Sunday, April 01, 2012

Best American Crime Writing 2002

In the past few weeks commenter jcdevildog has tracked down Otto Penzler (see comments), apparently via a Facebook page, who confirmed that the Best American Crime Writing/Reporting series is indeed finished for the time being, after nine volumes. Thanks to jcdevildog for doing the legwork on this one (I never heard anything from the publisher, either via email or in response to a letter I sent). I think many of us were hoping for some kind of delay or temporary postponement, but the series does appear to be done. This is a shame, of course, for anyone like me who followed it regularly over the years—but the nine books produced remain very good, suffer surprisingly little from age, and are well worth looking into. It's also somewhat heartening to remember that the series simply collects what's already out there. That means it's still probably out there, if you're willing to sift and look to individual magazines for it, and incidentally the series also uncovered some of the best magazine sources for true-crime journalism, which aren't always obvious: "The Atlantic Monthly," "Esquire," "GQ," "The New Yorker," and "Vanity Fair" were among the most reliable contributors to this series.

As for the individual volumes, they are all good, but this first one remains among the very best. Penzler, Thomas H. Cook, and crew may or may not have yet ironed out all the processes involved in making these books, but certainly they are putting their collective best foot forward with this inaugural edition, and it shows. It's one of the biggest in the series, at over 400 pages, with such stars and journeymen of the form on board as Charles Bowden, Skip Hollandsworth, David McClintick, and Alex Prud'homme. The guest editor is Nicholas Pileggi, whose film credits as writer or producer or both include GoodFellas, Casino, and American Gangster. Offenses documented within these pages range among cockfighting, liquor store robberies, drug smuggling, bad cops, murder, fraud, and, of course, 9/11, which occurred when this collection was nearing completion, obviously forcing a rethink of the choices. Penzler and Cook, in their foreword, argue for the Biblical story of Abel and Cain as the first example of true-crime journalism—it's easy, but, well, all right. In Pat Jordan's "The Outcast," from "The New Yorker," one of the figures most critical to the rise of popularity in true-crime journalism, none other than O.J. Simpson himself, may be observed attempting to live with the heavy sentences handed down to him by the court of popular opinion. He is at once loathsome and sympathetic (he has also, by the way, been in prison on armed robbery charges since 2008). Physician essayist Atul Gawande, a frequent contributor to the Best American Essays series, takes on the issue of the veracity of eyewitness reports in "Under Suspicion," also from "The New Yorker"; eyewitness testimony has long been considered nearly sacrosanct by law enforcement and prosecutors but remains highly questionable when looked at carefully and systematically. And David McClintick, in "Fatal Bondage," from "Vanity Fair," looks at the lurid and shocking story of the crimes of businessman J.R. Robinson, a con man, sadist, and serial killer who operated out of Kansas in the '80s and '90s, eventually expanding his base of operations to the Internet. If you watch true-crime TV you have probably seen the story of the case: sadomasochism, missing lonely-hearts women, and foul-smelling barrels found in storage spaces are the points on which it turns, with the added spice of outrage in that he was caught and imprisoned once, only to be released and start up again. I'll call it my favorite piece here, if only because it's so deliciously over the top. As with all the best true-crime journalism the operant term remains, "You can't make this stuff up." That's one of the things this series was so good at. It will be missed.

In case it's not at the library.

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