Woody Allen · Court TV · Dahmer
Plus, true-crime debuts and more Durst.
|The Blotter Presents||Mar 9|| 3||10|
Hachette has dumped Woody Allen’s memoir after a public shaming by Catch And Kill author Ronan Farrow, and a staff walkout. Just a few hours after we published on Friday, Hachette realized the bad publicity was too expensive, and had its Grand Central imprint reverse itself on the Allen book…though of course Hachette didn’t put it quite like that, noting in a tweet that they’re “committed to offering a stimulating, supportive and open work environment for all our staff,” and that as a result moving forward with Allen’s work “would not be feasible for HBG.”
Dylan Farrow tweeted her thanks to everyone who supported her and HBG’s ultimate decision in the matter, but another author is concerned about what the cancellation means for publishing as a whole. Stephen King tweeted Friday that, while he doesn’t “give a damn” about Allen, “it’s who gets muzzled next that worries” him. It seems strange to me that, after decades at the top of the business, King either does not see or is pretending not to see the difference between true censorship concerns — which, under the current political regime, are legitimate IMO — and a business decision by a publisher not to court further controversy and ire…particularly since his defensive reaction to tech writer Ed Bott’s “‘First they came for the pedophiles’ is NOT A THING, sir.” response was as follows:
Well, sure. And…that’s what HBG did. So y’all…agree? Right?
I am demonstrably non-fond of King’s cultural-critic public presence over the last twenty years, so it’s probably particularly uncharitable to point out that in a subsequent tweet, King called Hachette’s decision to publish Allen’s memoir in the first place “tone-deaf,” which could also describe a goodly portion of King’s pop-cult pronouncements (if I’m not mistaken, he used his column in Entertainment Weekly to scold us about caring about the Michael Jackson allegations, instead of the war in Iraq). I will say that I’m truly not trying to be disingenuous about King’s larger point — but Allen remains a free man, continues to make music and films, is able to vote, and will absolutely find a publisher with fewer or no conflicts, and an audience for his musings. If King’s point is that now publishing concerns may feel free to “come for” lower-profile authors with ugliness in their pasts, well, they’ve always been free to do that, because, as I said, publishing is a business. If the apprehension involves historically marginalized groups getting pre-shunned as a “PR risk” that’s de facto bigotry, well, just say that, but I don’t think that’s the slope we’d be slipping down here.
Not to mention, since when can these companies get out of their own way tone-deafness-wise, but anyway. Do you agree with Hachette, or King, or sort of neither? — SDB
Vanity Fair’s Maureen O’Connor wonders if the new Court TV “can surf the true-crime wave.” Leading with the daily re-enactments of the Weinstein proceeding would seem to indicate that O’Connor isn’t hopeful about the network’s prospects.
Paired with photos of the real lawyers and witnesses whom the actors voiced, “Instant Replay” became a franchise for the network—and a source of courtroom gossip. I heard that one trial participant complained to a Court TV journalist about a voice actor’s liberties.
The net’s next prime focus is the Robert Durst trial, a complicated affair expected to last months — and not permitting cameras in the courtroom either, save for opening and closing statements. That’s essentially the identity crisis facing Court TV: a surfeit of material, but no exclusive access…except in Florida cases, thanks to the state’s “sunshine” statutes guaranteeing transparency in the court system.
It seems like O’Connor’s now got what I would have called “the Dunne beat” back in the day; her Court TV piece isn’t super-long, but it’s solid, and definitely useful for those of you who tend to have it on in the background/on mute all day vis-a-vis upcoming coverage. — SDB
Author and filmmaker Kevin Smokler is coming back to the pod next week to talk about Netflix’s Lost Girls and — speaking of Durst — All Good Things. But here, he’s talking about seven true-crime debuts, and what’s next for their authors. (The piece is from 2015, so we likely have some movement on these; file any updates in the comments!) — SDB
How exhausted the authors of great true crime debuts must be. The genre is an act of diligent reporting: long nights with court records and police files, interviews with uncertain witnesses and family members, a marathon of gathering and synthesis before one word has been written. Make it a first book, and the writer is learning on the job.
