“More and Better Psychopaths”

A recent Facebook conversation with a friend in North Carolina touched on the Black Dahlia story — the  1947 murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short — and several of the books and films either based explicitly on the killing or just inspired by it. James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia is probably the best known and one of my favorite novels (though I literally walked out of the theater while watching the film, completely insulted by Brian De Palma’s adaptation), but there have been others of note. Jack Webb, of Dragnet fame, explored the case in his book The Badge; John Gregory Dunne’s novel True Confessions (and the Robert De Niro/Robert Duvall film based on the book) drew on the killing; and there’s even a jazz album by Bob Belden — a great one, I might add! — that charts Short’s life and death with its own narrative drive and passion. (It has the feel of a terrific soundtrack, though it was never attached to a movie.)

Thinking about the Black Dahlia sent me to examine a new book from The Library of America: True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and covering “350 years of brilliant writing about dark deeds.” The anthology features both Jack Webb’s account of the Short slaying and Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer,” first published in GQ and then expanded the memoir My Dark Places — both of which (essay and book) help to reveal connections between the 1958 slaying of Ellroy’s mother and his interest in the Short case, which he first read about in Webb’s account.

But beyond those two entries, I also found a wealth of great material, beginning with Schechter’s fascinating introduction, which quotes both Plato and Freud to delve into some of the sociological and psychological reasons behind man’s eternal fascination with such stories and then traces the historical development of the genre: Puritan execution sermons; Hawthorne, Melville and Poe’s fascination with crime stories; the emphasis on lurid tales to move papers during the height of yellow journalism; the rise of pulp magazines and books capitalizing on sensational stories; and then New Journalism and the arrival of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and ushering in if not a new genre of what Schechter calls “serious book-length studies of particular crimes, written by major authors and published by prestigious presses.” He particularly notes Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, and Joe McGinnis’s Fatal Vision among those books, though none of them nor In Cold Blood is excerpted here because of the anthology’s focus on self-contained works.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, during their trial for killing a 14-year-old boy in 1924

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, during their trial for killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924

Still, even without those classics, there’s plenty here to savor: from one of those execution sermons (from no less than Cotton Mather) through a series of murder ballads to Meyer Berger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a Camden, NJ shooting spree  (a case recently reflected on by critic Sarah Weinman) and straight through to Dominick Dunne’s account of the Lyle and Erik Melendez trial. Along the way, we get some of the most famous criminals in our nation’s history —  Leopold and Loeb, Charles Manson, Ed Gein, Son of Sam — and some of the best writers, many of them familiar but others perhaps unexpected by readers here: Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Susan Glaspell, Damon Runyon, Joseph Mitchell, H.L. Mencken (from whom the title to this blog post is taken), Edna Ferber, Jim Thompson, James Thurber (wait, James Thurber!?), Zora Neale Hurston, Robert Bloch, Calvin Trillin, Gay Talese, and Jimmy Breslin, among many others. 

I’ve hardly had time to do more than sample a few of these, but I can assure you that it’s a collection to which I’ll return, not only for reading but also as a valuable resource. 

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