Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Misshelved True Crime

While one might think the content of a non-fiction work indicates where in the store it will be shelved, this isn't always true. Today we will examine three books, all of which by content are clearly True Crime, but might be shelved elsewhere at the behest of the publisher's marketing department.    

     The first and most horrific title is A Stolen Life: A Memoir by Jaycee Dugard. The author was abducted at age eleven and lived the next eighteen years in a backyard shed in Antioch, CA. Her captor was a sex offender and the book does not spare much detail as to the circumstances she faced. I haven't read it, and maybe never will, as these particular gruesome details are too much for me. This title is marketed as a memoir, and I do trust the people at Simon & Schuster to know how from whence their stock will best sell. John Glatt's book on the case, Lost and Found, is shelved in True Crime, and there's no reason for Dugard's account to be anywhere else, except the belief that folks who do not browse True Crime will buy it.

      Just recently published and expertly done is Killer On The Road by Ginger Strand, published by the University of Texas Press. The back cover identifies the subject matter as "History," which is true in a sense but also disingenuous. The author looks at the effect the national highway system has had on murder in America. Most people today have lived with highways all their lives, so do not appreciate what an incredible change this public works project had on the country. She looks at particular cases in depth, and has no shortage of material to draw from. From my perspective, the greatest chapter concerns the Atlanta child killings of the early 1980s. The stated goal of building the freeway system through the heart of the city was to provide rapid access from the suburbs to the downtown core. As it happened, many thousands of residential housing units were destroyed, almost all of which had been occupied by black people. The black neighborhoods remaining in the shadows of the on-ramps were physically and economically divided from each other and the rest of the city. The result was neighborhoods which had not been poor became so, and those that were poor became desperately so. As readers of True Crime have noted again and again, the poorer the missing person, the less the police investigate. Students of the genre will be excited here, as for this chapter, Strand relies heavily on an out-of-print & scarce title, The List by Chet Dettlinger. He was an detective with the Atlanta police, one of many assigned to the case, and became rather critical of how the investigation was handled. When Wayne Williams went on trial for two of these killings, Dettlinger worked with the defense. Strand meshes the disregard for downtown Atlanta blacks by federal and local governments with the inability of all involved to stop these children from being killed. Once Williams was convicted of the two counts of murder, almost all of the twenty-plus remaining unsolved cases were closed. The final chapter of Killer On The Road examines the physically and psychologically punishing job of cross-country trucking, and the extent to which this profession attracts and/or creates killers. This book is highly recommended.

     Our final tome today is 2009's Police Interrogation and American Justice by USF professor Richard Leo. We shelve this title in Legal Studies, and have been able to sell roughly one a year since it came out. I'm not sure how much longer it will remain in print, but this book is important to an understanding of how the criminal justice system works in practice. Leo sat in on hundreds of hours of interrogations in East Bay police departments, and his research does not instill confidence in their methods. The list of True Crime books wherein a false confession enables the actual perpetrator to continue to victimize others would be long indeed. I: The Creation of a Serial Killer by Jack Olsen, Central Park Five by Sarah Burns, and The Devil's Knot by Mara Leveritt are three we carry new. This nearly happened in Bringing Adam Home by Lee Standiford. Edward Humes's out-of-print Mean Justice describes the production of false confessions as being considered quality police work in the eyes of exceptionally dangerous Kern County cops and prosecutors. Of course, coercing someone into an undeserved prison term is a hell of a crime in itself. Society is doubly victimized as the actual criminal remains free. Police and prosecutors have proven extremely reluctant to re-evaluate their techniques, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of their failures.

     Crime and anti-social deviance permeate our society. For sure Business, Environmental Studies, Political Science, Sociology, and any History section will have books just as fearsome as those to be found in True Crime.