And what if the book's a hit? Now the author must answer this praise and attention from the media and readers, at minimum a part-time job in addition to what s/he does for a living already. Every fifth question is inevitably "What are you working on next?" My guess: our author would like to answer with, "A three-month nap, as soon as you'll leave me alone."
There's the built-in paradox of loving true crime books: Success assures future books from that author, yet hinders their progress. We want more books from the authors who master the genre their first times out, knowing that mastery takes labor, time, and patience we the readers don't have.
Here, then, a bridge between choruses: Seven great true-crime debuts and what we can expect next from those who wrote them. We'd like the follow-ups to have arrived yesterday. But living with the unknowable is also the deal we make with reading and loving true crime in the first place.
The Debut: Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (2013)
While on staff at New York Magazine, Robert Kolker wrote a cover story on a series of young women who went missing in and around Long Island. All were from out of town, all worked as escorts who advertised on Craigslist. Kolker would later investigate the discoveries of nearly a dozen murder victims, including several of the missing women, on Jones Beach Island, off Long Island's South Shore in 2010-2011; the suspicion of a serial killer using the internet as bait; and the community of mourning the families of the dead created among each other.
Lost Girls was a New York Times Bestseller and NYT Notable Book of 2013 as well as a Publisher's Weekly Top 10 book of that year. Kolker has continued to track developments in the still-unsolved case, including a forthcoming independent autopsy of one of the victims.
The Follow-up: There's a movie version of Lost Girls in development, and Kolker continues to work at New York as a contributing editor. Recently he's filed both true-crime stories (on prison-release policy and art theft) as well as pieces that thematically seem to fit his interests in created worlds (video games, casinos) and the moments where the lives of ordinary people change permanently and without warning.
One of them, he predicts, will blossom into his next book. "Any potentially amazing narrative will do," he told me. He's already done it once.
The Debut: Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx (2003)
Two summers ago, the New Yorker ran an interview with journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc on the tenth birthday of Random Family. The product of 11 years of immersive reporting beginning in the early 1990s, Random Family told the story of four young people -- a heroin dealer, his girlfriend, her younger brother and his first love -- coming into adulthood on a dirt-poor block in the South Bronx. The New York Times Book Review named it one of the ten best books of the year and it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In September 2006 LeBlanc received a MacArthur "genius" award. And though Random Family began life as a New Yorker article, that publication's 10-year appreciation came a bit late to declaring it a modern nonfiction classic, in the same league as Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here. The anthology The New New Journalism: Conversations With America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, which included LeBlanc alongside Jon Krakauer, Susan Orlean, and Michael Lewis, made the call in 2005.
The Follow-up: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc had been caring for her dying father when Random Family came out, and in her words, "It took me a long time to emerge from my grieving." Her next book, an investigation of stand-up comedians launched in a 2004 New Yorker article, doesn't have a delivery date. And though it might seem a long time coming, the author's pace seems to be accelerating as of late, reporting for Harper's last year from a tour with comedian Doug Stanhope and filing an appreciation of Robin Williams for the New Yorker's website later that summer.
We are taking this both as a good sign and confirmation of what we already know: That given the epic, damaged beauty of Random Family, the wait for Leblanc's next effort will probably have been worth it.
The Debut: True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa (2005)
"I'm the luckiest guy who'll ever sit across the table from you," journalist Michael Finkel told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. Three years earlier Finkel had been fired from the New York Times Magazine after falsely combining interview subjects and events while reporting from West Africa. While back home in Montana licking his wounds, Finkel received a call that a man named Christian Longo had just been arrested for murdering his wife and children. Longo had been using Finkel's name as an alias. Finkel tracked down Longo to find out why.
