my time and attention? Again, if you find this sort of thing compelling, you want to know what makes serial killers tick, I can understand and respect that. It's just not my thing.

But that's only half of the reason why I don't read or write True Crime.

The other half I'll expand upon in my next post in a couple of weeks, when I talk about my day gig, and how it's brought me into close contact with a variety of criminals and their victims.

See you in two weeks.

03 January 2018

Bizarre Bizarre


One of the dangers of the library biz is that you are constantly surrounded by attractive nuisances, by which I mean those flat things with lots of pages between their covers.  In a word, books.  You stroll on your merry way, glance at a shelf, and uh oh, there's something that will fill your lunch hours for weeks to come.

For instance, I recently noticed a biography of John Randolph, or as he preferred to style himself, Randolph of Roanoke.  I had heard of him before as a master of the instant insult, a sort of Winston Churchill for the Federalist period.  For example, here are his comments on a couple of politicians he didn't love:

John Randolph
"Like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks."

 "Never were abilities so much below mediocrity so well rewarded; no, not when Caligula's horse was made consul."

I picked up the book looking for more such wit.  Instead I stumbled into one of the strangest true stories I have ever encountered.  If you wrote this up as a gothic novel your editor would say, sheesh, tone it down.  No one's gonna believe it.

Once I got interested I went looking for a book specifically on the topic and found Cynthia A. Kierner's Scandal at Bizarre, which is the main source of what you will read below.

This is a bizarre story in more ways than one, because most of the characters lived in a house called Bizarre.

 Start with this: The Randolphs were one of the oldest families in Virginia, and like many of the aristocrats after the Revolutionary War, were sunk deep in debt.  John's big brother Richard, head of the clan, was married to his second cousin, Judith Randolph.  (That was her maiden name.  The plantations of Virginia were stinky with Randolphs.)

Living at Bizarre with the newlyweds were John and also Judith's sister Nancy.

On October 1, 1792, Richard, Judith, and Nancy spent the night at the home of some friends, Mary and Randolph (!) Harrison.   During the night Nancy began screaming in pain.  Mary went to check on her and found-- Well, what you expect?  That Nancy's sister Judith was looking after her?  No, it was her brother-in-law Richard.

In the morning the Harrisons found blood on the stairs.  Later that day the family slaves reported finding a dead newborn on the plantation.  The Harrisons, oddly enough, did not check up on that story.  (Perhaps they had  a very good - or very bad - reason for that, as we shall discover.)

Patrick Henry
It seems clear that unmarried Nancy had either had a miscarriage, or an abortion (a few weeks earlier Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Martha,  married to yet another Randolph, had  provided Nancy with a medicinal herb which supposedly could be used as an abortifacient), or else she gave birth.  The vital question was: had there been a live birth and if so, how did the child die?  Was this infanticide?

The scandal rocked Virginia and most people assumed that Richard was the father, which made it a case of incest.  (Not because they were second cousins but because they were brother and sister-in-law).  Richard finally demanded to be put on trial in an effort to clear his name.

Nancy, by the way, was willing to admit to a stillbirth  and to claim that Richard and John's other brother Theo, who had died months before, was the father.  But that didn't really help Richard: as head of the family he lost honor if he had permitted such things to happen under his roof.  He wanted a court to exonerate them both.

John Marshall
And the trial is where it gets even more interesting.  (Richard's lawyers were the aging but legendary orator Patrick Henry and future Chief Justice John Marshall.)  There were no witnesses who could testify that they had seen a dead baby.  Remember how the hosts chose not to go look?  The slaves had seen it, of course, but slaves could not testify.  (Interesting fact: later Richard turned against slavery, and freed his own slaves.)

A Not Guilty plea was delivered but the Randolphs remained under a cloud of disgrace.  Judith never forgave her sister and after Richard died years later she relegated Nancy to duties that were normally done by slaves.

Not surprisingly Nancy left her beloved Virginia and went north, where her fortunes changed dramatically when she met Governeur Morris.   Morris was quite a character in his own right.  He was a successful businessman and diplomat and one of the major writers of the U.S. Constitution.

Morris apparently told Nancy he was looking for a housekeeper for his home in what is now the Bronx. It seems apparent he had other plans for her as well.

Governeur Morris
Nancy arrived at Morrisania in April 1809 and apparently fit right in.  On Christmas day, to the astonishment of Governeur's assembled relatives, the lifelong bachelor took her as a bride.

