One of my Saturday night pastimes is spending a couple of hours watching true-crime programs. A favorite is “Forensic Files II, (my wife calls it “How I Tried to Get Away With Life Insurance Fraud But Failed”) and modeled after the original shows from the 1990s. True-crime podcasts are literally everywhere; pick your flavor of the day on Spotify: “Crime Junkie” on Monday, “Killer Queens” on Tuesday. Still, the preponderance of media related to true-crime comes in book form. Every year an extensive array of smart, culturally relevant books in this genre are released, including the stunning One Read selection this year, Casey Cep’s “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.” Contemporary crime writing at its finest, “Furious Hours” weaves many themes together into a seamless whole: the racism tragically embedded in our criminal justice system, America’s bizarre life insurance industry, the psychology of a murderer, voodoo religion and the fascinating legacy of Harper Lee.
Harper Lee always wanted to write a book about Willie Maxwell, the preacher, life insurance fraudster and protagonist of “Furious Hours.” In 1977 Lee sat for countless hours in an Alabama courtroom following the trial of Maxwell’s vigilante killer, Robert Burns, but any manuscript she may have produced has vanished in the mists of time. And as Cep notes, the circumstances were murky, difficult: “Lee had committed herself to a book built from facts, but when it came to the story of Reverend Maxwell, those were hard to come by.” Remarkably, Harper Lee’s research skills and love for facts helped spawn the true-crime genre almost single handedly when, more than a decade earlier, she had ably assisted Truman Capote with his research for “In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences.” “In Cold Blood” was one of the first books to dramatize and describe a real-life crime, though the truth of the portrayal is subjective, as Capote took some creative license with much of the subject matter.
This year has seen some unique true-crime releases, particularly related to what came to be the Reverend Willie Maxwell’s defining characteristic: he probably was, among other, more respectable traits, a cold-blooded murderer. “The Babysitter: My Summers With a Serial Killer” is a memoir by Liza Rodman, who grew up in difficult circumstances in Massachusetts, and whose sitter also turned out to be the infamous Cape Cod killer, Tony Costa. Much like Reverend Maxwell, Costa was said to be unassuming and even charming. He lived a peripatetic life and had many people fooled. Investigative historian Peter Vronsky’s most recent book describes an unfortunate cultural phenomenon: murder sprees became a fact of life in the United States in the 20th century. “American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950-2000” recounts a nearly unbroken string of killings in the United States in the 50 years spanning 1950 to 2000.
“Furious Hours” also speaks to the legacy of racism and the disparities in the justice system in Alabama and much of the rest of America. Many of the murders that Maxwell was allegedly involved in went unsolved because of general lack of interest by prosecutors and the justice system. Journalists also often left them unreported. As Cep states, the Alabama circuit courts were “not especially interested in black on black crime.” These sorts of race-based disparities in the justice system took place (and still take place) all over the country. “What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl” recounts the story of the 1970 disappearance of Paula Oberbroekling in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Paula was a young woman who defied the norms in this segregated industrial town and who was deeply in love with a Black man at the time she vanished. The author, Katherine Dykstra, doggedly tries to piece together Paula’s forgotten story.
“We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption” by journalist Justin Fenton, is a chilling portrayal of the Gun Trace Task Force in Baltimore, MD, which was a group of plainclothes officers turned grifters who were led by Sergeant Wayne Jenkins. This task force, formed as a covert unit after the Baltimore riots of 2015, extorted money and other assets on a daily basis from the citizens they were supposedly protecting in the city. In his investigative reporting, Fenton also exposes a bleak, decades-long history of police corruption and racism in the city.