True Crime: Novelist Richard Price on the Crucial Role of Crime Journalism

Crime Journalism

I’ve always assumed that the best crime reporting—sports reporting, too—was to be found in the tabloids, but after inhaling the contents of this anthology, which cover more than a century and a half of criminal mayhem as filed withThe New York Times, the shingles have fallen from my eyes. Lurid writing can overwhelm lurid deeds. Excitable adjectives, judgmental prose and the egging on of public outrage can often obscure rather than illuminate the facts at the core.

In most of the articles contained herein, the thoroughness of the research combined with the implacableness of the tone, especially when flying in the face of a popular taboo or sentiment of the times, often reads like a fortress of probity.

A 1926 article debunks the era’s hysteria over marijuana by carefully extrapolating the results of an investigation into the physiological and psychological impact of smoking marijuana on a number of subjects, “soberly” concluding: “The influence of the drug when used for smoking is uncertain and appears to have been greatly exaggerated . . . There is no evidence that [marijuana] is a habit-forming drug in the sense of the term as applied to alcohol, opium, cocaine . . .or that it as an appreciable deleterious effect on the individuals using it.” I repeat: 1926.

At other times, the measured tone and objective formalism of the writing, when set against the grain of outrage, can powerfully serve to isolate and heighten the darkness of the deed.

An even earlier investigative piece written in 1852 regards the systematic use of capital punishments meted out by the guards of Sing Sing prison. The report gathers physicians and physiologists to refute the prison staff’s claims that the punishments (including an hours’-long form of water torture) were carefully monitored, when in fact, due to either unchecked sadism or sheer ignorance regarding the limits of human endurance, they ended in either death or madness.

Occasionally, the stoniness of the prose can feel chillingly blunt given the subject at hand. The unnamed writer covering the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, reports: “The pistol ball entered the back of the president’s head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal. The president has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.”

At other times, the measured tone and objective formalism of the writing, when set against the grain of outrage, can powerfully serve to isolate and heighten the darkness of the deed. At first glance, John N. Popham’s atmospheric description of the Sumner, Mississippi, courtroom during jury selection for the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers in 1955 reads like a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird; the judge in shirtsleeves, the defendants and rubberneckers free to smoke up a storm, bailiffs passing out cups of ice water to their friends in the sweltering pews, the jarring intimacy between the state-appointed prosecutor and the prospective jurors during voir dire: “He seemed to be familiar with everyone’s personal habits and family background, even to the nicknames they had for friends who might be interested in the outcome of the trial.” And last, but not least, the defendants’ children “played around the knees of their fathers and occasionally ran up and down the corridors” of the courtroom.

This effortless sketch of southern comfort has become a trope of countless Hollywood legal dramas, from Inherit the Wind to My Cousin Vinny, yet in this soon-to-be-infamous courtroom, the barely mentioned true crime that has brought this assembly together—the torturing and murder of a 14-year-old African American boy for allegedly whistling at a white woman—infuses every folksy detail with an aftertaste of revulsion. On the other hand, Popham’s description of the courtroom hangers-on as “several hundred white persons who strongly support a strict pattern of racial segregation” seems, pardon the oxymoron, a feat of excessive understatement.

At the other end of tone spectrum, and maybe the biggest revelation of all, is the discovery that certain crimes—especially those found in the heists and capers chapter—demanded a punchier, almost sporty, narrative. Who didn’t root for Willie Sutton? How could you not like a jewel thief named Murph the Surf? The articles can read like a cross between a tense noir thriller and a riff on Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

In the report on the 1965 recovery (from a bus terminal locker in Miami) of the Star of India diamond (563.35 carats) and eight other eye-popping jewels stolen by the aforementioned Murph and two other part-time beach bums, the Florida paparazzi chasing three NYPD detectives, Assistant District Attorney Maurice Nadjari and a handcuffed perp, Allan Kuhn, seem more villainous than the bad guys, some of them “hiding in bushes . . . carrying walkie-talkies and . . . pulling ignition wires on cars the authorities had rented so they would not start.”

Crime Journalism

Legendary bank robber Willie Sutton (center). Courtesy Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., The New York Times.

But sometimes the melodrama can run as thick as in any news rag, including the account of the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre that consolidated Al Capone’s gang rule in Chicago after two of the killers entered the murder garage dressed as policemen, “their stars gleaming against the blue of the cloth.” The seven victims were lined up against a wall. The likely order “to give it to them” was followed by “the roar of the shotguns mingled with the rat-a-tat of the machine gun, a clatter like that of a gigantic type-writer.” (Love hyphenated “type-writer.”)

However, the same reporter redeems himself when he describes one of the victims in a sleek three-sentence word burst worthy of James M. Cain: “The body of Mays, the overall-clad mechanic, had only a few dollars in the pockets. He was the father of seven children. A machine gun bullet had penetrated two medals of St. Christopher.”

In another gem of succinctness written 78 years later, Shaila Dewan describes the sound of another deadly barrage, this one slow and steady, resulting in the deaths of 33 Virginia Tech students (including the shooter, who killed himself) and the wounding of 17 more: “[the gunshots] went on and on, for what seemed like 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, an eternity with punctuation.”

Richard Price
The Crime Report

Richard Price, a Bronx, NY native,  is author of The Wanderers, Clockers andLush Life, and also the screenwriter of The Color of Money, Sea of Love, Freedomland, many episodes of The Wire—and, most recently, the HBO seriesThe Night Of. Readers’ comments are welcome.