Oct 302013
 
The 1931 murder of Julia Wallace has been one of Britain’s most notorious crimes--at least until now, if the findings of novelist P.D. James are correct. Though, given James’ experience in thinking about death and murder through 20 novels, one would think she’d be in the know.

According to The Guardian, James isn’t the first novelist to be fascinated by the case “which Raymond Chandler described as the ‘the nonpareil of all murder mysteries’. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that it ‘provides for the detective novelist an unrivalled field for speculation’.”
Writing in the Sunday Times magazine, James claimed that the murder of Julia Wallace in Liverpool, which “compares only to the Ripper murders in 1888 in the amount of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, which it has created”, was misunderstood from the beginning by the police, the judge and jury.

Her 1982 novel,
The Skull Beneath the Skin, the fictional murder of Lady Ralston, is thought to parallel the Wallace case, and she refers to it directly in the detective chief-inspector Dalgliesh novel, The Murder Room (2003).
The Guardian goes on to detail the available clues that convinced James her positing was correct.
The case is “essentially tragic and has psychological subtleties to which it would take a Balzac to do justice,” James wrote. She builds a picture of Wallace as a man worn down by failure and disappointment who eventually cracked: “Perhaps when he struck the first tremendous blow that killed her, and the 10 afterwards delivered with such force, it was years of striving and constant disappointment that he was obliterating.”
Back in 2002, Patricia Cornwell put forth a similarly forceful theory with regards to the true identity of Jack the Ripper, a theory she outlined closely in her non-fiction book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper--Case Closed.

READ MORE:P.D. James and the Wallace Case--a Classic Murder Mystery” and “P.D. James and True Crime Writing--a Few More Thoughts,” by Martin Edwards (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’); “Inside Job: 10 Crime Writers Turned Detective” (The Guardian).
Sep 262013
 
I've never been much of a reader of true crime books, but TRUE HOLLYWOOD NOIR: FILMLAND MYSTERIES AND MURDERS, a new release by journalist Dina Di Mambro, is just the sort of volume to attract my attention. Ever since I started helping Livia research her Lucas Hallam stories and novels, I've been interested in the early days of Hollywood, which certainly included their share of scandals.

Di Mambro starts with several of those, including the murders of William Desmond Taylor and Thelma Todd, along with the mysterious deaths of Thomas Ince and Paul Bern, Jean Harlow's husband (both of which may well have been murder, too).

She carries this theme up almost to the present day with chapters on the death of Johnny Stompanato that involved Lana Turner (a story I first encountered in a highly fictionalized version in one of Harold Robbins' novels, back in the days when I was reading a lot of Harold Robbins); the suspicious deaths of George Reeves and Gig Young; the lurid murder of Bob Crane; the drowning death of Natalie Wood; and the murder case involving Robert Blake and his con artist wife who wound up dead. Di Mambro does a fine job of presenting the facts in these cases and exploring the various theories about them in a fast-moving, entertaining style. I remember all the more recent ones, of course. As a big fan of the Superman TV show, I vividly recall hearing that George Reeves had died. Everybody I knew back then accepted the suicide theory. We were kids, what did we know? I'm convinced now that he was murdered, and that Thomas Ince was, too, to go back to one of the first chapters in the book.

The longest chapter and one of the most interesting is about the life and times of mobster Mickey Cohen, one of the most powerful and notorious figures in the West Coast underworld during the Forties and Fifties. I never knew much about Mickey Cohen other than his appearances, usually as a supporting character, in various movies and novels set in that era. Not long ago I saw the movie GANGSTER SQUAD, which apparently was almost all fiction. Di Mambro bases much of her chapter about Cohen on interviews she conducted with Jim Smith, one of Cohen's long-time associates. As you might expect under those circumstances, it's a fairly sympathetic portrayal but never becomes a complete whitewash of Cohen's criminal activities.

I'm in no position to know what's true and what's not about these cases, but as a reader I found TRUE HOLLYWOOD NOIR very entertaining. It does a good job of capturing both the glamour and the sordidness of Hollywood, and I found it hard to put down.


