The First 48 · Ann Rule's Best

Plus, it's time to vote on January's book-review topic.

S07.E17 of The First 48 is both typical, and unusually dark. Scrolling through the cable guide recently on one of those Sunday afternoons that’s a programming desert if you don’t care about football, I went past a First 48 rock block on A&E and thought idly that I hadn’t watched it in a while…and then we got a voicemail from Ellie on our tip line (919-75-CRIME, if you need to talk about anything from Aileen to the Zodiac), wondering if we’d seen this episode, and what we thought.

The crime

On Lester Street in Memphis, an entire family is attacked — with guns, knives, and a splintered piece of wood — with three young kids left in critical condition. Tony Mullins, Toney Armstrong, and the rest of the MPD detective team try to figure out who could have committed such a horrific, high-body-count crime before the clock runs down on the first 48 hours.

The story

My notes: “This shit is dark.” And it is; “Lester Street” is a bit gorier than the usual TF48 fare, even in descriptions of injuries, and generally speaking, when experienced homicide detectives look rattled and nauseated by a crime scene, your civilian viewer discretion is that much more strongly advised. And that’s before the team cracks the case, whose resolution is grim — and, like so many of the solutions on the show, simultaneously straightforward and opaque. Like, of course it all started with an argument, but what happens after that is so far outside the average viewer’s range of experienced reactions that it’s both elementary (…as it were) and impossible to understand.

This is The First 48’sI don’t know how to put it. “Trademark” seems a bit cynical, but then, A&E’s more recent genre fare does play a bit cynically; in any case, The First 48 is a solid B at a number of things, including the process-y portions (it’s amazing how much of an investigation is devoted not to Bobby Goren-esque flights of deduction, but just looking shit up on the computer), but especially at illustrating the grubby, pedestrian nature of so many murders, at least as far as the motives are concerned. We’ve become conditioned as a culture to a certain sort of scripted killer: baroque and Freudian in his motivations, an icy Moriarty in his execution (if you’ll pardon the word choice). As well, we’ve long brought that to how we receive real cases, the ones in this genre. I’m put in mind of the comments field from yesterday’s post, actually, where we talked about Serial and our assumptions about Adnan Syed’s guilt; I know so many people to whom it’s utterly obvious that he killed Hae Min Lee, and intellectually, I understand that those people are probably correct, because the simplest explanation is likely the correct one, and that’s never more true than in a homicide case. Narratively, though…it’s like I’m used to a simple explanation acting like a red herring because I’ve watched so many Criminal Intent reruns.

All this by way of saying that this is a big part of what makes The First 48 compelling, to me. There’s no gothic childhood trauma, usually; there’s no elaborate frame job; there’s no scrappy pro-bono attorney squid-inking the proceedings with claims of illegal searches or Brady violations. These are narrative conventions that we use to manage our anxieties about violent crimes befalling us — the more intricate the motive and the crime, the less likely it is to happen to us. But the fact is, the vast majority of the time, it’s an argument. It’s two dudes in an argument, it’s two gangs in an argument, and there’s a gun on one side and only words on the other, and that’s it. And once the alleged perpetrator is in custody, it’s a pretty straight and short line between “here’s what we’ve got on you; let’s not waste each other’s time” and a confession. That’s always struck me about these TF48 cases — how often the accused is like, “Yeah, you got me; here’s what happened.”

The “what happened” here is quite a bit harsher than the norm — according to the evidence, the guy stabbed his little nephew in the face — and the almost-shrugged indictment of the correctional system that’s snuck in at the end is noteworthy, if only because that’s probably so often a contributing factor in cases on this show. But in a lot of ways, “Lester Street” is much more a standard episode than it is a deviation.

The show’s “celebrating” its 15th anniversary with a special airing New Year’s Day. A lot of true-crime shows kind of hang around forever without having anything in particular to offer; The First 48 isn’t what I would call “prestige,” but it does tell us something about crime, criminals, and ourselves in relation to them, so I’m glad this one’s still around. Thanks for the rec, Ellie! — SDB

Time to tell me what to read and review for y’all next month! While the poll’s open to all, the review’s only for subscribers, so if you’ve been meaning to sign up, now’s the time!

The second-highest vote-getter from last time reappears in this month’s poll, along with a handful of books I’d hoped Santa would buy me, but which I’ll now have to snag for myself. You’ve got until January 2; vote now!

I wrote this one a few years back, on the occasion of Ann Rule’s passing. If there’s been any update on the kerfuffle with the sons and the estate, LMK in the comments…and if one of your cultural New Year’s resolutions is to make more time for classics in the genre, LMK whether any of these is on your list!


Ann Rule passed away Sunday at age 83 -- and while it seems her death is the result of a coronary event of some sort, you wonder whether that's related to the charges of elder abuse and fraud leveled at her sons. That sordid story is worth digging into, along with the 2011 kerfuffle in which Rick Swart's Seattle Weekly cover piece charged Rule with "sloppy storytelling" and undue influence in her coverage of the Liysa Northon case...while failing to mention his engagement to Ms. Northon, then incarcerated for the murder of her husband.

Reading about Rule is, in some ways, more rewarding than reading Rule herself. Her prose is classic true-crime pulp, melodramatic and kludgy by turns, and her ascension to the Mt. Rushmore of her genre made her more confident...and her editors more diffident.

But becoming THE Ann Rule got her access. People told her things, returned her calls, sent her tips. She had a knack for finding good stories, ones her turgid writing style (usually) wouldn't eclipse. She worked hard; her books came out on a punishing Woody Allen schedule -- so if her passing got you thinking about checking out her work, you might have gulped at her author list on Goodreads. Where to start?

At the beginning, with The Stranger Beside Me.

A little self-important, takes a while to get going, but a classic in the genre.

Small Sacrifices

This one's a better watch than a read; the only full-length version I could find on YouTube is apparently subtitled in Polish, but you get used to it. Perfect casting of Farrah Fawcett as Diane Downs, who is a chilling personage; surprisingly well-done commentary on the cultural-expectation garbage moms have had to deal with for decades, though this is the one time it probably did law enforcement's job for it.

Too Late To Say Goodbye

Yes, "the Rob-Lowe-movie murderous-dentist one." We read Too Late for Virtual True-Crime Book Club back in the day, and I seem to recall us having a lot of fun at the expense of the overwrought locutions. The story's a corker, though.

A Fever In The Heart (Crime Files #3)

All the Crime Files books blur together for me, but not in a bad way; each one has at least one compelling story, and they read faster than Rule's single-case books. I listed Fever because I remember reading it right after finishing Stranger one summer, but any of them will hit the "bring to the beach, leave at the beach house" spot. — SDB, 7/28/15

Next week on Best Evidence: The best of 2019; Les Standiford’s Bringing Adam Home; my review of Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing; and how much R. Kelly-related material I can consume before needing to sheep-dip my brain in industrial cleansers.

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