The relatives were  not thrilled.  A kind interpretation would be that they were afraid this young poor woman of dubious reputation was taking advantage of their beloved kinsman who was, after all, a doddering old codger of fifty-seven.  A less generous explanation was that they had been expecting to inherit his considerable wealth and saw Nancy as an obstacle.  Which indeed she was, especially after giving birth to Governeur, Jr. three years later.

One niece, acting as what we would now call a concern troll wrote to her dear uncle worrying about what the world would think of his marriage.  He replied: "If the world were to live with my wife, I should certainly have consulted its taste; but as that happens not to be the case, I thought I might, without offending others, endeavor to suit myself."  What's the early nineteenth century term for "drop the mic?"

Some of Nancy's in-laws plotted against her (led, inevitably, by a crooked lawyer) and found a champion in no less than John Randolph.  Remember him?  It was his biography that got me into this whole mess.

Randolph of Roanoke wrote an 8-page letter supposedly addressed to Nancy but actually sent to her husband.  He warmed up by accusing her of infanticide, then suggested that she had poisoned Richard to death.  He claimed that she had slept around in Virginia, and even had an affair with a slave.  (This was apparently based on the fact that she had addressed a written work order to one with the words "Dear Billy Ellis."  Surely showing good manners to a slave revealed unbridled lust!) And when she went north, he said, she had been a prostitute.   Of course he was hinting that the Morris's son was illegitimate, a charge which if believed would boost the futures of  the spiteful shirt-tail relatives.

Morris apparently held on to the letter for several months before showing it to Nancy.  Now, I must admit I have become a fan of this guy.  For one thing he was the child of slaveowners but adamantly against that peculiar institution.  Secondly, he was a notorious ladies' man in his youth, but clearly wasn't the type who held women to a different standard than himself. So, my theory has to be a favorable one: I think he kept the hate note hidden until he suspected (correctly) that Randolph was spreading copies around.

Nancy did not suffer in silence.  Her cousin, the insult master, was about to have his timepiece sanitized, by which I mean she cleaned his clock.  Two can play at the nasty letters game.

The only known portrait of Nancy Randolph Morris
She wrote her own 7,000 word letter and circulated at least twenty copies.  Since Randolph had called her alleged slave lover "Othello" Nancy replied that by whispering lies in her husband's ear Randolph was playing "honest Iago."  Switching plays, she said his letter was "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Then Nancy  pointed out that he had provided no evidence for his charges and then demonstrated that his own actions contradicted his assertions: If she was so horrible why would John allow his sickly nephew to be under her care for months at a time?  She also said that when she was young he had pursued her romantically but had been rebuffed because of his "mean selfishness" and "wretched appearance." She called his recent behavior "unmanly," which had to sting since he was widely rumored to be impotent.  She even mocked his pompous preferred title, putting "John Randolph of Roanoke" in scare quotes whenever she used it.

These letters appeared while Randolph  was running for Congress and were no help to his political career.  At that point he retired from the Nancy-libeling business.

Governeur Morris died not much later.  In his will he ignored his ambitious relatives and left most of his estate to his young son, whose paternity he clearly never doubted.  He left Nancy an allowance to live on with the caveat that if she remarried the allowance  would be --

Increased.  You didn't expect that, did you?  Morris explained that if she remarried she might have more expenses so he wanted to provide for that possibility. I think he was hoping she would find a new husband.  As I said, I like this guy.

But Nancy never remarried.  She raised their son and arranged for the publication of  her late husband's letters, which demonstrated the domestic bliss they had found together.  As it turned out the strongest testimony about Nancy's fidelity was her son, for the boy looked more like his father every year.

Young Governeur became a successful businessman and when his mother died he built a church in her honor.  And so ends the bizarre story of the residents of Bizarre, back in the days when politics was clean and southerners were chivalrous. Or something.

15 March 2017

The Cop and the Codex


by Robert Lopresti

This is the fourth in my exceedingly occasional series of reviews of nonfiction books of interest to mystery readers and writers.  These two have nothing in common except excellence.

The Job by Steve Osborne.  Steve Osborne was a New York City cop for more than twenty years.  One day, after his retirement, he was invited to speak at a Moth event.  For those of you not in the know, The Moth is a radio show on NPR (also available as a podcast).  They record live events where people tell true stories, and pick the best ones for airplay.

Osborne had twenty-four hours to prepare his telling and was shocked to find hundreds of people in the audience.  ("I would rather have chased a guy with a gun down a dark alley than get up on that stage.")  But he did and it was a hit and he appeared many times more on the show.