May 052013
 
The death of Natalie Wood for me. I think most people need to find a connection to a case to be absorbed by it. And she was one of the Hollywood stars who caught my attention at the right time. She was never a great actress (IMHO) but she was a larger than life STAR.

How about you? What true crime interests you?
Jan 172013
 
Two years ago, California detective novelist Raymond Chandler was reunited in the grave with his wife of three decades, the former Cissy Pascal. Now it’s Ned Kelly’s turn. This coming Sunday, the remains of that 19th-century Irish-Australian outlaw--after whom a coveted annual award for Aussie crime fiction is named--“will finally be laid to rest beside his mother in line with his final wishes at a plot not far from the site of his last stand,” reports the Philippines’ Manila Bulletin.
Kelly’s remains were thrown into a mass grave after his execution [in 1880 at Old Melbourne Gaol] and discovered during renovations to the jail in 1929 when they were reburied inside Pentridge Prison, save his skull, which remains missing.

Officially, their whereabouts had been a mystery until DNA testing in late 2011 on bones exhumed from the Pentridge site confirmed them to be Kelly’s.

Redevelopers of the now-defunct prison wanted to reinter Kelly’s remains at a museum or a memorial, but the Victoria state government ordered that they be returned to the family last year.

According to Joanne Griffiths, the great-granddaughter of Kelly’s sister Kate, the family would formally bid farewell to the outlaw at a Catholic service in the town of Wangaratta on Friday ahead of his burial in an unmarked grave.

“That’s what he would’ve wanted. That’s what he requested, and he wished to be buried in consecrated ground,” Griffiths told ABC radio.
You can read the remainder of the ulletin’s report here.

(Hat tip to Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine.)
Dec 062012
 

As a general rule, we don't discuss "true crime" stories very much here, but when it comes to classics, the horrifying story of Kitty Genovese remains an important landmark in criminal history.

For those too young to remember it, Kitty Genovese was the young New York City woman assaulted and murdered in a 1964 attack that lasted more than a half hour, while 38 witnesses saw all or part of the attack and did nothing - didn't even call for help.

It shocked a city that thought it couldn't be shocked and prompted debates about the chilling lessons to be drawn from the case. And it was the subject of a first-rate book, Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case,by A. M. "Abe" Rosenthal, then the City Editor of the New York Times, and one of that newspapers best writers ever. It has just been republished as an e-book - the above link will take you to the Amazon version, but it's also available in formats for other e-readers. If you're not familiar with the case, or even if you are, it's worth your time.

Aug 092012
 
(Editor’s note: Pseudonymous British author James McCreet has published three historical crime novels in book form, all featuring crime solvers Albert Newsome and George Williamson--the most recent of those being The Thieves’ Labyrinth [Macmillan], which January Magazine named as one of its favorite mystery novels of 2011, and which I mentioned in Kirkus Reviews as one of the top UK crime-fiction works of last year. His fourth book in that series, The Masked Adversary, was released as an e-book in July. McCreet explains that “The Masked Adversary revolves around the discovery in Victorian London of two bodies that are not entirely human. To solve the crimes, the detectives must become acquainted with the relatively new science of forensics and the pseudo-sciences of pathognomy and physiognomy. The novel takes us on a bizarre journey of masking and likeness, of waxworks, effigies and taxidermy--all of the ways in which a man might hide or fake his identity. Only by discovering the real criminals behind the masks of untruth will the cases be solved.” In the essay below, McCreet acquaints us with some of the peculiar and less-than-scientific methods 19th-century sleuths employed to “get their man.”)

Today, we all know more about pathology and criminal forensics than the greatest medical experts of the 19th century did in their day. CSI and modern crime fiction have educated all of us in the finer points of profiling, DNA, MO, blood-drop study, and trace analysis. We have an intensely scientific appreciation of investigation.

The first detectives, however, had no such useful knowledge. They were totally in the dark.

