The Best American Crime Reporting 2008

BOOK: The Best American Crime Reporting 2008
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The Best American Crime Reporting 2008

Guest Editor

Jonathan Kellerman

Series Editors

Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook

C
RIME IS BY TURNS COMIC AND TRAGIC.
This year's
Best American Crime Reporting
reflects these critical extremes, along with much that lies in between.

On the side of comedy there is “I'm with the Steelers,” Justin Heckert's hilarious account of an improbable impostor. What man might imagine that he could convince a woman that he was a well-known and often-photographed player for the Pittsburgh Steelers, do this in, of all places, Pittsburgh—a football town if there ever was one—and pull it off not once but repeatedly?

But if evidence—even photographic evidence—is a weak weapon against wishful thinking, so too is critical thinking when confronted with the awesome power of reputation. Malcolm Gladwell's “Dangerous Minds” takes one of modern law enforcement's sacred cows, the criminal profile, and argues—with real rather than fanciful evidence—that it is little more than a sideshow hustle.

Calvin Trillin's “The House Across the Way” is the tale of an island upon which good fences would indeed make good neighbors…if they had any.

These stories, along with Tom Junod's “Mercenary,” a tale of personal mythmaking that truly knew no bounds, and Mark Bowden's “The Ploy,” in which flattery works better than water-boarding on a vain terrorist operative, form the comic boundary of this year's collection of the best of American crime reporting.

Unsurprisingly, personalities, both comic and tragic, sprout like hothouse plants in the worlds of both crime and punishment. In “Dean of Death Row,” Tad Friend chronicles the life and work of one of America's premier death row administrators, while Charles Graeber's “The Tainted Kidney” records an evil man's effort to do at least one good deed. Or was it just an effort to seem good?

Crime, like politics, makes strange bedfellows, and even evil men have buddies, as James Renner makes clear in “The Serial Killer's Disciple,” though in this case evil appears to get the friendship it deserves. The genuinely good deed of a witness determined to give testimony and the terrible penalty he paid is the subject of Jeremy Kahn's harrowing “The Story of a Snitch.” The thugs who took his life are surely deserving of “The Caged Life,” whose daily deprivations are revealed in Alan Prendergast's look inside one of America's foremost super-maximum prisons.

When crime darkens, it does so by degrees, of course, but it rarely seems more sinister than when it is carried out in accordance with state policy, as reported in Jonathan Green's “Murder at 19,000 Feet”; or by the due authorities of the state, as is argued by Pamela Colloff in “Badges of Dishonor”; or even by what amounts to irrational popular will, in this case, of rabidly anti-American sentiment, as chronicled in Dean LaTourrette's scary “A Season in Hell.”

Two stories round out this year's
Best American Crime Reporting.
Nick Schou's “Just a Random Female” darkly demonstrates just how random a random murder can be, while D. T. Max's “Day of the Dead” suggests that even the most celebrated of human crimes can disappear into a fog of mood, insinuation, and coinci
dence, where the facts remain as unknowable as the human mind itself.

This is the seventh edition of
Best American Crime Reporting
(once titled
Best American Crime Writing
but retitled last year to avoid confusion with
Best American Mystery Stories
, as many readers thought both volumes contained fiction), and we are indebted to Jonathan Kellerman for agreeing to be the guest editor this year. Dr. Kellerman, the bestselling author of the Alex Delaware mystery series, has written one of the most interesting and provocative introductions that the series has enjoyed.

While on the subject of guest editors, it seems appropriate to express our profound gratitude to the previous authors who filled that role so admirably, helping to establish this series as the most prestigious of its kind: Nicholas Pileggi (2002), John Berendt (2003), Joseph Wambaugh (2004), James Ellroy (2005), Mark Bowden (2006), and Linda Fairstein (2007).

In terms of the nature and scope of this collection, we defined the subject matter as any factual story involving crime or the threat of a crime that was written by an American or Canadian and first published in the calendar year 2007. Although we examine an enormous number of publications, inevitably the preeminent ones attracted many of the best pieces. All national and large regional magazines were searched for appropriate material, as were nearly two hundred so-called little magazines, reviews, and journals.

