Thursday, November 15, 2012

The true-crime chronicles

[From my Forbes Life column: some favourite literary treatments – non-fictional and fictional – of true crime]

“Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it,” the 19th century historian Henry Thomas Buckle observed, and indeed if you cast a quick eye over the daily news it's easy to see the many links between a societal framework and the crimes that occur in it. Thus, a series of child-murders takes place in a suburb of Delhi, and shortly afterwards it is revealed that one reason the killers got away for as long as they did was the mutual antipathy between the poor people of the area (whose children were mainly the victims) and the local police; the slum-dwellers, living on disputed land, were wary about going to the authorities to register missing-person reports, and when they did they weren't taken seriously, or were hounded.

Such fissures and barriers to communication exist in any society, and many fine books about real-life crime have dwelt on them. Among my favourites is Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a reconstruction of a famous 1860 killing in an English country house. A three-year-old boy – the youngest son of the large Kent family – was found murdered, his little body stuffed into an outdoor “privy” (toilet); the killer was almost certainly one of the 12 people staying in Road Hill House - three servants and nine family members, including a woman who had once belonged to the servant class but had, controversially, become the second wife of the patriarch.

Fascinating though the case is in itself (especially for anyone who enjoys a good locked-room mystery), the power of Summerscale’s book lies in its detailing of a society and the subtle changes it was undergoing. On the one hand, the milieu was a conservative one: the violation of a “respectable” family’s privacy (necessitated by the investigation conducted by the first generation of Scotland Yard detectives) was seen as a crime in its own right; a woman’s discarded night-shift, which may have been important evidence, remained unmentioned by the police because they believed the blood stains on it were menstrual and they didn’t want to have to deal with the garment. But at the same time this was a world that enjoyed peeping into others’ private lives. Little wonder that tabloid journalism was in its infancy, holding up a mirror to the hidden prurience of this society.

A century after the Road Hill murder, that prurience was echoed in a different setting. Gyan Prakash’s marvellous book Mumbai Fables includes (among other stories from Bombay’s past) an account of the 1959 Nanavati case, when a cuckolded husband shot his wife’s lover dead. The story, as related by Prakash in his chapter “The Tabloid and the City”, began on an almost genteel note – Commander Nanavati walks into the office of the Deputy Commissioner, confesses to the murder and is offered a cup of tea – but soon it acquired a more unsavoury tinge. Almost single-handedly responsible for turning the case into a long-running soap opera was the tabloid Blitz, helmed by the dashing Russi Karanjia. “The Nanavati case’s life as a media event is a quintessentially modern story of the entanglement of the city, mass culture and law in a single circuit,” observes Prakash.

A striking detail in his account involves the voyeuristic participation of “ordinary” people: the city’s teenagers, for instance, put new words to the tune of a popular song – “You’re not going to hang, Nanavati/You don’t have to cry.” Similar ghoulishness has pervaded other cases of high-profile crime. After the unmasking of the killer/grave-robber Ed Gein in 1957, local kids chanted variations on Christmas carols (“Deck the halls/with limbs of Molly”). Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is about the classic film (loosely based on Gein’s crimes) but it includes a very creepy account of the arrest of the middle-aged recluse whose gruesome escapades shocked a cosy Wisconsin community - and an equally disturbing insight into the underpinnings of the American dairyland. “The Gein farmhouse,” writes Rebello, referring to a house of horrors filled with disembowelled human cadavers, “offered testimony not only to man’s fathomless capacity for the barbaric, but also to the ability of an entire community to deny its existence.” Anyone acquainted with Gein had more than enough evidence that the man was not right in the head – yet they had chosen to disregard the obvious, even in light of the many mysterious disappearances in the neighbourhood.


Nearly 50 years after the Nanavati incident, another crime of passion involving three people caught Mumbai’s imagination. But it was a less refined age, a time of much more extensive media coverage, and this was a post-liberalisation society made up of people straining for more glamorous lives. The protagonists were a young TV executive named Neeraj Grover, a wannabe actress, Maria Susairaj, and her naval-officer boyfriend Emile Jerome. In Meenal Baghel’s Death in Mumbai, the intersecting stories of these three people becomes a commentary on modern India and its multiple divides: between towns and cities, celebrities and celebrity-aspirants. It also extends beyond the immediate details of the case and covers such disparate material as film director Ram Gopal Varma’s appetite for kinkiness and Ekta Kapoor’s teenage fascination for American soap operas, which eventually spawned a giant dream industry.

This shop, it was his. Isn’t this world enough?” Such is the lament of a murder victim’s father trying to understand why his son needed more than the life he had in Kanpur. Death in Mumbai is a cautionary tale about what might easily happen to people for whom the world is never enough, and yet it passes no facile judgements. It also refuses to get unduly sensationalistic about topics that seem to demand sensationalism. And so, it’s interesting that at a literature festival in Mumbai, Baghel reflected on Janet Malcolm’s remark about the “moral indefensibility” of journalism and recalled a time when she found herself chasing a distressed old man down a spiral staircase in a courthouse, then stopping to ask herself “WHAT am I doing?”

Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer had sharply raised issues of ethics in reportage, using the work of the non-fiction writer Joe McGinniss as a focal point. While researching the 1970 killing of a pregnant woman and her two children, McGinniss spent time with murder accused Jeff MacDonald, husband and father to the victims; he gained MacDonald’s confidence, convinced him that he believed in his innocence, but eventually published a book – Fatal Vision – portraying him as a psychopath who was well capable of the murders.

One of the most celebrated of all true-crime books – Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – has a comparable back-story. As a high-profile member of New York’s literary circles in the late 1950s, Capote became deeply interested in the Kansas murder of the Clutter family, and ended up bonding with one of the arrested killers, Perry Smith. Over a series of meetings Truman won Smith’s trust, even helping him find lawyers to appeal his case. But later, he worried that the murderers might not get the death penalty – and that this would prevent his book from getting the dramatic ending it needed.

This makes In Cold Blood a work of deeper violence than is contained in its subject matter; beneath its narrative is a story about a man sacrificing his humanity at the altar of his art. And yet – this is a function of Capote’s immense talent – it is an empathetic, moving book, as in the passage where Mr Clutter genially gives a group of people permission to hunt pheasant on his land. “I’m not as poor as I look. Go ahead, get all you can,” he said. Then, touching the brim of his hat, he headed for home and the day’s work, unaware that it would be his last. And the final scene, where a detective meets one of the victim’s friends near the four graves, is as elegantly novelistic an ending as you can imagine.

Also novelistic – if not quite as skilfully constructed – is S Hussain Zaidi’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai (co-written with Jane Borges). Zaidi is best known for his Black Friday, a meticulous reportage-oriented work about the planning, execution and aftermath of the 1993 terror attacks on Mumbai, but even more engrossing from the human-interest perspective is this book about the forgotten women of Mumbai’s underworld. It weaves together 13 stories, beginning with a profile of the iconic Jenabai Daruwalli, the “wily old woman of Dongri”, who was like a sister to Haji Mastan and a surrogate mother to Dawood Ibrahim. Jenabai’s role in effecting a compromise between “Mumbai’s warring gangsters” in Mastan’s bungalow is a key passage here, and the narrative includes minor stylistic flourishes, alternating from a reporter’s detached perspective to first-person accounts by such figures as Abu Salem’s moll Monica Bedi.

In such works of non-fiction, we see how the line between journalism and dramatic embellishment can get blurred. But true crime has also been given insightful fictional treatment, as in Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George – the story of two men whose paths briefly crossed in a case that made headlines in early 20th century Britain. George Edalji was convicted (on flimsy evidence) of mutilating farm animals and spent three years in prison; on his release he appealed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who proceeded to turn detective himself and helped clear Edalji’s name. In Barnes’s hands, this story becomes a thoughtful examination of the ambiguities that govern human actions, the interior lives of two very different men and the conflicts between faith and knowledge. What can one ever truly know? – this is a question that rears its head repeatedly in this narrative; Barnes contrasts the facile workings of detective fiction with the many uncertainties of the real world. (“Holmes was never obliged to stand in the witness box and have his suppositions and intuitions and immaculate theories ground to fine dust...”)

In True History of the Kelly Gang, that master of voices Peter Carey creates a thoroughly believable portrait of a person, the times he lives in, the world he comes from, the rituals and inner workings of that world. In the process, he takes a figure from misty legend – the 19th century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly – and brings him alive in a scarily immediate way. “God willing I shall live to see you read these words to witness your astonishment and see your dark eyes widen and your jaw drop when you finally comprehend the injustice we Irish suffered in this present age,” writes Carey’s Kelly, addressing his daughter. This is a story about a social setting that becomes a springboard for crime, about modernity cautiously brushing against the law of the jungle, and apathetic authority figures who are unwilling to provide even-handed justice. But its real achievement is the breathless, unpunctuated, colloquial style used to suggest how the barely literate Kelly might have told his story.

Something comparable is achieved by Robert Graves in I, Claudius, about crimes that are somewhat different from those in the books mentioned above – crimes that were, in fact, committed within the aegis of authority. Graves takes a magnifying glass to the violent excesses and decadence of the Roman Empire – the homicidal megalomania, the almost casual poisonings and betrayals – and provides, among many other brilliant touches, a riveting portrait of the monstrous Caligula, aspirer to God-status. Like Mario Puzo did in The Godfather, this book places us right in the midst of a violent family’s life, making it intimate and easy to relate to, even when we disapprove of the characters’ actions.

