In 1985, my friend Johnny suffered a tragic loss in a crime that went unsolved until this year. While reporters tell us that justice has finally brought closure, the story endures, and it raises an unsettling question: What compels us toward tales about violence, about murder?
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that all artful stories humanize us as surely as they humanize their characters. They allow us to transcend crime-scene voyeurism and courtroom media hype, to bear witness to those who survive, after the book is slid back onto the shelf.
Take the 1927 case of a New York love triangle, a real-life story that sold millions of newspapers. In the hands of Ron Hansen, tabloid fodder becomes A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, a compelling rendering of loneliness, lust, manipulation, and homicide. When Judd Gray, model citizen and corset salesman, meets Ruth Snyder, a woman of alluring appearance and lurid motives, the murder of Ruth's husband is set in motion. The resulting downward spiral culminates in a horrifying scene, but what distinguishes the novel is Hansen's deft narrative touch, his alternating use of objective journalistic distance and the more subjective, humanizing perspectives that allow the reader access to the characters.
As surely as Hansen's fictionalization makes true crime feel more real, Donald Ray Pollock stretches the fabric of realism into an Appalachian Grotesque. Set in Ohio and West Virginia but steeped in the gothic tradition of Faulkner, The Devil All the Time explodes at the crossroads of penitence and perversion. First, Arvin Russell's father forces him into a gruesome, hopeless prayer vigil. Then there are Sandy and Carl Henderson, husband-and-wife serial killers who will keep you checking your locks the next time you drive alone down a rural highway. Add to the mix a pair of fetishistic cousins and a sadistic minister, and you've got a taste of what is potent and bubbling in the backwoods still of Pollock's imagination. This riveting depiction of a world in which even small prayers go unanswered is nonetheless beautiful in its unyielding and biblical resonances.
Whether or not murder can ever be "the perfect crime," William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow is an unassailable perfection of prose, one which forever gives the lie to the notion that editors edit because they can't write. The late, beloved fiction editor for TheNew Yorker, Maxwell somehow found the time to pen this lean masterwork about fallible memory and fleeting chances. The novel twines stories of rural infidelity, desperate vengeance, and the indelible stains of childhood heartbreak. Decades after a murder, the narrator remains beset by the guilt of having forsaken his former playmate, the perpetrator's son. The narrator carries his regret with him always.
I've spoken only once to my friend Johnny since the jury returned its verdict. I bear the guilt of a writer who rarely knows what to say, yet my insufficiencies often leave me breathing hard. And isn't that what great novels can do, no matter how appalling the subject? Don't we want to be slain by stories? Doesn't it make us feel all the more alive?
Bruce Machart is the author of The Wake of Forgiveness. His newest book is Men in the Making.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.