Which resulted in The Job, a collection of essays about life as a cop.  It is full of crazy incidents and fascinating details.  Take this example, which happens to be from the very story that got him started on The Moth.

Normally most cops don't like hanging around where you work because if you're active, meaning you make a lot of arrests, guys get out of jail and don't necessarily have fond memories of you.  You don't want to have to deal with them when you're off duty, especially when you're with someone you care about, like a girlfriend.  It's not that you're scared of these guys, it's just that you have better things to do with your free time than getting into an off-duty confrontation.

This particular story is about a convict who does have fond memories of being arrested, much to Osborne's astonishment.

Another tale I liked was about the city's obsession with keeping squatters out of Tompkins Square Park which resulted in one cop car patrolling the inside of the locked park every night while a sergeant in another car circled the outside.

Osborne worked for some time in Anti-Crime which he described as the best or most-active cops in any precinct.

Our job is to go out and hunt.  And it is like hunting - very much so.  All night long we ride around searching for bad guys who are looking to commit a crime.  Our job is to find them before they commit the act, and be there when the crime happens.

The most powerful part of the book occurs when Osborne is on the Bronx Warrant Squad and goes, with his crew, to locate and arrest a gang member.  They find the fugitive's mother who tells them her son is dead.  What happens next is a tiny shred of shared humanity than any novelist would have been proud to dream up.

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman. A "codex" is simply a book-shaped book, as opposed to a book in the form  of a scroll.  In synagogues Bible texts are always read from scrolls, but the synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, was the home for hundreds of years to a codex, written by hand more than 1,100 years ago.  Known as the Crown of Aleppo it contained not only the books of the Hebrew Bible (more or less what Christians call the Old Testament),  but also annotations on how the vowel-less words were to be pronounced, and exactly how the text was to be written out.  It is the ur-text from which a millenium of scribes have reproduced the sacred books.  Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, had that very copy on his desk when he was writing his book on Jewish law.

The Aleppo synagogue was destroyed during the riots in 1947 after the UN vote that paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel.  The Codex - or most of it - survived the catastrophe and eventually made it to Israel.

All well and good, you might say, but what does this have to do with crime writing?  Never fear; I will offer you  tales from three different genres.

Spy thriller.  In order to protect it, the Jewish community of Aleppo spread the word that the Codex was destroyed in the fire.  Years later they arranged for a cheese merchant to smuggle it into Turkey, wrapped in cheese cloth, inside a washing machine.  An Israeli agent then got the merchant, his family, and the treasured text into Israel.

Courtroom drama. The cheese merchant gave the Codex to a government official, much to the shock of the Syrian Jews in Israel who felt it belonged to them.  Understand that I am wildly oversimplifying, but in those early days many Israeli officials, who were from the European side of the family, considered the Oriental (i.e. Middle Eastern) branch to be quaint and primitive.  The president of the state (a major player in the Codex story) referred to "the most backward Jewish tribes, whose cultural possessions have no responsible curator."

Naturally the Syrian Jews who had successfully curated the Codex for hundreds of years went to court to get it back.  Matti Friedman, the author of this book, uncovered the partial transcripts of the trial which, frankly, don't make the government officials look good.

Theft.  The official story is that most of the first five books of the Codex (The Torah or Pentateuch, the most vital part of the Bible to any Jew) were destroyed in the synagogue fire, but Friedman builds a solid piece-by-piece case that the majority of those pages were in tact when they arrived in the care of an Israeli institute.  A few years later they had vanished.

And things get messier.  Consider the death of a rare book dealer two years after he  allegedly offered to sell most of the missing pages to a collector for a million dollars:

The case was never solved.  Officially, in fact, there was no case, as the Hasid had died of a heart attack, in a hotel room that happened to have been rented by someone using an alias, who then disappeared without a trace.

Certainly convinces me.  Nothing to see here, folks.

Two fascinating books.

19 December 2015

Move Over, Capt. Ahab


The idea for my column today came from two things that happened recently. First, I bought a book at a Books-A-Million last Saturday during a lull at one of my signings there (I know, I know, I'm supposed to be selling my own wares at these events, not buying the books of others--what can I say?). Second, I read with great interest Art Taylor's SleuthSayers column a week ago Friday, in which he talked about some of the differences between (and differences in attitude toward) reading fiction and nonfiction.


