Stranger Than Fiction: The Best True-Crime Stories – New York Times

Joe Corbett was more impressed with Ad’s position than Ad was. A plotter and a planner who didn’t think robbing a bank was worth the effort, Corbett picked a softer target, and on the morning of Feb. 9, 1960, he intercepted Ad at the Turkey Creek Bridge as he was driving to work. Somehow, the kidnapping turned into what may have been an accidental killing, leading to “the largest U.S. manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping.” Although Jett’s chronological narrative is pretty straightforward, certain forensic details, like the use of fingerprint analysis and dental records, should please techno-wonks — as should the fact that the case was solved by identifying varieties of paper stock and models of typewriters.


John Reginald Halliday Christie

PA Images, via Getty Images

Did the smog smother the murders or did the murders obscure the smog? That’s the terrible question Kate Winkler Dawson raises in DEATH IN THE AIR: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City (Hachette, $27), her deeply researched and densely atmospheric study of two intersecting events in London, the murder spree of John Reginald (Reg) Christie and the Great Smog of 1952.

It was bitter cold that December, prompting the city’s eight million residents to pile on the coal briquettes and draw close to the fire. At the time, Britain was selling its best black coal to foreign countries and palming off the dirty brown stuff on its own people, who couldn’t afford the better coal anyway. But this cheaper means of heating proved deadly, asphyxiating 4,000 Londoners and leaving thousands more gasping. The death toll was so high that undertakers ran out of coffins. Shifting weather patterns contributed to the disaster, trapping pollutants over the city, grounding planes and suspending traffic. Theaters, hotels and restaurants operated on reduced staff when workers were unable to report; in any case, few of their patrons were willing or able to venture out. Day after day, the “peasouper” hung in the air and the roaring fires burned in the city’s hearths. “Swirls of fog,” Dawson explains, “were romantic and beguiling to Londoners.” And the “affinity for an open fire was virtually a requirement for being British.”

Meanwhile, the fog rolling over 10 Rillington Place proved a satanic blessing, smothering the little garden where Reg Christie was industriously planting the bodies of the eight women he’d killed. (Ironically, he’d enticed some of them into his flat with the promise of a special cough medicine that would clear their smog-filled lungs.) This diligent gardener wasn’t entirely secretive about what he was up to, even using a human thighbone to prop up the garden fence. “ ‘Neighbors watched me digging,’ he said. ‘They nodded ‘cheerios’ to me.’ ” Until he was brought to trial the following year, the infamous “Beast of Rillington Place” may have been the only person in London to delight in the Great Fog.

Any book with “Belle Époque” in the title puts me in mind of Woody Allen’s enchanting fantasy film, “Midnight in Paris,” in which Pablo Picasso’s mistress and her present-day American lover travel back in time to the glorious era when Paris was the playground of great artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas. John Merriman’s BALLAD OF THE ANARCHIST BANDITS: The Crime Spree That Gripped Belle Époque Paris (Nation Books, $28) tells another story of that era — not the romance of the “Ville Lumière” with its dazzling palaces and grand hotels but the dark tale of a city in the grip of a crime wave. “The guidebooks never mentioned the quartiers populaires,” Merriman notes, “or the impoverished suburbs of Paris, where most of the workers who ran the trams, built the popular new cars and cleaned the city lived.” It took the anarchists to argue, often violently, that working people were suffering from “increased mechanization, the decline of apprenticeship, the increase in piece rates, speedups and the beginnings of scientific management in large factories.”


The Bonnot Gang as depicted in the Parisian press.

Merriman’s subject is the rise and fall of the Bonnot Gang, but he shrewdly wraps his historical analysis in the arms of a love story. Rirette Maîtrejean and Victor Kibaltchiche met on the battlements of the class war, which fueled their affair and gave it purpose. But Jules Bonnot, the leader of their gang, was more committed to plunder than to the cause. “Our blood pays for the luxury of the wealthy” went the anarchist battle cry. “Our enemy is the master. Long live anarchy!” Yet Bonnot just wanted to get his hands on that upper-class loot.

Some true-crime books aren’t the least bit romantic, and they’re usually the ones that break your heart. Dashka Slater wrote THE 57 BUS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17.99) for teenagers, but her audience should also include parents. The two youngsters from Oakland, Calif., whose paths cross so disastrously are both extremely likable. Sasha, a boy who attends a small private school and “identifies as agender,” is on the bus going home when Richard, a junior at the public high school who’s goofing off, puts a lighter to the gauzy skirt Sasha’s wearing. The skirt goes up in flames, Sasha receives second- and third-degree burns, and Richard is accused of two hate-crime felonies. Charged as an adult, he faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.

Slater, who wrote a shorter account of this story that ran in The New York Times Magazine, views these bare facts from a firm sociological perspective. Sasha comes from a nice neighborhood up in the hills. Richard lives in the flatlands of East Oakland, where two-thirds of the city’s murders occur. “The schools are shabbier here; the test scores are lower. There’s more trash on the streets, more roaming dogs, more liquor stores, fewer grocery stores.” Slater doesn’t apologize for Richard; she just asks us to consider where he came from and to question the ingrained prejudice of a legal system that eventually locked him up for five years. Even Sasha’s father recognized that what Richard did was “impulsive, immature and unpremeditated.”

Michael Arntfield makes the most of the local crimes he covers in MAD CITY: The True Story of the Campus Murders That America Forgot (Little A, $24.95) by hitching them to some of Wisconsin’s more flamboyant murder cases. Regional pride was excuse enough to bring up notables like the “Plainfield Ghoul,” Ed Gein (“a serial killer and body snatcher whose crimes inspired the Robert Bloch novel and subsequent Alfred Hitchcock film, ‘Psycho,’ as well as the comparatively down-market ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ franchise that followed”), and the “Milwaukee Cannibal” Jeffrey Dahmer. Not to mention the “Vampire of Düsseldorf,” an infamous German murderer whose mummified head came ashore in the baggage of a returning World War II soldier. (It continues to be the prize attraction in a little museum in the tourist town of Wisconsin Dells.)

Arntfield presents his murder case as “perhaps the greatest story never told in American history, at least the history of American crime.” Like his literary style, that claim is overblown. But the story of Christine Rothschild and Linda Tomaszewski still deserves to be told. In 1967, the girls met and became friends at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The late ’60s were a time when protest marches were replacing pep rallies and coeds no longer wanted to be called coeds. Christine had a room on the ground floor of Ann Emery Hall, a genteel women’s residence with “no controlled entry, no intercom, no cameras or convex mirrors, and no sign-in book.” She was unaware that a stalker was paying her nightly visits (by way of her window) until he stepped up his twisted courtship with creepy phone calls.

Once she’d identified her stalker as 42-year-old Niels Bjorn Jorgensen, a third-year medical school resident, Christine told the campus police, whose advice was simply to stay alert and buy a rape whistle. Luckily, she’d also confided in Linda. Christine wound up beaten and stabbed to death, and her friend was the only person with the grit to pursue Jorgensen — across the country, for 40 years! As a grim reminder of what he’d done, for many of those years Linda also sent him a card on Valentine’s Day. As with so many true-crime touches, that one’s better than fiction.

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