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Two Librarians, Too Many Books: True Crime Time
Posted on October 4, 2018
by Allison F
Allison Fiscus: Hello friends, and welcome back to the pushiest blog on the Internet!
Katie Midgley: It’s been too long! I can barely contain my excitement for our discussion topic today.
A: I know the feeling. As anyone who’s read our past conversations knows, Midgley and I have extremely different tastes in books.
K: But not this time, folks! We’ve joined forces to discuss the one genre that we are equally obsessed with: TRUE CRIME, Y’ALL. This time we’ve approached our discussion a bit differently. We’re talking everything from books to podcasts to articles to documentaries. Nothing is off-limits.
A: I think the first time we really bonded over a shared interest was when we were debating The Staircase with a fervor that very much disturbed the folks around us.
K: BECAUSE HE TOTALLY DID IT.
A: IT WAS AN OWL.
K: Agree to disagree! Let’s get going.
Disclaimer: The true crime genre tends to be graphic in nature and therefore may not be appropriate for all audiences – discretion advised. All of the podcasts below can be found online.
A: Alright, if we are going to talk true crime, I feel like we really need to start with the podcast that put it on almost everyone’s radar.
K: I knew we wouldn’t get two minutes into this without you bringing up Serial!
A: I mean, IT’S JUST SO GOOD.
K: I might be the only person who just didn’t get into Serial. I listened to the whole thing, I love Sarah Koenig’s voice, but I feel like there are a million other more interesting cases to focus on.
K: I know I’m in the minority though, and I’m glad it kicked off an interest in true crime for others… but, I SWEAR I LIKED IT BEFORE IT WAS COOL. Which is so uncool to say.
A: But to its credit, I think Serial hits on a lot of the things that make true crime stories such an addicting genre. It touches on the faults of our criminal justice system, racial bias, human nature and so much more.
K: I’ll give you that. Plus, that case is such a mess. If you’re into trying to figure out what happened, that case will have you pouring over cell phone tower maps in the dead of night while listening to court recordings to determine if someone threw the case.
It’s Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. He says he’s innocent – though he can’t exactly remember what he was doing on that January afternoon. But someone can. A classmate at Woodlawn High School says she knows where Adnan was. The trouble is, she’s nowhere to be found.
A full-length account of the story investigated by the Serial podcast traces the experiences of Adnan Syed, who in 2000 was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, and who the author and other supporters believe to be innocent.
The Monster of Florence
A: So I was going to save this for the end, but I can’t wait. My all-time favorite true crime story is The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. Have you read?
K: I’m hanging my head in shame because you recommended this book to me years ago and I still haven’t read it… don’t hate me.
A: I do hate you. So much.
A: On top of the fact that I have a not-so-secret obsession with the city of Florence, this book has everything that makes for a great crime story. There are so many layers of bizarreness that I almost don’t know where to begin. Back in the 1960s a serial killer began attacking couples in “lover’s lane” situations (Which, as an aside, is a very common practice in Italy. The couples — not the killers.). The attacks started out slow, but as the 1980s came around they became much more frequent until they suddenly stopped in 1985. Flash forward to the mid aughts, American author Douglas Preston and his family move to Italy and he discovers that the house he has rented is the sight of one of the murders. So, he does what authors are wont to do and begins to ask questions. He hooks up with Spezi, one of the original journalists on the “Il Monstro” beat, and it only gets more outlandish from there.
K: Uhhhh, I admire his ambition because I would seriously just up and move. Immediately.
A: Right?! So they pretty much solve the case, but in the process, they cross Giuliano Mignini, a truly deluded public prosecutor who thinks everything is a satanic ritual. You know the Amanda Knox prosecutor?
A: Same dude. Clearly he doesn’t like his work being questioned and it all goes down a very steep hill from there.
K: That guy is irrational. Anyone unfamiliar with the Amanda Knox case should check out the documentary Netflix released about her in 2016. It will flip everything you thought you knew about that case completely. Turns out, the media lies! Who knew?
A: This book and that doc made me realize that as much as we hear about the failings of our criminal justice system in America…we aren’t the only country with SERIOUS problems.
Like one of Preston’s thrillers, The Monster of Florence, tells a remarkable and harrowing story involving murder, mutilation, and suicide-and at the center of it, Preston and Spezi, caught in a bizarre prosecutorial vendetta.
Amanda Knox’s account of her hard-fought battle to overcome injustice and win the freedom she deserved after spending four years in prison for the murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy.
K: Okay, but speaking of the failings of our criminal justice system… can we talk Missoula for a second?
A: OMG YES.
