Whitey Bulger · James Renner · Search Party
Plus the death of a monster and the ghosts in a Mississippi barn.
Is a Murray-family representative threatening James Renner? It appears he is, as a judge in North Carolina has seen fit to grant Renner a restraining order against the guy, but let’s pause for a sec for a little context (i.e., “how is this even true crime?”). Renner wrote a book called True Crime Addict that I reviewed last year for paid subscribers. To my surprise, I found it extremely readable and satisfying, despite centering around a case — the 2004 disappearance of Maura Murray — that is not in my opinion a criminal tragic vanishing. Here’s a portion of my write-up:
I’ve come to despise just about every other property related to the case: the MMM podcast; the Disappearance of Maura Murray limited series; Dateline episodes about Maura Murray; you name it, I can’t with it. At the same time, I’ve…watched/listened to/read just about all of them, because while there’s something about this case that turns its (usually amateur) investigators into primly tone-deaf obsessives who mistake correlation for causation, there’s…also just something about this case, period. Just enough missing variables; just enough relatable acting-out and bungling of Life Stuff by Murray herself in the months leading up to her disappearance; just enough data that doesn’t really mean anything, and just enough meaningful data we’ll never get. Investigations into Maura Murray’s vanishing never satisfy, because they can’t. But Renner’s comes pretty close.
The book is not without problems, but I do recommend it, not least because, for readers like me who followed the Maura Murray case for a while and then got discouraged by the compulsive worrying of mostly-irrelevant details, it’s a brisk and straightforward recap of what’s known (and maddeningly unknown).
That said, drama has not ceased to accrue around Renner, Renner’s involvement in the case, third-party investigations of or conversations about the case, and so on, and because I triaged caring about this particular story years ago, the plot here is a little opaque. What I think happened is that a Murray-family associate clumsily threatened Renner and his family while they were on vacation; Renner went public with that; there was pushback from the family; and then somehow Amanda Knox’s podcast is involved?
There’s…something about this case, y’all. If anyone is following this latest dust-up and wants to add intel/analysis…
…or just chime in if you read the book and were also like, “Wait but so is this…good? I don’t know how to feel about this.” — SDB
If you’ve read Best Evidence for a while, you know that a headline reading “Newly released FBI records shed light on James ‘Whitey’ Bulger's criminal history” is going to get my attention, because you know that I find the Bulger case file a little confusing in its he-said/they-said-osity. In other words, Bulgeriana is often appealing on the merits without really clarifying for me what the dude’s deal exactly was. Not that an FBI doc dump is necessarily the answer — or particularly trustworthy — and recaps of the new records don’t seem that enlightening, tbh:
The Boston Herald reports the 300 pages of heavily redacted records show the agency was aware that Bulger was involved in loan-sharking, horse-fixing and other crimes before recruiting him as an informant.
The FBI says the records were posted on the agency’s Vault public records database earlier this month and will be the first in a series of records released on Bulger.
The newspaper says the records show the FBI was tracking Bulger and other “different hoodlum groups in the Boston area” that were involved in loan-sharking in the early 1970s.
…Okay, that the FBI was apparently staffed by a bunch of nanas who used the word “hoodlum” in a professional-law-enforcement context is fresh intel, and kind of explains a lot. Also noteworthy: that more documents are coming; and that most news orgs make a point of noting at the ends of their articles that nobody was charged in Bulger’s 2018 murder, despite the feds probably knowing exactly which “Massachusetts mobsters” were responsible. (I may be editorializing just slightly.) — SDB
Wright Thompson’s piece for The Atlantic, “What We Still Don’t Know About Emmett Till’s Murder,” is about that, and other things besides. It’s about the ordinariness of places where extraordinarily horrible things happened. It’s about how history is packaged: in children’s textbooks in Mississippi; in monuments and tours. It’s about what names mean, and come to mean (a dog named Dixie; a grandpa’s house on Dark Fear Road). It’s about how trauma is carried, forever.
It’s a tiring read, emotionally, but worthwhile; Thompson’s prose doesn’t bog down too much in the dark poetry of place. And it is dark. Here’s a brief history of attempts to memorialize what happened — what people, neighbors, did — to Emmett Till:
There was a marker at the Delta Inn, the hotel where jurors were sequestered and where, during the trial, a cross was burned just in case any of the jurors didn’t understand what their neighbors expected of them. That marker was taken down one night by vandals and has not been replaced. A sign was placed along the Tallahatchie River, where Till’s body was found, but someone threw it in the water. A replacement collected more than 100 bullet holes until, made illegible by the violence, it came down and was given to the Smithsonian. A third sign got shot a month after it went up. Three Ole Miss students posed before the sign with guns, and one posted the photo to Instagram. The current sign is bulletproof.
I say all the time that people have different reasons for “following” true crime and different things we need from it; writing of history like Thompson’s is why I have always tried to defend it and to expect more from it as a genre, because this is what it can be. Not that there’s anything wrong with defending and expecting more from the Fatal Mother’s Blood-type content! But, you know, magic doesn’t come to those who don’t believe in it, etc. — SDB
There’s a lot of true-crime content of all types out there; it takes time to sort through it, and time is money. If you like what we do and/or our curation frees up some time for you to find the reads and watches that are worth your time, why not grab a paid subscription — for yourself or a friend?
We like what you do, reading our work each weekday. Thanks! — SDB
Rodney Alcala, aka “The Dating Game Killer,” has died at 77 of natural causes. Eve reviewed a Wondery podcast about Alcala a couple years ago, and her write-up will give you lots of background on the case and its frustrations; there’s another podcast on Alcala and his crimes from 2020, which we noted here (along with docudrama (…?) The Dating Game Killer, which I have considered renting several times before remembering each time that I think Guillermo Díaz’s acting is unbearable.)
There’s also an upcoming Netflix project about the woman who “won” a date with Alcala, as we noted last month. — SDB
I finally started watching Search Party recently. I’ve still only gotten partway into the first season, but I thought it might have some interesting things to say about true crime, missing-persons (and especially missing-white-woman) cases, and what our interest in particular disappearances is a transference or projection of. (And so we come back around to Maura Murray, in a way.) And so far, it does; most reviews point to the show as a satire of millennial self-absorption, versus true crime or procedurals, but at least in the early going of Season 1, it feels like there’s a purposeful attempt to comment on the way a woman going missing is so promptly and predictably “packaged” as a “case” with a dedicated FB page and hashtags.
I found a Vogue interview with star Alia Shawkat in which she nods at this idea; Shawkat is more interested in the gender essentialism of how the genre is often sold, and most of the true-crime content of the interview is to do with Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, and Brett Ratner being a scumbag to Elliott Page. It seems like the specific satirization of true crime’s warping effects doesn’t come into play as much until the third season, but I’m wondering if any of you have watched — and whether it gets easier to put aside credibility issues with certain characters still having any contact with each other? …It’s hard for me to root for Dory when she still spends social time with Elliott Goss on purpose, is what I’m saying. John Early’s performance is note-perfect, and part of it is my being enough older than these characters that staying friends with utter assholes Because College is miles in the rearview at this point, but while Search Party so far is doing, IMO, a lot of what Girls thought it was doing but better, the problem of not necessarily understanding how far it could push the parodically dickish aspects of some of the characters is one the shows share. Like, maybe a Portia OR an Elliott?
But I do like it so far, because it’s not really like anything else I’ve watched, and it seems content not to slot into a genre neatly, which is refreshing. — SDB
This week on Best Evidence: Dirty John, Michael Caine, and arson.