The author, a longtime writer for The New Yorker, spent years traveling the country and chronicling American life, sometimes uncovering riveting tales of murder and mayhem.
by Calvin Trillin
Random House, 293 pp., $26
Murder is as American as apple pie and motherhood. In 2015, according to the FBI, there were more than 15,000 murders in the United States. Calvin Trillin would not be surprised.
Trillin, a longtime writer for The New Yorker magazine, traveled the U.S. for 15 years, producing a series of articles called “U.S. Journal.” The 3,000-word articles were published every three weeks. As he dryly notes, “Magazine writers asked, ‘How do you keep up that pace?” Newspaper reporters asked, “What else do you do?”
Some of those pieces are collected in “Killings.” It’s not intended as a study of killings. Instead, it’s “meant to be more about how Americans live than about how some of them die.”
Trillin writes with ironic detachment: “Reporters love murders. In a pinch, what the lawyers call ‘wrongful death’ will do, particularly if it’s sudden. Even a fatal accident for which no one is to blame has some appeal.”
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First published in 1984, the book was out of print for years, forcing true Trillin aficionados to scour used-book stores in search of the volume. The newly released edition contains half a dozen additional pieces written since the original publication.
The stories, each riveting in its own way, are like passing a particularly gruesome car wreck. You know you shouldn’t slow down to look, but you just can’t help it.
“Right-of-Way” (new to this edition) tells the story of a property dispute between two strong-willed but very different women who move to Rappahannock County in the bucolic Virginia countryside. Rather than peace, they find each other. And death soon follows.
“I’ve Got Problems” (also new) tells the tragic story of a standoff in Cairo, Nebraska, between Arthur Kirk and the Nebraska State Patrol SWAT team. The heavily armed Kirk, holed up in his home and surrounded by SWAT team members bristling with firearms, hung up on negotiators, explaining with perhaps unintended understatement, “I’ve got problems!” “The Mystery of Walter Bopp” recounts the disappearance of a health-store proprietor in Tucson, Arizona, who, on close inspection, had a deeper backstory than anyone might have imagined.
But the best in this collection is the last essay, a classic by any measure. “Covering the Cops,” first published in 1986, is about Edna Buchanan, an iconic Miami Herald crime reporter and now a murder-mystery writer. As Trillin notes, there were police officers in Miami who said it wouldn’t be a homicide without her.
Her leads, always pithy, are direct and to the point. Writing about a woman set to go to trial for a murder conspiracy, Buchanan wrote, “Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin.”
Perhaps Buchanan’s most treasured lead involved the death of an ex-con named Gary Robinson. Showing up late one night at a fried-chicken outlet, he pushed his way to the front of the line. Persuaded to wait his turn, he was informed when he reached the counter 10 minutes later that they were out of fried chicken. He responded by punching the young woman at the counter, setting off a fateful series of events that ended with his death. Buchanan’s lead: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”
Trillin is a superb writer, with a magical ability to turn even the most mundane detail into spellbinding wonder. Armed with this wealth of material, he utterly shines. Every piece here is a gem.