K: When I hear ‘true crime’ my mind immediately goes to cases that involve murder, but this book discusses how rampant sexual assault is on college campuses. Jon Krakauer really horrified me. Some of the young men he talks about don’t even recognize what they’re doing is actually rape – in their minds it’s just what you do on a date. I mean, these guys are mixing drinks meant to knock girls out, and then assigning rooms in their homes specifically to take advantage of the passed out girls. It’s vile.
A: I read this book in a hate rage. I consumed it in close to one sitting, complained loudly about what I read to anyone who would listen, then immediately read it again. The excuses that people make for the perpetrators of this type of crime are MIND BOGGLING.
K: I know!
A: True story – I recommended this book to the lawyer husband of one of our co-workers and he thought it was so good that I gained his trust on all future recommendations without question. One of my proudest librarian moments.
K: Librarians everywhere applaud you. Here’s a new cardigan as a reward.
A: I’ll add it to my collection.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
In Missoula, Krakauer chronicles the searing experiences of several women in Missoula — the nights when they were raped; their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the way they were treated by the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys; the public vilification and private anguish; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
A: I feel like we have to mention the true crime book of the year, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. This is the book about the Golden State Killer who terrorized California for over a decade in the 70s/80s and was just arrested a few months back.
K: Didn’t the findings contribute to his arrest?
A: It’s funny, because the cops who cracked the case claim it didn’t, but the timing of its publication and his arrest would certainly suggest otherwise…
K: They should give credit where credit is due, c’mon!
A: I had to put this book down SEVERAL times before I could continue on with it. The writing is so superb that everything feels too real for comfort. McNamara was a truly gifted writer.
K: It’s so unfair that she didn’t live long enough to see the killer she was obsessing over caught and sent to trial.
A: So true. Then there are the crimes themselves, and the fact that this guy evaded capture for so long, only to be brought down years later by an online DNA database. It’s nuts.
K: DNA takes everybody down these days. They’re solving cold cases left and right with those databases. Fingers crossed that we’ll find out who killed Tupac and Biggie one of these days…
A: So get this. I’m the one with graphic novel recommendations this time. And notice I said “recommendations” with an “s” at the end. Because there are more than one.
K: I’m SO PROUD! Which ones?
A:Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case and My Friend Dahmer by John “Derf” Backderf.
K: Have you seen the movie adaptation of My Friend Dahmer yet? Surprisingly, it’s not even scary because (thankfully) the movie cuts off right before Dahmer makes the leap from complete outcast to actual killer.
A: I haven’t seen it yet because much like I’ll Be Gone… I had to put this book down a number of times due to its intensity.
K: Really? I think I read the whole thing in the bathtub one night.
A: Your ability to handle intense stuff is nothing short of amazing. But yes, I struggled. And not just because of the horribleness of his crimes, which were absolutely horrendous, but because the story so effectively illustrates all the ways the adults in this guy’s life completely failed him. All the kids he went to school with knew something was up, and all the people who could have intervened just didn’t. That’s the author’s greatest accomplishment with this book; effectively making you feel exactly how all the people who knew Dahmer growing up felt when they heard just how far he fell into evil.
K: I read it and actually felt empathy for Dahmer…
A: Yes! That was a huge reason why I struggled to get through it. I kept questioning what the heck was wrong with me that I was feeling bad for him! For that matter, the opposite of that is why Green River Killer is so amazing. The author’s father was the detective who interviewed Gary Ridgway over six months as Ridgway slowly gave him the specific information he needed to share to fulfill his half of the plea agreement. The reason the book is so compelling is that it doesn’t give Ridgway the space to sensationalize his crimes. Jensen is telling this story from the point of view of his father who spent 21 years working the case. It’s a story about the emotional and psychological toll that police work can have on a person, and it’s absolutely captivating.
My Friend Dahmer by John “Derf” Backderf
In My Friend Dahmer, a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche—a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.
The Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case
Throughout the 1980s, the highest priority of Seattle-area police was the apprehension of the Green River Killer, the man responsible for the murders of dozens of women. In 1990, with the body count numbering at least forty-eight, the case was put in the hands of a single detective, Tom Jensen.
The Good Nurse
K: So have you ever considered the fact that when you go to a hospital the doctors or nurses might be trying to KILL YOU instead of help you recover?
A: I am 8 months pregnant and you bring this up now?
K: Ok, so maybe you in particular shouldn’t read The Good Nurse anytime soon.
A: Good call.
K: It’s about a nurse named Charles Cullen who was implicated in the deaths of over 300 of his patients. Dude, think about it. Helpless patients were laying in their hospital beds being purposefully killed by the nurse who is supposed to be taking care of them. This guy was killing patients who would definitely have gone home healthy otherwise…some were being treated for things as simple as dog bites or minor burns.
