Do the wrong thing

Americans have a love-hate relationship with crime and criminals. Our zealous intolerance for those who break the law, measured by the number of people we lock up per capita, is second only to China’s. At the same time, crime pays—if not for the criminals, then for mass media, which, when in doubt, never hesitates to lead with what bleeds, as evidenced by this summer’s obsession with abducted-child stories. Statistically, the number of children abducted annually has decreased during the past decade, but you would never have guessed that from watching Larry King on CNN this summer. He seemed to be interviewing people about a new victim every night.

Why do we love to watch or read about what we’d hate to experience? I think it has something to do with that old conservative bugaboo called cultural relativism. “Right” and “wrong,” according to the line espoused by Bill Bennett and others, have become interchangeable—except when it comes to crime, and in particular, violent crime. Most of us agree that it is wrong to kidnap, rape and brutally murder a 6-year-old child. Yet we are fascinated with the child murderer, the serial killer or the drive-by shooter.

Thus, the built-in appeal of Best American Crime Writing. It’s a collection of the best true-crime writing from 2001, culled from slick magazines such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Esquire and co-edited by Thomas H. Cook and Otto Penzler, proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. In helping assemble the first volume of this planned annual series, Penzler, a past winner of the Edgar and Ellery Queen awards for his editing work in the true-crime and mystery genres, has focused as much on variety in crime as he does on the quality of writing.

Many of the 17 stories presented here already will be familiar to the crime buffs who comprise this book’s intended audience. They will have heard of John Robinson, the Missouri businessman with a penchant for crushing his girlfriend’s heads in with a hammer. But, if they missed “Fatal Bondage,” David McClintick’s piece on Robinson in Vanity Fair, they didn’t get the whole story. For my money, it’s the most well-written piece of the bunch, in terms of storytelling.

Pat Jordan’s “Outcast,” which originally appeared in the New Yorker, takes us inside the present-day life of O.J. Simpson, who’s still looking for Nicole’s killer, even as he’s busy alienating people on Florida’s highways and public golf courses. Jordan’s piece is remarkable in that it creates a somewhat sympathetic portrait of the most reviled figure of the 1990s, former President Clinton excluded.

Perhaps the most successful piece in terms of attempting to answer the question “why?” is Robert Draper’s “A Prayer For Tina Marie,” originally published in GQ. Tina Marie Cornelius was an exotic dancer and all-around party girl from Texas whose style was being cramped by the two small children she’d had as a teenager. So the single mom hurled them both over a cliff to their deaths. Draper digs deep and finds that Tina long had been a victim of violence and abuse, herself.

As those who have studied violent crime know, such abuse, generally encountered during the early childhood years, is one of the leading indicators of a future capacity to commit violent acts. It’s also one of the main reasons Penzler & Co. will have little problem filling up future volumes of Best American Crime Writing.