Sunday, January 11, 2009

TRUE CRIME - But where is the Poetry?

I made only one New Year's Resolution, and until now I've kept it to myself. My resolve is to no longer write Blog articles about Vancouver Crime. Not because I have lost interest, but rather to devote more time to an allied creative pursuit - writing and producing documentary film. I am still interested in turning over stones in B.C.'s gangland graveyard, but I will be recording with HDvideo from here on in. My Blog intention for 2009 is to confine my discourse to crimes which are already entrenched in the public imagination in the context of Popular Culture - the movies, novels, graphic illustration, games and documentary film.

Serious books on Vancouver TRUE CRIMES do not appear with any frequency, and when top drawer B.C. criminals are committed to hard covers the prose are predominantly derived from old newspaper files. Most of these books, often written by Vancouver reporters who covered events for Pacific Press, I have found unreadable and I rarely bother to finish. I thought such disappointment was mine alone, but here is a corroborative and harsher view, expressed by a reviewer on the weekend: "I don't read true crime for good writing, and neither does anyone else. (Fortunately, because it's in short supply). I read it because I want to learn about a given case. Ann Rule hasn't sold a bajillion books because she's such a fantastic wordsmith; her prose is mediocre at best. But she knows how to identify a juicy story, she knows how to get access to everyone involved with it, and she knows how to keep it moving."

In fact there are many well written TRUE CRIME books kicking around, but few were penned by Canadians. The first of the genre I encountered was probably Vince Bugliosi's HELTER SKELTER (1974) which alerted me to the possibilities. Plenty of the kids in our impoverished housing project were living on Welfare, as were we, and many I knew of were already seasoned shoplifters or housebreakers. Membership in the Book-of-the-Month Club and a library card kept me safe. They dubbed me "the Professor"... as in "Hey Professor... want a kick in the face?"

I had long neglected to read THE BOSTON STRANGLER. I knew I should, but I let it slide. Boston in the early 1960s went through the disruption of Urban Renewal demolition of old slums and it shared a long history of neglect (as well as old family ties) with my hometown, Saint John, N.B.
In May 2006 VANITY FAIR magazine rekindled my interest in Albert DeSalvo, with a splash excerpt from Sebastian Junger's book A DEATH IN BELMONT. Soon enough I acquired his book and ... what a gyp!... realized that everything pertinent was already in the V.F. article. The bulk of the book is padding, as Junger has the Ripperologist gene - each of them simply must add to the suspect list. 'Else why write a book at all?

Fortuitously, in mid-2008 I chanced upon the real thing - Gerold Frank's THE BOSTON STRANGLER. The 1967 paperback edition was mint and unread, as if someone had purchased a copy and sealed it in a plastic evidence bag for me to unseal 41 years later. I took that as an omen and proceeded to surrender a weekend to reading it with great care. Oh bliss!
THE BOSTON STRANGLER - Gerold Frank, pub 1967
The first paperback edition (1967) of THE BOSTON STRANGLER, written by Gerold Frank. It won Frank his second EDGAR AWARD for True Crime writing.

I was initially put off by Frank's use of pseudonyms for several Boston area criminals and for victims of sexual assault who were fortunate in not having been murdered during DeSalva. That is until I realized that they were needed only to establish patterns of behaviour and the innovation pioneered by investigators, some of whom were forced to reinvent how they went about doing their jobs. The sheer volume of work created by the case was unprecedented. The detail and depth of Frank's own analysis is phenomenal, and it dovetails nicely with a few of my biographical research interests. That's always a bonus for a serious reader.

No author since 1963 has had the access Frank was allowed, largely due to his connections in publishing and law enforcement. When Frank assumed the project he was just still enjoying the accolades of another crime book called THE DEED, (which won him an EDGAR award) an account of the trial of two Jewish assassins who murdered Lord Moyne in Cairo in 1944. Frank had reported on the wartime trial during "the terror" and he returned in 1961 to interview all surviving participants. Thus when he went to Boston he was working in the genre he was already celebrated for advancing. It is also worth noting that Frank had some film background, having written and directed a documentary in the 1930s on Jewish migration out of the Polish Ghettos. His ambition had been to become a poet but a circuitous journey took him to journalism and finally, writing biography. A vast body of knowledge left this earth when Gerold Frank died.

THE BOSTON STRANGLER - terror in Boston 1963This 1963 photo, taken at the height of the Strangler scare, shows the type of desperate measures just one of many thousands of terrified Boston women employed to protect themselves. In every attack DeSalvo gained entry through cunning persuasion.

THE BOSTON STRANGLER - innovative film techniques
A Canadian book boasting of EXPO 67's accomplishments had this to say. "What Cubism was to painting before the First World War, Expo cinema was to the movies." Multi-screen projection, combined with multi-image composition, was a staple at many of the pavilions. Director Richard Fleischer attended the Montreal Expo and insisted upon using the same techniques in own project - THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968). Split image and montage were used extensively in the superb STRANGLER film, which featured Tony Curtis in the best performance of his career.
THE BOSTON STRANGLER - Killer Kpmix 2 (2000) KILLER KOMIX 2 (Pub. in 2000) was a homage to legendary serial killers, produced by creative team in Manchester, England. They strove to be offensive, but in a humorous spirit. The Strangler strip is built around the appearance of Dutch Psychic Peter Hurkos in the case, and lifted whole from Gerold Frank's best selling book. Hurkos was a minor celebrity in his time, who was featured in two episodes of ONE STEP BEYOND (available on DVD from Echo Bridge).
Early in 2008 VARIETY announced that Brian DePalma had acquired the rights to one of the books on the Boston Strangler, and was in pre-production on a movie. Since that book debunks the (I believe) reasonable assumption that DeSalvo's confession is valid, I assume that DePalma's film will have a more ambiguous conclusion. Ambiguity may not play well in an expensive feature film, but then again the success of any movie these days is a crap-shoot.

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