too many (true crime) books

wait, again? already?

So: I had planned this to be a monthly thing, but then between Elon Green publishing an AWESOME article on the whiteness of the true crime genre over the weekend, PLUS looking at the GoodReads reviews of The Third Rainbow Girl (which I finished and really liked) and getting irritated for similar reasons, apparently you’re getting a second newsletter in as many weeks?

FIRST: go read Elon’s article. I’ll wait. I don’t really have anything to add there other than that it made me want to more closely keep an eye on the authors and subjects the true crime media I consume.

I never really got into Serial, the podcast that started the current true crime podcast “boom”, but I’ve enjoyed other similar shows that take an investigative approach in explaining both what happened and explains the reason why the person producing the show is drawn to the case. It’s the same with true crime books - for the most part, I don’t just want a breakdown of the case that paints the victim as a tragic figure and walks through the timeline up until their death; I want a more analytical perspective that looks at the legacy a case has had, either on the community it affected, the writer currently writing about it, or (ideally) both.

The Third Rainbow Girl hit the sweet spot for me on that - I LOVE the way it starts with a numbered section called “True Things” that essentially acts as a thumbnail sketch of the book that follows. The rest of the book alternates between telling the story of the case and pursuit of the killer, and the story of the author’s time in the area, where the shadow of the case directly informs the lives of the people the author interacts with, and a few of her relationships over the course of her time working there.

Reading through the reviews of the book on GoodReads (which I won’t link to here, but I trust you to Google if you’re interested), it’s clear that there’s a second audience of readers who Do Not Think This Book is True Crime. There aren’t enough details of the case! The author spends too much time talking about themself! There’s no closure for the families!

If you’re looking to get into the mind of a killer and read fawning passages of the Beautiful White Victims Whose Lives Were Cut Too Short, this book is not going to be for you. But if that’s what you’re looking for from true crime, I think that’s a problem! There’s a whole podcast, My Favorite Murder, that makes glib content out of the gory details of these cases without any real analysis. Rachel Monroe (whose fantastic Savage Appetites gets namechecked in Elon’s article) wrote a great takedown of this perpective in reviewing the show’s book Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered. She (and Elon AND Emma Copley Eisenberg) are also part of the new Unspeakable Acts anthology pulled together by Sarah Weinman, which also got mentioned in Green’s article. That collection’s goal is perhaps a bit too lofty, but it mostly succeeds at showing a greater picture of what true crime reporting can be.

Better True Crime Media And You

True Crime Books I Didn’t Already List Above That You Should Read Because I Told You to Check Them Out

  • Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe
    Compulsively readable, this gives a wonderful crash course in The Troubles (which I once heard a coworker struggle to remember the name of and call “the irish bad times”), the IRA, and a fascinating missing-persons case that ends with checking a bunch of oral history records in Boston

  • The Queen, Josh Levin
    There is so. much. more. to the story of Linda Taylor, the woman Ronald Reagan as the prototypical “welfare queen”. That sobriquet is the tip of the iceberg in a life full of murder, fraud, and kidnapping.

  • Furious Hours, Casey Cep
    Cep is one of my favorite writers currently at the New Yorker, and while I would have loved a version of this book that braided together the three narratives at its center (Reverend Willie Maxwell, who was accused of killing up to 5 of his family members in a massive insurance fraud racket; the lawyer who represented Maxwell; and Harper Lee, who followed the trial and acquittal of Maxwell’s eventual assassin while attempting to write a follow-up to To Kill A Mockingbird), the book we got tells these stories compellingly.

True Crime Podcasts That Are About More Than Just Serial Killers and Also Aren’t Serial

  • In The Dark
    In terms of true crime podcasts, you can’t do much better than In The Dark. I tuned into season 1 because it masterfully covered what went wrong in the attempt to locate Jacob Wetterling (a case I grew up in the shadow of in Minnesota) and the effect it had on the way we handle missing children’s cases, and season 2 blew things open in the case of Curtis Flowers, who had been convicted of a murder where the pieces don’t quite add up six. separate. times.

  • Running From Cops
    This is from the team and creator that made Finding Richard Simmons, which ended in a gross and exploitative place, but two seasons later, this does a masterful job of explaining how COPS (the tv show) changed cops (the profession) in a bad way.

  • You’re Wrong About
    This is probably my current favorite podcast and I’ve probably already talked about it at you if we’ve been in conversation about books or podcasts in the last year and a half and I apologize, but it’s also SO. DANG. GOOD. at revisiting figures and stories from the past that have had one media narrative that’s become the official word on things where revisiting it shows waaaaaaay more nuance and a lot of ways we’ve been generally shitty to the narratives of people who aren’t straight white dudes.

  • The Dream
    This one’s sort of pushing the boundaries of what counts as “true crime”, but I’m pretty sure that’s what this whole newsletter issue is about, so please go listen to Jane Marie break down MLM companies (in season 1) and the “wellness” industry (in season 2) to show what they’re really selling.

The comments, as always, are open - give me your good true crime (and other) recent reads.