We’ve moved!
Visit the new Library of America blog at our new website: www.loa.org/news-and-views

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Calvin Trillin, A. J. Liebling, Dorothy Kilgallen on reporters and murders

In his review this week of Janet Malcolm’s new book, Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, Dwight Garner reminds us that before Calvin Trillin was The Nation’s Deadline Poet or The New Yorker’s “happy eater,” he was famed for his artful murder reportage:
In his best book, the nonfiction collection Killings (1984), Calvin Trillin described what attracts him—and so many other writers—to murder stories. “When someone dies suddenly shades are drawn up,” Mr. Trillin wrote. Lives are laid bare. A murder “gives us an excuse to be there,” he said, “poking around in somebody’s life.”
In New York City at the dawn of the twentieth century, when William Randolph Hearst’s Evening Journal was slugging it out for readers with Joseph Pulitzer’s Evening World—and the morning World’s separate staff battled to find headlines more lurid than the Evening World’s—murder reporting could get dangerously competitive. A. J. Liebling deftly chronicled this blood sport in “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman”:
Reporters developed their own leads in solving crimes, outbidding the police for stool pigeons and at times outbidding the detective branch for details observed by uniformed men. Then they would follow through in person, “arresting” suspects, if the latter didn’t appear dangerous, and extorting confessions from them. These they would publish as scoops. The practice sometimes proved momentarily awkward when it developed that a reporter had abducted an innocent party, but there were few such mistakes a ten-dollar bill wouldn’t square.
Nowadays, Garner writes, “When reporters talk about covering killings, they are really talking, most of the time, about covering trials.” Malcolm’s new book concerns the 2008 Borukhova murder trial in Queens and, Garner notes, Malcolm “writes sourly about journalism” in this context:
Human frailty continues to be the currency in which it trades. Malice remains its animating impulse.... A trial offers unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness.
The evidence in True Crime: An American Anthology, however, strongly suggests that American murder trials have a long history of bringing out the prurient and cruel in reporters. “Heartless” is certainly an apt description of Dorothy Kilgallen’s 1935 portrait of the lover of murderer Robert Allen Edwards in “Sex and the All-American Boy”:
It was the consensus among my male colleagues, who either saw Margaret Crain in the flesh or studied her photographs, that she had about as much sex appeal as a pound of chopped liver. At twenty-three she was thin, dark-haired, shapeless, with a hawklike nose that seemed always to be sniffing something unpleasant.... If ever a truck driver had whistled at Margaret, his license would have been revoked immediately due to defective vision.
Harold Schechter, editor of True Crime, addressed this aspect of the genre’s writers in his LOA interview (PDF):
I don’t know if true crime writers were more guilty of such cattiness than other journalists of the day. But they certainly were less PC than their counterparts tend to be today—another example of the way true crime writings reflect changing social standards.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: True Crime: An American Anthology (includes Calvin Trillin’s “A Stranger with a Camera,” A. J. Liebling’s “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman,” and Dorothy Kilgallen’s “Sex and the All-American Boy”)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Wikio - Top Blogs - Literature