Jackie Hedeman considers the not-so-guilty pleasures of Dean Strang's book of true crime
I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot about a show I haven’t seen. Making a Murderer is this year’s Serial: the holiday season true crime pop culture phenomenon your friends won’t shut up about on Twitter, where they’re all first-name-intimates of real-people-characters they’ve never met. Last year it was, “Wtf, Jay?” This year it’s, “10/10 would bang silver fox media guy.”
I should have watched Making a Murderer; I’m its ideal audience. I’ve been a consumer of true crime since the JonBenet Ramsey case broke and I was just tall enough to be eye-level with the checkout aisle magazine rack. I followed the case out of the corner of my eye, curiosity warring with fear. Something terrible had happened to a little girl only a little younger than I was. Something involving a bedroom and a basement. Details leaked out over months and years, and I got used to her frozen doll’s face greeting me when we finished our shopping. I wanted to know more, but I also sensed that I shouldn’t ask. My mother was quick to dismiss all tabloids—and, really, most grocery store magazines—as garbage, and they didn’t talk about JonBenet Ramsey on NPR, which at the time I found vaguely soporific.
Last summer, long after I, too, had become an NPR-listening grownup, I looked up JonBenet Ramsey, curious to see what I’d missed, what I’d failed to understand. Alone in my apartment, the act of looking up the details of the case was still a furtive one. As it turned out, my childhood grasp of the Ramsey case was not far from the truth, or what little was known of it. Sordid was a word I hadn’t known when I first saw learned of JonBenet Ramsey’s death, but sordid it was and sordid it remained. The case was unsolved.
True crime storytelling depends on the shocking and the unresolved. I figured this much out in the years bridging my forays into the story of JonBenet Ramsey. In those years, I encountered In Cold Blood, unwitting grandfather of the kind of true crime that snares even the voices on NPR. In a sociology class in college, I read more true crime, and marked how “critically acclaimed” is synonymous with literary where crime narratives are concerned. I noted, too, how closely the task of true crime writer follows the path trod by police and private detectives. In each case a staggering amount of research is conducted, and sifted through, and made sense of. As a college student, the fact of that research piqued my interest to such a degree it occasionally resembled arousal.
Last year, I hid in my parents’ basement and binge-listened to Serial’s first season while eating handfuls of M&Ms, just like everyone else. I was hooked, and I batted theories back and forth via text (“Why the hell would you go that deep in the woods to pee?”) but what really got me breathless was the volume of information Sarah Koenig and her producers had amassed. The power they wielded was the power of immersion: diving in themselves and dragging us down with them.
This December, right before Making a Murderer dropped on Netflix, I concluded my first semester teaching university, shepherding my longsuffering freshman rhetoric class through a semester-long exploration of true crime. One student wrote on JonBenet Ramsey. Another pushed back hard against the idea of crime as entertainment. I responded enthusiastically to both points of engagement. They were doing good work. The class was going well.
The class was an overdose, or maybe it was a revelation. Either way, it was done, and I was home on break, and you would have thought—I would have thought—that I would have queued up Making a Murderer right away. Surely I would have been an early adopter, hungering for the first taste of something new. Instead, I didn’t even realize the series existed. I spent the holidays under a pink One Direction blanket in my parents’ living room, rereading Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart trilogy and occasionally emerging to bake cookies. By the time I shook free, Making a Murderer was everywhere, and I wasn’t in the mood.
After my semester’s teaching, I was accustomed to reigning alone over my true crime kingdom and, in part, my fundamental disinterest had to do with the sheer volume of articles already written and discussed. In all of that, where could I find the space for my own impressions? But, more than any feelings of impingement, it was the show’s popularity and the clamour for more that left me feeling queasy.
It was a new feeling, and one I didn’t entirely welcome. True crime is an exercise in discomfort. It is something we consume with one eye on the door, with an asterisk appending any pleasure we experience. True crime’s dirty not-so secret is in that asterisk, which stands in for the terrifying truth of that-happened-to-her-that-happened-to-him-that-could-happen-to-me. The asterisk does more than mark our enjoyment—it amplifies it. Call it voyeurism or call it anthropology or call it journalism, we enjoy true crime both because it implicates us, and because it really happened.
If there is a taste barrier separating true crime from (to borrow a phrase from South Park) murder porn, it lies somewhere north of Dateline and south of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That taste barrier, however, does little to diffuse the fundamental tension of true crime consumption. In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, actor Bill Hader initially rejected the premise of guilty pleasure reads: “A real guilty pleasure would be, I don’t know, taking gratification in some stranger’s ghastly death or something — which I guess I do enjoy, because I read a ton of true crime. So, O.K., O.K., I have a guilty pleasure, and it’s true crime.”
