BOB GARFIELD: This month Vintage Books releases the 2003 edition of Best American Crime Writing, an anthology containing some of the best true crime articles from 2002. True crime writing fills supermarket racks and occasionally tops best seller lists, and whether it's the tale of an aging pimp in Las Vegas or a body farm in Tennessee, co-editors Otto Penzler and Thomas Cook [sp?] write, the best of the genre illuminates, quote, "the dual nature of human potential; the good and the evil men and women can do." Joining me now is Otto Penzler. Otto, welcome to the show.
OTTO PENZLER: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Explain to me, please, the enduring appeal of true crime.
OTTO PENZLER: There's a voyeuristic attraction to it I think that has undoubtedly been true since the first days of the Bible when we read about Cain slaying Abel.
BOB GARFIELD: And then there's this notion of a portal into the human soul. Do you think that in general true crime does offer that portal?
OTTO PENZLER:I do. One of the reasons is that when a good reporter goes to work on this kind of story, he will talk to the people who were most involved, and criminals love generally to talk about their crimes -- to talk about their lives. They get to talk about themselves. And so you get a first hand report which you can't do in fiction.
BOB GARFIELD:You operate a mystery book shop called The Mysterious Book Shop in New York City. And while I guess it's a related genre, crime fiction, it, it's not the same thing -- are you a big fan of the true crime genre yourself?
OTTO PENZLER: Surprisingly I'm not. Early on, I did read the Truman Capote book In Cold Blood and also The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh. And those are the two books that I regret having read in my life. They lived with me for weeks and months after. They haunted me. The tragedy of those was so moving to me, so heartbreaking that I have stayed away from reading full length books about true crime. The shorter pieces, journalistic pieces, are much easier for me to take, because you don't have 400 pages to get to know some person or some people who are ultimately doomed. In 20 pages they become acquaintances; in 400 pages they become people who are close to you, and I can't stand it.
BOB GARFIELD:Now when one thinks of true crime, historically one thinks of the Truman Capote book or Calvin Trillin's pieces about small town killings in the New Yorker magazine or maybe the works of Ann Rule. This anthology is maybe not representative of what we're accustomed to. Why was this year so different?
OTTO PENZLER: Well for a variety of reasons. The most important of course was the September 11th attack on the United States. Everybody is endlessly concerned about, interested in, fascinated by international terrorism. And so many more articles were written about that kind of crime rather than the more traditional thing of some orthodontist in a New Jersey suburb killing his wife because he'd met somebody that he would rather be with and didn't want to pay the divorce.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give us a passage from whatever story particularly curls your toes?
OTTO PENZLER:Give me just one second please. This is from a piece by Tom Junod called The Terrible Boy. "There is nothing on this earth so terrible as a terrible boy. A terrible boy has learned the specifics of cruelty without learning the generality of mercy. A terrible boy worships what is worst in himself and despises what is best. A terrible boy is alienated by his own sense of enmity and seeks connection through the certainties of slaughter. A terrible boy makes even ants his enemies, for he wishes above all to make his enemies ants and to entertain himself by squashing them both. So terrible are terrible boys that armies the world over have discovered the utility of using them to do their bidding. So terrible are terrible boys that aboriginal tribes used to dispatch them on impossible and solitary missions, hoping they would come back tempered by quest and grown into men. We, who demand something softer from our civilization, have no such uses for terrible boys and no such rituals. Instead, we call them bullies and by new and coming coming consensus seek to outlaw them."
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the terrible boy who was the focus of this piece.
OTTO PENZLER:This was a terrible boy who was in fact a school bully and one day just picked on a kid, knocked him over, and the kid died from what happened to him by this bully, and I think Tom Junod's point in writing the story was to say that he just had a bad day; that he wasn't such a terrible boy after all; that so many of us have a time in our lives where we behave terribly and we don't want to be stigmatized with the notion of being called a terrible boy forever. And Juneau forgives him in this piece.
BOB GARFIELD:On the other hand there's another piece in the anthology called The Bully of Toulon about a man who terrorized an entire small town of 1700 people for years and years and years mainly by just threatening behavior --behavior that eventually exploded into actual violence.
OTTO PENZLER: Yeah. It was written by a great writer named Robert Kurson and we deliberately put it in the book directly after The Terrible Boy because I think Tom Cook and I agreed that the terrible boys grow up to be a man like this who terrorizes a town - who remains a bully all of his life - and ultimately in this case went so far as to kill 3 people totally without cause, totally in cold blood.
BOB GARFIELD:So we discussed what the appeal of this kind of non-fiction is. Can you tell me what its utility is? Do you think that the accumulation of stories, many of them very heartbreaking and of course horrifying as well -- what's the benefit of reading them? Are they, are they humanizing?
OTTO PENZLER: I think in many cases we get to learn something about a killer or a major criminal of some kind. Occasionally we learn that circumstances pushed them into a situation; that there are in fact mitigating circumstances and we can find it in our hearts to forgive them. We also learn, I think, and it's very useful to know that there really is such a thing as evil behavior. I would go so far as to say that there are evil people. And I think it's important for us to remember that there are evil people and that there is evil in the world and that we should beware.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Otto, thank you very much.
OTTO PENZLER: Thank you, Bob. It's a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD:Otto Penzler is co-editor of Best American Crime Writing. The 2003 edition has just been released. And he's also the owner of the Mysterious Book Shop in New York City. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Katya Rogers, Janeen Price, Megan Ryan and Tony Field; engineered by Dylan Keefe, Jennifer Munson and George Edwards, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Dave Goldberg. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
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BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.