Sunday, July 03, 2011
This most recent volume's name editor is Stephen Dubner, who was not much of a name to me—a one-time staffer at the "New York Times Magazine." It kicks off with Calvin Trillin's winsome poetic punch from "The Nation" at Roman Polanski defenders ("Why make him into some Darth Vader / For sodomizing one eighth grader," etc.), then follows it up with a more serious Trillin piece on a case of disaffected murder in the upper Midwest. That reminded me again how good Trillin can be on crime, but you have to pick the work out of the potpourri of his catalog (Killings is the only one I know, and it's pretty good). A Jeffrey Toobin "New Yorker" piece here riffs on Polanski in a rumination (cum navel-gazer) on celebrities who get off easy, so you can imagine what the general preoccupation is that wraps around this collection like a haze. Not that it's particularly single-minded. There are interesting pieces about a sickeningly prolific serial killer who operated in post-Perestroika Moscow, a look at John Wilkes Booth, a rundown on a Seattle lowlife who racked up 112 convictions ("Not arrests, convictions," writer Rick Anderson is at pains to tell us: "94 misdemeanors and 18 felonies"). The latter is ultimately more an indictment of a justice system than a single man. There's a brief if easy excoriation here of Bernie Madoff and his antecedents, and a weird jape that the writer (Maximillian Potter) compares reasonably enough to a Coen brothers scenario, involving a buffalo skeleton marked up by scrimshaw scenes from the Bible. There's a sober recollection of Etan Patz, a six-year-old who disappeared in New York in 1979 and whose still unsolved case has forever changed the way missing kids cases are treated. Along the way, not just here but all through the series, "The New Yorker" is revealed as perhaps the single best source of true-crime literature that we have. But my favorite piece this time is from "Harper's." Written by Charles Bowden, a true-crime careerist, "The Sicario" is a very hard and unflinching look at what Mexico's drug trade is turning life into in Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. It's horrifying, an extended interview with a hit man who claims to be trying to get out of the life, but of necessity is constantly looking over his shoulder. The piece is thick with the life-and-death paranoia by which people appear to be living and dying in that part of the world. If he's just telling stories, he's telling good ones. It has since been turned into a documentary, El sicario: Room 164, for which Bowden got a co-writing credit. I want to see it.
In case it's not at the library.