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True tales New book showcases some of the greatest writings on crimes that have captivated a nation

Nicole Brown Simpson. Lacey Peterson. JonBenet Ramsey. And at the moment little Caylee Anthony.

Their fates obsess American TV, especially cable TV.

So locally did the victims of the "Bike Path Rapist/Killer," until he was finally caught and discovered to be Altemio Sanchez, an unremarkable suburban man with a family and a well-tended lawn.

Fictional versions of such tales -- all of the "CSIs," "Law & Orders," "Criminal Minds," etc. -- are backbones of prime-time television.

And the pitilessly high-minded among us never seem to tire of hectoring the world for its immense and presumably lowbrow appetite for journalistic tales of true crime, whether they've happened just a few streets away or many thousands of miles.

How gauche we are, they say. How unseemly. How errantly dedicated to our own prurient interests -- especially in a world where the economy is tanking and American soldiers are perishing on foreign soil.

With such a panorama of perilous decline before us how could we possibly stoop to looking so avidly at life through the keyhole?

Then again, it doesn't negate the truth of any of our current mega-malfunctions to elevate basic human prurience to its proper place. It's a human thing, plain and simple. (Change the protagonists, the venues, the meanings and the utterances and "Oedipus Rex" and "Macbeth" are tabloid stories for the subway.)

And now courtesy of the Library of America, the most distinguished publisher in America, a word from the news: It was always this way. We have always been passionate consumers of true crime stories.

The new book that brings us the news is "True Crime: An American Anthology" (The Library of America, 788 pages, $40). It's edited by successful true crime writer Harold Schechter, former student of Leslie Fiedler at the University at Buffalo.

What is billed on the cover as "350 Years of Brilliant Writing About Dark Deeds" contains a revelation: The greatest writers in the American pantheon have routinely written works which can fit quite comfortably, thank you, in a mammoth anthology of the greatest American "true crime" writing.

We're not just talking, then, about Jimmy Breslin's famous account of David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam," or Gay Talese's piece on the ranch Charles Manson's "Family" called home. Nor are we just talking about Dominick Dunne's tale of the Menendez boys, Erik and Lyle, and their 12-gauge solution to a life of Beverly Hills dysfunction and overindulgence. ("Every person who saw the death scene has described the blood, the guts and the carnage in sick-making detail" wrote Dunne, himself the father of a murder victim.)

We're talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne, telling the tales behind a sensational wax works exhibit. And -- are you ready? -- Abraham Lincoln, trial lawyer, in an anonymously written piece called "Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder" relishing the trial of William Trailor for the murder of Archibald Fisher (whose body, for good reasons, was damnably difficult to find). And Mark Twain, in "Roughing It," about a Virginia murder that "all men not dead and dumb and idiotic" talked about -- as well as yarns of "long tailed heroes of the revolver" in Nevada.

It's not surprising that Ambrose Bierce -- the bitterest blackheart in all of 19th century American letters -- found majestic and horrific merriment as a journalist in San Francisco. ("The body was found partially concealed under a paving stone which was imbedded in the head like a precious jewel in the pate of a toad. A crowbar was driven through the abdomen and one arm was riven from its socket by some great convulsion of nature. As deceased was seen by two eight-hour men enjoying his opium pipe and his usual health just previously to the discovery of his melancholy remains, it is supposed he came to his death by heart disease.")

Also, H.L. Mencken enjoys the exploits of "Baby Face Nelson, Ll.D" in his essay "More and Better Psychopaths," wherein, says Mencken, Nelson supplanted "Dr. John Dillinger," and "Dr. Pretty Boy Floyd" for "first honors" in his being a "notorious thief and black leg."

But surprises do indeed abound: No one now remembers Dorothy Kilgallen except those old enough to recall her as a flirtatious and remarkably chinless panelist on "What's My Line?" But here she is in a piece about a '30s case called "Sex and the All-American Boy" involving a "shapeless" Jezebel with a "hawklike nose" named Margaret Train who lived in East Aurora.

Obviously, no one would find it the slightest bit strange to find Theodore Dreiser reporting on a case apparently similar to the one that inspired his great novel "An American Tragedy." But Edna Ferber, author of "Giant"? And James Thurber, no less, on what was a notorious '20s murder?

Familiar and celebrated criminal cases of the past century are here from prose styles about as disparate as they come. The singular "Black Dahlia" case in Los Angeles (Elizabeth Short, whose corpse was found bisected and drained of blood) is given to us by "Dragnet" inventor Jack Webb. On the exact opposite end of the literary spectrum there's a serious meditation on crime and punishment by Elizabeth Hardwick on "The Life and Death of Caryl Chessman," one of the most embattled capital punishment cases of the past 60 years.
The most stunning piece in the book is about a now little-known 1949 rampage in Camden, N.J., by "a 28-year-old World War II veteran armed with a 9-mm Luger."

His name was Howard Unruh. By the time he'd finished, his victims numbered 16.

New York Times reporter Meyer ("Mike") Berger, says Schechter, "spent six hours retracing Unruh's path and interviewing 50 witnesses. He then raced back to the office and, in the space of two and a half hours, typed out a 4,000-word story that was published the following day without a single alteration by the rewrite desk. The article brought him a much-deserved Pulitzer Price in 1960."

To read now what Berger was able to accomplish under deadline pressure in such a compressed period of time is -- I assure you -- quite literally "awesome" for anyone who has ever shared Berger's profession.

It ought to go without saying that Berger is by no means on a literary level with Twain, Mencken, Hawthorne, Frank Norris, Damon Runyon, Theodore Dreiser, A.J. Leibling and Abraham Lincoln, among other writers in this extraordinary anthology.

But as a reporter who pieced together -- in stunning complexity of detail -- what one man could do to members of his community, Berger elevated natural human prurience to a new perspective of where any fellow citizen might be at any moment.

But for the grace of God.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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"True Crime: An American Anthology"

Edited by Harold Schechter

The Library of America,

788 pages, $40

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