But my favourite fictionalised take on true crime is the sprawling graphic novel From Hell, written by that giant of the form, Alan Moore, and masterfully drawn in sooty black-and-white by Eddie Campbell. From Hell is nothing less than an examination of Victorian society through the prism of the notorious Jack the Ripper murders, which held London in thrall through the second half of 1888 (and created urban legends for decades more). But it is also a commentary on the complex history of London, the vast class divide and the exploitation of women. Moore’s knack for linking events through time and space allow him to throw in fascinating, multilayered asides involving Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man, Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde and even Adolf Hitler (who was conceived around the time that the Ripper killings began, and who would become the poster boy for a century of very different horrors that lay ahead). 

"The Ripper murders, happening when and where they did, were almost like an apocalyptic summary of that age,” Moore said once. In his view of things, the murders were also a dark, mystical foreshadowing of the 20th century – an age that was expected to be more civilised but in which incomprehensible crimes would continue to be committed, and a variety of books - introspective, gratuitous, mournful, sensationalistic - would continue to be written about them.

[An earlier Forbes Life column about popular-science books is here]


  1. This post is very engaging. A query: how many books do you read in a day? :)

    I am really impressed by the comprehensiveness of this piece.

  2. Anjali: thanks, but I don't usually do any fresh reading for the Forbes Life columns - I pick themes/topics that I have already read a number of books on. (I also sometimes cannibalise my earlier writings - I have written before about some of the books mentioned in this piece.)

    More generally: when I was at my most prolific and enthusiastic as a book reviewer, I would do up to 7-8 reviews a month (and read an additional 8-10 books that would get mentioned somewhere or the other). But those days are long gone.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this!

  4. This was a wonderful wonderful read. I've been meaning to pick up J.R Moehringer's Sutton based on Willie Sutton's life. Should get to it right away.

  5. A wonderful post and a great read. Thanks Jai!

    Couldn't help but highlight a small observation I made a couple of years ago when I first read about the Ripper murders in detail.

    The Ripper murders began in 1888. Same year, a certain gentleman from India arrived in London to study law and become a barrister. Before leaving India, being a devot Hindu, he had taken a vow to abstain from meat, alcohol and promiscuity but at the same time he tried to assimilate himself into the Victorian culture of the day. But things didn't seem to go the way he had imagined, to the extent, he was thrown out of the first class compartment in-spite holding a valid ticket.

    As you aptly quoted Henry Buckle, the question now is - were the Ripper murders work of a "foreigner" trying to find "his place" in the society that prepared or compelled him to take such drastic steps? Also isn't it interesting to note, the last murder allegedly committed by Jack the Ripper, occurred in 1891, the same year the fore-mentioned gentleman left London to return to India.

    Sorry about a long comment. But had not the first Ripper murder occurred a few weeks before his arrival in London, I find it very interesting how all the timelines seem to align and add up. It would have given a new twist/direction to the Jack the Ripper mystery. But analyzing the murders and what happened next (from history as we know it) from a true-crime perspective, ultimately everything would have boiled down simply to a man's dark hidden past, his redemption in championing the cause of the society/masses and finally rising to the God-status.

    You may choose not to publish my comment on your blog, but I would definitely like to hear from you on what you think.

  6. Karn: no reason not to publish your comment. I don't know if I would take such a theory too seriously (and I can't really tell if you mean it seriously), but I agree that it's a fascinating speculation either way. One of the first things that occurred to me when I read From Hell - especially given how meticulous Alan Moore is in incorporating real-life events and personalities into the work - was the thought that Gandhi was a young student freshly arrived in London at just about that time. And living just a couple of miles away (or less) from that room in Miller's Court where, in the early hours of November 9, 1888, the 20th century was conceived (in Moore's partly ironic, partly mystical thesis).

    Incidentally, it may interest you to know that Lord Ganesha (and Joseph Merrick's Elephant Man as his earthly representation) is alluded to in From Hell.

  7. But things didn't seem to go the way he had imagined, to the extent, he was thrown out of the first class compartment in-spite holding a valid ticket.

    That happened in South Africa I think. Not in England.

  8. Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it

    I have never quite warmed up to this theory. It isn't the society's fault that some people infringe the law. It's the fault of the criminals themselves. Yes, it sounds simplistic. But it is as simple as that.

    Also the more heterogenous the society, the greater the frequency of criminal behavior. A society where everyone shares the same set of values and ideals and notions of morality is easier to govern than a melting pot where there are multiple communities, each with its own idea of right and wrong evolved over centuries.

  9. From Hell is nothing less than an examination of Victorian society through the prism of the notorious Jack the Ripper murders, which held London in thrall through the second half of 1888 (and created urban legends for decades more). But it is also a commentary on the complex history of London, the vast class divide and the exploitation of women

    Well, again there is this veiled suggestion here that it is Victorian morality and Victorian values that is somehow responsible for all the crimes of that era. If that's the case there must be no crime at all in England today - a godless society with no cultural repressions of any kind. But it was only last year that we saw hundreds of young thugs running wild across English towns and causing incalculable damage. I doubt if a parallel exists in the Victorian era. I wonder what aspect of "society" prompted these 21st century thugs to commit their crimes (going by Henry Buckle's theory)