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Friday, April 28, 2017

Committing The Perfect Crime

     Investment crook Bernie Madoff probably thought he'd committed the perfect crime. He was rich, well-known, loved by his family, and respected by his colleagues. But Ponzi scemes are not perfect crimes, and Bernie got caught. The financial sociopath lost his fortune, his reputation, his freedom and a son to suicide. His wife, the author of a boo-hoo memoir and his surviving son have disowned him. And like a true sociopath Bernie has insulted his victims by calling them greedy.

     Unlike Bernie Madoff, a lot of people get away with crimes big and small. Shoplifters, employee thieves, and even murderers have avoided conviction. But getting away with a criminal act doesn't necessarily make it a perfect crime. Offenders escape criminal detection and punishiment because their crimes weren't professionally investigated. So-called perfect crimes are made possible by imperfect police work, and good luck.

     To avoid a murder conviction the killer should make sure he doesn't leave part of himself at the scene of the homicide or take part of the death site with him. Ideally, the murder victim should not be a spouse, an ex-lover, a business competitor or someone to whom the killer owes money. Moreover, the homicide should be committed as far from the killer's home as possible. And there should be no eyewitnesses or accomplices. The successful murderer should create a believable alibi, and not tell a soul what he has done, not even a priest or a shrink. And if there is financial gain involved, the killer should avoid spending large sums of money for at least a year.

     If arrested and brought into the interrogation room the suspect should say nothing except that he wants a lawyer. Also, no self-respecting criminal agrees to a polygraph test. If incarcerated the suspect should be aware of the jailhouse informant. Successful criminals trust no one and keep their mouths shut.

     Killers get away with murder all the time because police officers contaminate physical evidence at the crime scene. Too many detectives are overworked, lazy, or incompetent. O. J. Simpson committed an imperfect, messy, clue-laden double murder and walked free. Police mistakes, a whacko jury, and an all-star defense team led to the acquittal of an obviously guilty man.

     The commission of a perfect perfect murder should entail the following:

   1. The coroner or medical examiner rules the death either natural, accidental, or suicidal.

   2. The killer does not come under serious police or media suspicion.

   3. The killer gains something significant from the victim's death.

   4. There is no physical evidence such as DNA that will later come back to haunt the killer.

     Before the emergence of modern toxicology and pharmacology, at a time when unhappy wives slowly poisoned their husbands to death (usually with arsenic found in rat poison), the perfect murder was possible--perhaps even easy. Today committing the perfect murder, at least in theory, is much more difficult and extremely rare. 

The Robin Hood Fantasy

People secretly applaud those who do not play by the rules. It's a vital fantasy among the law-abiding bourgeois. Whenever there is an economic dislocation, theft arises. We often fall in love with the little thief if there is a big one at work. The analogs of the robber barons and their rapacious greed are the small-time thieves in the underworld. [Don't forget about the biggest thief of all--the U.S. government.]

Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters, 2008

Two of B. R. Myers' Rules for "Serious" Novelists

1. Be Writerly

Read aloud what you have written. If it sounds clear and natural, strike it out.

2. Play the Part

Take yourself seriously. Practice before the mirror until you can say things like this with a straight face:

"It's because I want every little surface to shimmer and gyrate that I haven't patience for those lax transitional devices of plot, setting, character, and so on, that characterize a lot of traditional fiction."
(Mark Leyner)

B. R. Myers, A Reader's Manifesto, 2002

Fairy Tales: True Crime for Kids

     The children are safely tucked in bed; a light breeze blows in through the window; Mom hushes them and begins to tell a sweet tale of children being abandoned in the woods, lured to a witch's cottage, there to be fattened and roasted in an oven. Medium-rare.

     Critics have long complained about the violent content of some of the classic fairy tales we read to our children. However, what few of these critics realize is that we are reading watered down versions of the fairy tales, and that the originals were far more graphic and brutal.