K: The worst part is, some of the hospitals where he worked caught on to what he was doing, but they fired him instead of going to the police. They didn’t want the lawsuit on their hands, and that makes them equally culpable in my eyes.
A: That’s terrifying. That is absolutely terrifying. And I hate you a little for bringing this to my attention.
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber
After his December 2003 arrest, registered nurse Charlie Cullen was quickly dubbed “The Angel of Death” by the media. But Cullen was no mercy killer, nor was he a simple monster. He was a favorite son, husband, beloved father, best friend, and celebrated caregiver. Implicated in the deaths of as many as 300 patients, he was also perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history.
K: So here’s an obscure one. Have you heard of Mardi Link?
K: She’s a local(ish) true crime author and almost all of her work is set in upper Michigan, so it’s really interesting to read about little towns that I’ve actually visited on vacations before. My favorite of her books, Isadore’s Secret, is about a nun who disappears from a convent and later her body turns up buried in the basement of a church. Jealousy, love, pregnancy and murder all come together to form one of the most twisted and compelling reads ever. Link’s writing is outstanding, and if you like this book she has several others that are equally good (including one about an entire family killed at their vacation home, how uplifting!).
A: This is a perfect segway into the true crime documentary I am obsessing over right now. Have you watched The Keepers?
K: No, but you’re not the first one to mention it to me.
A: As a fellow catholic school grad, I must insist you watch it. It’s about the unsolved murder of a nun named Sister Cathy Cesnik and the group of past students who, 40 years later, with the help of social media, begin their own investigation into what really happened. The cover up of this crime and so many other heinous acts are investigated by this group of literal grandparents. As far as Netflix documentaries go, this one is FAR BETTER than a certain other one that rhymes with “baking a burderer” and shall not be talked about here.
The series explores the unsolved murder of nun Sister Cathy Cesnik, who taught English and drama at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School, and her former students’ belief that there was a cover-up by authorities after Cesnik suspected that a priest at the school, A. Joseph Maskell, was guilty of sexual abuse of students.
The Devil in the White City
K: So you know they’re making The Devil in the White City into a movie right?
A: YES. Scorsese is directing it and my boy Leo DiCaprio is playing H.H. Holmes! Erik Larson is the master of narrative true crime.
K: So true. For those of you who have lived under a rock for the last decade, it’s an account of the murders that took place during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. H.H. Holmes was a complete creep who ran a hotel for fair attendees, but it had tons of trap doors and torture chambers hidden throughout.
A: Reminds me of that one scene in How I Met Your Mother…
K: Someone I once dated got me a puzzle depicting his “Murder Castle.” That guy was such a good gift giver.
A: If only that was all it took to make a good boyfriend…
K: If only…So, even though the plot is terrifying, you actually learn a lot of random trivia – like how the Ferris Wheel came to be. Spoiler alert – America wanted to top the structure that France produced for it’s World’s Fair…the Eiffel Tower.
Bringing Chicago circa 1893 to vivid life, Erik Larson’s spellbinding bestseller intertwines the true tale of two men–the brilliant architect behind the legendary 1893 World’s Fair, striving to secure America’s place in the world; and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death.
Taken: The Coldest Case Ever Solved
A: I have a weird fact about myself to share with the group.
K: Oh yeah?
A: One of the things I do when I can’t fall asleep is read true crime longreads.
K: Last time you admitted that you also watch Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about the world coming to an end.
A: My point though, is this is how I stumbled across one of the greatest articles I have ever read: Taken: The Coldest Case Ever Solved.
K: OK, I’m intrigued.
A: It’s the 1950s, in the type of small Midwest town that existed everywhere at that time. No one locked their doors, no one questioned that their lives were safe and secure, and then a seven year old girl named Maria goes missing. Flash forward 36 years, a dying woman implicates her own son on her deathbed and the case gets reopened. It was still almost 20 years before the case was solved.
K: I can’t see how that story would help you to sleep.
A: Oh you’re totally right. Kept me up for another hour. But dang, it was worth it.
Taken: The Coldest Case Ever Solved
Maria was the pretty one, slight and graceful at 7 with big brown eyes that shined with warmth and intelligence. Everyone said the second-grader was special and Kathy, who was a year older, felt honored to be her friend. They lived a few doors away from each other on a side street called Archie Place. It was their whole world in 1957, a time when children played hide-and-seek outside instead of watching television. People didn’t lock their doors in this Midwestern farm town because everyone knew everybody else. Sycamore and its 7,000 souls felt safe on the morning of December 3, 1957, but the feeling wouldn’t last.
