by Hugh Gilmore
Despite its being an enjoyable genre, a lot of people have burned out on reading True Crime books. Too many volumes in that category concern grisly murders, either a bunch all at once, or lots of them serially. The publishers offer murders quick and explosive, slow and torturous. So much pilled blood, calculated cruelty and very bad intentions. All presented in nauseating detail.
Twenty years ago, nonfiction crime books were housed in bookcases labeled "Sociology" or "Social Problems." Now, nearly everywhere, the genre is so popular that most libraries and bookstores have a section labeled TRUE CRIME. More titles get jammed in there every year. Combined with the number of increasingly gory TV shows nowadays, we could perhaps say we live in the Golden Age of sickening gore and demented minds.
I was a fan of this genre for a while, back in the Truman Capote, Vincent Bugliosi, Ann Rule years, (1966-1995), but by the year 2000, I felt over-gorged on the stuff. They'd become too creepy by then – so many narratives about stiffs, corpses, torture, blood and reeking body fluids. I did remain, however, open to stories of crimes solved by clever and patient detection, with lots of how-dun-it and insightful depictions of both the criminal(s) and the victim(s). I changed my search image and found a number of quite gripping, non-murder crime stories. They're a minority, but there are enough around if you look. What follows are brief descriptions of eight of my favorites. Plus a bonus book.
- "The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century," by Kirk W. Johnson. 2018. A young man caught up in the fly-tying industry broke into The British museum of natural history at Tring and stole bunches of feathers. The heist included some priceless rarities collected by the great 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. He then began to sell them on eBay and through the tie-flying underground, where illegal endangered animal parts are bought and sold. The author got caught up in a quest to solve what happened to the feathers after the young man was caught. The thief notably used an Asperger defense, offered up by Sascha-Baron Cohen’s lawyer cousin.
- "Finders Keepers: The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million," by Mark Bowden. 2002. South Philadelphia's Joey Coyle wasn't very discreet after finding a big bag of money in the street. He told too many people. Before too long a lot of other people came looking for him. He got found, but nonetheless became a Philly folk hero. Made into a movie.
- "Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup," by John Carreyrou. 2018. The Steve Jobs wannabe, Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, a biotech startup, and her old boyfriend, Sunny, were two of the most vile people I've ever come across. Due to become a classic read in the annals of corporate crime. The bigger the lie, the easier the sell. Made into a movie.
- "The Informant," by Kurt Eichenwald. 2001. Another white-collar crime book. Mark Whitacre became an FBI informant against his own corporation. As time went by, however, the FBI started to realize that Mark was not as truthful as he seemed to be, and had a parallel agenda of his own. Audible.com's blurb says, "A page-turning real-life thriller that features deadpan FBI agents, crooked executives, idealistic lawyers, and shady witnesses with an addiction to intrigue, "The Informant"tells an important and compelling story of power and betrayal in America." A Matt Damon movie was made from this.
- "The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival," by Stanley N. Alpert. 2007. One of the best, most compelling reads you never heard of. One the eve of his 38th birthday Stanley Alpert (a federal prosecutor) was kidnapped off the streets of New York by a carful of armed thieves who intended to steal his ATM card. Once they got him back to their pad in Brooklyn, they changed plans and tried to hold him ransom. An entertaining, unintentionally funny read.
- "Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell," by Jack Olsen.1989. In a small Wyoming town, half populated with a Mormon community, a beloved town doctor, in practice for several decades, is accused by a few brave patients of sexual abuse – under the guise of "examining" his patients. Nearly the entire town, as so often happens, rose up to defend "Doc" and slander his accusers. The truth took a long tortuous path before arriving. Fascinating and compelling read by a master of the true crime genre.
- "American Fire: Love, Arson, Life in a Vanishing Land," by Monica Hesse. On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, over a period of a few years, nearly 100 buildings were set fire to. Frustrated, but determined fire sleuths had to rely on luck and a few leaked disclosures before they finally found the culprits. Interesting cast of characters and a backstage glimpse of a way of life in that remote section of America.
- "The Fire Lover: A True Story," by Joseph Wambaugh. 2002. The most frightening book of this kind I read that year. An arson investigator in Glendale, CA, turned out to be the arsonist.
- And finally, not really "True Crime," unless you consider war a crime: "The Shattered Lens: A War Photographer's True Story of Captivity and Survival in Syria," by Jonathan Alpeyrie. 2017. The author, a French-American photojournalist, was betrayed during his third assignment to Syria and turned over to a group of Syrian rebels. He was bound, blindfolded and beaten for 81 days. A remarkably philosophical book, in addition to being a pulse-pounding read.