Before forensics, police work was little more than a cat-and-mouse game. A crime was committed, the criminal would vanish, and the detectives would have to search an entire city in hopes of catching their prey. It didn’t help that the police were often bound by rules and regulations, while the thieves and killers were obviously not. (For example, many crimes in Victorian London were timed to coincide with the period when police shifts relieved each other.)

Eugène François Vidocq changed all of that. In the early 19th century, this notorious criminal and adventurer became--by a remarkable series of events--the head of the Parisian Secret Police (the Sûreté). His motto was that “the cat cannot catch the mouse if he is wearing gloves,” and so he changed the rules of detection. Forget the regulations--he would wear disguises and infiltrate the criminal gangs, learning their ways and becoming their friend. The crooks were often amazed when he pulled off the false nose and denounced them.

(Left) Eugène François Vidocq

More importantly, Vidocq’s first-hand experience with lawbreakers allowed him to create a nomenclature or classification system for many different kinds of criminals, identifying their slang, their clothing, their behavior, and the areas they worked in. He saw it as the same kind of thing that naturalists were doing with animals or flowers. For the first time, criminals might be observed and known before they committed a crime. Vidocq would often be waiting for them as they prepared to strike. It was not forensics as we recognize it today, but it was the beginning of a criminal science.

Around that same time, medical men were making the first steps in scientific forensics. In France and Germany, doctors were trying to determine a system of discerning how long a body had been dead. “Body farms” were kept to study decomposition and books were written attempting to clarify and classify the signs. Such variables as temperature, age, illness, the season, or the kind of coffin in which a body had been stored were taken into account to solve this great mystery. Often, the crime of infanticide was the stimulus and the focus of these studies, because so many people would discard newborn children out of shame or poverty.

As the cities of Europe grew ever larger, the need to identify bodies grew more important. With such huge populations, everyone was anonymous and the discovery of a severed limb or a head was an utter mystery. It was a time of intense study and marked the emergence of forensic medicine as a distinct specialty required by the police. A book from 1824 defined the forensics as “the physical grounds on which we may conclude that the human frame has sustained injury--whether fatal to life or not.”

Medical men would conduct experiments on pieces of flesh to test and record the effects of different weapons. They would apply their knowledge of human anatomy to stray pieces of body pulled from the River Thames or dug from fresh graves. And in all of this work, their knowledge would be increased with the collaboration of the police, who always had a steady stream of victims.

Perhaps the first and greatest of the London forensic examiners was Dr. Thomas Bond, the official surgeon of Scotland Yard’s Division A (to which the Detective Force belonged). He was a lecturer in forensic medicine at Westminster Hospital in the 1880s and was often called upon to identify lethal herbs found inside a corpse’s stomach or to attend to (still living) victims of street crime and study their wounds for evidence. On one occasion, Bond was presented with a coffin containing a body chopped into 10 distinct pieces. He discerned that the victim had been a woman of 20-25 years of age, about 5 feet tall, and with a bullet in her brain. She had first been shot (the bullet had flattened on impact), then hacked to pieces postmortem with an axe.

(Right) Dr. Thomas Bond

In 1888, Bond worked on the Thames Torso Murders case. Excavations for a new police station on Westminster Embankment had revealed a woman’s torso with all limbs missing, and he managed to link the body to an arm found in the adjacent river earlier that week. But 1888 was a busy year for Bond and he was soon given the case that would change the history of both crime and forensics: Jack the Ripper.

Dr. Bond worked in an unusual way on the Ripper case. Rather than examine the corpses himself, he studied the postmortem notes and photographs (the first ever of a serious crime) and tried to draw conclusions about the murderer. Just as a modern crime-fiction lover looks for clues in a story’s text, so Bond sought to reconstruct the narrative from the material he had, “re-writing” the crimes for the police. Most importantly, he used a clear, logical system to tell the story of the killers.

For example, he looked at the position of a body, the estimated time of death, the direction of attack, and the area of the city in which it was found to suggest what kind of criminal might have struck. What kind of clothing might the person have worn at that time, in that weather, in that part of town? What job might they do if they were free at that hour? What associates might they have?

