I’ve discovered I have a genre, and that genre, dear reader is true crime. Unfortunately, Andrew Rule and Chopper Read tomes spring to mind when one thinks of true crime. But I suppose – as with all genres – there are both impressive and less-than-impressive pieces written. Among my favorite true crime authors are Truman Capote, Vincent Bugliosi, Helen Garner and Chloe Hooper. And now, John Safran can join the crew.
The key to my recognising that true crime is my kit-and-caboodle was Helen Garner, really. Not routinely acknowledged as a true crime writer (which she certainly is, in addition to being a range of other things) Garner is often associated with sociology and Australian studies. To my mind, true crime is an intense study of events at a certain time, a microcosm of society and the values a key set of ‘players’ have in that space. Whether or not there’s actually CRIME in the tale is secondary to me – it’s the people, their values, and the slow-reveal of what the author perceives his subjects’ motivations to be that is of interest. Anna Krien’s recent book ‘Night Games’ (review of which can be read here) is true crime. So is Garner’s ‘The First Stone’. Hooper’s ‘A Child’s Book of True Crime’ is a fictionalised take on the genre. My own upcoming novel is likewise. A close inspection of a certain set of people, in a certain time.
After my relative disappointment in Krien’s ‘Night Games’ and wincey-watching of Safran’s recent TV series ‘Race Relations’, I was content to purchase his new book but did not have high expectations of anything more than ‘direct to camera’ schtick. Apologies, John Safran. This longform old school true crime tale is up there with the best slow-reveal sociology I’ve ever read.
Core to skin-creeping and antennae-tweaking true crime/sociology is the willingness of the narrator to let you in on his experience as it reveals itself. As Safran ventures to Mississippi and prods its tender underbelly of racial tension, violence, poverty and secrets, he is as large a part of the cast of characters as any of his subjects. He’s a much more vulnerable and serious narrator than I had expected him to be, generally slowly unpicking the threads of his subjects stories with more than a little trepidation. This nervousness (and its clammy-palmed documentation) strikes the tone for Safran’s exploration of a recent murder in Mississippi, a young black man having murdered an infamous white supremacist. Safran debunks his own hopeful assumptions about the story as it goes along – it’s certainly not as easy a tale as ‘white racist gets his comeuppance’. It is also quite scary and spooky, and reminiscent (although not in mimicry) of In Cold Blood by Capote. I suppose scratching the surface of small country towns and decoding their taboos, histories and complex codes of behaviour is common to both these books. Or maybe it is just the oddity and personal eccentricity of both their authors that make these tales possible.
I look forward to more magnifying-glass microcosm tales from John Safran, as he is both a fine and delicate author. I hope that his next book explores an element of Australian society, and draws upon our own rich cultural spookiness.