I was absorbed in 2014 by true crime. Like everybody else, I was completely addicted to Sarah Koenig's impressive investigative reporting of a murder case on season one of This American Life's offshoot podcast, Serial. I was also really impressed by a nuanced feature article in New York by Hanna Rosin called "By Noon They'd Both be Dead," about a mother's failed attempt to murder her teenage daughter, who has autism. That essay dared to ask tough questions about the physical, psychological, emotional and financial toll of autism upon the mothers of autistic children. I recently stopped writing a novel about a similar case because it was just too difficult for me to really go there. I was glad to see someone else had.
Two literary works of true crime, both bestsellers in Australia, had me spellbound. I'm told it's a highly developed genre in the land down under, maybe because so many convicts were transported to the penal colonies there in the 18th and 19th centuries from Great Britain. The first was Helen Garner's Joe Cinque's Consolation, which I devoured on a flight from New York to San Francisco. Garner's intent in following the court case of the murder of a law student by his girlfriend is to resurrect the victim whose personhood got lost in the legal proceedings, but also to explore the gray gap between ethics and the law. The book is a meditation on conscience, culpability, and evil. The second was Chloe Hooper's Tall Man, which holds up a mirror to Australia's institutional racism and the dismal conditions of Aboriginal life by exploring the manslaughter trial of a white police officer accused of beating an indigenous man to death. Garner and Hooper are also novelists, and their nonfiction prose is graceful, uncompromising, and intelligent.
Until now, I haven't been a reader of true crime, so I have to ask myself why I've reached for it this year. I'm reminded of a conversation in Alice Elliott Dark's perfect short story, "In the Gloaming," where a mother named Janet admits to her son, who is dying of AIDS, that she enjoys books about real murders when she really hates life. "They're very punishing," she says. He admits he could never figure out why those sorts of books compelled him when they did, just that sometimes that brand of gore was a guilty pleasure. "You need to think about when those times were. That will tell you a lot," she advises him. I can't say that I've really hated life this year, or that gore excites me, but if I am to take Janet's advise, I can say that I've been deeply troubled by the grand juries that found no criminality in the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, prompting protests across the country to proclaim what should be obvious: Black lives matter. Maybe the sad cliché of these murder cases, in which cops are exonerated for killing unarmed black men, has me reaching for books of discernment on crime and punishment.
Emily Raboteau won the 2014 American Book Award for her memoir, Searching for Zion. A professor of creative writing at the City College of New York, Raboteau is the author of the novel The Professor's Daughter.