True Crime

I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK by Michelle McNamara

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In the years leading up to her death, true crime writer Michelle McNamara diligently researched the serial killer and rapist that she labeled “The Golden State Killer.” Only two months after the posthumous publication of this book, a suspect was finally identified and arrested in connection with the decades-old crimes. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark reads partly as a police procedural mystery, with focus on the investigators, the collection of evidence, the piecing together of threads over the years, and the different theories swirling around the unsolved (at the time) case. It also reads as a bit of an autobiography of McNamara, with both the stories of her own life and her emotional connections to cold cases that she intended to share and the annotations about her writing process added by those close to her after her death. The interwoven plot lines of the investigators and writer in their relentless pursuit of justice made the book a gripping and powerful read at the time of its publication.

The arrest of Joseph DeAngelo only heightens the book’s appeal. Readers who may have been astounded that a cold case could be broken after so many years can see the inner workings of the investigation–the sometimes wild leads investigators followed relentlessly, some dead ends, but others astoundingly prescient given the investigation’s conclusion. The knowledge that the killer was finally caught also adds some catharsis to an otherwise unsettling ending where the killer remained free and the writer did not live to pursue her investigation further.

True crime is a tricky genre, especially for relatively recent crimes where in-depth studies may seem voyeuristic or insensitive to those loved ones still grieving. Through her focus on the investigation, McNamara gives a clear sense of purpose to every detail that she includes. The more graphic and salacious information is not provided to shock readers or to dramatize a family’s tragedy, but rather to build a wall of evidence with which to ultimately bring the killer to justice. If you are interested in this case or in true crime, I would highly recommend this book.

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A TALE OF MURDER, INSANITY, AND THE MAKING OF THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY by Simon Winchester

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The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary was the most expansive and grueling project that Sir James Murray ever undertook.  The goal of the project was to create a comprehensive record of every word in the English language, including its origins and examples of its usage in literary context.  Such a feat would have been impossible were it not for all of the volunteer submissions from philologists around the country, who mailed Murray examples of words quoted in context from literature.  One of the most frequent word-donors was a man called Dr. W. C. Minor.  Outside the man’s obvious love of literature, Murray knew nothing about this doctor, but he was determined to meet the man who had provided so many of the OED’s valuable contextual examples.  When he discovered that Minor was a convicted murderer incarcerated in an insane asylum, however, he realized that the doctor’s past was even more startling than his immense vocabulary.

This is one of my favorite non-fiction books for grown-ups.  The history of the dictionary is fascinating to a word nerd like me, and each chapter is paired with entries from the OED.  The story of Minor’s life and the glimpses into the nineteenth century criminal justice system are also very interesting.  I highly recommend this book to non-fiction readers and lovers of words.

Readers who enjoy reading about criminal justice in previous centuries may also enjoy The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER: A SHOCKING MURDER AND THE UNDOING OF A GREAT VICTORIAN DETECTIVE by Kate Summerscale

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In June 1860, three year old Saville Kent was brutally murdered during the night, taken from his bed in his family’s manor in Wiltshire and stabbed to death, his body finally being thrown into an outhouse.  As the manor had been securely locked overnight, it was immediately apparent that someone inside the house must have killed the child.  Thus began a true “manor house mystery” that would inspire mystery writers for years to come.  The murder occurred at a time when detectives had just begun to appear in law enforcement, as well as in literature.  Some viewed men like detective Jonathan Whicher as gods of genius, piecing together seemingly unconnected bits of a story to reach justice.  Others saw detectives in a more sinister light:  as voyeurs or spies who pried into people’s private lives and exposed their family secrets without discretion–a horrible thought for Victorians.

Summerscale explores these tensions in her account of the Saville Kent murder.  She tells the story in the style of a murder mystery novel, following the detective and his investigation, and keeping readers in the dark until the truth is finally revealed in the final chapters.  She also weaves the literary history of the detective into her narrative, as well as the origins of words we now take for granted–such as clue and sleuth.  I had difficulty putting this book down, mostly because I wanted to find out who actually committed the crime, but also because I found it fascinating how the real history of detectives was interwoven with the development of the detective mystery genre, each influencing the other.  (For example, Whicher was a personal friend of Charles Dickens.)  I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mysteries, true crime, or Victorian Gothic literature.

If you like historical mysteries, you might like Tess Gerritsen’s novel The Bone Garden.