The Magazine

Murder, They Wrote

The art of literary mayhem.

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By JON L. BREEN
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Such Hollywood cases as the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor and the rape trials of comedian Fatty Arbuckle are omitted, though the 1958 stabbing of gangster Johnny Stompanato by the daughter of Lana Turner is covered in a 1983 piece by Jay Robert Nash. The Lindbergh kidnapping case is represented only by Edna Ferber's article deploring the chic and trendy crowds at the 1935 trial of German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann.

The 1892 Fall River, Massachusetts, murder of the Bordens is covered in the section of verse, though not by the famous jump-rope rhyme that begins "Lizzie Borden took an ax." Among other cases given a poetical treatment are the drowning murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette (the 1906 case on which Theodore Dreiser would base An American Tragedy) and the 1930s robbery spree of Bonnie and Clyde--as penned with a surprising literary flair by Bonnie Parker herself.

It's tempting to call the 1920s the peak period of great American crime writing. Librarian Edmund Pearson brought a relaxed and elegant style, exemplary scholarship, and encyclopedic knowledge of criminal history to his essays, approaching each case like a well-read critic discerning innovations and influences in a new work of literature. His 1926 piece "Hell Benders, or The Story of a Wayside Tavern" discusses the history of "wholesale murderers" before zeroing in on an 1870s case in which a series of travelers unfortunate enough to stop for the night at a Kansas tavern were murdered for financial gain.

A chronicler quite different in style but equally impressive in achievement was Damon Runyon. At 67 pages, the compilation of his articles about the 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray for the murder of Snyder's husband Albert is the longest piece in the book. In an era before television, Runyon provided the kind of novelistic description and detailed scene-setting that might not occur to a journalist of today, even one as gifted as he. Consider the following on one major actor in the drama:

Gray stepped to the stand with a quick tread, and an almost soldierly bearing, which was most surprising in view of the fact he has looked all folded-up like an old accordion since the trial started. He did not commence straightening up until Friday, when he found Mrs. Snyder nudging him toward that warm chair at Sing Sing. .   .  . He wore a dark, double-breasted suit of clothes with a white linen collar and a tie that had an almost indecorous stripe. .   .  . His horn-rimmed spectacles have yellowish lenses, which, added to the jailhouse tan he has acquired, gave him a sickly complexion under the stand lamp by the witness stand with its three lights like a pawnbroker's sign.

Post-twenties highlights are also plentiful: John Bartlow Martin on the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, an unsolved serial killing case in 1930s Cleveland that is as baffling as Jack the Ripper, if not as notorious; A.J. Liebling looking back on the turn-of-the-century competition of New York dailies and the involvement of newspaper writers in real detective work; Zora Neale Hurston on a black-on-white killing in the waning days of Jim Crow; Gay Talese on a minor figure in the Manson case; Jimmy Breslin on Son of Sam.

Books and newspapers are the most common sources; the magazine most frequently represented, with three selections, is the New Yorker. Only two pieces come from the specialized true crime magazines that were a popular newsstand genre for most of the 20th century: a semi-fictionalized 1936 narrative by a deputy sheriff "as told to" Jim Thompson, and an account of Richard Speck's killing of eight student nurses in 1966 Chicago by the prolific W.T. Brannon, once known as the "dean of American crime writers." Brannon credits an astonishing number of police officers by name, presumably as an aid to getting their cooperation.

Schechter introduces each article with a note on the author and, where necessary, about the eventual outcome of the case. Besides those already mentioned, contributors include literary giants (Frank Norris, James Thurber, Truman Capote), celebrated journalists (Alexander Woollcott, H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Kilgallen), crime fiction writers (Robert Bloch, James Ellroy), and true-crime specialists (Miriam Allen deFord, Albert Borowitz, Ann Rule).