He also paid close attention to the injuries. The direction of attack, the choice of weapons, and the location of wounds would denote whether the injuries had been intended to subdue, to kill quickly, or to torture. This in turn would reveal if the killer was frenzied, calculated, prepared, or spontaneous. In fact, Bond concluded that “Jack” was a sexual sadist.

Sadly, Dr. Thomas Bond might have been a victim of all the horrible things he saw. In 1901, he jumped to his death from his bedroom window after a prolonged period of insomnia. What was keeping him awake? And did he ever find peace?

The late 19th century also saw the birth of a number of pseudo-sciences that were utilized in the name of forensics. These all come under the general term of “anthropometry”--the measurement of man--and followed on from Vidocq’s reasoning that a criminal might be known before he ever committed a crime. Phrenology was an early one, created by Franz Joseph Gall and positing 27 distinct “brain organs” that affected the shape of the skull. From these bumps, it was thought that a man’s propensity to affection, or friendship, or violence might be revealed.

(Left) Author James McCreet

For those who thought phrenology too vague, two other pseudo-sciences were created--physiognomy and pathognomy--by which a man’s entire character might be known, even if he tried to disguise his appearance. This was taken so seriously at the end of the 19th century, that recruits to London’s Metropolitan Police were examined by a physiognomist and accepted or rejected based on the shapes of their ears, nose, or shoulders. For the difference between the two studies, here is an excerpt from my new novel, The Masked Adversary:
Physiognomy is the study of the body’s organic constitution: its shape and relative dimensions. There is a finite number of possible body shapes, just as there are a series of known individual features to the nose or fingers. Critically, all of these elements are necessarily connected within a single organic type so that a tall, thin man will not have a broad fat nose--unless, of course, he is of African descent. Phrenology, it need hardly be stated, also falls within the same discipline. Pathognomy, on the other hand, is the study rather of gesture and motion: the organic character manifested as a physical language, if you like. Thus, a thoughtful man gestures with grace, while the imbecile is spasmodic in gesticulation. Any skilled practitioner of the one discipline must master the other, since one’s actions derive directly from the character as apples issue only from an apple tree.
It should be clear that there was very little science and less justice in these disciplines. A man with a low forehead and thick, dark hair might be marked as a murderer, when in fact he was a judge. The next (il)logical step of such studies was the system created by the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon, who proposed exact measurements of known criminals to scientifically record their identities and prevent their re-offending. It was a system that implicitly sought to categorize criminal “types” and was thankfully soon rendered extinct by the science of fingerprinting and the wider use of photography. However, it still laid the foundations for the measurements Adolf Hitler’s Nazis made of “racial types” in the early 20th century.

The history of forensics is in many ways the history of crime fiction: the desire to know and to solve, the recognition of clues, the reconstruction of story out of chaos. The body is the text and we try to find ways of making it reveal its narrative postmortem. In the end, there may be many stories, but only one truth.
Aug 042012
 
It was 120 years ago today, on August 4, 1892, that Lizzie Borden, a 32-year-old resident of Fall River, Massachusetts, allegedly took up a hatchet and with it murdered her banker father and her stepmother in their home at 92 Second Street. The ensuing police investigation and court trial attracted media attention from around the country, and most people seemed sure that Lizzie had done the ugly deed. However, she was acquitted on June 20, 1893, after her jury had deliberated for a mere hour and a half.

Lizzie Borden subsequently moved (with her older sister, Emma, from whom she eventually became estranged) to another house in Fall River, this one on more fashionable French Street. Following gallbladder surgery, Lizzie died on June 1, 1927. She was 66 years old.

Today, the house where Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, met their bloody ends operates as a bed and breakfast as well as a museum. The story of their long-ago homicides has been the inspiration for many novels (among them 1984’s Lizzie, by Evan Hunter [aka Ed McBain], and 1989’s Miss Lizzie, by Walter Satterthwait) as well as television dramatizations (including the haunting 1975 film The Legend of Lizzie Borden, which starred former Bewitched actress Elizabeth Montgomery--who was reportedly related to Lizzie--and can be viewed in its 90-minute entirety here). But those events of August 1892 may be best remembered as a result of a familiar skipping-rope rhyme of now-forgotten origin:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
The likelihood of the Borden murders ever being moved from the “active” into the “solved” files ranks right up there with the chances of someone finally unmasking notorious Jack the Ripper. But that’s OK. Some mysteries are best left as just that: mysteries.

