Edgar Award Snubs · Top Prison Docs · Linda Calvey
Plus: Inessential assassination narratives, and reading umpteen things at once
Greetings, readers. Hope you’re all still safe and well. I stayed up too late last night reading Bob Kolker’s latest, Hidden Valley Road…AND I started a John Berendt for some reason, on top of Rap On Trial? While blithely blaming Robert Caro for the fact that I can’t seem to finish that LBJ doorstop. All this by way of saying that you can see my reading-16-things-at-once pathology up close (and recommend a 17th thing if you want) by friending me on Goodreads. — SDB
Over the past few weeks we’ve taken a look at the 2020 Edgar Award nominees for Best Fact Crime. Now it’s time for prognostication and grumbling over what 2019 true crime books should have been nominated!
To review, the 2020 nominees are:
· The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder that Shocked Jazz-Age America by Karen Abbot
· The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity by Axton Betz-Hamilton
· American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan
· Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History by Peter Houlahan (as Sarah’s August 2019 Bonus Book Review) and
· Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall by James Polchin
What Will Win?
More often than not the Best Fact Crime award tends to go to historical true-crime properties. That would seem to give the leg up to The Ghosts of Eden Park, which checks a lot of boxes of the genre (wealthy people, turbulent time in history, adultery). Unfortunately, I found it the most boring of all the nominees. Indecent Advances also has a historical bent, examining the pre-Stonewall era of oppression and violence against gay men. And the Edgar Awards have recognized LGBTQA-themed true crime in the past. The 2019 winner was Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation by Robert W. Fieseler.
What Should Win?
Of the 2020 nominees, my favorites are The Less People Know About Us for really nailing the “crime-oir” genre, and Norco ’80 for introducing me to a case I knew nothing about and managing to distill a very complicated manhunt into a suspenseful and compelling narrative. I have to think someone is writing or has already written a screenplay based on the book, as it seems perfect for adaptation.
What Should Have Been Nominated?
When I saw this year’s nominees, there is one title I was shocked didn’t make the cut: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. I thought it was a phenomenal read and I’m pretty obsessed with Casey’s writing (check out her piece this week from The New Yorker on Catholic activist Dorothy Day; it’s true-crime-adjacent since Day’s radicalism raised the ire of J. Edgar Hoover). Perhaps it veered too heavily into literary biography/history with its focus on the life of Harper Lee to be considered straight-up true crime.
Other properties from 2019 that it would have been nice to see nominated: the amazing Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe, and the book from last year that I consider the most pleasant surprise (in that I didn’t expect all that much and ended up loving it), Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe. And while Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow is more investigative journalism than traditional true crime, I can’t think of a more engaging read from last year. — Susan Howard
Who’s going to play Linda “The Black Widow” Calvey? Jessica Brown’s write-up on Calvey, a bank robber’s widow who did time her own self for a murder she maintains she didn’t commit, is a bit stiff in the writing — kind of a clonky homage to a Kevin Sessums profile — though it does have its moments of direct grace:
This is where one version of the story becomes two. But in both accounts, Ron Cook is shot dead in Linda Calvey’s kitchen.
And that’s not even mentioning the nutty graphics, most apparently furnished by Calvey herself…like her framed prison-wedding “basque” (I’d never heard this undergarment called by that name before; where I come from, it’s…a merrywidow).
But irrespective of how successful Brown’s story is on the prose level, a Soderbergh or a Carr could make absolute hay out of it onscreen, and I’d love to fantasy-cast it with you guys. Who do you think: Sarah Lancashire for the older Calvey, Thomasin McKenzie for the flashbacks?
And can we talk about how Kate Kray, who wrote a book about Calvey back in the day, was married for a few years to one of the Kray twins, notorious OC figures in London who had a movie made about them starring the dudes from Spandau Ballet?! UK correspondents, get your butts into the comments and tell us if we need to watch that shit…or the Tom Hardy verzh where he played both twins. — SDB
And now, a ranking of the top 7 prison documentaries. It shouldn’t be a surprise that prisoners are great at telling stories, given that your own myth-building is as important currency inside as packets of cigarettes or candy. But prison systems don’t take too kindly to cameras roaming around, giving documentary makers a sizable access issue. But the filmmakers that do make it inside have brought back some of the most memorable characters and images of the justice system. Here’s some of the best for understanding the need for penal reform, and/or learning how to make a shank from your toothbrush.
