There’s an interesting article in the New York Review of Books on the true crime writer, Sarah Weinman. If you don’t know Weinman, she’s had a newsletter for years called The Crime Lady. In 2018 she published her first book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World. In his review, Peddling Darkness, John J. Lennon writes about Weinman’s latest book, Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free ( note to self: stay away from the wordy titles).
Scoundrel tells the tale of Edgar Smith, who in 1957 abducted and bludgeoned to death a 15-year-old girl. Smith confessed to the killing and was sitting on death row when a conservative angel appeared in the form of William F. Buckley. Despite his confession (Smith convinced himself that it was a sort of false memory), The National Review founder became convinced of Smith’s innocence and eventually finagled an early release after Smith had served a fourteen-plus-year sentence. You know the end of this story – it’s a Norman Mailer / Jack Henry Abbott folie à deux: Smith went on to murder again.
In his review, John J. Lennon is critical of Weinman, arguing there’s almost a perverse voyeurism to her writing:
“Her interest in crime and all its grisly details is not un-self-aware: in her editor’s note for an anthology called Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession, she acknowledges the “problems inherent to what I think of as the ‘true crime industrial complex,’ which turns crime and murder into entertainment for the masses.” With Scoundrel, she spins this yarn of human darkness nevertheless.”
Where have I heard this before? In the summer of 2020, Weinman wrote a piece for BuzzFeed, The Future Of True Crime Will Have To Be Different where she went through the laundry list of then recently unspeakable acts of injustice – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Ahmaud Arbery – instructing us all to do better:
“Changing the very nature of the stories that are published, produced, and marketed is paramount. Rethinking the concept of “entertainment,” and what narrative structure is supposed to accomplish, is critical.
Only then can the myths that underpin the true crime genre — where murder and sexiness are permanently decoupled, where the “Wikipedia Browns” aren’t parroting the police party line, where serial killers aren’t transformed into bogeymen, and where catharsis doesn’t come at the expense of Black bodies — be banished for good.”
At the time, I thought of calling her out on this BuzzFeed piece, but I had my own true crime book coming out that fall – the last thing I wanted was to pick a fight with one of the biggest gorillas perched upon the crime writing fence. Now it appears that in 2023, Weinman is doing no better (did this new standard not apply to her?), and Lennon picks up on this in his review of Scoundrel:
“Yet as the book proceeds, this attempt to bring her story in line with the language of antiracist criminal justice reform begins to feel forced, as though Weinman is pandering or trying to check an obligatory ethical box before telling a conventional true crime story.”
Lennon argues that Weinman always “positions herself as an advocate,” but her body of work has yet to tackle an in-depth investigation of the injustice of the legal system. He seems to suggest that Weinman must tackle some essential piece of social justice writing to stay relevant, to which I say, God forbid! For me, Weinman needs to do just the opposite: stop moralizing and focus on what she does best: research, investigation, and consistent crime writing.
I need to pause here and that John J. Lennon is a convicted murderer. When I went to zip off an email to Lennon thanking him for calling out what I believe to be an emerging problem in true crime, I found that I couldn’t contact him so easily. As a Federal inmate at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, the only way to reach Lennon is to send him a letter. In 2001, at twenty-four, John J. Lennon was convicted of shooting and killing a man on a Brooklyn street. He is inmate #04A0823, serving a twenty-eight-year sentence for the sale of drugs, unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, criminal possession of a weapon, and second-degree murder. Lennon is scheduled for release in 2028.
I understand Lennon’s desire to position himself as an advocate on the other side of the justice equation, but isn’t that just another way of saying you’re trying to make yourself stand out in a very crowded field? Lennon is himself a crime writer with a new book coming out next year called, The Tragedy of True Crime. We’re all jockeying for position – do the hustle.
I believe Lennon goes a little too far in criticizing Weinman for writing Smith during his second term in prison and appearing to bait and belittle him. The “you should talk to me, you want to get your side of the story, right” card is a weapon every good investigative reporter holds in their arsenal; it is naïve to think we don’t resort to such psychological tricks. So Weinman was a little sneaky: I like sneaky. The only reason I haven’t yet played that card is that I haven’t been forced to do so. But I play the game of manipulation as well as anyone – you have to if you want to produce any semblance of truth. Because people don’t follow simple logic. Especially criminals; their cunning and deceptive. Behavior is complex: more than anything, that probably explains the thirst for true crime.
I do side with Lennon in his writing about exploitation in the true crime engine by the media. Lennon describes a suspicious moment when he was asked to participate in a television program called Inside, hosted by Chris Cuomo. Lennon thought the show was about inmates coping with incarceration, only to discover when the cameras were rolling that the full title was Inside Evil. Immediately came the stock questions asking him to retrace his steps the night of the murder. The resulting episode included all the lurid tropes: “close-ups of my mug shots; shadowy, slow-motion reenactments of the shooting; scary background music.” It’s what drove me to write in the last newsletter that I doubt I will ever work with Paula Zahn on her On The Case true crime program: That’s Infotainment! I know their paintbox: shaky cameras, scary music, things that go bump in the night. Above all, a host that will disempower victims of crime by trying to coax them into an artificial emotional breakdown, and a robust attaboy endorsement of law enforcement without scrutiny – I have no time for that nonsense.
Sarah Weinman doesn’t need to separate herself from the “Wikipedia Browns.” She’s a gifted writer who should stop apologizing for the lurid dominion that interests her and embrace it with relentless consistency. I like her writing a lot better when she’s The Crime Lady: Own it, Sarah!
I suspect some of this comes from egging on from the book industry. Publishers love to push writers into making their historical stories relevant to today’s issues. I once made a pitch for a project about my father, who was involved in Canada’s nuclear industry for his entire forty-year career. It was going to be a simple tale of how he touched all the Canadian nuclear flashpoints: Pickering, GE in Peterborough, Chalk River, and eventually, the construction of Point Lepreau in New Brunswick. But then it couldn’t just be that. I was asked to join the current nuclear debate and talk about everything from Chernobyl, nuclear as clean energy, the environmental crisis, the restarting of mothballed plants, and all sorts of current event crap about which I have no interest in writing. I have no desire to be a windy wonking parrot.
Readers are smart. They will recognize a moral message without you having to write it. Tim Tyson doesn’t need to tell us that Blood Done Sign My Name is more than just a book about a lynching in Oxford, North Carolina. Jessica McDiarmid’s Highway of Tears is powerful because she doesn’t extend her credit by telling us the plight of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls is bad: she documents.
I am prone to playing the moral card as much as anyone. And anytime I pull it, I think twice because it feels dishonest and opportunistic. I don’t need to add that baggage. I prefer to employ a soft advocacy; if you create an awareness of the justice problem, that should be enough—no need to bray about it. I’m the brother of a murder victim: that’s my calling card.
I recently sat down and interviewed one of Quebec’s most venerated crime journalists (no, it wasn’t Andre Cedilot). I’m going to paraphrase what he told me because it’s the opening quote from the book I’m working on, I don’t want to steal my own thunder:
“You don’t have to make a big moralizing speech. Just tell the truth!”
This post was suggested to me by Jack Todd of The Montreal Gazette who read the NY Review of Books piece, and thought it might be in my wheel house. Thanks, Jack.