Fairy Lights and Fear: The Best "True Crime" of 2003

Nikki Tranter and Kelli Tranter

This project began as a quest to find the best true crime books of the year. Believe us, we sifted through all manner of junk to make this list. It was worth it, though, because along the way we discovered some modern-day classics.

This project began as a quest to find the best true crime books of the year. We sat down one evening in September -- criminology and behavioural science credentials firmly in hand -- to begin the project by deciding which books would fit into the true crime genre in order to significantly cut down our workload. After much bickering and hair-pulling, we came to realisation that "true crime" as a concept doesn't actually exist. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is hailed as the beginning of the genre, the first book to use techniques applied to great fiction in order to tell a great non-fiction story. It worked, but as soon as the author began applying such techniques, elements of "truth" within the story were lost. While this kind of writing does compromise the integrity of the truth -- as when an author omnisciently writes about the final hours before a person's death, something no one would have any way of knowing about -- this is not necessarily a bad thing. Authors of Capote's calibre know the difference between good storytelling and just plain making stuff up.

Bad authors -- often frustrated journalists -- do not understand this difference, and it is because of this that "true crime" as a genre continues to lose credibility. Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss, for example, betrayed the confidences of convicted murderer Jeffrey McDonald in order to sell more copies of his 1983 book. Apart from the lies and deception flooding the book, McGinniss committed another major true crime reporting sin: He made himself the star of the show. Not unlike Patricia Cornwell who failed miserably this year with her ultra-shifty Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed. Spotlight hogging wasn't that book's major downfall though, lack of research and inane conclusions sealed that deal.

Because of the ever-growing proliferation of this kind of shoddy journalism, the treasure among the trash becomes increasingly harder to find. Author credentials and a trusted publisher aren't enough to guarantee an informative and intelligent read either. A bit of time and patience, and you'll find it. Believe us, we sifted through all manner of junk to make this list. It was worth it, though, because along the way we discovered some modern-day classics.

Here are our favourite "true crime" books (including forensic studies and memoirs) of 2003:

Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper
by Michael Bilton (HarperCollins UK)

Michael Bilton's Wicked Beyond Belief ranks up there with M.J. Trow's Let Him Have It, Chris and Mara Leveritt's Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three as a fine investigations into botched police procedure. Meticulously researched, the book gives the public its first ever look into documents previously unavailable relating to the haphazard police investigation that allowed Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe to go on killing as evidence mounted against him. Through interviews with key players and analysis of previously unseen witness statements, forensic evidence and police and pathology reports, Bilton reveals how ego, laziness and blatant disregard for procedure kept a killer on the streets.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America
by Erik Larson (Crown (USA)/Doubleday (Australia))

Stylish and sophisticated, The Devil in the White City does exactly what it purports. It tells one hell of a story. Rich and compelling, the book is a retelling of the events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the impact it had on the crimes of notorious serial killer, Herman Mudgett (also known as H. H. Holmes). Flipping back and forth between the fair (through the eyes of chief architect, Daniel H. Burnham, who believed anything was possible if given enough time and the right amount of flair) and the mounting disappearances connected to Mudgett's World's Fair Hotel, historian Erik Larson effectively captures the innocence and optimism of the time. The author's grand language and respect for his cast is exceptional throughout this incredible juxtaposition of fairy lights and fear.

Wilful Murder: The Sinking of the Lusitania
by Diana Preston (Random House Australia)

The artistry of Diana Preston's epic volume, Wilful Murder: The Sinking of the Lusitania (released in Australia this year), immediately sets it apart from other books attempting to understand and explore historical horrors. The complex and compelling tale of the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania passenger ship by a German U-boat is brought to life, not only through Preston's exquisite storytelling, but with photographs, diagrams and drawings lifted from prominent newspapers of the time. The splendor of the ship and the controversy surrounding its fate is retold in such a way as to firmly plant the reader at the turn of the last century in terms of both location and mindset. Preston gallantly attempts to shed light on the Lusitania disaster's many unanswered questions, taking the reader on a journey so alive with dedication, passion and truth. Preston steers well clear of conspiracy theories and finger-pointing to objectively view the events of the boat's fateful trip, giving fresh insight into why so many people had to perish in an event that was to alter the consciousness of the era and -- some believe -- the outcome of the Second World War.

Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensics Lab, The Body Farm, Where the Dead Do Tell Tales
by Dr. Bill Blass and Jon Jefferson (Putman Publishing Group)

Similar to Mary Roach's successful 2003 release Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers (only without the odd sarcasm), Bill Blass's look inside the Tennessee Medical Centre's so-called "Body Farm" is the forensic study of the year. Part memoir and part textbook, Death Acre introduces readers to all facets of forensic science, the most fascinating of which being how the Body Farm came to exist. Just as fascinating is the candor with which Blass discusses his life's passion -- the dead. Written with journalist Jon Jefferson and featuring an introduction by author Patricia Cornwell (who set one of her famous Scarpetta novels at the Body Farm), this book is as much about life as it is death. Bill Blass is a wonderful storyteller, delivering the chills he knows we crave while maintaining the utmost respect for his business.

