This anthology is an important contribution to the understanding and chronicling of true crime reporting in the US by contemporaneous authors.
It ranges from 1651 (the hanging of John Billington) to 2001 (the trial of the Menendez brothers for murdering their parents.
Billington was on the first ship from England to the Plymouth Colony and was regarded by everyone on board as depraved and boorish, so no one was surprised when he killed a fellow Plymouth Brethern some years later over a trivial incident.
The Menendez brothers shot their parents to death in the family home in Elm Drive, an affluent address in Beverly Hills, with fourteen twelve-gauge shotgun rounds that obliterated the parents’ heads and torsos.
Other stories covered include Ed Gein (the basis for the movie Psycho), the Son of Sam, the Black Dahlia murder, the Turner-Stompanato (self-defence) killing and the Loeb and Leopold (Superman) case.
The quality of the writing across the centuries and decades is very engaging and high calibre. The styles are varied and often attain high art. Some are straight narratives, some are social commentaries, some are psychological analysis, some are essays on guilt and evidence.
The cases in the book run the gamut from the obscure to the high celebrity ones. The authors include well known crime writers like Herbert Ashbury, Theodore Dreiser, Jim Thompson, Jack Webb, Robert Bloch, Truman Capote, James Ellroy, Ann Rule and Dominick Dunne in addition to writers like Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Mark Twain and Damon Runyon.
The editor, Dr. Harold Schechter, a professor of American Literature and Culture, at Queen's College in New York, has written a masterful introduction which delineates the growth of true crime reportage, the seminal influence of IN COLD BLOOD, and the basis of true crime for authors of crime fiction such as Dashiell Hammett, Joyce Carol Oates and James Ellroy. Schechter is also the author of many books on true crime and crime fiction.
One major bonus of this book is the introduction to each piece written by Schechter and the primary and secondary sources that he lists for stories.
The only major deficit, for a book published in 2008, is the dearth of modern coverage. The newest writing dates from 2001.
For crime writing later than 2001, the annual series, The Best American Crime Reporting, is essential. These volumes are a lucid and comprehensive documentation of the best in US true crime writing. (Best American Crime Reporting 2009 is due for publication Sep 15th 2009 – a review to follow on publication).
TRUE CRIME: AN AMERICAN ANTHOLOGY, however, remains an essential volume in understanding the genesis and exposition of crime reporting as a legitimate specialization within journalism and creative non-fiction. – Seamus Scanlon
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.