Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The First True Crime Blog Roundtable and Potluck Bingo Dance

Crimeblogging is a growing concern. This week, Steve Huff from the Dark Side was on Fox News to talk about it. In a few weeks it'll be on the cover of Newsweek and I'll have sold out to Microsoft for millions of dollars. In the meantime, I invited a few fellow crime bloggers to engage in an online roundtable to discuss our strange little corner of the web. We barely scratched the surface, so perhaps we'll do it again soon.

The panel: The aforementioned Steve Huff, who focuses on missing persons, serial killers and very bad people. Laura James is the author of CLEWS, in which she digs deep into our past to explore interesting murders through history. Trench produces The Trenchcoat Chronicles and News of Doom, exploring krazy kids and the general rotteness of humanity. And me? I'm the Bookhouse Boy. I like true crime and false crime and have a potty mouth.

The Bookhouse Boy asks:
Unless I'm mistaken, none of us makes a living off true crime (Laura, I'm not sure what kind of legal work you do). For instance, I had to write a piece on Avril Lavigne and Hootie and the Blowfish this morning before I could come play in the mud. Would you like to be able to live off true crime, or is it safer as a hobby?

Trench
With the subjects that I take on, I think it's safer as a hobby. You'd be surprised at the amount of hate mail I get from people defending these school shooters.

Steve Huff
I would like to make a living off of it, and am taking steps to do so -- the extra publicity lately has certainly helped. But I know there are pitfalls. One of them is the psychological toll. This stuff isn't, uh, fun, to deal with. I came to reading true crime as a genre from reading horror and suspense fiction. I said, 'hey, here's horror, and it's real!' and I was hooked, for want of a better word. A journalist from the Seattle Times said to me recently in an interview, just in passing, that there was probably "a hell of a book" in the case of Joseph Edward Duncan III and the Groene murders and kidnapping in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. I agreed with him, and admitted I wouldn't turn down the chance to be the one to write it; however, I know enough already about the crimes Duncan is alleged to have committed to say that I would probably need to take very good care of my mental state if that opportunity arose. As a father, stories involving children being harmed in general are more upsetting to me than some others, and some of the details that are not being revealed to the public yet of Duncan's acts with the Groene kids are just beyond horrific. A person writing the book, say after the trials are over, would have to at least know all of this, even if specifics still didn't make it into the book. That's how Ann Rule writes; she waits for the trial to be complete. Then it's usually easier for her to be allowed access to court documents, evidence, etc. I'd probably want to write that book -- but I would dread delving into the worst truths.

So... yes, I'd like to make a living, but yes, it would probably be safer as a hobby. But we can't do things safely all our lives if we want to move forward.

Laura James

I’d like to get paid to do this, but I can't get anyone interested in the cases that move me. I've tried for years to get an agent or publisher without luck. So I decided I'd rather be a successful blogger than a failed author.

The case that I want to write a book about is the murder of Dr. Zeo Zoe Wilkins, who was stabbed to death in her home in Kansas City in 1924. After investigating the crime for years, I concluded that the person who most likely murdered her and stole $100,000 in diamonds and bearer bonds from her home was her last lawyer, a fellow by the name of Jesse James, Jr. He was the only son of the famous bandit and a silent film actor who spent his weekends riding shotgun for the Ku Klux Klan. He was also severely mentally ill. But agents and publishers keep telling me that nobody is interested in historic cases. "Too old, not famous enough." If my blog is successful, it will prove them all wrong.

The Bookhouse Boy
To answer my own question, I see it much more likely that I'll make a living doing crime ficiton than crime fact. I just don't think there's much of a market for black humor in today's true crime market.


Steve Huff asks:
I keep getting asked this one; why write about real crime, in particular? How did you start? How old were you when you first read a true-crime book?

The Bookhouse Boy
My first true crime book was about Wild West gunslingers, bought at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. I was probably ten. My grandfather was an ex-prison guard who made knives and sold them at the Branson theme park. His uncle, Ollie Crosswhite, was a police officer who was killed in the Young Brothers Massacre, which still stands as the largest loss of law-enforcement life in American history. (This case gets no respect, something I plan on changing some day).

I had a typical teenage interest in serial killers. But I didn't really embrace my true crime enthusiasm until about a year ago, when I made the conscious decision that I needed a hobby at that this is what I'm interested. My interest in crime fiction and films probably comes first, and true crime is a part of that, of course.

Trench
To be honest I never read a true crime book. My wife on the other hand loves them. Like I told Steve I never even considered myself a crime blogger until he pointed it out to me. I got involved because I was tired of these people who were trying to make out the Columbine killers as victims and it just blew up from there.

[new email]

Now that I think about it I lied. I actually have read a true crime book. It was called .44 about David Berkowitz. That was my first real experience seeing a serial killer on the news.

