The chalk outline. Blood patterns. The sleep-fucked men standing by. The punk flanked by two squadroom bruisers. He's blinking back flashbulb glare. He's got one finger twirling. He's flipping the square world off.
Don DeLillo called it "the neon epic of Saturday night." It's Crime. It's the bottomless tale of the big wrong turn and the shortcut to Hell via cheap lust and cheaper kicks. It's meretricious appetite. It's moral forfeiture. It's society indicated for its complicity and dubious social theory. It's heroism. It's depravity. It's justice enacted both vindictively and indifferently. It's our voyeurism refracted.
We want to know. We need to know. We have to know. We don't want to live crime. We want our kicks once removed-on the screen or the page. It's our observer's license and innoculation against the crime virus itself. We want celebrity lowlifes and down-scale lives in duress. We want crime scenes explicated through scientific design. We want the riddle of a body dumped on a roadway hitched to payback in the electric chair.
We want it. We get it. Filmmakers, novelists, and journalists keep us supplied. They know how much we want our bloodthirsty thrills and how we want them circumscribed. Movies, TV, novels, and stories. Dramatic arcs. Beginnings, middles, and ends. Most crime is fed to us fictionally. The purveyors exploit genre strictures and serve up the kicks with hyperbole. We get car chases, multiple shootouts, and limitless sex. We get the psychopathic lifestyle. We get breathless excitement-because breathless excitement has always eclipsed psychological depth and social critique as the main engine of crime fiction in all its forms.
Herein lies the bullshit factor. Here we indict the most brilliant suppliers of the crime-fiction art. I'll proffer indictment Count number one-and cringe in the throes of self-indictment.
In the worldwide history of police work there has never been a single investigation that involved numerous gun battles, countless sexual escapades, pandemic political shake-ups, and revelations that define corrupt institutions and overall societies.
Count number one informs all subsidiary counts. That sweeping statement tells us that we are dealing with a garish narrative art. It's underpinnings are realistic. Its story potential is manifest-and as such, usurped by artists good, great, fair, poor, proficient, and incompetent. Crime fiction in all forms is crime fiction of the imagination. That fact enhances good and great crime fiction and dismisses the remainder. Crime fiction fails the reader/viewer/voyeur in only one way: It is not wholly true. And that severely fucks with our need to know.
True-crime TV shows, feature documentaries, full-length books and reportage. Revised narrative strictures.
You must report the truth. You can interpret it and in that sense shape it-but your factual duty is nonnegotiable.
As crime reader/viewer/voyeurs, we now cleave to this: our need to know has metamorphosed. We want less breathless excitement and more gravity. We still hold that observer's license and in-noculation card-but we're willing to get altogether closer now.
And, with that, a reward awaits. True-crime writing offers a less kineticized and more sobering set of thrills-chiefly couched in human revelation. A simple bottom line holds us: This Really Happened. The violated child, the crackhead dad, the cinderblock torture den. We're rewarded for getting close. We're buttressed in our safety. This isn't me, It's not my kid, I'm not going there.
We get to say those things. But we say them with less smugness. The missing boyfriend or girlfriend. The cast of predators nearby. The cops with instincts and no hard leads. Real-life stand-ins for us.
It hurts a little now. It's a DNA transfusion. We're bone-deep with pathos and horror. Their world is now our world. We mate with victims and monsters. We see justice ambiguously affirmed and subverted. Heroes greet us. Evil is subsumed by goodness as more evil thrives. We came for kicks and got something more. Welcome to the true-crime riches of this book.
– James Ellroy, January 11, 2005