7. Scared Straight!
First launched in 1978 with the trusty format of getting actual crims to scare the bejeebus out of a bunch of callow youths, the Scared Straight franchise has been getting cocky teens hollered at right through to a 2011 A+E series. Watch out for “coarse street language” and some wincingly-cut pairs of jeans in the ’70s original, filmed against a psychedelic backdrop that looks more like a head shop than what you’d expect in the state pen. It’s a mixture of community theatre-style role plays, yelling, instructions on the rules of the yard, and more yelling. It was the first prison doc to win an Oscar plus a bunch of Emmys, and while it’s not a big shock now that the program failed to pay off in any kind of behavior change, at least it brought the raw experience of prison to life through the words of the people inside. It’s just that those words are usually being screamed at a pimply kid with a feather cut.
Where to watch: The original is on YouTube, while Beyond Scared Straight is streaming on Hulu.
6. Life at Stateville: The Wasted Years
A curiosity from 1961 that’s essentially a prissier Scared Straight, this tour of the Shawshank-esque Stateville Correctional Center is intended to encourage kids to stay in school lest they end up in the pen. How many “youngsters” watching this vowed to live a life of righteousness, and how many followed the warden's useful description of how to make a shiv from a teaspoon? We’ll never know, but while the inmates are treated with pious condescension, this has aged enough to be unintentionally revealing. Cold War-era paranoia is palpable in the shots of watch towers looming over the dining hall and offhand referenced to a network of informants, but the host is more interested in how the prisoners are forbidden to waste any of their food or they’ll lose radio privileges.
Where to watch: Available on YouTube
5. Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars
Danny Trejo, former inmate and champion boxer at San Quentin, has appeared in many prison-related projects, including the acclaimed Survivors Guide to Prison and, um, Muppets Most Wanted. But this 2004 TV feature stands out for taking a subject seriously that’s otherwise ignored or sniggered about (check out this long and ignominious list of movies making prison rape jokes). With frank testimony from both victims and unrepentant rapists as the base of the story, this goes beyond just shock value. There’s insights into how the system allows sexual assault to be perpetuated largely unpunished; some of the most horrifying footage is of a former warden saying that it’s a necessary “vice” that “keeps them busy” and “helps us keep control.” It’s also an examination of how needed “makeshift families” emerge in these situations, from a complex mixture of emotional, narcotic, economic, and physical dependence.
Where to watch: Available on YouTube and Vimeo (be aware that it contains very NSFW content)
4. The Work
Take Scared Straight and turn it inside out and upside down and find 2017’s The Work, a documentary that’s also based on a real-life prison outreach program, but this one invites men from the outside in. Not just into Folsom State prison, but into themselves: this is an extended group therapy session, where the lessons on selfhood, gender, and violence that were hard-won by the inmates are passed on to the participants. Unlike the 1978 yell-at-’em-until-they-pee-themselves model, this is uplifting. The poster’s tagline — “Sometimes change can only come from the inside” — may be cringey, but the revelations are sincere and heartfelt.
Where to watch: Streaming on Hoopla, and available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu
3. The Farm: Angola, USA
Back in February Susan Howard revisited this documentary by Best Evidence fave Liz Garbus, co-directed by Jonathan Stack. There’s nothing sensationalist about it; instead it relies on the viewpoint of the inmates to show how Angola maximum security prison exists: time is not the same when you’ve been sentenced to life, and both history and broken systems keep the walls intact. The most stark reminder of this is in a parole board hearing, where an appeal based on painstakingly presented evidence of racist bias is squashed in a matter of minutes. Angola used to be a plantation, and with eighty-five percent of inmates destined to die there, very little has changed.
