This month at The Plot Thickens headquarters, I took a little digression into true crime. Not that I committed any true crimes myself, mind you (unless muttering curses at bad drivers counts), but that I got lost inside a new nonfiction anthology: “Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession,” edited by Sarah Weinman. The book is a collection of 13 pieces of true-crime journalism, each of which took me down a dark, alluring trail.
In an introduction, journalist Patrick Radden Keefe (author of the excellent “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland”) puts his finger on why so many of us are drawn to real-life crime stories — even as we love fictional detectives. From childhood, he writes, “we are hardwired to be fascinated by danger, and by the dark potential of other humans. When you read a Patricia Highsmith novel, the abyss of human depravity into which you peer runs only as deep as Highsmith’s imagination. But a true story of human cruelty engages — and implicates — the reader in a more profound and unsettling way.”
For the record, I should note that I’ve read a fair bit of Highsmith, and that abyss is pretty deep. But there is something profound about how true crime affects a reader — we’re both horrified and drawn in, fascinated by both the narrative and the bigger questions at its center: How could a person do that? Why would a person do that? How close is that person to ourselves?
Weinman, author of “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World” (a book that’s long been on my to-read list), writes in an editor’s note that she is excited to be presenting “a new and fresh crop” of diverse crime writers, who bring a wider lens to a genre that’s finding increased popularity. (That popularity, she notes, brings its own issues: turning crime and murder into entertainment for the masses.)
Among the standouts in a volume full of them: Sarah Marshall’s “The End of Evil,” an unflinching look into the eyes, and crimes, of Ted Bundy; Karen K. Ho’s “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge,” a brief, searing story about a murder plot in which the author’s connection to the people involved makes the tale all the richer; Pamela Colloff’s beautifully written “The Reckoning,” in which a survivor of a famous shooting looks back; and Michelle Dean’s “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered,” a tale that gets more twisted on every page. (The latter is the inspiration for “The Act,” an overlong but harrowing — and beautifully acted — Hulu series that I found myself bingeing last week, and to which I can only say: yikes.)
I’d love to hear any true crime recommendations from readers — what have you read lately? In addition to Keefe’s book, I’ve recently been fascinated by David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I.” and Margalit Fox’s “Conan Doyle for the Defense.” Not recent but still haunting me are Melanie Thernstrom’s “Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder,” Bella Stumbo’s “Until the Twelfth of Never: The Deadly Divorce of Dan and Betty Broderick” (another story recently turned into an effective TV series: “Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story”), and of course the genre’s perpetually rereadable classic: Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
Back in the realm of fiction, I made a return visit to Three Pines, Quebec, this month for Louise Penny’s latest, “A Better Man,” which reminded me that a) Penny is a marvelous storyteller but has a habit of writing in jolting sentence fragments that I find distracting (your mileage may vary), and b) Chief Inspector Armand Gamache remains the quintessential gentleman detective. I found myself pausing as Gamache spoke to a colleague about the importance of civility: Before speaking, he advises, ask yourself three questions: “Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?” Good advice, on and off the page. Gamache will return Sept. 1 in Penny’s new book, “All the Devils Are Here,” set in Paris; he’s always a fine companion.