Laura James
My interest in true crime started as a teenager when I was obsessed with Lizzie Borden, a woman who was forced by the times to lead the awful, restricted life of a New England spinster, but who lashed out, and it was the very same prejudices that saved her neck. At the same time, I was petrified of serial killers, and studying them is akin to turning on the lights at night. I started writing true crime stories as a newspaper reporter. After covering a few criminal trials, I decided that I could do a better job than a lot of the trial lawyers I saw in action and went to law school. Found out it's a lot harder than it looks.

Laura James asks:
A lot of people have no interest or appreciation for the study of true crime and say that true crime writers create an admiration for desperate and wicked men, from Jesse James to Ted Bundy and beyond. What do you say to that?

The Bookhouse Boy
I'd have to say that honestly, I'm a little guilty of that. I do not lionize someone like Ted Bundy, but I have a somewhat romantic image of con men, hustlers and professional thieves. The important thing is that I recognize that this is a romantic view, and try to focus it on fictional folks. I love a good heist tale, and in a movie like Heat I'm not rooting for the cops.

On the other hand, I had my car stolen once, and I didn't want those folks getting away. So I'm very aware of the difference between a fictional "honorable" criminal and a real life thug. And I also feel like there is a world of difference between, say, admiring the skills of a pickpocket or secretly wishing you could live the high-flying life of a gangsta and the sad sack folks who think the Columbine killers were heroes. Reading some of the comments for your blogs just seems to confirm that there are a lot of stupid people in the world, and some of those folks read crime blogs.


Steve Huff
No, I definitely don't think anything we write, or anything written by the big names on the bookshelves like Rule, Schechter, etc, creates that admiration. If someone is going to admire serial killers, they would do it whether I wrote another word about sk's or not. I do think we are all guilty, as is a large segment of the rest of society, of being fascinated with serial murder because pop culture has imbued the killer with the kind of dark power that was once reserved for movie monsters like Dracula and the wolfman. I can't think of anyone who saw Silence of the Lambs and didn't kind of feel amused when Hannibal got away. That was a feat on the part of Anthony Hopkins as an actor, but it was also testimony to Hannibal becoming the new Dracula, if you think about it. I feel like we're writing real horror, in a way. We share the same territory with Stephen King, as much as Ann Rule in my mind, the difference being that King has the freedom to say supernatural evil is the culprit, and we're stuck with looking for real-world answers. Basically, though -- if people are going to admire bad men, women, and bloodletters, they will find their inspiration no matter what I write. I do try and be careful to not elevate the criminals I focus on to some sort of evil mastermind status, but that's hard to not do with some, say the Zodiac, who got away, no matter how you slice it. I don't admire him, but I can't deny the curiosity that remains inside about how that particularly clever and creative brand of killer worked. I do think there's a difference between curiosity about bad things and a fascination with them that borders on a kind of lust. The accusations that we aid those who cross the line into "lust" or admiration are made by people who can't admit their own curiosity about bad things.

Trench
To over simplify things, as I tend to do, the "admiration" for people like Bundy or a Jesse James was there long before anything was ever written.

Laura James
True crime is an exploration of the extremes of human behavior, and I think for the most part, true crime writers and fans are interested in it because we have a strong empathy for the victims and the desire to see justice done, the bad guys and girls caught, and the worse they are, the more satisfying it is to see them punished. That's why I think there aren't many books on the shelves regarding unsolved cases. Readers want to know whodunnit, and even if it's too late to see a murderer come to his just desserts, at least s/he can be named and shamed. But sometimes you can see extreme behavior in the response to famous criminals, and those responses can be a reflection of cultural forces (Jesse James, Lizzie Borden) and sometimes an expression of one person’s warped psyche (like women who marry convicted serial killers or troubled teens who admire teen murderers).

4 Comments:

Blogger Henry Garfield said...

Quick note: I recently discovered that the Young Brothers Massacre is no longer the largest killing of law enforcement officers in U.S. history. 9-11 is, with 23 New York cops losing their lives. The Young Brothers Massacre is still the largest mass killing by shooting though.

9:07 PM  
Blogger The Bookhouse Boy said...

Point taken. I think I could live with "largest law-enforcement massacre."

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Joe said...

Hey, thanks for posting this dialogue. I'll watch for you all on Fox News!

It sounds a bit hokey, but this is not just a niche for people strangely fascinated by the dark side of human behavior. There's a genuine public interest in people asking a lot of questions about that behavior.

But you all knew that.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous debb said...

Bob Resslear (sp?) has made some really interesting comments on his life long study of serial killers. To paraphrase him, one must conciously, forcefully withdraw from looking into the abyss too deeply to avoid being consumed by it. He acknowledges the all-consuming power of the evil to draw one into it and how one must maintain healthy boundaries. Please, please, please take this to heart.

6:07 PM  

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