We welcome submissions for
The Best American Crime Reporting 2009
by any writer, editor, publisher, agent, or other interested party. Please send the publication or a tear sheet with the name of the publication, the date on which it appeared, and contact information for the author or representative. If first publication was in electronic format, a hard copy must be submitted. All submissions must be received no later than December 31, 2008; anything received after that date will not be read. This is neither arrogant nor capricious. The timely nature of the book forces very tight deadlines that cannot be met if we receive material later than that
date. The sooner we receive articles, the more favorable will be the light in which they are read.

Please send submissions to Otto Penzler, The Mysterious Bookshop, 58 Warren Street, New York, NY 10007. Inquiries may be sent to me at [email protected] Regretfully, materials cannot be returned. If you do not believe the U.S. Postal Service will actually deliver mail and prefer to have verification that it was received, please enclose a self-addressed stamped postcard.

Thank you,
Otto Penzler and
Thomas H. Cook
New York, March 2008

A
SMALL PROPORTION
of human beings—perhaps 1 percent of any given population—is different from the rest of us in ways that wreak havoc on the rest of us.

The cardinal traits of this bunch include superficiality; impulsiveness; self-aggrandizement to the point of delusion; callousness; and, when it suits, outright cruelty. Truth and principle don't intrude upon the world of the disruptors. When they don't lapse into tell-tale glibness, the more socially adroit among them come across as charming, sometimes overwhelmingly charismatic.

They project a preternatural calm that isn't an act. Their resting pulse rate tends to be low, they don't sweat readily—literally and figuratively—nor do they react strongly to pain and fear.

Because of their eerily quiet nervous system, they don't learn readily from experience.

If anyone can fool the polygraph, they can.

Intellectually, they understand the necessity for rules and regulations, but only for others.
They
are exempt from all that nonsense because
they
are special.

The smarter ones among them eschew violence. Not because they abhor bloodletting, but because they realize violence is usually a counterproductive strategy. Some of the cleverest among them run successful Ponzi schemes or engage in hugely profitable insider securities trading. Others rise to the boards of corporations where they coordinate felonies of a subtler nature.

The most ambitious and, arguably, the most dangerous among them fix their eyes on the Oscar of amorality known as political power. Chameleons adroit at tailoring their behavior to the needs of others, they often win elections. Sometimes they simply take by force. In either event, when one of them runs a country, things really get ugly.

The stupid ones, on the other hand, opt for offenses that range from petty to horrific and rarely pan out. They're more likely to end up behind bars.

The disruptors don't comprise the majority of incarcerated criminals. That distinction belongs mostly to people who make poor choices due to bad habits.

When the nasty 1 percent do commit crimes, the offenses are frequently stunningly audacious, cold-blooded, vicious, and terrifying to the rest of us. Because their actions are beyond our ken, we are sometimes seduced into believing the circular logic of their defense attorneys:

Anyone who could chop up six women has to be insane.

Anyone who could poison her own children for insurance money must be crazy.

Wrong.

Insanity—a legal, not a medical concept—simply refers to the inability to understand the essential wrongness of one's acts. The disruptors understand damn well.

They just don't care.

People who get paid to produce jargon have termed the disruptors psychopaths, sociopaths, possessors of antisocial personalities.
For the most part, the labels are interchangeable and emanate from political points of view.

Psychopath implies an internal mental state. Jargonmeisters who favor an emphasis upon individual responsibility go for that one.

Those who prefer to blame an external force, typically that nebulous bogeyman known as “society,” prefer sociopath.

Antisocial personality is a stab at sounding medically diagnostic without giving away one's bias.

“Bad Guy” would be just as good of a label.

Foolish bad guys commit the crimes that bore us.

High-level bad guys—who view crime as a job—begin their iniquitous careers with misdemeanors, but they learn quickly, zipping up the criminal ladder, because they're smart but lack an effective stop mechanism.

The most evil among us commit outrages that enthrall, capturing our attention precisely because the internal world that motivates them is so chillingly barren that they might as well have been reared on Pluto.