     Sleeping beauty was not first awakened by a kiss; in the 1636 Italian version of the tale--the first known written version--she was raped by a man who rode off the next morning without leaving even a Dear Sleeping Beauty note. Her "morning after" came nine months later when she awoke to find herself the proud mother of twins.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997 

The Master Plot

There are stories that we tell over and over in myriad forms and that connect vitally with our deepest values, wishes, and fears. Cinderella is one of them. Its variants can be found frequently in European and American cultures. Its constituent events elaborate a thread of neglect, injustice, rebirth, and reward that responds to deeply held anxieties and desires. As such, the Cinderella masterplot has an enormous emotional capital that can be drawn on in constructing a narrative. But it is only one of many masterplots. We seem to connect our thinking about life, and particularly our own lives, to a number of masterplots that we may or may not be fully aware of. To the extent that our values and identity are linked to a masterplot, that masterplot can have strong rhetorical impact. We tend to give credibility to narratives that are structured by it. [True crime narratives often incorporate masterplots.]

H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2002

Thursday, April 27, 2017

True Crime Writer Joseph McGinniss

     Joe McGuinniss was born in Manhattan, New York on December 9, 1942. Raised by well-to-do parents in New York City and Los Angeles, he graduated in 1964 from Holly Cross University in Worcester, Massachusetts. After failing to get into Columbia University's graduate school of journalism (They must have suspected he had writing talent.), McGinniss became a staff reporter for the Worcester Telegram. 

     Following stints at The Philadelphia Bulletin and The Philadelphia Inquirer, McGuinniss published his first book in 1968. The Selling of the President, a nonfiction account of the marketing of presidential candidate Richard Nixon, became a bestseller and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for six months. That book established the 26-year-old author's reputation as a serious investigative journalist and landed him a job as writer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Harold Examiner.

The Jeffrey MacDonald Murder Case

     On February 17, 1970, Green Beret Captain and Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald reported a deadly invasion of his home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At the scene Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officers found MacDonald's wife Colette and his two daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, stabbed to death. MacDonald himself had superficial puncture wounds. According to MacDonald, he had struggled with the hippie intruders who had murdered his family.

     Following an internal military review of the case, Captain MacDonald was cleared of wrongdoing. But in January 1975, a federal grand jury indicted him on three counts of first-degree murder. He vigorously maintained his innocence and stuck to his original version of the mass murder.

     At some point after MacDonald's indictment, Joe McGuinniss entered the case as a journalist who intended to write a book exonerating the Green Beret officer. The writer acquired access into the inner circle of the MacDonald defense team by gaining MacDonald's trust as a loyal friend. In reality, the more McGuinniss learned about the case, the more convinced he became of MacDonald's guilt. The true crime writer believed that MacDonald, a sociopath who wanted to be free of  his family, had murdered his wife and daughters in a homicidal frenzy aided by his abuse of diet pills.

     In 1979, when the jury found MacDonald guilty as charged, McGuinniss, to maintain his position within the MacDonald defense team, feigned shock and outrage. But when McGuinniss' book on the case, Fatal Vision, came out in 1983, it was Jeffery MacDonald and his supporters who were shocked and outraged by the author's duplicity.

     Shortly after the publication of Fatal Vision, a book that quickly became a runaway bestseller, Jeffery MacDonald sued the true crime writer for beach of contract.

     When the first of its kind lawsuit went to trial, several well-known true crime authors such as Joseph Wambaugh and Norman Mailer testified on McGuinniss' behalf as expert witnesses. According to Wambaugh and Mailer, McGinniss had done what any serious investigative journalist would do to get to the bottom of a case. In other words, a true crime writer has no duty to be honest with the person he's writing about. At the conclusion of the trial, some jurors bought McGuinniss' defense but others did not. This led to a hung jury.

    The insurance company for the publisher of Fatal Vision, shocked and concerned that some of the jurors had sided with a man who had killed his wife and two children over the guy who had written the book about the mass murder, settled the suit out of court for $325,000. In the court of public opinion, McGuinniss did not come off as a likable person, and ordinary people did not approve of his journalistic trickery.

     In 1989, journalist Janet Malcolm wrote a long piece about the MacDonald-McGuinniss suit in The New Yorker. A year later the article came out as a book called The Journalist and the Murderer. (It's a great read, by the way.) Malcolm's defining of the journalist/subject relationship as inherently exploitive has itself become a source of debate. Regarding the MacDonald/McGuinniss relationship, Malcolm famously wrote: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

     Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bott published a book called Fatal Justice that argues for MacDonald's innocence. According to these authors, McGuinniss's book is full of substantive errors and groundless speculation.

     Regardless of one's take on the MacDonald's guilt or innocence, Fatal Vision is an exceptionally well written account of a fascinating murder case. It also popularized the concept of the sociopathic killer who appears normal on the outside but in reality is a pathologically narcissistic liar without feelings of guilt.

