Thursday, September 3, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: True Crime Stories Show Bad Guys At Their Worst And Writers At Their Best

 I’ve been a student of crime since I was a 12-year-old aspiring writer growing up in South Philadelphia in the early 1960’s.

As a teenager I read crime fiction and thrillers and that led to my closely following crime stories in newspapers and magazines. I also read books about true crime and crime history.

I began covering crime as a crime reporter and columnist for the South Philadelphia weekly papers some years ago and I later moved my crime column to other newspapers and finally to the Internet.

And after all of these years, I’m still interested in the crime beat. Crime stories are dramatic, tragic and funny. They are the stuff of thrillers.

I spend a good bit of my time talking to prosecutors, federal agents, police commanders, detectives and patrol officers. Cops are very good story-tellers. I also go out on ride-alongs with the Philadelphia police, which enables me to get a first-hand look at crime, crime victims, criminals and the cops who have to deal with it all.
I’ve seen people at their worst and cops at their best.

I’ve recently read a couple of true crime books that offer the reader a sense of the police ride-along.

“Crime is by turns comic and tragic,” Otto Penzler wrote in his introduction to The Best American Crime Reporting 2008 (Harper Perennial). “This year’s Best American Crime Reporting reflects these critical extremes, along with much that lies in between.”

Penzler is the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York, the founder of the Mysterious Press, the creator of Otto Penzler Books, and the editor of a good number of books and anthologies, including the annual Best American Mystery Stories, and along with Thomas H. Cook, The Best American Crime Reporting.

This latest book on crime reporting is edited by crime fiction writer Jonathan Kellerman. Kellerman, who received is Ph.D in psychology when he was 24, has written 27 bestselling crime novels, including Compulsion.

“A small proportion of human beings - perhaps 1 percent of any given population - is different from the rest of us in ways that wreak havoc on the rest of us,” Kellerman wrote in his introduction to the book. ”The cardinal traits of this bunch include superficiality; impulsiveness; self-aggrandizement to the point of delusion; callousness; and, when it suits, outright cruelty.”

Kellerman goes on to state that truth and principle don’t intrude upon the world of these disrupters.

“When they don’t lapse into tell-tale glibness, the more socially adroit among them come across as charming, sometimes overwhelmingly charismatic,” Kellerman explained.

Kellerman calls this book a page-turning look a the myriad faces of evil. I agree. Writers from Mark Bowden to Calvin Trillen offer truly interesting true crime stories in this book.

“This is the new face of quality true crime,” Kellerman wrote. “Bad guys at their worst, writers at their best.”

Another good collection of true crime stories is The Playboy Book of True Crime (Playboy Press/Steerforth Press).
Edited by the editors of the men’s adult magazine, the book offers great stories by great crime writers on organized crime, outlaw biker gangs, and serial killers.

I grew up reading Playboy. Yes, I looked at the photos of the girls - once or twice - but I also read the Playboy Interview, the fiction, the features and the true crime stories.
Although I don’t think the magazine is as good as it used to be, this collection shows that the top crime writers - from Jimmy Breslin to George Anastasia - are still contributors to the magazine.

So if you want to sit in a comfortable chair and go on a ride-along to learn about the dark side of life and crime, you should read these two collections of true crime stories.

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