Friday, June 16, 2006

The Mystery of the Sodden, Droopy Prose

It all began on June 4, when New York Times crime-fiction critic Marilyn Stasio reviewed a St. Martin’s Press true-crime book called Safe Harbor: A Murder in Nantucket, by Brian McDonald. The book deals with the death of millionaire New York businesswoman Beth Lochtefeld and love gone wrong on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Stasio, who is not known for her desire to make friends in the author community, didn’t like Safe Harbor. But, in the review, she seemed to take the whole thing a bit further, tarring a whole genre with a brush aimed at this single volume:
A Murder in Nantucket is Brian McDonald’s account of an actual killing that took place there in 2004, but it reads like a mystery, so it might go into my laundry basket--except that the language of true-crime is so inelegant it seems to dishonor the dead. Unlike the civilized fictional villainy on the Vineyard, the real-life murder of Elizabeth Lochtefeld, who was stabbed to death, was cold and cruel. Both the victim and the man accused of killing her came from good families and had money, but as Asey Mayo says in another, fictional, context, “re-fined people do murders sometimes.” Yet McDonald doesn’t say it anywhere near as well; his book is sodden with the droopy prose and weepy sentiments that afflict most true-crime accounts of murder.
Um. Ouch. But you can’t go around saying stuff like that--especially in the Times--without expecting some type of backlash or, at least, talk back. Unsurprisingly, this has come in the form of the raised voices of the blogosphere, beginning--to my knowledge--with a brace of true-crime authors who were inspired by Stasio’s review, Gregg Olsen and M. William Phelps, who, in the first posting of their brand-new blog, Crime Rant: Deliberating Crime Coast to Coast, took the reviewer to task:
Moreover, it is unprofessional, if not lazy, for a reviewer to sweep an entire genre underneath a fictional rug to make a larger point.
In her Clews: The Historic True Crime Blog, Laura James makes some well-considered points, then levels her pen at crime fictionists:
Hmm. ... Maybe it’s just me, but I get the strong impression that a lot of mystery authors have never read much true crime. And I’m afraid to say that it really, really shows.
James follows this up with lists of some of the heavy hitters from true-crime history--Ann Rule, John Berendt, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer among them. As James points out, “They don’t give out Pulitzer Prizes for ‘droopy prose.’”As near as we can tell, the fallout continues to fall.


mysterious traveler said...

Ah, but it's significant that James had to go to the list of heavy hitters from the past to bolster her argument. It would have been more convincing if she'd listed a half dozen contemporary true crime writers turning out superb prose. Plus, with the exception of Rule, her examples aren't genre writers, but writers from the mainstream who penned true crime books -- and Mailer and Capote were primarily fiction writers who dipped into true crime.

As far as Stasio's original slam, yes, she went overboard and she unfairly targeted true crime. God knows there's enough droopy prose in contemporary crime fiction that the genre has no right to point fingers, guns, or pens at anyone.

Anonymous said...

With the host's kind indulgence, I'd like to reply here...

My list of heavy hitters is somewhat out of context, but your point is taken. (I'm a crime historian, so naturally my list of favorite titles will seem a tad bit out of date to some; most of my favorite writers are dead.) True crime operates under a different paradigm than mystery fiction, where authors write a series of novels. Many true crime books represent an author's single contribution to the genre.

As to a list of contemporary, talented, *and* prolific true crime writers, I'd point to Ann Rule, Gregg Olsen, Harold Schechter, E.J. Wagner (who's working on her second book) and Erik Larsen (his first book looked at HH Holmes; the second, Dr. Crippen).

With that I'll retreat to my moldy library and take up where I left off rereading Murder and Its Motives.
Laura James