     Joe McGuinniss followed Fatal Vision with two bestselling true crime books. Blind Faith, published in 1989, is about a New Jersey man who hired a hit man to murder his wife. Cruel Doubt, 1991, features teenage murderers inspired by the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

     The method McGuinniss used to research his last book, a biography of Sarah Palin, also stirred controversy. In 2010, he rented a house in Wasilla, Alaska next door to the former vice presidential candidate. Critics called McGuinniss a peeping Tom, and Palin accused him of stalking her and her family. The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin came out in 2011. The book, failing to break new ground about a person the public had lost interest in, did not make the bestseller list.

     On March 10, 2014, Joe McGuinniss died in a Worcester, Massachusetts hospital from prostate cancer. At his death at age 71, he was living in Pelham with his second wife Nancy Doherty. He was survived by three children.

     Fatal Vision is considered by many to be a true crime classic equal to Joseph Wambaugh's Onion Field, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song.

     Jeffery MacDonald remains in prison and continues to maintain his innocence. 

Writing Quote: Who Buys True Crime Books?

The main audience for true crime works is generally the middle class with more women than men buying the books. There is also a fairly strong teen market, and books of regional interest have specialized markets. For example, both Texas and the Pacific Northwest are strong locales for the true crime market.

Vicky Munro, crimeculture.com, 2000

The Difficulty of Writing True Crime

Every genre has its own peculiar demands and drawbacks. True crime has more than most. Successful true crime writers have to be self-starters. Many times a week, fledgling authors ask me how they can be crime writers. I tell them as gently as possible that the very nature of the genre requires writers who will find a way themselves. We must not only be writers--but detectives. In researching a crime, we must figure out how to elicit information that seems impossible to get. We have to ask people about pain and horror they would rather forget. We must ask detectives and prosecutors to share their investigations and their findings with us. And it isn't easy.

Ann Rule in Writing Mysteries, Sue Grafton, editor, 2002 

Blaming Society for Crime

     What causes crime? Why do some individuals possess tendencies which lead them to commit acts of violence and predation: robberies, assaults, rapes, and other felonies? What sets the habitual or occasional criminal apart from the mainstream of society? More important, what can be done to "change" criminals into productive, law-abiding citizens?

     The theory that has partly governed public policy for many years is that crime is caused by an unjust society. A most eloquent spokesperson for this point of view was Ramsey Clark, who served as assistant attorney general in the Kennedy Administration and attorney general in the Johnson Administration. Here's how Clark described the crime problem in his well-known 1970 book, Crime in America:

     "If we are to deal meaningfully with crime, what must be seen is the dehumanizing effect on the individual of slums, racism, ignorance, and violence, of corruption and impotence to fulfill rights, of poverty, unemployment, and idleness, of generations of malnutrition, of congenital brain damage and prenatal neglect, of sickness and disease, of pollution, of decrepit, dirty, ugly, unsafe, overcrowded housing, of alcoholism and narcotics addiction, of avarice, anxiety, fear, hatred, hopelessness, and injustice. [Clark, in that run-on sentence, certainly covered the cause of crime waterfront. A writer he was not.] These are the fountainheads of crime. They can be controlled. As imprecise, distorted and prejudiced as our learning is, these sources of crime and their controllability clearly emerge to any who would see."

     And how would such conditions be changed? In that same book, Clark exclaims that it's a "matter of will." If society becomes willing, the conditions that cause crime can be changed, and then crime will be greatly reduced.

     Clark's theory has a plausible sound and anybody who visits a large state prison will find scores of inmates from deprived backgrounds. Some of them are not really criminals in the true sense of the word; they are simply badly adjusted and disturbed people who need to be institutionalized. There are others with personal problems that got them into trouble.

    But if a visitor searches out the professional criminals--both in prison and out--he may find that the theory doesn't hold up at all. These are men, and some women, who have numerous advantages in their lives and yet they seem to become criminals by deliberate choice.

Melvin D. Barger, "Crime: The Unsolved Problem," in Criminal Justice? Robert James Bidinotto, editor, 1994 

True Crime is Stranger Than Fiction

True crime writing really demands that you be honest and back up everything you write with facts. I always keep all my notes, copies of court documents and police reports so that I can verify what I've put into print. True crime is just that--it's the truth. And time after time I've discovered that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Robert Scott, authorsontheweb.com, 2002