(These are my Virginia and Kansas picks for my Make America Read Again challenge – to read the full list of books this year, click here.)
Winter is coming, y’all. I am currently wrapped up in my late grandmother’s crochet blanket she made many moons ago, my 90’s style Meg Ryan turtle neck, leggings, and fuzzy Halloween-themed socks keeping me warm in this 29 degree wind chill. The best part about living in Atlanta? These cold spells are SHORT – instead of the six months of dreary winter, we get little hints and peeks of chill and then return to our normal 70-degree afternoons.
The only sad part about this cozy situation is that I didn’t get to spend all weekend curled up with my piles of books. I had two days of Continuing ed classes, tickets to this month’s musical at the Fox Theater (not complaining about this one at all, especially as the husband is finally back from all his work travels so he could join me), and an overflowing list of errands to run. It was a wonderful weekend, if a bit busier than I would’ve liked on this frigid weekend. Still, I managed to squeeze in some precious time in my book nook. Round two of my Halloween-themed reads cuts rather close to home and explains why I love podcasts like My Favorite Murder and shows like 60 Minutes: nonfiction crime.
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land
Let’s start out with one that won’t keep you up at night wide-eyed.
It began on a dark and frigid November night, when multiple abandoned houses were set afire in Accomack County. Initially thought of as a prank or wandering arsonist, new fires cropped up on a near nightly basis, without any rhyme or reason. Police were perplexed and the residents of Accomack, already reeling from their local failing economy and national recession, were frightened and suspicious.
The fire fighter community at the time were mostly volunteers – who quickly began living at the station as they fought arson after arson. Surveillance cameras and police vigils were established as law enforcement tried to predict the arsonist’s next target. The FBI became involved. Eventually, after sixty-seven fires, a man is caught and charged with the crime – but was he the real culprit?
As the story continues, you find that entangled within this crime is a Bonnie-and-Clyde style love story, a once-wealthy county struggling to stay afloat, and a character study of what motivates us to, at times, act in irrational ways.
The caliber and depth of this journalism by Hesse really impressed me – I never thought I would become that intrigued by a small-town, nonviolent crime – yet I was. I had to find out who committed the crimes, I had to keep reading to try to understand the arsonist’s motivations. I felt completely immersed in the culture and chaos of this Southern community, which goes to show how talented this author truly is. Moreover, Hesse deftly accomplished her connection between the crime and the national culture crisis that our country has undergone since the 2008 crash. This is a great story for those of you who enjoy true crime that isn’t gory.
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Kansas: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know all about the talented and effervescent Truman Capote (you know, the guy who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s? The man who dandied about with all of New York society in the 50’s and threw the most fabulous parties?). You’ve also most likely heard about this true crime tome, as it is considered THE standard, especially for New Journalism. It marked a turning point for modern journalists and their capacity to tell true stories.
It also will go down in history as a scare-your-pants-off literary version of a Dateline special (except much higher quality).
In a small corner of Kansas was a city known as Holcomb, a farming community where no alcohol was allowed and families left their doors unlocked. However, on November 15, 1959, four of the six Clutter family members were brutally murdered by being shot in the face. No obvious motive, no major clues, no warning signs. How did they solve this murder?
Truman Capote and his friend, Harper Lee (yeahhh Alabama writers for the win!) headed to Kansas where they spent several months interviewing witnesses and townspeople before reconstructing the crime, trial, and conviction of these murderers. The result was an enigmatic blend of cold hard (brutal) fact and creative non-fiction.
The book takes you through the events step by step, combing through the history of the Clutter family as well as the murderers. Within Truman’s meticulous research and interviews, he was able to glean the personalities of each member of the Clutter family, giving them life and fullness as the story recounts their final days. And of course, we see the murderers in turn – Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, recently released inmates who had heard from a third prison mate that the Clutters were filthy rich and had a hidden safe “full of cash.” This proved not to be true, as the men stole a mere 50 bucks from the house after the family was murdered.
Although I have known for years about this great Truman work, I knew nothing of the Clutter family until I began this audiobook. At times, listening to this story has been particularly hard for me to listen to, as it has some graphic parts in it, and imagining what the family endured in their final moments is truly horrific to me. I honestly have not quite finished this audiobook yet (I have about two hours left to listen to) because I’ve had to take several pauses and breaks from this intense story.
Although it’s a hard read (or in my case, a hard “listen”), it’s also an important one. Truman deftly portrays each character in this story – not only the victims and the murderers, but also the lawyers, the investigators, the townspeople – diving deep into their pysche, revealing their motivations and weaknesses and fears in a way few authors truly achieve. The end of the story (which I am just now starting on) also delves into the debate of how we punish criminals for wrongdoing, and brings into question the idea of capital punishment – quite a progressive question to ask in the 1950’s, I would think. I’m interested to see where Truman falls on this moral quandary – for the majority of this story he has remained an aloof and unbiased narrator, so I wonder if he will maintain that objectivity for this last section of his story.
Either way, I’m committed to the end.
This book will scare you. This book may give you some nightmares. This book will also show you what truly masterful writing is all about, and you will ultimately be thankful you read it).
Rating: 5/5 Stars
One thought on “True Crime Time in Virginia and Kansas”
Truevine by Beth Macy. She is an award-winning journalist in Roanoke, VA. This book is an incredible mix of rich history and true crime. It’s about a pair of albino African American twin brothers who were allegedly stolen from home in rural VA and forced to work in the “freak shows” of the circus.
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