Shame and enjoyment collide in guilty pleasure, and it wasn’t until the surging popularity of Serial so seamlessly gave way to Making a Murderer that I began to experience some discomfort of my own. Everywhere I found myself confronted with the economics of our curiosity. I hovered over links to articles with titles like, “If You Liked Serial You’ll Love The Jinx!” and “Twelve Books to Read While You Wait for the Next Season of Serial” and “Making a Murderer Out-Serials Serial.” Beginning to feel caught in a murder-themed cycle of supply and demand, I didn’t click on a single one. Instead, I went rogue and read a book about anarchists.
Dean Strang, identifiable even to a Making a Murderer neophyte as one of Steven Avery’s defence lawyers, is also the author of Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror. Published in 2013, Strang’s book concerns the arrest, trial, imprisonment, eventual acquittal, and deportation of eleven Italian immigrants to the United States, falsely accused of conspiracy after a bomb went off in a Milwaukee police station in 1917. Worse Than the Devil wants to be a history—Strang is clearly more interested in the push and pull of defence and prosecution than he is in the mystery of who planted the bomb—but true crime is a capacious concept, Deflategate and the assassination of Malcolm X under the tent alongside the O. J. Simpson trial and the death of the Lindbergh baby. Worse Than the Devil masters the paper trail, that hallmark of good true crime that brings me so much satisfaction. Turn-of-the-century newspaper articles, ship manifests, legal documents: all the ephemera of Strang’s project are the leftovers of an unsolved case. This is true crime, but reading it, I experience little guilt. No one asked for this story. It simply begged to be told.
As a conventional true crime mystery—that is to say, as a book to which fans of Making a Murderer may potentially turn—Worse Than the Devil suffers from an absence of suspense. Strang considers his subject more parable than phenomenon, and as a result refrains from all but the most necessary scene setting. Nonetheless, Strang’s impulse to tell a representative, rather than a unique, story has a chilling power he could not have anticipated. While true crime narratives are most traditionally and compellingly fuelled by an individual, psychological why, a collective, sociological why may work just as efficiently. And, perhaps, more urgently.
“All of you are aliens,” Judge August C. Backus expounded in 1917, faced with eleven Milwaukeeans. “In this country but a few years. You have cast aside all of the American institutions which have offered you advancement. This is the greatest country in the world. By your anarchistic teachings and doings you sought to destroy by violence. You are not a creative or constructive force.” At its best, Worse Than the Devil echoes not Making a Murderer, but another of the season’s disturbing, if compelling, serial narratives: the GOP debates. Strang’s account of the xenophobic furor surrounding the trial of alleged anarchists and bombers, suspected on the basis of their ethnicity and justifiable resistance to assimilation, is redolent of Trump who, aggressive, orange, combed-over hysteria and all, may actually win the Republican nomination for President.
In the first season of Serial, Sarah Koenig grappled with inconsistencies, and the resulting attention yielded a new hearing for her incarcerated subject. At its best, true crime is research and obsession-fuelled accountability, a sort of literary innocence project. Strang agrees, writing,
The essential point is not that mistaken convictions continue to happen; they will, in any human and thus fallible system of justice. Instead, the essential point is that it often is years after a trial court and one or more appellate courts have confirmed these convictions that the truth comes out—and then often only through the efforts of people who are, relatively speaking, outsiders. It is law students, volunteer lawyers, even journalism students who finally upset the wrongful conviction. Most damning, they typically do so only after months or years of determined resistance by the offices of attorneys general, trial court prosecutors, original defense lawyers, law enforcement agencies, and judges to whom the obligation of doing justice squarely was entrusted.
Apologists insist that such exonerations prove that, in the end, the system works. But a system that ‘works,’ when it works at all, only because volunteers and strangers persist in seeking justice long after duty-bound insiders have failed and quit is a system dependent on happy accidents to cure its unhappy ones. That is not rightly a system of justice at all: it is a system of chance, and a cruel one at that. It is an inverted system that sets self-justification for those on the inside above justice for those it should serve on the outside.
Strang all but invites us to imagine true crime production and consumption as a pure and noble undertaking, as if this broad, broad genre could ever be one thing. There is a place in all of this for amateurs, he suggests. How many amateurs, I wonder. And to what end? True crime will always bring us up short, challenge and distress us. These aren’t nice stories. They show us at our worst.
And, yet, maybe also at our best. I envision myself next year, in front of my Christmas tree, legs propped up, inhaling whatever the injustice of the season happens to be. I’ve gotten there faster than my Twitter friends. I don’t know what they think. All I have is a pile of research, chopped into bite size pieces by whoever is doing the telling. I sift through and weigh the evidence. I try to predict things that have already been written, try to keep an open mind. I wonder what I already know and don’t yet realize. It’s well-measured, this pleasure. Not guilty.
JACKIE HEDEMAN is an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University, where she serves as Reviews & Interviews Editor for The Journal. Her work has appeared in Watershed Review and is forthcoming from The Manifest-Station.