The book I bought was called In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, which has been adapted into a new movie of the same name, directed by Ron Howard. I've not yet seen the movie--but I know the book is good because I just finished reading it. And the only thing unusual about the fact that I bought and read it in the first place is that it's a true story.

I do seek out and read nonfiction from time to time, notably Seabiscuit, The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, Unbreakable, The Right Stuff, In Cold Blood, etc.--but I confess that 99% of what I read (and write) is fiction. The reason for that is simple: I see and hear about reality all the time, especially in the morning paper or on the Nightly News, and when I read a book for pleasure I don't want reality. I want to be entertained. I don't want to be educated or illuminated--if that happens as a byproduct, fine, but first and foremost I'm looking for suspense and emotion and entertainment.

Here's my point: some nonfiction, especially that which falls into the delightful category of creative nonfiction, IS entertaining. That's certainly the case with Philbrick's book. Just as an author would do in a good novel, Nathaniel Philbrick introduces the characters (with all their flaws), puts them in a dire situation, makes their predicament even worse (and worse, and worse), and finally brings the story to a conclusion that's satisfying to the reader.

The icing on the cake is that the reader learns something about life as well as something about two things unfamiliar to most of us: (1) the legendary whaling capital of long-ago Nantucket, Massachusetts, and (2) the fascinating process by which daring men with tiny boats and large harpoons hunted and killed and butchered and boiled (to extract the oil from) leviathans measuring eighty feet in length and weighing sixty tons.

I won't give away any plot goodies here, but I will say that this is the true story of the officers and crew of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which in 1819 was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale two thousand miles off the west coast of South America. And, ultimately, an engrossing story of courage and leadership and survival. The Essex tragedy served as a young Herman Melville's inspiration for Moby Dick, which was published 32 years later, and--according to Philbrick--was as familiar a story to nineteenth-century schoolchildren as the sinking of the Titanic was a hundred years later.

As for the movie, it opened on December 11 to mixed reviews, but I still look forward to seeing it. One reason is that I'm a fan of Ron Howard's films (Ransom, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Backdraft, Splash, Cocoon, etc.), and another is that I want to find out how these characters and the action that thrilled me in the book will look on the big screen. Besides, what other good movies are out there or coming up for me to see right now? The newest Star Wars? The newest Hunger Games? Spotlight? Bridge of Spies? Spectre? The Hateful Eight? Revenant? (Okay, you're right--I want to watch all of those too.)

Have any of you seen In the Heart of the Sea? Would its classification as nonfiction deter you from reading the book? In other words, does the fact that it was a real occurrence matter ro you? I've already admitted a personal preference for fiction over non-, but I've also said I enjoyed this tale. I'm not sure the reading process would've been any more fun if it had been fiction. Maybe it wouldn't have been as much fun. Maybe it actually helped to know that such amazing things really did happen.

I realize I'm resurrecting a subject that Art has already covered eight days ago, but I must ask: what are your feelings regarding fiction vs. nonfiction, in general? Are you as biased as I am? What are some nonfiction books you've read that you feel are as good or better than well-known novels you've read? Any recommendations?

Bottom line is, if you feel so inclined, check out In the Heart of the Sea. Nathaniel Philbrick did a fine job with that book, and I suspect that good old Opie created a fine movie from it as well. Sheriff Taylor would've been proud.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to novels and shorts. Can't stay away from fiction for long.

15 February 2014

Liars' Club



The gap between fiction and nonfiction has always been interesting to me. I know some folks who strongly prefer one of the two, and others who enjoy reading both. I'm one of those who happily suffer from fiction addiction--I read a lot more short stories and novels than nonfiction books and articles. Probably because of that, I also think it's more fun to write fiction than non.

A few months ago a guy asked me at a booksigning whether my books were nonfiction. When I said no, he immediately informed me that that was too bad, because he never, ever, reads fiction. "Why," he asked me, looking as if his underwear might suddenly be too tight, "should I waste my time reading a bunch of lies?" Rather than answer that for him--believe me, I could have, and I could've even pointed out that many nonfiction books contain lies as well--I remembered that my mother taught me to be polite and made some "to each his own" comment and wished him a nice day. But I couldn't help feeling that he and others like him might be missing out on much of the joy of reading.

