True crime books are a kind of porn. They all involve getting a squiz at what goes on behind closed doors. The ethics of this are obviously problematic: a reader doesn’t need to be gifted to know there’s something a tad icky about getting off on other people’s moral failures and the resulting harm. That the voyeurism is built upon matters already in the public sphere and of public interest doesn’t lessen the sense of perving, peeping on things in the street from our safe suburban homes doesn’t mean we’re not peeping. Mainly we’re peeping on people less fortunate than ourselves: poor, black, uneducated, emotionally unstable, in thrall to drugs and alcohol, traumatized, damaged, or simply fucked up. True crime books map out these broken peripheries, these lives of transgressive hopelessness.
How they do it, and the care they take with difficult lives, is the core measure of true crime books. Some books aren’t much more than splatter written down. They’re crude and awful and dwell mainly upon the crime and the criminal. Descriptions and expositions are the default mode. There’s usually a lot of blood and weapons and horror. Masculinity as causal factor is usually in there somewhere. In Australia Underbelly had cornered the market for this sort of thing. Blokes and guns, tits, hot cars, and dodgy shit going pear-shaped leading to a pathetic conflagration occasioning the death of someone we don’t care about anyway. These are airport novels without the novel, Turner Diaries for suburbanites.
The central message of the gore’n’guns (or, crime’n’time) true crime books is that all these people are not like us. These petty victims and culprits are as distant as Mexican drug lords and their unidentified prey buried in the desert, and even more cartoonish. Not only can’t we care for these people, we need not to. The reader is expected to find pleasure in the wanton lives and deaths of people so distant from normative values that their demise is ultimately a reinforcement of those values. It’s a horrid little set up, and all we can do is be aware that these representations are about as close to actual lives as Road Runner and Coyote are to zoology.
Some other books try a lot harder to know that victims and culprits are, or were, real people and they impacted on other real people, people who might be behind us in the queue at Woolworths. Affecting true crime books engage with the reader about how both the perpetrators and patsies are just like us, their agency and losses are just like our own. The close examination of people, place and time enable a telling aide de memoire regarding how people are people and the unthinkable is rarely so taboo as we hope. Unthinkability is not much of a protection at all.
I’ve read some good books that take the thinkability of the unthinkable as their central object of enquiry. Peter Lalor’s Blood Stain tells the sorry tale of Katherine Knight’s 2001 murder of her de facto, John Price, in the upper Hunter Valley. Knight’s gruesome act (including cooking and serving a number of body parts) is never treated as some distant mystery but rather as a material state of affairs which came to pass, somehow. Tracking that somehow is what Lalor does with skill and care, moving a finger across an invisible map of human motivation to the spring morning when Price’s body parts were found hanging from a hook in the lounge room.
Another good one is Karen Kissane’s Silent Death which deals with the 2003 murder of Julie Ramage in Melbourne by her husband James. James Ramage wasn’t found guilty of murder, he plead provocation and the jury found him guilty of manslaughter, ‘cause you know it was so provocative his wife didn’t love him anymore. The heart of Kissane’s book is that Julie Ramage was murdered and a defence of provocation is no defence at all, just an institutionalisation of blokes not being able to control their temper, and excusing them for it. Kissane’s raging disbelief that James Ramage and a jury of his peers found that blokes can’t control themselves when their wives aren’t in love with them anymore simmers throughout the book, never causing bubbles to break the surface but you can feel the heat. That James and Julie were an upper echelon suburban couple with teenage kids in private school and a nice big Toorak tractor means that it isn’t possible to put Julie Ramage’s death in the unthinkable basket. Everyone has a kitchen and Julie Ramage died in hers.
Equally good as a piece of true crime is Carly Crawford’s The Maria Korp Case, in which another woman is murdered though this time because he doesn’t love her anymore. Maria Korp does a number of things to try to keep her husband’s love but she doesn’t feel right and he doesn’t want her anyway, he just doesn’t want her to leave. The narrative Crawford offers is one about the space created by mobile phones and online profiles to engage in deception and to create an endlessly convoluted trail of heartbreak and disappointment. Joe Korp (and his lover Tania Herman) beat Maria to unconsciousness and put her in a car boot to expire. She didn’t, she was found but never regained consciousness. Joe Korp committed suicide on the day of his wife’s funeral.
Maria Korp looked like the woman who lives two doors down, and her husband like the bloke who sold garage rolladoors. They were nowhere near the unthinkable until they were. Crawford does an admirable job of telling this story and making it clear that the unthinkable was, for Maria Korp, completely unthinkable until the moment her husband hit her. Crawford isn’t just outraged at the awfulness of the acts perpetrated, she’s completely aware that the day before it all happened there was nothing to separate Joe & Maria Korp from half a million other couples in Melbourne. She cares about the slimness of that separation, and her care guides the story she tells.
Crawford, Kissane and Lalor are not all that concerned with what happened, you can google that, but rather in how we are part of those stories, how we participate (or, more telling fail to participate) when things go horribly wrong. There may not be too many true crime books that tell their stories with more than a passing interest in why we’re reading them but these three are centrally concerned with what we, as a community, do with stories of harm and how we make sense of them, how they become so terribly thinkable.