Where to watch: Available on YouTube and iTunes
2. The 13th
Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary is plenty didactic, pointed as hell, and not interested in wasting any time in drawing black and white lines from the purported end of slavery with the thirteenth amendment through the economic devastation of the South to the modern prison-industrial complex. Many of the points made here have been made before (Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In does a great job with some of this material) but DuVernay knows how to bring dramatic force to the likes of policy changes and lobby groups. While there’s no Danny Trejo appearance, there’s a wide cast of talking heads — Newt Gingrich showing up in a film with a Killer Mike* cut on the soundtrack? You love to see it — and it feels urgent, clear-eyed, and provocative in a way perfectly suited to our times.
*Killer Mike also wrote the intro to one of April’s bonus book-review subjects, Rap On Trial! — SDB
Where to watch: On Netflix, where it’s accompanied by an Oprah interview
1. Doing Time: Life in the Big House
Don’t let the goofy title fool you. The first cameras allowed inside Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary lead to a documentary that’s both reflective of the world inside and belonging entirely to the unique stories of the inhabitants. It’s like Grey Gardens, but for a much bigger house than the Beale mansion. Director Alan Raymond’s dry voice-over and deferential interview style gets incredible footage — whether it’s the soft-spoken Kenny Rogers lookalike explaining how the Bible instructed him to murder three people, or the prisoner charged with habitual toilet-clogging (he would go on to clog again), or the cries of “Bullshit!” behind the guard explaining the rules of solitary confinement. Made for HBO, it was one of the first in the ’90s wave of warts-and-all docs that helped pave the way for reality TV, capturing people on camera with little self-awareness aside from a burning desire to tell their side of the story.
Where to watch: Available on YouTube
— Margaret Howie
Let’s wrap it up with a review from the archives of Blood On The Moon: The Assassination Of Abraham Lincoln. Given how many hours Margaret just loaded up your watch list with, you’ll likely be relieved to know you can skip this one.
The sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was murdered by John Wilkes Booth.
Edward Steers Jr.'s review of Abraham Lincoln's murder is exhaustive. It's also exhausting, in that way an academic-press book can be -- every last fact unearthed is reported, at pitilessly correct length, while bagatelles like proper formatting fall by the wayside. ("Widowed" words at the ends of lines simply don't appear; and the reader must guess them.) Steers's prose isn't bad, but it's self-conscious and listy.
Too, Steers mounts something of a sweaty defense of Booth, and while he's not alone among Lincoln-assassination historians in overcorrecting for what he sees as a historically one-dimensional portrait of Lincoln's killer -- crappy actor, pro-slavery crank, and enemy of humanity -- you'll find yourself as embarrassed for him as you do for others when a speech like this presents itself:
Still, Booth was right to think that his act was not cowardly. One of stealth perhaps, but not cowardly. While Booth may have been fanatic in his cause, he was not a madman. There is a difference. A century of writing has cast Booth as mad and his act one of insanity. These writers are wrong. To assassinate Lincoln took considerable fortitude. (162)
…Sure? The distinction is, in my opinion, meaningless in this case -- particularly since the distinction between "bravery" and "manic stupidity" isn't made -- but Steers later speaks admiringly of a snotty note Booth wrote (…twice; he evidently deemed the first draft insufficiently grand) to a man he paid to do him a "favor" in his flight. Booth is a fascinating figure, but attempts to know him in some different or new way at this late date inevitably come off as apologies for a delusional assassin; Steers's pressing of the point doesn't do much for his narrative.
Its treatment of Booth aside, Blood On The Moon is worthwhile for Lincoln-murder completists, and does have several evocative passages and some new-to-me information. But James M. McPherson's cover blurb is incorrect -- if you're really going to read just the one book about the Lincoln assassination, you're better off with any of several others, starting with Swanson's Manhunt.
Tuesday on Best Evidence: Not sure what Eve’s going to come up with, but possible topics include a beloved book hitting an adaptation snag…and the return of Today In True-Crime Buttholes? Don’t miss it!
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