Edgars Predictions · Philly DA · James Ellroy

Plus Sasquatch, the former Mrs. Gacy, and clickbait curation

Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken a look at the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award 2021 nominees for Best Fact Crime. Now it’s time for prognostication (Edgar winners will be announced April 29) and musing over what 2020 true-crime books should have been nominated! To review, the 2021 nominees (in author-alpha order) are:

  • Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America by Mark A. Bradley

  • The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg

  • Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Crisis by Eric Eyre

  • Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch

  • Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife by Ariel Sabar

What Will Win?
The Best Fact Crime category tends to recognize historical true-crime properties most often. But that’s often a very particular (and I would say narrow) subset of the genre — wealthy people doing crime in changing or turbulent times. None of the nominees this year fits that description. Of them, Blood Runs Coal and The Third Rainbow Girl focus on older crimes, but 1969 and 1980 (respectively) are still pretty recent history and the subjects of the books aren’t robber barons or bootleggers. The Edgar Awards have also recognized “crime-oir” in the past. The 2020 winner was The Less People Know About Us: A Mystery of Betrayal, Family Secrets, and Stolen Identity by Axton Betz-Hamilton. Since it combines both memoir and historic elements, I predict The Third Rainbow Girl takes it.

What Should Win?
I really liked all of the 2021 nominees. I was most pleasantly surprised by Blood Runs Coal since it showcased a crime that very little has been written about, and tied together so many interesting strands of the modern labor movement. I also found Death in Mud Lick and Veritas real triumphs of investigative journalism.

What Should Have Been Nominated?
In Best Evidence’s round-up chat on the best true-crime properties of 2020, I remarked that I didn’t think 2020 was all that strong of a year for true-crime books. At the time, I had only read two of the Edgar Best Fact Crime nominees, one that garnered a lot of attention (The Third Rainbow Girl) and one that flew way under the radar and deserved more accolades (Death in Mud Luck). So I take back my assertion that 2020 wasn’t a great year for the genre given how much I enjoyed all these nominees! A couple titles that could/should have made the cut: We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper (which I liked a lot, but is not without its flaws) and Dancing with the Octopus by Debra Harding (a harrowing memoir of the author’s survival of an abduction at age 14). Two of my favorites from last year that represent the very best of the crime-oir genre would have been welcome additions to this field: Notes on a Silencing: A Memoir by Lacy Crawford and Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. — Susan Howard

For what it’s worth, I think Yellow Bird probably wins — and absolutely agree that Notes should have at least gotten a nomination. Tell us your predictions (and nomination snubs) in the comments! — SDB

Leave a comment

And now, a quick roundup of upcoming series, director hires, and…Podcast Confidential? …You’ll see.

  • Lisa Cholodenko tipped to direct Hulu’s Michelle Carter limited series. [Collider] // Thanks as always to reliable B.E. tipster Tara Ariano for this update. The Girl from Plainville stars Elle Fanning as Carter, the central (or, really, surviving) figure in the Massachusetts texting-suicide case. Cholodenko, who also helmed The Kids Are All Right and, especially pertinent to this project, several episodes of Unbelievable, will have charge of the first two episodes.

  • Philly DA starts tomorrow on Independent Lens. [PBS] // Per the show’s landing page, “When civil rights attorney Larry Krasner mounted a long-shot campaign to become District Attorney, he ran on a bold pledge: to end mass incarceration by changing the culture of the criminal justice system from within. He shocked the establishment by winning in a landslide.

    Now, the bureaucrats he spent his campaign denigrating are his co-workers; the police he alienated are his rank-and-file law enforcers.” My esteemed colleague Kathryn VanArendonk dug it the most, as you saw above; my DVR snags ILs automagically, but if yours isn’t set, now’s the time.

  • 4/20 (hehhehheh) is a big day for premieres; Hulu’s dropping Sasquatch tomorrow as well. My review for Primetimer isn’t live as of this writing, but the tl;dr version is that it’s like a three-part Outside Magazine article that’s almost as much about why we tell ourselves certain stories certain ways as it is about the inciting triple homicide. It’s a comparatively small time investment as these things go, so try it.

  • Murderous History premieres next Sunday April 25 on the Smithsonian Channel. [Futon Critic] // The brief notes, “On the heels of the channel's recent success in true crime, historians guide viewers through the sinister undercurrents of various city's past where odd and lethal scandals perplexed historical detectives, and expose the dark undercurrents of society.” This is not the greatest prose you’ve ever read, and the title may have you already glazing over/preparing to ignore yet another filler-y “old-man’s history concern tries to get its piece of the true-crime action” show BUT I’d give it a chance. Smithsonian has created surprisingly compelling true-crime programming in the last few years and has access to visuals other productions don’t. It’s maybe not water-cooler stuff, but there’s cause for optimism.

  • And finally, James Ellroy’s podcast is coming to your earholes in August of this year. [via press release] // The five-parter from Audio Up, called James Ellroy’s Hollywood Death Trip, “takes listeners on a nocturnal tour of murder and mayhem in the city of Los Angeles, based on his lauded true crime reportage. Featuring Ellroy himself as the series narrator, the stories presented here span mid-century Hollywood’s most memorable murders.

