Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Non-Fiction: The Best American Crime Reporting 2010 edited by Stephen J. Dubner

Publisher Ecco Books’ Best American Crime Reporting series, now in its ninth year, is a must-read for anyone interested in first-class journalism and reportage, great writing, criminology, true-crime tales and the human (criminal) condition. At 384 pages, the 2010 anthology comprises 15 stories, plus a poem by Calvin Trillin from his “Deadline Poet” column in The Nation. Other source publications include Harper’s, The New Yorker, Texas Monthly, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and Denver, Colorado’s 5280 magazine.

In a brave move, this collection leads off with what many readers will see as a hypocritical and unseemly defense, by various Hollywood luminaries, of film director Roman Polanski, who’s been dogged for the last three decades by charges that he raped a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s. A second piece, “The Celebrity Defense,” also deals masterfully with the rape, Polanski’s flight to and exile in Europe, and his more recent detention in Switzerland, much to the shock of film-world celebs. (You might recall that a similarly robust defense was mounted in Ireland by the artistic elite after allegations of pedophilia were raised, in the documentary Fairytale of Katmandu, against prominent Irish-language poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh.) As of this writing, Polanski has been released from house arrest and will not be extradited to the United States.

It’s typical of the Best American Crime Reporting series that it should include black humor, and this new collection keeps up the tradition. “Smooth Sailing” details the story of the totally unsmooth Stacy Stith facing his 112th conviction in 2010. His first conviction dates from when he was just 13 years old , and he accumulated 50 convictions by the time he turned 19. Now Stith faces incarceration until 2028, when he will be 58 years old. Obviously not a natural-born gangster. Meanwhile, “The Great Buffalo Caper” is a splendid tale of mysticism, artistry, insurance fraud and criminal damage that would do Ripley’s Believe It or Not! proud. (Spoiler -- it already has!)

“Sex, Lives and Videotape” details the story of Swiss serial gigolo Helg Sgarbi, who attempted to extort millions of dollars from Susanne Klatten, the already married BMW heiress (worth $12 billion) with whom he once carried on an affair. Sgarbi’s plans backfired in spectacular form when, with Germanic grit, Klatten took her troubles to the police. She was at least the sixth wealthy heiress Sgarbi had managed to relieve of money -- $38 million all told. Although Sgarbi is currently serving a jail term in Germany, the $10 million he finagled from Klatten has not yet been recovered and will, it’s supposed, allow him to start anew when he is released. BMW shares have not suffered as a result of this scandal.

The history of Ponzi schemes, with special emphasis on American investment adviser Bernie Madoff, is examined in depth in “Madoff and His Models.” Charles Ponzi’s original, 1920s scheme was amateurish compared to Madoff’s extravagant one of the last two decades. After building an aura of trust and exclusivity, he siphoned billions of dollars from normally savvy individuals and institutions. Elsewhere in this collection, the historical analysis and investigation of the man who killed John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, proves that scholarly articles and enquiry can uncover a wealth of information. The focus of “The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot Lincoln” is Union Army soldier Boston Corbett, who not only killed Booth but castrated himself with a pair of scissors, displayed conspicuous valor during the Civil War, survived the notorious Andersonville prison camp, lived as a recluse, was committed to an asylum, escaped and finally disappeared in the mid-1890s. Corbett’s early career as a hatter -- which exposed him to mercury, an element then employed indiscriminately in hat manufacturing, and known to produce the symptoms of madness (hence the phrase “mad as a hatter”) -- might explain some of his behavior.

Wrongful incarcerations are depressingly routine nowadays. But even the most jaundiced skeptic of the U.S. justice system would be struck by the conviction and later execution of Todd Willingham for the alleged murder of his three baby daughters. In the story “Trial by Fire,” we learn that, despite the absence of any motive for the crime, and in the face of Willingham’s noted devotion to his offspring, he came under suspicion of killing those children in a 1991 house fire in Texas. Witness testimony changed after an arson investigation incorrectly concluded that accelerants had been used to start the blaze. Psychiatrist James P. Grigson, known as Dr. Death because his appearance in a courtroom guaranteed a guilty verdict for any defendant, was later disbarred for offering false testimony. To date, Willingham -- who was executed back in 2004 -- has not been exonerated, but it seems likely he was factually and legally innocent.

Also highlighted in this edition of Best Crime Reporting is the abduction and disappearance of school boy Etan Patz from a busy New York City street in 1979 (“What Happened to Etan Patz?”). Abduction of another hue commands centerstage in “The Snatchback,” which looks at the activities of Gus Zamora Jr., an ex-Army ranger who, for a price, takes children from one parent and jurisdiction, and returns them to what he determines is the “right” parent.

The Chessboard Killer,” which recalls the history of Russian serial killer Alexander Yurievich Pichuskin, aka The Maniac, is sure to cause readers of this book some disquiet. That mild-mannered man was arrested in 2006 and convicted of 48 murders, but his total number of killings could reach as high as 63. In the anonymous urban sprawl of post-Soviet Union Russia, where ennui dominated, The Maniac began his killing spree. Such was the absence of community and an effective police force, however, that no alarms were raised. As Pichushkin’s mania grew, he became less controlled and careful. Although he knew his last victim had left a note with her son, telling him that she was meeting with Pichushkin, The Maniac could not suppress his violent urges.

The most chilling story in this book, though, has got to be “The Sicario.” In it, an assassin used by the Mexican drug cartels explains his modus operandi. A former policeman, he outlines a system of endemic corruption, and tells about the sway of the drug cartels and how he worked for those cartels kidnapping and then executing rival gang members, hostages, informers and ransom abductees without any compulsion. It is a grim reminder of why the drug wars in Mexico are so intractable.

One reason the Best Crime Reporting series has been so popular is that its contributors are seasoned journalists, who hone their stories under the guidance of demanding magazine editors. The other reason is the variety of crimes covered. If you don’t already own them, you should buy the first eight entries in this series. The writing is stylish, taut and absolutely unforgettable. ◊

Seamus Scanlon is a librarian and professor at The City College of New York. He has contributed fiction to the Global City Review, Promethean, the Review of Post Graduate English Studies, and the Journal of Experimental Fiction. Scanlon was a finalist in the 2009 New Irish Writing Awards and has written for The Rap Sheet.

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