The resulting book, True Story, examined both the twist of fate that brought the men together and the questions of guilt and redemption for their respective crimes. Jonah Hill and James Franco played Finkel and Longo in the 2015 movie adaptation, but by then True Story the book had already pointed the writer's career back towards recovery: In 2008, Finkel shared a National Magazine Award with photographer John Stanmeyer for a story on malaria (Finkel had contracted the disease on a reporting trip years before) for National Geographic.
The Follow-up: Just this month Finkel wrote a story for GQ on one Christopher Knight, a 47-year-old man who had lived alone and undetected in the woods of northern Maine since 1986. Almost immediately, Finkel signed a deal to turn "The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit" into his next book.
The Debut: Jack the Ripper and the Case For Scotland Yard's Prime Suspect (2011)
Boston-based researcher Robert House put together a book-length argument for Jack the Ripper's true identity: Aaron Kozminski, a Polish immigrant with a history of mental instability who had a number of family members living in the areas of London where the killer selected his victims. House, who had initially published his research in Ripperologist magazine, received praise in both the media and from field experts (Roy Hazelwood, who pioneered sexual-predator profiling for the FBI, wrote the book's foreword) for his even tone and diligent investigation, including trips to both Poland and the UK after digging up Kozminski's birth certificate.
The Follow-up: Unclear. House also works in graphic design, and pursued his interest in Jack the Ripper in his off hours. He told an interviewer last year that he could imagine publishing a new edition of the book based on updated research (not his own) and a talk he gave at Ripper Conference (exactly what it sounds like) in 2012.
The Debut: Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (2015)
In 2007, L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy created "The Homicide Report" to tell the story of every person who died violently in Los Angeles, to change victims from statistics to human beings. The same instinct sat at the heart of Ghettoside, ostensibly the story of the 2007 murder of 18-year-old Bryant Tennelle, a resident of the Watts neighborhood in South Los Angeles whose father happens to be an LAPD homicide detective. But deeper than the solving of a crime lies Leovy's anger: The majority of murders in neighborhoods like Watts across the country go unsolved. Solving them takes time, resources, and dedicated policing. The message we send by not giving neighborhoods like Watts those resources is that the lives of the people who live there don't matter and murder committed in these neighborhoods will go unpunished.
The Follow-up: Leovy's reporting occurred before Ferguson and Eric Garner, before our current national focus on law enforcement and their relationship with poor and disadvantaged communities. Ghettoside has been rightfully called a masterpiece thanks to Leovy's work in bringing this story and its horrifying realities to life. Ghettoside has also received a ton of attention thanks to the moment in history it was published.
Which means Leovy will probably be talking about it in public for the foreseeable future. Ghettoside in hardcover has been a New York Times bestseller, and the paperback doesn't come out until late fall. In all likelihood, before we get another book from Jill Leovy, we'll get more of her speaking to this one.
The Debut: On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (2014)
Alice Goffman spent six years in the Philadelphia neighborhood of two close friends, part-time crack dealers a few years younger than she whom she befriended as well. Both had committed crimes, but their inability to pay court fees and bail money had them living as teenage fugitives, in constant fear of re-arrest and unable to return to normal life.
Like Ghettoside, On The Run -- which began as Goffman's thesis at Penn -- interrogates how we administer criminal justice through the story of a few citizens on the receiving end of it. But instead of focusing on a rare success, On the Run illuminates the failures, of young people given few resources, no second chances, and a system designed seemingly designed to keep them as perpetual criminals for its own benefit.
On The Run was named a New York Times notable book of 2014 and endorsed by prominent academics and journalist like Alex Kotlowitz and Cornel West. It also got its share of criticism: An article in American Sociological Review questioned its methods and reporting, while opinion pieces charged Goffman with focusing on criminality instead of the less glamorous stories of successful kids from those same neighborhoods.
The Follow-up: An assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Goffman is currently on a one-year fellowship at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study. In her proposal for said fellowship, she describes her project for the year as "an ethnographic inquiry into the formation of human bonds and human identity. I ask: what are the situations that generate, sustain, and end our bonds to people and things?" Goffman has said she envisions this project becoming the first draft of her next book.
The Debut: Strange Piece of Paradise: A Return to the American West to Investigate My Attempted Murder -- and Solve the Riddle of Myself (2006)
In the summer of 1977, college student Terri Jentz and her roommate were camping in the central Oregon desert when an unknown assailant attacked them with an ax. No one was arrested for the crime. Nearly 15 years later, Jentz revisited the site of the attack to, as she wrote, "solve the crime that would solve me." Her memoir chronicling her investigation into her own attempted murder came out in 2006.
Strange Piece of Paradise was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Since then, Jentz has been a working journalist and activist supporting international human rights for women and girls, and an end to gender-based violence.
The Follow-up: We might get a next book from Terri Jentz the author, but we will not be losing out if we don't. Strange Piece of Paradise could very well have been the conclusion of her story as victim, investigator, and author of a true-crime tale. The life it opened for her is the Terri Jentz we have now. — Kevin Smokler, 8/18/15
I’m not particularly “into” the Jeffrey Dahmer case, but I’ve recommended The Jeffrey Dahmer Files many times over the years as a unique, smart take on a case whose coverage has often tended towards the breathlessly creepy its own self. Here’s my review; you can rent it on Amazon and elsewhere.
"We were dismantling someone's museum"
Polite-but-weird neighbor Jeffrey Dahmer is arrested in the summer of 1991 for the rape, murder, and dismemberment of 17 men and boys over the course of about 15 years.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files bills itself as an "experimental" documentary. Mixing re-enactments in with talking-head interviews with a neighbor, the Milwaukee medical examiner in the early '90s, and the detective who interrogated Dahmer doesn't strike genre veterans as "experimental"; it's standard operating procedure for the case-based programming networks like ID and Cloo churn out by the long tonne.
Here, it's surprisingly effective; I expected to find these interstitial "re-imaginings" of Dahmer's movements in the last days and weeks before his capture annoying, because they usually are, but director Chris James Thompson uses them to break up the oppressive horror of the case details. Andrew Swant as Dahmer underplays nicely; the re-enactments have a rueful feeling to them. (Trivia alert: Mark "Coe-ven" Borchardt is a background player. I spotted him immediately and thought I was crazy, then remembered...right. Milwaukee.)
Ditto the interviews. Pat Kennedy shot to prominence with this case, I suspect in part because of his glorious mustache, but he also seems to have handled the initial questioning of Dahmer smartly, talking about other things -- why Dahmer lived in that particular neighborhood, "whether or not there was a God" -- and appealing to Dahmer's intelligence. Offering him coffee and smokes and telling him directly that "I'm the one who's gonna be talking to you about the head in your refrigerator," appealing to the suspect on an almost collegial level and hoping that respect is reciprocated, seems like the obvious play now. At the time, Kennedy's a fairly green detective, and Milwaukee PD is pulling painted skulls and human cold cuts out of a residential Frigidaire. There was no "book" to go "by" for that.
TJDF is Thompson's first feature, and it's an assured debut, just as smart in its approach to the topic as Kennedy was in his to Dahmer. Thompson knows the power of the material, and of his interview subjects; both Kennedy and Pamela Bass have a flavorful way of speaking that doesn't sound rehearsed. The material isn't sensationalized any further than it is just by existing. Thompson's aim, I think, is sincerely to capture not Dahmer's crimes or the man himself, but what it was like to be in the world of this man and this case 25 years ago, and he succeeds. — SDB, 6/11/15
Tuesday on Best Evidence: Eve and I are prepping for the podcast on The Most Dangerous Animal and Hustlers, so who knows what that strange brew’s got percolating in her true-crime brain. You’ll need to be a paid subscriber to find out, I’m afraid!
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