Recently, a friend of mine was complaining about her husband: “He sits in front of the TV at night or on weekends and watches ‘Law & Order’ reruns,” she exclaimed. “Not all the time, but, really, too often. He’s seen all of them nearly, two or three times, and maybe more. So I say to him, ‘Why are you watching the same damn show again and again?’
“‘Because,’ he says, ‘it’s true crime—and I find it riveting no matter how many times I see it.’”
I know what my friend’s husband means because I, too, am a “Law & Order” fanatic. I am not talking about the spin-offs like “Law & Order: SVU (Special Victims Unit)” or “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”—and certainly not the short-lived “Law & Order: LA,” originally titled “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” which ran for a little more than a year, nor “Law and Order: Trial by Jury,” which didn’t even last a full season—although they have their moments. But they aren’t the same as the gritty, real-life New York City stories of the original—the “real”—“Law & Order,” the one that stayed alive for 20 seasons on NBC until it was cancelled two years ago, one of the longest running series on TV.
Why was “Law & Order” such a mainstay for so long? First of all, there was a dependable but unpredictable formula in each episode—from the discovery of the body (often by police officers taking a donut break), to Lennie’s opening-scene wisecrack, then an arrest and interrogation of the wrong perp, then the introduction of new evidence and a new perp. Next, of course, came the lawyers, with their own formulaic plot: building the case, debating the defense in and out of the courtroom and the judge’s chambers, overseeing the investigation, sparring verbally with the accused and (sometimes) forcing a confession. I think “Law & Order” was the first show to try to make prosecutors seem human—not an easy task or even one the show always managed to pull off.
The characters—and over the life of the series there were many, played by top-notch actors including Jerry Orbach, Chris Noth, Paul Sorvino and Dianne Wiest—were a big part of the show’s attraction. Jack McCoy, for example, the prosecutor (and, eventually, executive district attorney) played by Sam Waterston for almost the entire run of the series, was a driven and mostly humorless loner. But he had a conscience, was committed to the pursuit of justice and had a weakness for Scotch and motorcycles. He was also paired with a series of attractive and bright young female assistant district attorneys, whom he mostly mentored with mostly gruff affection.
Although the acting was always first-rate, the story was the thing; in the end, the characters took a back seat to the plot, which may be the secret appeal of true crime stories. Of course, all good literature—whether fiction, creative nonfiction, drama or poetry—has a story. But in memoir, characterization is the primary focus—how people feel, what they think, who they are. The reader relates to the protagonist. In the more traditional literary journalism, such as in the works of John McPhee, Michael Pollan and others, it’s information, made interesting, that is the distinguishing element. In crime writing, the story is usually the compelling and driving factor; we want to know what happened next.
In this issue, we have some pretty compelling, real-life, true crime essays: “Origami & the Art of Identity Folding,” by AC Fraser, winner of CNF’s $1,000 “True Crime Essay Contest” prize, takes us inside the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Fraser served time for identity theft. In “Grave Robber: A Love Story,” Joyce Marcel recalls her 30s, when, having run away from an unhappy marriage, she supported her travels for several years by buying and selling and smuggling ancient ceramics from Peru.
“Leviathan,” by David McGlynn, is the story of a brutal triple-murder of the author’s close friend, age 15, and his brother and father, while “Addict,” by Lacy M. Johnson, tells the mind-boggling story of how the writer’s ex-boyfriend kidnapped her and bolted her to a chair he built in a basement apartment. And that’s just in the beginning.
Finally, Steven Church’s “Speaking of Ears and Savagery” is a sprawling discourse on Mike Tyson, Travis the Chimp, Van Gogh, David Lynch and more, exploring our conflicted relationship with brutality.
The rest of the issue circles around this same theme, exploring our fascination with true crime stories and tales of true violence. Harold Schechter, the author of many carefully researched true crime stories, starts off the issue with a long view of the true crime genre, which, he argues, dates almost as far back as type. In this issue’s Encounter, Donna Seaman talks with Erik Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City” and “In the Garden of Beasts,” about the work he puts into his meticulously researched best sellers. There’s also a thoughtful round-table discussion about the challenges of writing honestly—and ethically—about violence.
Reading an issue of Creative Nonfiction may require more effort than vegging on the couch in front of reruns, but I hope every issue of the magazine is, in at least some small way, not entirely unlike an episode of “Law & Order”—reassuringly predictable in its general formula, but surprising and satisfying in the unique mix of stories and columns.