The fun department

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki, Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, Stephen King's On Writing, Doug Preston's The Monster of Florence, Stephen Harrington's The Gates of the Alamo, Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, just about everything by John McPhee and Stephen Ambrose, and many other works of nonfiction. God help me, I still have most of the Watergate confession books by Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Dean, etc., and at the time I even liked those. But for every article or book of nonfiction I read these days, I probably read fifty or more short stories and novels. Are they made up of lies, as my potential customer with the pained expression said? Sure they are. But I like the tension and thrill and surprise and anticipation that these novels and stories offer. I not only don't know the ending, I don't even know what's going to happen next. I guess--although I feel a little guilty when I say it--what it boils down to is this: I read nonfiction when I want to learn something and I read fiction when I want to be entertained. And I really, really like to be entertained.

Not that fiction can't be informative and entertaining at the same time. It can. Just read a little James Michener or Michael Crichton or Colleen McCullough or Edward Rutherfurd sometime. And I think one of the best things ever is the concept of "creative nonfiction"--it's sort of like giving The History Channel a good slap and injecting it with a dose of adrenaline. But if the choice is strictly nonfiction vs. strictly fiction, and if it's a choice between getting educated and having fun, I know which I'll pick, every time. As Gus said to Call in Lonesome Dove, "You never had no fun in your life. That's my department."

An old friend and non(?)author

I recently received an interesting take on fiction vs. nonfiction, when I located (via Facebook) one of my old Air Force buddies, now living in Texas. He was as surprised to find out that I write short mystery stories as I was to find that he writes technical reference books about routers, servers, etc. (He was probably more surprised than I was, actually, because we both entered the military with electrical engineering degrees and actually did that kind of thing for four years.) But we were of course pleased to discover that we were both authors now, and I offered him my sincere congratulations for his literary success.

"It's nothing," he replied. "The thing is, I'm not really an author." I asked what he meant; I had already, by that time, found a lot of his books on Amazon, and I would later also see them on the shelves in the computer section at our local Barnes & Noble. "Well, I've never written any fiction," he answered, "and you're not a real author, you know, until you publish some fiction." I'd never heard that before--I certainly don't believe it's correct--and it was intriguing to hear him say such a thing. He added that nonfiction gets no respect--he said its name doesn't even tell you what it is. Instead it tells you what it's not: it's NONfiction.

Just the facts, ma'am

Again, those were his views, not mine. I have a healthy respect for the writers of good nonfiction, in the long or short form. One of my reasons for respecting them is that what they create has to follow rules and restrictions that my writing does not. The very fact that it must be true and real means more effort and more research and more legal risks. Having produced a little nonfiction myself now and then, I know how tough it can be. But I must say again, while I respect and admire those writers and their products, I find fiction far more fun and relaxing to write--and to read. To me, nonfiction wears a suit and tie and Sunday shoes while fiction is happy to run around in a sweatshirt and sneakers.

I'll wrap this discussion up with three questions and (just for you, Leigh) a poem. My questions are:

  1. Do you read more fiction or non, and why?
  2. If you're already a writer of fiction, what kinds of nonfiction do you find most interesting?
  3. What's some of the best nonfiction you've ever read?

My poem, if you can call it that, is one that I dug out of my files yesterday, titled "A Little of Both":
Is writing work, or is it fun?
Or is, sometimes, neither one?
For answers, look to Shakespeare's days--
His plays were works, his works were plays.
One more thing. I love the title of Lawrence Block's book featuring some of the many columns he wrote for Writer's Digest. It's called Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Block has certainly done a good job of that, for many years now.

My fiction is written more for fun than for profit, that's for sure--but in the immortal words of Billy Joel, it's still rock and roll to me.

28 December 2011

The Ranger and the Sheriff's Wife


So, what does the title above make you think of?
a.  a romance novel

b. a naughty movie

c.  one of Leigh's reports on bizarre crimes in Florida

The answer should be none of the above, because what I want to write about today are two excellent nonfiction books I read recently.  They are certainly prime material for some mystery writer but it doesn't seem to be me, so I thought I would spread the wealth.

Nature Noir, by Jordan Fisher Smith 

Twenty-some years ago Jordan Fisher Smith was a top seasonal park ranger.  That meant that every summer he had his pick of jobs in many of the most beautiful parks in the country. But when he wanted the security of a permanent job he had to take what he could get and that turned out to be Auburn State Recreation Area in northern California.  And that turned out to be a pretty weird place.


You see, Auburn wasn't a park exactly.  It was land that had been condemned in order to build a damsite, but the dam was never built (and still hasn't been).  As Smith noted it was a "grand social science experiment....which answered the question: How do people behave in a condemned landscape?"