    Each one will be recreated with period music, archival radio, and sweeping, cinematic sound design.” Subjects include the murders of Stephanie Gorman, Sal Mineo, and Ellroy’s own mother. I’m ambivalent; it feels like JEHDT could be both a top-notch listening experience from an audio and research standpoint and an excuse for Ellroy to continue indulging his worst outré instincts. My esteemed colleague Craig Calcaterra had a great take on it in his Cup Of Coffee newsletter last week that I really can’t improve on, so I won’t try, but I agree with his concerns right down the line. Twenty-first-century Ellroy content is always a crapshoot and I suspect this pod is going to be as much “crap” as “shoot,” but we’ll see! Anyone else apprehensive about — or psyched for, or both — this one? — SDB

I’m seldom apprehensive about asking you guys to go paid with your subscriptions — and I’m sure you’re seldom psyched for it; hee — but that’s how it goes, so let’s do this. Paid subscriptions help us try to focus the firehose of true-crime content; they let us detail talented folks like Susan to review projects; and they pay for, among other things, copies of the books on which miniseries starring Shannen Doherty were based! (Which were Edgar-nommed in the nineties! It’s all a circle of…something!) The more you can do, the more we can do, so if you can, throw us a finsky.

And if you can’t, we understand — but liking our posts, and sharing them with your esteemed colleagues, helps a lot too!

Share Best Evidence

All done! Let’s move on. — SDB

Devil In Disguise producer Tracy Ullman posted excerpts from an exclusive 2013 interview with John Wayne Gacy’s ex-wife, Carole Lofgren. I’d recommend it even if you feel like you’re Gacy’d out, because it has something to tell us about the knee-jerk “how could s/he not know; I would know” reaction I think many of us have to monsters’ partners, and what might seem like willful ignorance. And probably is, but who amongst us hasn’t had hindsight realizations about exes — albeit with far lower stakes? Pattern recognition can be a bitch, is my point, and not everyone reads as much true crime as we do, either.

I also appreciate that the interview isn’t “smoothed” for “um”s and false starts; that’s always my preference, because it gives me a better sense of the speaker in text. Here’s a snippet where Lofgren talks about Gacy’s prison stint in Iowa, and what she wasn’t told…and didn’t ask to be:

Did you know he'd been in prison?

Carole Lofgren
Yeah. That I did know. That Karen did say. But she didn't go into details about anything and neither did his mother. I just kinda let it go. I mean, I-- I-- 'cause I didn't know the full story. That's why it-- it didn't hit me, like, "Oh, my God, he was in prison." I mean, uh...Well, it's a family friend and, you know, if you like a person-- you like a person, you'd known him for years before. So, yeah, I...

Not to mention that sociopaths are practiced liars — and women are socialized for our own safety not to call bullshit on them. An interesting read, and a good reminder at least for me to remain vigilant about not victim-blaming. — SDB

Another day, another click-bait list of the best true crime to stream “right now.” This one’s from Glamour late last month, and I fell for it — but for a make-work job like this, Christopher Rosa does a good job. A few times, I was about to make a snitty note about a property Rosa overlooked, only for it to show up a few items later; it’s an exhaustive accounting and I agree with most of it.

But that doesn’t mean I have zero issue with Rosa’s selections — starting with the Cecil Hotel choice, not least because there is 1) far superior Berlinger product out there (some of which does show up on Rosa’s list), and 2) some of it is on the genre’s Mt. Rushmore, but doesn’t make the list. As the graphic above suggests, I’m thinking of the Paradise Lost trilogy, which is what made Berlinger’s bones in the genre and which is available on HBO Max. Ditto Murder On Middle Beach, an underrated series from late last year that I think should make more of these lists. A couple of Showtime limited series also missed the list, probably because people still sleep on Showtime as a documentary destination — Love Fraud and Outcry are the ones I’m thinking of, but the SHO app has a deep bench.

Again, it isn’t Rosa’s job — or, at least, not as much his job as it is mine — to do a definitive list; part of the point of it is to get people discussing/dissecting it. But how come Prohibition isn’t on here? Okay, Hoopla is one of those streamers that sounds made up, but the series is in fact on there (and on Amazon, albeit not for free). How come American Vandal doesn’t get on these lists anymore? Yeah yeah, it’s scripted, but it has such a lived-experience feel that it (and Documentary Now!, not for nothing) should be in the conversation. City So Real is a crucial watch, and timely as hell right now…okay, I’ll stop. And hey, I probably missed some slam-dunks myself, so correct me AND Rosa in the comments. — SDB

Leave a comment

Coming up on Best Evidence: Kristin Smart; Jelani Cobb; and the ethics of Housewives consumption.

What is this thing? This should help. Follow Best Evidence @bestevidencefyi on Twitter and Instagram. You can also call or text us any time at 919-75-CRIME.