True crime books are my brain candy. I know, I know, I’m weird. But look – one of my main characters is an FBI profiler. So I justify my enjoyment by claiming I’m doing “research.” Really. That’s what I’m doing. Serious hard work.
I’ve always loved a good true crime book. I love watching police detectives piece together the various clues and build a case. It’s intellectually stimulating (well, the kind of true crime I read is, anyway – I try to stay away from the more sensationalist bullshit). But sometimes, it’s heavy going. After a while, all of the authors start to sound the same. It’s all very somber. The detectives are heroes, the criminal is dangerous, the victims are tragic, the survivors noble, etc. etc.
This is why I love Simon Read.
I met Simon just after his first book, On the House: The Bizarre Killing of Michael Malloy, was published. I dropped in on The Writer forum thread where he announced the happy news and expressed my congratulations. We’ve been fast friends ever since.
When I picked up On the House, I was expecting the usual. I didn’t get the usual. Simon doesn’t do average. The very last thing you expect to do while reading a true crime book is start laughing your ass off, but I laughed nearly the whole way through. He’d discovered the most inept band of crooks ever to disgrace the 1930s and pulled absolutely no punches denigrating them. The victim became a virtual comic Superman, totally indestructible and utterly oblivious to the fact that his “friends” wanted to murder him for insurance money. Simon gave due respect to the victim and the detectives who eventually solved the crime, but he didn’t minimize the stupidity of the Keystone Kriminals his tale centered around at all.
John Douglas, FBI profiler extraordinaire, once said that society treats serial killers with too much respect, treating them as if they’re some sort of special evil rather than the inadequate losers they are. We feed their fantasies of being “important” by speaking of their crimes in hushed, horrified tones and using their full names. What we should be doing, he said, is treating them with contempt. Trot out despised childhood nicknames, highlight the fact that they’re useless pieces of shit, take away their mystique, and point them out as the useless pricks they are.
Simon has absolutely no trouble doing that. His second book, In the Dark: The True Story of the Blackout Ripper, was far more serious than On the House. It dealt with a serial killer who haunted London’s streets, preying on vulnerable women, during the Blitz. Most authors would have treated this subject with a sort of awed reverence, turned the Blackout Ripper into a terrifying monster, and made the whole thing feel profound. Not Simon. He managed to tease out every last inadequacy the killer possessed and waved it around for the world to see. You were left with the sense that here was a killer who was a clever loser, but ultimately a loser. And I loved it.
Having the opportunity to read it in manuscript form was even more awesome. It’s good to know the author!
Simon’s finished his third installment in the true crime genre, War of Words: A True Tale of Newsprint and Murder. I have been salivating for this book for nearly two years now, ever since Simon told me its premise:
Gun-toting newspaper publisher Charles de Young won circulation wars by spilling ink that destroyed political candidates he didn’t like—and Isaac Kalloch, a hellfire preacher whose lust for the ladies equaled his craving to be mayor, was an obvious target. First angry words flew, then bullets, when de Young ambushed Kalloch and shot him. Miraculously, Kalloch survived and won the election, only to see his son enact revenge on his behalf five months later by walking into the newsroom and fatally shooting de Young.
Simon actually described it better than that boiler-plate back cover stuff, but alas, AOL appears to have eaten that email. I just remember shaking him by the virtual lapels and demanding more more MORE. This book was made for me! Old West, writers, murder, mayhem! I’ve read the first chapter. It’s going to be teh awesome. Simon puts you right there on the muddy streets of 19th century San Francisco, right smack in the midst of the mayhem. Of all the things I have to look forward to in ’09, this is one of the major ones.
I’ve reviewed On the House and In the Dark here, complete with a link to an excerpt from On the House. You can preorder War of Words on Amazon. And you can take it from me that even if you don’t like true crime all that much, you’ll be delighted with Simon Read’s wordsmithing. There’s a good reason why he’s my favorite true crime author of all time.