I’m a huge fan of the True Crime book, but I have to admit that the genre seems to be in a bit of a rut these days. Maybe it’s because all the really interesting stories have already been told – that, without wanting to sound insensitive (though I will anyway), all the really interesting murderers, serial killers and criminals have been and gone, and all we have left now are the dull scraps. Certainly, we are a long way from the heyday of the serial killer, and while new ones do still emerge, they rarely seem as memorable or intriguing as the monsters of the 1970s and 1980s. What’s more, true crime writing is increasingly seen as somehow glorifying the murderers – “we should remember the victims” cry the critics, which is all well and good – but in a book about a serial killer particularly, the murderer is the one constant throughout the story – it’s inevitable that he will be the central character. Some recent books, in their determination to paint the killer as the epitome of evil and the victims are paragons of virtue, seem weirdly unbalanced and unconvincing, feeling more like tabloid reports than serious studies into the dark psyche of a murderer who will rarely be the one-dimensional figure that is increasingly portrayed.
It’s a difficult balancing act, certainly, and perhaps why the true crime shelves these days seem to heave mostly with books about drug dealers, football hooligans and gangsters, all of whom people are apparently fine with admiring, even though they commit violent assault and murder for profit rather than through psychosis. What can I say? We live in a world of idiots.
Julian Upton’s new book Shocking and Sensational is a curious new entry into the true crime world – rather than studying crime cases directly, Upton instead takes a look at the cases through the books that others have written about them. By comparing different works, often with radically different approaches – many of the crimes here are the subject of controversy and differing (conspiracy) theories, rather than open-and-shut cases – he manages to explore the varying aspect of a crime without overtly imposing his own views on things… though of course, he clearly has his own opinions and theories that he believes, and some of these are presented more definitively than others.
Sensibly avoiding some of the more done-to-death ‘classic’ crimes (there’s no Manson, Bundy, Gacy, Moors Murders etc here), Upton instead explores cases where the assorted books have offered wild theories, half-truths, points of controversy and, in some cases, guilt transference. The latter is on show in the chapter on Dorothy Stratten, and the somewhat hysterical reaction of the frankly unpleasant Peter Bogdanovich, her lover who sought to divert attention from his own responsibility for her murder by her estranged husband, and instead throw it onto Hugh Hefner and Playboy, who essentially discovered the model and actress. For Bogdanovich – who met Stratten at a Playboy party – to take the moral high ground against the magazine’s sexploitation remains one of the more rancid bits of deflection I’ve ever seen.
Upton covers a number of celebrity cases – Thelma Todd, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood – where the truth may never quite be known, and explores how the various books on the cases over the years have sought to find ‘the truth’, often by making stuff up in order to push an existing agenda. These might feel familiar stories, but of course, the version of the story that you are familiar with might differ from the next person’s. Upton does a fine job of tracing how these stories developed, were made ‘common knowledge’ and then debunked, without demanding that we make our minds up one way or another. It does leave us wondering what we really know about these famous cases, where even the ‘established’ facts can often be traced back to less than reliable sources. We’re on less shaky ground with Joan Crawford and Mommie Dearest, which despite the best efforts of the Hollywood system closing ranks to protect the memory of the star, seems a pretty irrefutable tale of child abuse. In the case of Christina Crawford’s book and the ludicrous film that was adapted from it, the real outrage is not twisted facts but the way powerful forces lined up to ridicule and deny her story.
There are other major cases studied here too. The story of Reginald Christie, Timothy Evans and 10 Rillington Place is an obvious choice, given the history of the case (Evans was executed for the murder of his wife; his neighbour Christie was later exposed as a serial killer who was almost certainly responsible) and the somewhat unsavoury attempts by some writers to suggest that Evans was probably guilty after all. Upton exposes the fact that the authors of the book making that claim might have had personal axes to grind, and while we might never know the truth, it seems somewhat of a stretch of credibility to suggest that two killers – both with similar techniques – could have lived next door to each other, seemingly blissfully aware of each other.
Upton is less even-handed – and rightfully so – when discussing the cynical and hate-driven tabloid campaign against Gitta Sereny’s book Cries Unheard, a study of child killer Mary Bell that had the misfortune of appearing in the wake of the James Bulger murder. The cases of Mary Bell, in which is was generally accepted that a child who kills is perhaps as much victim as murderer, and the Bulger killers, who were tried – aged ten – as adults and subjected to angry mobs outside court (mobs so outraged at a child murder that they wanted to Lynch two ten-year-olds – how ironic) are startling in their contrast, and show just how backward society has moved. Upton makes no effort to dilute the sheer awfulness of the British press, as they stoked up public outrage for profit.
The JFK murder is covered, with the rise of the conspiracies, the rebuttals and beyond. If I was to criticise the book at all, it might be for giving too much credit to the Franky awful Vincent Bugliosi, the main critic of the JFK conspiracies and, coincidentally, the prosecutor in the Manson Family trial. For a man who pushed the whole ‘Helter Skelter’ nonsense as fact to then dismiss what are frankly more plausible conspiracies (I’m not getting into the who or whys now, but the likelihood of JFK being shot by a lone gunman seem, frankly, slim) is quite extraordinary – but Bugliosi was a dreadful self-publicist and egotist.
The chapter on the Black Dahlia murder is fascinating mainly for the antics of the obsessive Steve Hotel, who believes (seemingly with little evidence) that his father was both the killer of Elizabeth Short and the Zodiac Killer, even though he was living in a different country at the time of the latter murders. It’s an extraordinary study of personal obsession, and I’ve made a note to read his hilarious-sounding books as soon as possible.
There are also chapters on two cases that I’ll confess to being unaware of: the conviction of Alice Crimmins for the murder of her children sounds like a potentially horrible miscarriage of justice, while the Hollywood Checks Scandal involving fraudulent film producer David Begelman is murder-free, but no less fascinating for that as it paints a depressing picture of corporate greed, the moral emptiness of Hollywood and the way whistle blowers can find their careers shut down.
Upton’s book – unfortunately saddled with one of the worst covers I’ve seen for a long time – provides a fascinating insight into the way true crime has been written about over the decades, with authors desperate to find new wrinkles in order to keep cashing in on notorious cases (the chapter on Lord Lucan is fascinating simply for the levels of guesswork at play from different writers). It might not tell you which of the books you should consider to be the authentic story, and rightly so – in many of these cases, the value of a book will be in how much it tells the reader the story that they want to believe.