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American Journalism Review
Me, Myself and I  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   August/September 2004

Me, Myself and I   

An anthology shows that crime writing is best when it's not so self-indulgent.
Review of Best American Crime Writing, 2004 Edition
Edited by Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook
Pantheon/Vintage Books
512 pages; $29.95 hardcover, $14 paperback

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Bear with me while I annoy you for a couple of paragraphs, and then I promise I will come to my point.

Like most journalists who have been around awhile, I am a one-time police reporter (my first job out of college at the St. Petersburg Times), so I looked forward to digesting this anthology.

Perhaps I thought I would better understand the thrill I got from cruising around in a scanner-equipped car and rushing to crime scenes, sometimes arriving before the police. Perhaps I would overcome my unseemly resentment of ex-cop reporters like Patricia Cornwell or Edna Buchanan, now rich and famous novelists. Perhaps I would pick up a tip or two for hard-boiled prose writing...

OK, that's enough. The preceding three paragraphs include 14 first-person pronouns, compared with one reference to the book under review. They contain far more about the reviewer than the anthology. Unfortunately, a similar problem oozes through "Best American Crime Writing." Of its 20 selections, all from magazines, far too many display the narcissism that seems rampant in today's magazine journalism.

Some selections are excellent, and the anthology offers valuable lessons for writers in all media. But it also disappoints, for several reasons. Athough the preface boasts about the "highest level of journalistic excellence" and the "sheer excellence of the writing," the writing in general proves unmemorable, particularly given the dramatic topics. One piece, for example, claims to offer a sex offender's first-person view of how community-notification laws haunt those on parole. But the piece, penned under a pseudonym, is insipid and lacks depth or surprise.

Most irritating are the stories dominated by self-referential self-indulgence. A selection by Cecilia Balli at Texas Monthly begins as a promising investigation of the unsolved rapes and murders of 17 women in Juárez, Mexico. But when Balli has a creepy encounter with a man on a Mexico street (could he be the murderer?!), the focus turns inward. "You'll never guess what happened to me," Balli tells friends "in a shaky voice." From there the article centers on Balli's feelings ("I was crying not for myself, but for the women of Juárez"), all but blotting out the larger topic.

Even more disconcerting is Robert Draper's GQ article pursuing the long-lasting trauma of fraternity members' humiliating assault on a freshman boy a quarter century ago. In a ghastly passage, he refers to himself as "the intruder" in recounting his conversation with a rape victim.

One article, however, uses personal references in a fascinating and relevant way. In "A Miscarriage of Justice" from The Atlantic Monthly, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. combines lawyerly analysis with personal insight to argue that Michael Skakel, his first cousin, was wrongly convicted of a 1975 murder. Given his pedigree, Kennedy's piece could have been crassly self-serving. Instead, he sticks to the evidence and pokes troublesome holes in the case.

Kennedy's story reinforces the central lesson reporters can take from this anthology: the value of time and access.

Magazine reporters enjoy more research time than their newspaper cousins. They also benefit when sources, who declined to talk when their story was hot, open up as time goes by. Several writers here use documents such as coroners' reports and trial transcripts to supply detail. They turn firsthand access to victims and criminals into riveting reading.

Clara Bingham, writing in Vanity Fair, tracks down nine Air Force Academy cadets raped by fellow students and produces an infuriating indictment of how officials mishandled their cases. David Grann, in The New Yorker, offers a rollicking interview with an 83-year-old bank robber and 18-time jail-escapee, the most quotable codger imaginable, who among other things managed to build a kayak to flee from San Quentin.

Perhaps the most chilling piece, by Jon Krakauer in GQ, has a murderer telling, in grisly step-by-step detail, how he followed what he considered to be God's direction to slice the throat of his brother's wife.

Less sensational but equally captivating is James Fallows' Atlantic Monthly re-evaluation of the September 2000 shooting of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, a scene broadcast to an appalled world. Fallows' careful analysis of the evidence concludes, surprisingly, that "the boy cannot have died in the way reported by most of the world's media..he was not shot by the Israeli soldiers."

Also stunning in its timeliness is Mark Bowden's Atlantic Monthly examination of the ethics and effectiveness of torturing terrorists. Bowden's controversial conclusion is that raw torture seldom works but a darkly defined "coercion" often does. "It should be banned but also quietly practiced," he offers.

So this anthology contains some pieces you can't put down and some excesses you can't overlook. When the story, not the writer, drives the work, it shines.

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