Monday, June 19, 2006

Real Life Is Messy

In a post to her blog that we referenced in this space last week, Laura James of Clews wrote:

I’m a true crime fan, and I have been known to enjoy a good mystery, but I’ve been puzzled by the strong walls separating the readers and writers of mystery fiction from the readers and writers of true crime.

James’ post got me thinking about those walls. One of the things I’ve been pondering is the fact that real life and real crime are messy, unlike the nice, safe, and ultimately controlled crime in a work of fiction. This is the reason, for instance, that I can watch one of those open-chest autopsy scenes they’re always showing on Crossing Jordan and not miss a sip of my latté, but if someone even thinks about doing lyposuction on Plastic Surgery Beverly Hills, I feel like diving behind the sofa. As gruesome as the Jordan scene might be, I know it isn’t real. On the other hand, I know that is real fat they’re suctioning out of someone’s booty on the surgery show. There’s something pretty awful about that.

Over the weekend I encountered a graphic example of this phenomenon in a news item in New York’s North Country Gazette. You probably already heard about it. Check the headline: “Man Driving With Wife’s Severed Head Causes Fatal Crash.”

You can read the piece yourself, but the upshot is this: a Boise, Idaho, man, 50-year-old Alofa Time, crashed his pickup into a car, killing the occupants: a 36-year-old woman and her 4-year-old daughter. The driver of the pickup was uninjured, but he had his wife’s head in the truck with him. The impact sent “the severed head of his wife airbound onto the roadway.” Says the Gazette:

Time was not seriously injured in the accident. Police said he was carrying a suicide note. A search of his property led to the discovery of the decapitated body of his estranged wife in the garage of their home.
There’s more. All of it equally horrific. And you can imagine this whole scenario all nicely and safely presented on some flavor of Law & Order, with everything placed in comforting context, so that you end up with a better understanding of human nature and a higher appreciation for good storytelling skills.

But in real life? We may be fascinated but, at the crucial moment, most of us turn away. In real life, it’s uncomfortable thinking about your neighbor--or your husband!--removing his wife’s head and then driving around the county with it on the passenger seat of his truck. In real life the whole awful tale can’t be placed in some sensible context that concludes on an enlightening note after 56 minutes and the prescribed number of commercial breaks.

Real life is messy.

Now, all of that said, those with a taste or an interest--or both--for real crime have some great options on the Web, a medium that lends itself to collecting material that might otherwise be hard to contain.

The Crime Library is a good true-crime starting point. Founded in 1998, Crime Library is partly owned by AOL-Time Warner. Even so, it’s surprisingly good. It’s a growing collection of more than 600 “feature stories on major crimes, criminals, trials, forensics, and criminal profiling by prominent writers. The stories focus mostly on recent crimes, but an expanding collection also delves into historically notorious characters, dating back to the 1400s and spanning the globe.”

Another great resource is The Crime Lab Project and its companion, The Crime Lab Project Blog. The CLP was spearheaded by crime fictionist Jan Burke who has since been joined by many prominent authors of crime fiction, who “are concerned about the gap between the public’s beliefs about the current state of forensic science and the reality faced by the many underfunded, understaffed labs and coroners’ offices throughout the country. We see the lack of support given to labs as a matter that has a growing negative impact on law enforcement, justice, and national security.”

The organization’s excellent Web site includes a full listing of both its members’ concerns and their supporters. For innocent bystanders, it provides some great resources as well as a clearer view into what the inside of a contemporary crime lab really looks like.

And, of course, there's the aforementioned Clews: The Historic True Crime Blog. Not only does Laura James’ blog provide a wealth of true-crime links, but James herself offers readers a steady diet of well-stated thoughts on matters of interest to true-crime buffs, though--naturally enough--with a bent to the historic end of things.

On the lighter side, if you like stupid people tricks as enacted by the rich and famous, check out the Web site of Justice magazine. It shares masthead space with People magazine, so expect the same level of riveting journalism, but it’s often good for a giggle or two. After too much real crime, that might be just what the doctor ordered.

No comments: