I Wish True-Crime Books Were Written Better

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 10:40 am, Friday, January 23, 2009

swissThose plump little mass-market books about actual murders comprise the bulk of the true-crime genre. For every gorgeously written nonfiction account of homicide — every In Cold Blood, as it were — you’ll find a thousand of the more pedestrian kind whose covers usually shout “Illustrated with shocking photographs,” churned out monthly by St. Martin’s and Pinnacle, among other publishers. I  know from talking with true-crime authors that they have to research and write these books rapidly. Typically, they’re given incredibly short deadlines and must complete entire 300-page manuscripts in under four months — and for small advances. And I’m a true-crime fan. But gosh. Sometimes the writing is so awkward, so haphazard, so downright bad that it makes me crime. Is it THAT hard to master the imperfect past tense? Or to look stuff up now and then? Example: In Wasted, book about the murder of Regina Hartwell by the drug-crazed boyfriend of Hartwell’s sometime lesbian lover, Suzy Spencer describes how an abusive parent repeatedly snuffed out cigarettes on a child’s bare skin. The child’s “back became dotted with scars, dotted like beautiful Swiss fabric.” Argh. You can almost hear what happened. Someone, possibly during an interview, described the scars as looking like “dotted Swiss fabric” or “dotted Swiss.” And the author, rushed as she was, had never heard of dotted Swiss before, didn’t realize that it isn’t really Swiss anymore, nor is it notably beautiful. It’s just thin muslin, textured with tiny evenly spaced dots. But the author, hearing “Swiss,” automatically thought “elegant” or whatever. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against dotted Swiss.

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