READ MORE:The Borden Murders, 120 Years Unsolved,” by Robert Wilhelm (Murder by Gaslight): “Ax Lizzie for the Tour,” by Katherine Ramsland (Psychology Today).
Jul 192012
 



TORSO collects a true-crime comic book mini-series written by Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko, with art by Bendis. It's the story of Eliot Ness's search for the Torso Killer, a serial murderer who started carrying out a number of gruesome killings about the same time that Ness was hired as Cleveland's public safety director. This was after the days of Al Capone's conviction and the days of The Untouchables in Chicago, when Ness was a national figure.

I'm far from an expert on true crime, so as Bendis and Andreyko follow the police investigation into the killings, I don't know which parts, if any, are fiction (although the inclusion of several photographs and documents in the back of the book indicate that they stick pretty close to the facts of the case). It's all pretty interesting and makes me want to learn more about what really happened.

Now, as for the script and art . . . comics curmudgeon that I am, I tend to value clarity and storytelling ability pretty highly, and there are a number of pages in this book where I had quite a bit of trouble following what was going on. That goes for words and pictures both. A lot of the dialogue is good, though, and I liked the way Bendis mixed actual photographs with the art in places, so the verdict from me is mostly positive.

Overall I enjoyed TORSO, and if you're a true-crime fan or interested in Eliot Ness, you might want to check it out. Max Allan Collins wrote a novel based on this case as well, and after reading TORSO, I want to read it, too.
Apr 032012
 
It was 130 years ago today that American outlaw Jesse James was shot in the back in St. Joseph, Missouri, by a member of his own gang, Robert Ford. James was only 34 years old. Ford later tried to exploit his obvious act of homicide, posing for photographs and staging re-enactments of James’ death, but with limited success. Ford was himself murdered 10 years later.

(Hat tip to Nobody Move!)
Feb 292012
 

* (And expect anyone to believe it)

by Gar Anthony Haywood

A true story:

This past Valentine's Day, the wife and I were on our way to a restaurant to have a nice, romantic lunch together when her Honda CR-V broke down.  (Yeah, you read that right --- it's a Honda!)  No sooner had I pulled off the freeway than the damn thing died, dash panel aglow with seemingly every warning light in the manual.

I managed to re-start the car and pull it around a corner just to get it out of traffic, but that was it.  The beast was dead.  Time to call the tow truck.

Later that day, the service tech at our local Honda dealer called me with a question: What unlicensed hack had worked on the wife's car before this?  Because whoever it was, they'd left the radiator so misaligned with its mounting bracket that the associated fan had, over time, sliced through a hose, draining the radiator of all its coolent.

Nobody, I said.  The only service that had ever been done on the car had been of the minor, regularly scheduled variety, and that had been done at the very same dealership from which the tech was calling.

Silence.

Well, the tech said somewhat uncomfortably, that was rather hard to believe, considering the mangled mess of an automotive undercarriage he was looking at.  Did I want to come down to the dealership to see for myself?

And then I remembered . . .

Around six months earlier, the family and I had just piled into the CR-V on our way to a birthday party.  I was tooling up the hill on Glendale Boulevard when a flash of white ran directly across my path: a bulldog the size of a baby grand piano.  He'd run across the street to go after some poor guy getting into his parked car and chosen to sprint back just in time to acquaint himself with my moving vehicle.  I never even had a chance to hit the brakes.

We ran over the dog.

WHUMP THUMP BLAM KABAMM BOOM!

Oh, Jesus.

I pulled the car over to the curb and killed the engine.  My hands were frozen to the wheel.  My two kids were crying hysterically and the wife was white as a sheet.  "Oh, my God," Tessa kept saying.  "Oh, my God . . ."

