Exploring American Cities Through True Crime

America’s most notorious crimes tend to remain in the public memory not only for particular gruesomeness or incomprehensibility, but because they disrupt a narrative of place. If you, as I do, spend a lot of time watching reruns of Forensic Files or Snapped, you’ll hear it over and over again: “It was a sleepy suburb…nothing like this had ever happened here before…”

I think that people who have an interest in true crime (and there are a lot of us!) are fascinated by this aspect of the stories: the idea that horrible things can happen anywhere. For me, it’s also the notion that a city or town’s identity becomes shaped by its crimes, just as the crimes themselves can be particularly reflective of their setting. Whether it’s Ted Bundy’s insidious campaign across the Pacific Northwest (particularly Seattle) or the Zodiac’s enduring grip on San Francisco, dark chapters contribute to a holistic history of almost every city in America.

That’s why the best true crime books feature the city as a protagonist, as complicated and alive as the people involved in the story. Perhaps the most classic example of this is John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a beautifully novelistic account of the murder of a young male prostitute in Savannah, Georgia. This is not a mere tale of a murder in “The South.” Berendt’s Savannah is leafy and isolated, home to eccentric antique dealers, drag queens, and voodoo priestesses. The crime itself blends into a broader pastiche of a town that seems to run solely on rumors and ghost stories. My favorite aspect of this book is how Berendt makes Savannah seem like a place that is both typically American in its odd juxtaposition of cultures and characters and yet somehow seems totally foreign and mysterious to readers outside its limits.

While Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil as well as Truman Capote’s indomitable In Cold Blood still might seem, to the majority of readers, to describe a crime that occurred “out there,” more modern true crime books seem to go in the opposite direction in both fascinating and unsettling ways. For example, those living in Chicago may be well-versed in the city’s historical reputation for corruption, violence, and organized crime. But Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City provides a new perspective, or, more accurately, an older one. Even as it describes in horrific detail the activities of H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer, Devil in the White City’s big-picture is more about a city in transition – Chicago at the moment before it became a major economic player. Similarly, Beverly Lowry’s Who Killed These Girls describes a chilling, still-unsolved quadruple murder in Austin, Texas, a crime that transformed the city from laid-back “Slackerville” to a paranoid and divided community. Although Austin has not have entirely shed its hippie mentality, Lowry emphasizes how the sense that evil could – and had – permeated its borders had a lasting effect on youth culture, policing, and numerous other facets of everyday life.

These books, rather than dismissing these events as random or inexplicable, strive to contextualize them and understand them as a unique and troubling production of our American culture. Maybe it’s this unflinching approach that makes them so compelling, and yes, really scary.

-Hannah Engler

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