Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Otto Penzler, Thomas H. Cook & Nicholas Pileggi, Editors: Best American Crime Writing

In addition to being entertaining, the increasingly popular "Best American" anthologies provide snapshots of the modern magazine via a variety of literary genres. The first installment of Best American Crime Writing contains 17 uniformly fine pieces of true-crime reportage, edited by series heads Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook, with guest Nicholas Pileggi. The editors have drawn multiple selections from GQ and The New Yorker, and, read close together, the three GQ pieces reveal that magazine's tendency toward advocacy journalism. Charles Bowden's "Our Man In Mexico" openly questions why a prison-bound former DEA agent has been convicted for doing the same dirty business as his colleagues, Robert Draper's "A Prayer For Tina Marie" chastises a Texas community for treating a child-murdering mother as a monster, and Peter Richmond's scathing "Flesh And Blood" traces the murder trial of Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth to the culture of violence and misogyny in the NFL. The four New Yorker pieces demonstrate more range and reserve, from Pat Jordan and Mark Singer's respectively personal, elliptical takes on O.J. Simpson and cockfighting to Peter J. Boyer and Atul Gawande's respectively comprehensive reports on Los Angeles police corruption and the underuse of the scientific method to evaluate the effectiveness of America's justice system. Best American Crime Writing has its share of the traditionally gritty and gruesome, none more terrifying than David McClintick's serial-killer biography "Fatal Bondage," but better still are the stories that take a well-known case and pull together the scattered known facts into a thorough narrative, as in William Langewiesche's "The Crash Of EgyptAir 990," Skip Hollandsworth's "The Killing Of Alydar," and Nancy Gibbs' Sept. 11 time capsule "The Day Of The Attack." Best of all are articles like Robert Kurson's nail-biting "The Chicago Crime Commission," which gets into the head of a throwback mob-buster whose belief in pervasive criminal conspiracies may be delusional. The story's facts would make a fine TV show, but the subject's inscrutable psyche comes across most effectively in print. Similarly, the book's first and finest piece, E. Jean Carroll's "The Cheerleaders" (which surveys an upstate New York community cursed by murder and suicide on their high-school football team) would be exploitative if its dismembered, half-naked cheerleaders were on a movie screen; conceived as reportage, the details of the case retain their mystery. "The Cheerleaders" does what a true-crime story should do, making the inconceivable tangible, making the commonplace alien, and suggesting that, like bad luck, violent disruptions of normalcy lie in wait for everyone.


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