A friend asked me the other day, “So how do you decide what criminal you’re gonna write about next?”
Good question. There are plenty of crime stories in the news—literally dozens every day. I regularly check crime websites, looking for stories I might like to cover. In an average month maybe one shows promise. The rest are sad and, more often than not, tragic, but there’s a certain predictability in most true crimes that keeps me from pursuing them. A man kills somebody, gets caught, goes to prison. Unless there’s something unique about the criminal’s motives, I can see the ending coming a mile away. A newspaper article pretty much tells it all.
Some stories are more complex and catch my interest, but I’m fussy. Certain kinds of criminal repulse me right off the bat, like people who hurt children. I’ve written about more than a few, and they’re not fun to live with. Their deeds are reprehensible, but some of these creeps are just pathetic defective personalities who happened to cross paths with an innocent child and couldn’t fight off their worst urges. John Couey, who murdered nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida in 2005, comes to mind. Jose Antonio Ramos, the prime suspect in the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz, is another. These stories needed to be told, but it’s hard to be unbiased about child molesters.
Some crimes that are depressingly sad because they should never have happened in the first place. Twenty-five-year-old Teresa Halbach was raped and murdered, her body incinerated in a fire pit, all because she happened to be sent to Stephen Avery’s junkyard in Wisconsin to photograph a minivan for an Auto Trader ad. If a male photographer had gotten the assignment, Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, probably wouldn’t have been tempted to give in to their evil impulses. At least not that day and not with Teresa. That story still haunts me.
Rapists are hard to stomach, too. Whatever the psychological reasons for a rapist’s sick behavior, I prefer not to get inside his head and look for shreds of humanity. If there are any, it’ll amount to a teaspoon’s worth. I recently completed a piece about the Japanese serial rapist, Joji Obara. He’s a triple-A psychopath, but what attracted me to his story was the Byzantine nature of the Japanese criminal justice system, which perplexed and frustrated the families of his Western victims.
I don’t find drug dealers all that interesting. They’re only about money and making lots of it. From what I’ve seen, they’re rarely as interesting as Breaking Bad‘s “Walter White.” And I’m sure that if meth kingpin, “Gus Fring,” was the hero of that show, it wouldn’t be the hit that it is. Unless the writers created a villain even more despicable to make him look better by comparison.
I tend to like female criminals because their actions aren’t testosterone driven. Phoolan Devi, India’s bandit queen, was a genuine Robin Hood figure who overcame a crappy life and took a very circuitous route to respectability. American Nancy Kissel, who murdered her abusive husband in Hong Kong with a poisoned milk shake, was pushed to the brink, but unlike the clever murderesses in mystery novels, she botched her crime in every way possible. Which brings me to another thing I’ve noticed covering true crime: in real life there’s no such thing as a criminal mastermind. Even the smart ones trip themselves up somewhere along the way, usually in the most petty, bone-headed ways.
I have to admit I like organized crime stories. Gangsters are usually just bums with violent tempers, but when they band together, the organization transcends the individuals’ shortcomings. I find group dynamics fascinating whether it’s the Mafia, the ‘Ndrangeta, the Yakuza, big corporations, or the government. I’m particularly interested in the smart bosses who stay out of the limelight and rule from the shadows—guys like Carlo Gambino, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky. Boston gangster Stevie Flemmi falls into that category. He’s often erroneously identified as the infamous Whitey Bulger’s sidekick, but in fact they were partners, and though Bulger was more colorful, Flemmi was more valuable. He let Bulger get the headlines while he went about his dirty business. Flemmi is definitely worthy of a book, and someday I’d like to write it.
Celebrity crime stories are irresistible, whether the celeb is the victim (Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Brian Jones) or the alleged perpetrator (O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake). But unknowns can have equally compelling narratives. Danielle Imbo and Richard Petrone left a Philadelphia bar in 2005 and disappeared without a trace. Ashley Burg, a high school student during the week and an escort on weekends, was murdered by one of her macho johns. Her story is as gut-wrenching as any I’ve covered.
I think the most interesting bad guys are the ones who throw crazy personality and hubris into the mix. Rock’n’roll producer/convicted murderer Phil Spector is a crime writer’s dream come true. Eccentric, talented, arrogant, violent, misogynistic. And that hair! Wow!
Hitman and lethal scam artist Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski is another criminal gem. He made himself a celebrity thanks to three HBO documentaries about him, admitting in his soulless, low-key way to hundreds of murders. A man who could calmly describe gruesome killings, then cry for his family in the same hour was definitely worth exploring, and I did—twice.
Finding a good bad guy isn’t easy, and no one is ever completely good or evil. There are infinite shades of gray and extenuating circumstances that prevent the pleasing Act-Three resolutions we all want. That’s why I write crime fiction, too. The villains in my novels all get their just deserts in the end. But as delectably evil as they are, they’re not real, and that’s why I write true crime as well. Following a trial is like watching a baseball game and rooting for your team, knowing that they could very well lose. In fiction the bad guys go up the river, but sometimes the real bad guys walk. Like Casey Anthony. Satisfying endings aren’t guaranteed in true crime.