The answer turns out be: not great.  The American River runs through Auburn and there is enough gold there to make it worthwhile for certain people to drag in dredging equipment to go mining.  Of course, mining in parks is illegal, but it was hard to convince judges and prosecutors - not to mention the miners - why it should be a punishable offense to mine in a place that would eventually be underwater anyway.

Some of the people who visited Auburn or lived there (legally or not) were scary.  Think meth labs, frinstance.  The book begins with a ranger seeing an angry man throwing something through the open window of his girlfriend's car as she drives by.  It was a baby.  Fortunately, the child wasn't hurt, but holy cow.

Smith is as interested in the nature as the noir, so, for example, the chapter that describes the geological flaws that have held up the dam also includes the hunt for a police officer's wife, missing and presumed dead.

And the writing is good, very good.  Here is Smith responding to an emergency call from another ranger.

If the world exists in a perpetual state of uncertainty, if things are half-assed and watered-down and most things fall into a gray area, when you respond to a call like that you are bathed for a few minutes in superhuman certainty.  You put away whatever squabbles you and your partners have had, ready to wade into the fray, to sacrifice yourself for any one of them.  You hit the lights and siren and drive better than you normally do, think sharper than you normally do.  The people in other cars look at you as you pass them on a mountain road and at intersections the cars part for you like the Red Sea for Moses.  It is an ascceptable substitute for reality; it's fleeting but it keeps yo believing in what you do.

Nonfiction books don't usually have surprise endings, but there are twists here for both Auburn and Smith.  A real page-turner.

The Secret Life of the Lawman's Wife, by BJ Alderman


When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 Hillary told a reporter that the country would be getting a two-for-one deal: two great leaders for the election of one.  Americans didn't enthuse over the idea of an unelected female co-president, so she dropped that campaign approach.

But for hundreds of years there has been an assumption in certain occupations that when you hired a man you got his wife's services for free.  I think the only places where this is still assumed may be with clergymen and college presidents.

However, up until the seventies, especially in small towns, governments seemed to believe that the wives of sheriffs, police chiefs, and jailkeepers came as a package deal.  BJ Alderman found dozens of memoirs and news articles dating back as far as the seventeenth century, and interviewed wives and family members as well.  The result is a fascinating look at the lives of these unsung heroines of law enforcement.

I think the most common complaint can be summed up as an assumption by the town authorities that the wife ought to be able to feed all the prisoners who happened to be in the jail with the family table scraps, and not coming pestering them for provisions. Picture a couple of dozen hungry prisoners and you can see the problem.

Alderman points out that in TV and the movies there was usually a lawman sitting around the jail with nothing to do. but in the true reports it seems like when the action happens the lawman is always on patrol, and guess who's left dealing with the chaos?  Another problem for the sheriffing family was the insane; when someone became dangerous to themselves or others they might wind up in the jail for weeks or months until an opening appeared in an asylum.

Now  picture a teenage boy in Iowa who, one afternoon in 1956, got a phone call from his mother at the grocery store where he was working.  "Dolores asked him if there was anything in particular he wished to save from his room.  Upon inquiry, Larry learned that a juvenile prisoner had set fire to the cell between Larry's room and the bathroom in an attempt to get free.  Yes, Dolores was sure the entire bulding would go up soon so he'd better decide quick."

Or consider this adventure of Molly E. Lattie, whose husband was the sheriff of Des Moines county (also in Iowa, of course) in the 1870s.

A prisoner, intent on escape, fashioned a straw dummy and tucked it into his bunk.  He then hid "elsewhere to wait for an opportunity to get through the jail door.  Mrs. Latty, on duty alone that night thought something looked peculiar and went into the cell to investigate.  When she discovered the dummy, instead of calling for help, she began searching all of the cells, looking for the prisoner.  She discovered him under a bunk...  She reached in and pulled him out, and ordered him to quit 'fooling around; and return to his cell before she became angry.'"  He did just as he was told.

Many of these criminals seem less dangerous than the ones we are used to (like the ones who baby-sat for their jailors' infants!).  But consider Sophie Alberding, sheriff's wife in Lincoln County, New Mexico.  "there was one feature of the new home which I did not enjoy.  The back stairway, up and down which I had to travel many times during the day, was still stained with blood, a grim reminder of the day two years before when Billy the Kid had shot and killed his guard..."

A remarkable book about a remarkable collection of women.