The most evil among us do the stuff covered by the media genre known as “true crime.”

Back in the good old days, “true crime” meant delightfully lurid and judgmental pulp magazines, frequently marketed with covers depicting scantily-clad women in the grips of slavering brutes. Think
Thrilling Detective.
A secondary outlet was true-crime books, generally paperback originals, with authorial and editorial emphasis on the bloody and ghastly.

The occasional masterpiece of reporting that ventured beyond ghoulish explication of body fluids and viscera to skillfully explore the events, persona, and sometimes the sick-joke happenstance leading to “senseless” crime, did occasionally elbow its way above the slush pile. (Think the books of the late Jack Olsen.) But that was the exception; this was low-rent territory.

That hasn't changed, but the vehicle of delivery has. Nowadays, “true crime” most frequently refers to that ironically cruel
Grand Guignol mislabeled “reality TV.” And since television is a cheap, quick high for those simply interested in a violence fix, it has achieved rapid dominance. (A fact that might also be explained by the prevalence of amoral, even psychopathic, individuals in what's known in my hometown, L.A., as “The Industry.” What better way to capture psychopaths than to have their portraits painted by other psychopaths?)

The pulps and softcover originals may not have been refined, but they did possess a certain shameless charm. Sadly, they've been wounded grievously, perhaps incurably, by trash TV. But the occasional full-length true-crime print masterpiece continues to surface and thrive for the same reason that high quality crime novels seem impervious to the video onslaught and remain staples of any bestseller list: a great book is able to plumb the depths of human motivation in a way that TV and movies—essentially impressionistic vehicles—cannot.

For the most part, though, the best true-crime writing of today appears on the pages of magazines.

This book showcases the best of the best.

While the ultimate goal of crime-beat reportage—understanding what drives people toward evil—is eons away from being achieved and may in fact never be achieved, the stories in this book will satisfy you intellectually and emotionally because you will be moved to think, feel, puzzle, and sometimes to self-examine.

Every one of these gems is penned by an individual with a strong, distinctive voice, leading to a varied and fascinating lot, stylistically and contextually. And the topics are a deliciously eclectic mix. Sure, there are a few serial lust killer tales. How could there not be? But each has something especially provocative to say about that most terrible of patterns.

At times, the accounts in this book explore crime in the highest of places, reminding us that a geopolitical focus should not obscure the fact that evil deeds emanate from evil people. Particularly fascinating is an account of the strategic planning leading to the capture
of Islamo-fascist kingpin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—a tale that is unquestionably one of the finest police procedurals ever written.

The always provocative essayist Malcolm Gladwell has produced a compelling examination of a topic near and dear to my heart: exposure of the confidence game that is criminal profiling. But even if I didn't agree with him completely, I'd love the piece because it's witty, incisive, and beautifully written.

The eminent humorist Calvin Trillin abandons any pretense of levity in his fascinating look at the genesis of violence on an isolated Canadian island—one of those obscure locales, struggling for its very existence in the face of a rapidly changing world, that few of us are likely to visit. And even if we did ferry over, we couldn't capture the place, or the people, the way Trillin does.

Two of the stories deal with life in prison. One illuminates the perspective of a complex man who's spent a good part of his life on death row—as a custodian of the condemned. The other allows us a peek into the mind of one of the most dangerously violent offenders in the United States and offers a hint of what it might be like to occupy his private hell.

There's a great unsolved mystery—an eerily suggestive psychological autopsy exploring the death of an emotionally tortured, one-shot-wonder master novelist, that manages to leave the reader grandly satisfied. Two unforgettable portrayals of habitual liars, one of whom just might be telling the truth when the truth is most devastating, will leave you thinking about them long after you've read their final paragraphs.

The morally complex account of the painful intersection between public outrage and the attempt, by an undeniably evil man, to do something good leaves us with more questions than answers, but they are questions that need to be faced.

All in all, a page-turning look at the myriad faces of evil.

This is the new face of quality true crime.

Bad guys at their worst, writers at their best.

—Jonathan Kellerman

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