I got out of the car and started back toward the point of impact, wondering what the hell I was going to say to the animal's owner when I presented him or her with the poor thing's pulverized remains.  Remains that were, when I reached the spot in the middle of the street where they should have been waiting for me, nowhere to be found.

WTF?

I looked over at the guy the dog had been chasing, who was safely inside his car now and was about to drive off as if nothing unusual had happened.  "Where'd he go?" I asked, openly bewildered.

He rolled his window down and pointed to a corner house across the street.  "He ran home," he said, matter-of-factly.

"He ran home?"  How the hell did he run home?!

"He ran home," the guy said again.

After he explained his non-existent relationship to the bulldog in question, I left him to go find the animal and apologize profusely to its heartbroken owner for having reduced a beloved pet to the wretched, broken creature I was certain it had to be.

Nope.

When I peered through the gate surrounding the house to which the man in the car had directed me, I saw the dog sitting straight up on the porch, tongue out and wagging this way and that, a young Hispanic man in a wifebeater T-shirt stroking his ears affectionately.

I couldn't believe it.

"Is he all right?" I called through the gate, incredulous.

The owner just stared at me, the way you might stare at me were I to punch your favorite grandmother in the face and then post video of the assault on YouTube.

I asked my question again and received the same response.  Deciding to quit while I was ahead, I went back to the CR-V and gave my still-hysterical family the good news: The dog was alive and well.  Daddy wasn't a puppy-killer after all.

The CR-V?  Well, it looked okay, as near as I could tell.  Aside from a huge dent in the plastic belly shield beneath and behind the front bumper, the car had suffered no apparent damage.  We went on to our birthday party that day and have been driving all over creation in the wife's Honda, without incident, ever since.

Or until six months --- six months! --- brought us to last Valentine's Day, when the bulldog got his revenge.

But that's not the kicker to this story.

The Honda dealership eventually decided a body shop was better suited to make the repairs to our car, so off to the body shop it went.  We got ourselves a nice little rental car and proceeded with our lives.  Two days later, I was driving the kids to school in the rental when the unbelievable happened.

I hit a dog.

A big, hairy lab mix had just crossed a busy intersection, happy and slow as you please, as I was passing through it.  And wouldn't you know, the big hirsute galoot was being chased by a little dachshund-terrier hybrid running at full tilt --- much like that bulldog had chased a stranger getting into his car six months earlier.

This time I had enough warning to brake, but it didn't help.

WHAM BAM CRUNCH!

Jesus!  Again?!

Two very small consolations immediately occurred to me: 1) I hadn't completely run over the animal this time; and 2) the two kids in the car's back seat weren't mine.  They were members of our carpool for whom I was responsible that day, and unlike my own children, this pair didn't view such accidents as cause for a catatonic seizure.  They were stunned, but not horrified.

I gingerly backed the car up to get it out of traffic and braced myself for the terrible sight I knew awaited us.

Sure enough, there the little dachshund-terrier mashup lay, on its side, its back turned to us.  A pedestrian who'd been crossing the street when the collision occurred crouched down to, I could only assume, deliver the Last Rites . . .

. . . and the little dog got up and ran away.  No limp, no whimper of pain, nothing.

Can you say, "Déjà vu?"

So let's review, shall we?  I run over a dog in my car.  It gets up and runs away, seemingly unharmed.  Six months later, the damage caused by the collision kills my car.  I get a rental while the car's in the shop.  I'm driving that rental when I hit another dog, which like the first, gets up and runs away, seemingly unharmed.

What's wrong with this picture?  As fact, absolutely nothing.  But as fiction, NO READER IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD BUY IT FOR A SECOND!

Did it all happen exactly as I've described it?  Sure did.  Is this not a sterling example of how wildly improbable life can sometimes be?  Sure is.  But here, finally, is the writing-related point of this blog post today:

Just because something really happened doesn't mean it will make a great story, because a great story has to be more than just fascinating.

It has to be somewhat credible, too.

Questions for the Class: Do you have any true-to-life stories that no one would believe if you tried to pass them off as fiction?

Switch to our mobile site