Finders Keepers: The True Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million
by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press)

In Finders Keepers (released in paperback in October), Bowden, journalist and author of Black Hawk Down, expands on several articles he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer about unemployed South Philly longshoreman Joey Coyle, who found a million bucks in unmarked bills lying in the street. What begins, though, as a somewhat comic adventure as Coyle blunders his way through the days following his windfall, eventually reveals itself as a tragic story of a man struggling to accept his lot in life given one chance to live his dreams and failing miserably. Fast-paced and gripping, Bowden's book is filled with eccentric characters thrown into a spin by the lure of hard cash.

Anyone You Want Me To Be: A True Story of Sex and Death on the Internet
by John Douglas (Scribner)

In Anyone You Want Me to Be, ex-FBI profiler John Douglas introduces readers to John Robinson, America's first Internet serial killer. The book succeeds not only as an historical document about a depraved -- albeit clever and multi-skilled -- man, but as a warning to those attempting to find companionship online. Its only failing involves Douglas's propensity for condescension; he often tends towards melodrama, seemingly in an unnecessary attempt to give his story extra pizzazz. Robinson's story, though, is nonetheless fascinating, and Douglas's expertise in analysing events as he reveals them makes for compelling reading.

Beyond Repair?: America's Death Penalty
by Stephen P. Garvey (Duke University Press)

Without doubt the most current and comprehensive volume exploring the death penalty, Beyond Repair takes the reader through every facet of the procedure in an attempt to discover whether or not it can be administered in a just fashion. Editor Stephen P. Garvey has enlisted some of America's leading criminologists to explore the issue in terms of race and religion, the effects of public opinion, and the possibility of innocence. The book reveals how frightfully uninformed the influential voting public is about the processes involved in seeking and carrying out the death penalty, as well as just how often the courts make irreversible errors. Smart, informative and timely, Beyond Repair quashes the competition in its research, objectivity and effectiveness.

Time of Death: The True Story of the Search for Death's Stopwatch
by Jennifer Snyder Sachs (Arrow Books)

Given the ever-increasing popularity of shows like CSI and Law and Order spin-offs, it seems that audiences just can't get enough of the complexities of crime scene investigations and courtroom proceedings. However, in order to satisfactorily wrap things up in approximately 50 minutes, writers of these shows take definite liberties, rarely comprehensive enough to be entirely believable. The interesting thing about this, though, is that viewers accept the means of investigation undertaken by the characters in these shows as sacrosanct, especially in terms of time and cause of death. Jennifer Snyder Sachs is well-aware of the misconceptions involved in forensic pathology thanks to TV, and seeks in Time of Death (released in Australia this year) to right a few wrongs. In order to do this, she assembles a history of the search for the elusive indicators of the critical moment at which the human body's light is extinguished. Comprehensively researched and packed full of intriguing (and often ghoulish) descriptions of her subject matter, as well as interesting case studies, Sachs engages her audience by employing the language of a storyteller, rather than that of a lecturer reeling off scientific and medical facts. This book is for those whose interest in the true crime genre stretches past the killers and their motives to the procedures undertaken when studying the body of a crime victim.

I Am the Central Park Jogger
by Trisha Meili (Scribner)

In this emotional autobiography, Trisha Meili -- known to most as the Central Park Jogger -- discusses openly the changes in her life following a brutal rape that left her on the edge of death. Concentrating on life following the incident and the challenges and triumphs she's experienced, Meili tells her story with honesty and humor, giving a rare insight into the kind of bizarre celebrity that comes from being the victim of a high-profile crime. Interestingly, the men convicted of carrying out the attack on Meili were found innocent earlier this year, a fact Meili comments on briefly in the book.

Perfect Victim
by Elizabeth Southall and Megan Norris (Penguin Australia)

Perfect Victim (released this year in Australia in paperback) is Elizabeth Southall's intense and emotional tribute to her 15-year-old daughter Rachel, murdered by a young woman seeking to become her. Southall explores Rachel's hopes, passions, relationships, faults, fears and her genuine faith in the goodness of people that eventually led to her death. Southall remembers Rachel's smiles and laughter while at the same time attempting to come to terms with her own grief. Interspersed with Southall's story is an account of the case from the point of view of journalist Megan Norris. Norris explores the criminal investigation into the murder, providing detailed analysis of motive and means and offering informed insight into Barber's 20-year-old killer. It's Southall's heartfelt writing (based on diary entries and letters written to her missing daughter), though, that makes Perfect Victim challenging, inspiring and heartbreaking.





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