I recently read two great true crime narratives, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson and Jane Doe January: My Twenty Year Search For Truth and Justice by Emily Winslow, that started me thinking about the evolving way we look at crime. Both books demonstrate the seismic effects that advance in DNA testing have had on both prosecuting and narrating crime stories.
Maggie Nelson’s book of poetry Jane: A Murder, about her aunt was about to be published when she got a phone call from the police. Although she had never known her aunt, a University of Michigan student who had been killed thirty-five years earlier, the unsolved murder had resonated within her family and with the writer, who had obsessively sifted through the available sources about the killing and her aunt, including Jane’s diaries. But the Michigan State Police detective on the other end of the line revealed that DNA testing had suddenly revealed the one thing that only one living person knew previously — the identity of the killer.
Emily Winslow had an even more personal collision with violence when, as a college student in the prestigious drama department at Carnegie Mellon University, she was brutally raped in her apartment by an unknown assailant. Although she continued with her life, moving to England and writing mystery novels, she followed her case and others like it, following the advances in DNA testing and the slow testing of an enormous backlog of rape kits, until one day decades later, her assailant was no longer unknown. Both books center around the authors’ experience of the subsequent trials, as both literal and metaphorical witnesses.
In real terms, it’s wonderful that DNA can take so much of the guesswork out of the criminal justice system, but in dramatic terms it forces a departure from the most traditional elements of crime writing. The figure of the detective, for instance, the primal seeker of truth whose idiosyncrasies and brilliance have entertained since Poe’s Dupin, is greatly diminished in such a scenario. There are law enforcement figures in both books, naturally, but in the case of cases so long unsolved, they function more as dogged but frustrated keepers of the flame of the hope of justice, and then, once the conundrum is solved with the aid of a lab report rather than a brilliant deduction, supporters and hand holders of the survivors banded together for the trial. Similarly the victims are not the colorful characters in the village who are either universally hated or loved, producing either too many or too few suspects respectively, but people who were simply unlucky. Even the perpetrators in these books, far from being oversize Moriarty or Lector figures are ciphers whose guilt is clear and motives irrelevant.
The appeal in both books lies in something else entirely. One of the trends in contemporary crime fiction is the movement away from emphasizing the puzzle of solving the crime to the shattering effect of transgressive behavior on the community itself. In our selfie era some of the most vital writing is in the areas of memoir and personal essay and both The Red Parts and Jane Doe January take the examination of the effect of crime to an even greater level of magnification — the impact on two sensitive, finely articulated consciousnesses.
Maggie Nelson has made a name for herself as a brilliant and bracingly honest writer and thinker on a variety of topics, and The Red Parts is a great example of her quicksilver, deeply informed mind at work. As she describes stalking the streets of Ann Arbor, the scene of the trial, fiercely ruminating, the reader is enthralled by her fluid combination of personal history, erudition and theory.
As far as I could tell, stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things, they distort, codify blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it. This has always struck me as cause for lament, not celebration.
I must say that I wasn’t bowled over by Jane when it came out, but this book tethers Nelson’s rhetorical flights to the familiar structure of a criminal trial, bringing a more focused narrative thrust. The result is an extremely enjoyable book about a horrible subject as an extremely agile and powerful consciousness wrestles with a banal evil that is essentially inexplicable. There’s also a powerful critique of a society that both exploits and brutalizes women and uses the violence against them as entertainment and diversion.
The Red Parts is the length of a sustained essay or novella, which is appropriate, because keeping up with the author’s high-wire mental gymnastics can be exhausting. On the other hand Emily Winslow, who also writes mystery novels, unfolds her personal history with less pyrotechnics but more sustained rigor. Jane Doe January is closer to a traditional autobiography, but centered around a single shocking crime and its effect of her and those around her. One of these effects is an overwhelming thirst for justice, and she relentlessly researches the crime and the eventually unmasked criminal, trying to understand every aspect like a student cramming for an exam, or indeed, a novelist researching their next novel. Meanwhile the trial proceeds in fits and starts, generally playing havoc with her now settled life with husband and children in England. Even as the overdue reckoning of the trial grinds on there are tragic developments in the here and now, reminding the reader that life is rarely really settled.
Stephen Hawking has suggested that the Big Bang could have been caused by the intersection of two universes, a bump that set off the explosion of a new universe. Sometimes I feel like human interactions and relationships are bumps like that and we’re all so enormous with pasts and desires and faults and ambitions that our little meetings have larger, occasionally explosive, effects.
The cumulative effect is tremendously powerful, and challenges received attitudes about “victims” and “actors” (a technical law enforcement term for criminals) in crime narratives. In the end its a story of survival and, indeed, triumph, like the story she tells of the Japanese practitioners of kintsugi, a Japanese method of fixing broken ceramics. As she says “practitioners of this method highlight the repair lines with gold, admitting to the object’s past shatters, incorporating the object’s experience as part of its presentation, and of its changing, growing, aging beauty.”