Jo Case on Misjudging True Crime
In 2009, I interviewed Chloe Hooper about The Tall Man, her now world-renowned book on an Aboriginal death in custody on Palm Island, and the longstanding community tensions it brought to a boil. At the time, I was surprised to hear her categorise her book as true crime, citing her influences as Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I had always considered those books reportage, and had always been a bit sniffy about true crime. Survival stories of abducted women, career summaries of serial killers, tell-alls by drug barons – true crime was the bad-taste literary equivalent, I thought, of TV’s COPS.
But while both Joe Cinque and The Tall Man follow the investigation of a crime, their purpose is not to titillate the reader with the grisly facts. The crime, rather, is an opportunity to explore a particular community – and is an anchor for big questions about underlying moral and social issues, including the gap between justice and the law.
Some of my favourite books fall into this category. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, a modern classic of reportage, turns ten years old in 2013.
LeBlanc follows the intersecting lives of one extended family living in the heart of the Bronx, in a neighbourhood where the girls are marked for teen motherhood, the boys for the drug trade. At the core of the book are two couples: Jessica, charismatic bombshell girlfriend of heroin kingpin Boy George, and Cesar, Jessica’s gangster brother, and his first love Coco (who has five children by three fathers over the course of the book). Three of the four characters spend much of the book in prison. LeBlanc followed the family for 13 years and watched their children grow into teenagers: she became part of the fabric of their lives.
The LA Times called Random Family ‘a non-fiction Middlemarch of the underclass’: indeed, this book reads like a novel, deeply inhabiting its characters. It also boasts a breakneck-speed plot. Jessica is pregnant with the first of her five children on page six; she meets Boy George, who she hopes will ‘rescue’ her, on page 17. (‘Not everyone survives being rescued,’ observes LeBlanc.) While the US reviews were largely ecstatic, the Guardian questioned the book’s prurience, and the morality of playing spectator to the drama of extreme disadvantage.
But LeBlanc doesn’t just follow the drug trade and its fallout, or the tabloid spectacle of generations of single mothers raising multiple children to multiple fathers. She inhabits the day-to-day grind of poverty, enabling us to understand the allure of macho crime and early motherhood (which bestow a status and purpose in a community where, within and outside, none other is offered), and how little chance bright children raised in crowded households, lumbered with adult responsibilities by the time they reach school age, have in the educational system. She shows how, in communities where fathers are largely absent and too-often jailed, the gender divide is still starkly real, and linked to biology.
I only recently realised that Random Family – my benchmark for good reportage – stems from a court case. (When Boy George was arrested, LeBlanc attended the trial and interviewed him for a magazine profile, then met Jessica and her family.) Thinking further, I realised that another of my favourite books, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a brilliant, multi-layered portrait of the inhabitants of a Mumbai slum, is structured around an arrest and a court case, with forays into the city’s desperately corrupt prison system. Central to the book is its exposure of the very slim margin of error that exists for those living in extreme poverty, who are without extra resources to draw on if disaster strikes.
David Simon, creator of The Wire, is one of America’s foremost chroniclers of the poor and disenfranchised; for him, too, crime was the way in. The Wire is a five-part investigation of a hugely compromised American city (Baltimore), where the old, manufacturing-based forms of employment have eroded and the War on Drugs is decimating communities as effectively as the drugs themselves. It’s underpinned by two monumental works of embedded reportage, Homicide and The Corner, books which go inside the Baltimore police department and a representative drug corner respectively.
‘How do we bridge the chasm?’ Simon asks in The Corner. ‘How do we begin to reconnect with those lost to the corner world? As a beginning, at least, we need to shed our fixed perspectives and see it fresh, from the inside.’
That’s what the best reportage does – it takes the reader inside foreign worlds and illuminates what it feels like to live there, in the circumstances and with the challenges that the natives face. It subtly asks ‘how?’ and ‘why?’, over and over, offering up possible answers for the questions middle-class readers routinely puzzle over.
True crime is often a passport to these foreign worlds, a way in. (Where else but a courtroom would a middle-class magazine writer meet, say, a homicidal heroin kingpin?) The Tall Man introduced urban Australian readers to a Top End frontier mentality almost as alien to them as Katherine Boo’s Mumbai, just as David Simon’s work introduces middle-class Americans to the lived reality of the underclass whose world co-exists with theirs.
True crime can also be a way to interrogate changing or suspect cultural values, through court cases that test our ethical boundaries and serve as a measure of public opinion. Anna Krien’s Night Games delved into the dark side of football culture and questioned whether ‘grey areas’ still exist between consensual sex and not, through the lens of a high-profile rape case. In Murder in Mississippi, John Safran takes the pulse of public and private attitudes to race and sexuality in America’s Deep South through the murder of a white supremacist by a black man, a case haunted by rumours of a homosexual affair.
Stories are driven by tension. So is it any wonder that crime, which novelist Garry Disher calls ‘a barometer of prevailing social tensions’, is so central to the stories we tell about how we live now?
Jo Case is the author of Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s and senior writer/editor at the Wheeler Centre.