OJ: Made in America
K: Okay, so a lot of murderers are sociopaths.
A: I NEVER WOULD HAVE GUESSED.
K: I promise I was going somewhere with that.
K: But some murderers are also beloved celebrities! Enter…O.J. Simpson. He has been ALL OVER THE PLACE the last few years.
A: Metaphorically. Literally, he’s been in mostly one place.
K: Can we just talk about his book, If I Did It?
A: Yeah yeah.
K: This dude had the nerve to write an ENTIRE BOOK detailing the murder of his ex wife Nicole Brown Simpson and how everything would have gone down **IF HE HAD DONE IT.** Read: he totally did it and wants you to know all the details so he can brag about getting away with murder.
A: Did you ever listen to that episode of This American Life where they try to make a reality TV show about OJ, all it is is the directors putting him in really awkward situations?
K: YES. It was you who told me about that!
A: It’s so off the wall. Check it out on the This American Life website if you want to listen to a truly bizarre radio segment.
K: If you want to know more about the OJ case, I would start not with his trashy book, but watch the ESPN documentary OJ: Made in America instead. It really sets the stage for what racial relations were like at the time of the trial, and you begin to understand why he walked away an “innocent” man. If documentaries aren’t your thing, watch season 1 of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. You’ll have the pleasure of watching Ross from Friends (David Schwimmer) play the Kardashian’s dad!
O.J.: Made in America
“OJ: Made in America” is an essential examination of the rise and fall of Orenthal James Simpson, and parallels between his incredible story with that of race in America. This critically-acclaimed documentary series reveals how he first became a football star, why America fell in love with him off the field, what happened in the trial for his ex-wife’s murder, and finally, why he is now sitting in jail for another crime 20 years later. His is a story that divided America like few things before or since, and it is perhaps the defining cultural tale of twentieth-century America.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
Told from the perspective of the lawyers, it explores the chaotic dealings behind closed doors and how prosecution overconfidence, defense shrewdness and shocking courtroom twists led to one of the most earth-shattering verdicts of all time.
K: You’re pretty lucky that you’re married.
A: Very true. Wondering where you’re going with this…
K: Even though I’m still single, I have officially sworn off online dating for a multitude of reasons, number one being that I listened to the Dirty John podcast. Number two being that dudes seem to love posting photos of themselves wearing cowboy hats while binge drinking and communicate strictly using emojis, but that’s unrelated.
A: You mean you’re not into that?
I listened to this whole thing on a trip to Chicago, start to finish. I didn’t even want to pause it when I got out at rest stops.
A: I listened to it after you told me approximately 4,654 times to do so. You’re right. It’s unbelievable.
K: Let me set the stage: a woman looking for love online meets a handsome doctor who seems too good to be true.
A: A sure sign that things are about to go well.
K: Obviously. She’s immediately smitten but her family sees right through the act and knows there’s something very wrong with this guy. For example: he wears scrubs everywhere he goes. Even black tie events. He really wants you to know he’s a doctor…
A: All I’m saying is, be sure to pay attention to the Walking Dead references that are dropped throughout the episodes. They WILL be relevant.
K: Omg true words. The end of this podcast blew me away. You’ll never believe how this thing wraps up, don’t even try to guess. Just go download it right now.
A: And let this be a lesson to you, men of online dating…
It was October 2014. They had found each other on an over-50 dating site, and she thought his profile — Christian, divorced, physician — seemed safe. She had been on three other recent dates, but the men were less handsome than their profile photos, and the talk was dull. John was different.
A: OK, last rec and then we’re out. The Jinx.
K: YES. THE JINX.
A: This made quite a splash a few years ago in the true crime circuits.
K: HIS BLINKING THO.
A: I KNOW!
K: I will never understand how this person evaded justice for so long.
A: Agreed. I don’t want to say much more, because I want anyone who hasn’t watched this yet to experience it as the rest of us did. Once you watch it, go back and read the news releases that came out right as it first aired. The sequence of events surrounding this story are the stuff of true crime fans’ dreams. I AM NOT HYPING THIS UP TOO MUCH.
From director Andrew Jarecki and producer Marc Smerling, this groundbreaking documentary series sheds new light on real-estate pariah Robert Durst, while unraveling one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in New York history.
K: Alright I’m cutting us off. But before we go I just want to make a little PSA. If you’re just starting off in the genre and looking for a book to kick things off, In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter are both an absolute must. You can’t be a true crime snob until you’ve conquered these two. They’re my forever favorites.
A: And I will finish things off with my own PSA; the dude from Making a Murderer totally did it.