Genre Benders: True Crime by Fiction Writers

  • Post by Molly Odintz

True crime books may be a hop and a step away from their mystery and thriller cousins, but every once in a while, just as readers jump from fact to fiction, a crime writer will step across the bounds from fiction to non-fiction. The origins of detective fiction lie in the lurid pulp of yellow journalism, and crime fiction based on fact remains perennially popular. Here are five non-fiction crime reads by authors who started off writing fiction. The picks below range from recent releases to true crime classics.


9781419715853LAPD ’53 by James Ellroy

Ellroy’s stunning collaboration with the Los Angeles Police Museum showcases the weird, wild and less-than-wonderful world of LA in 1953. The collection highlights a society marked by the dissonance and blurred lines between appearance and reality,  cops and criminals, vagabonds and victims,  and starlets and sociopaths. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this slim volume is a perfect shortcut to enjoying the work of America’s most violent and verbose writer (although Don Winslow and Greg Isles, with their recent work, have both been racking up a competitively high body count and even higher page count). You can find copies of LAPD ’53 on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.  

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: LAST WINTER, WE PARTED by Fuminori Nakamura

Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
~post by Molly

Fuminori Nakamura is part of a new generation of Japanese detective novelists known for their spare prose and dark explorations of alienation in modern society. His novel, The Thief, was his first to be translated into English and won prizes all over the world for its terrifying beauty and relentless pace. His latest novel, Last Winter, We Parted, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for November, and for me, this is a perfect novel for a Texas November. I recommend reading it at a coffee shop at twilight when the chill finally begins to settle in – at such impersonal thresholds much of the book takes place.

Last Winter, We Parted is structured as interviews, archives, and letters – the notes for a book that a young journalist has been assigned to write about a notorious serial killer on death row. The murderer, Yudai Kiharazaka, was renowned as a photographer before becoming fixated on life-like dolls and later, burning models alive to get the perfect photograph. The journalist soon finds an intense connection with Kiharazaha’s sister, Akari, and begins to discover that in Kiharazaka’s case, things are not what they seem.

Nakamura has crafted a noir Heart of Darkness; Kiharazaka warns the writer early on that by listening to him, he may take on some of the killer’s morbid fixations. As the journalist learns more about the killer and his sister, Akari – about, as Nakamura phrases it, their “true selves” – his own self become subsumed and taken over.  The young journalist’s arc is shaped as a warning. By spending time too close to a psychopath, the writer takes on some of their thoughts and compulsions, most dramatically expressed in the journalist’s growing interest in Kiharazaka’s sister, Akari, also an object of unhealthy attachment to the killer himself.

As the writer becomes entangled in the distorted lives of brother and sister, abandoning his professionalism to get closer to the object of his unwholesome infatuation, the serial killer and his sister, in turn, delight in bringing out the darkness hidden within the minds of those fixated upon them. Like Hannibal Lector, Yudai and Akari believe in quid pro quo.

This is a novel concerned not only with solving a crime, but in understanding our darkest impulses. In that sense, Last Winter, We Parted evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the genre of true crime in general. Nakamura references In Cold Blood throughout the novel, and the book is in some ways a tribute to Capote while also a warning against mirroring Capote’s actions. The novel both warns against the psychological effects of spending time trying to get into the head of a murderer, and condemns the hypocrisy of judging the actions of another while also using their crimes as a mass object of fascination. Nakamura delves deep into the unsettling motivations behind societal obsession with the mind of a serial killer. In the novel, as in real life, there is no easy separation between those who commit crimes and those who spend their time learning about the crimes of others.

Kiharazaka’s crimes also serve as a metaphor for alienation in modern society. Kiharazaka’s fixations represent an attempt at basic human connection, warped by the photographers lens, the purchase of lifelike simulacra in the form of dolls, and other ways of simulating and disrupting connection with the real through the use of the artificial.

Fuminori Nakamura brings to mind the haunting elegance and sordid conspiracies of David Peace, and like the best exploitation movies, blurs the line between poetry and violence. The characters Nakamura portrays are trapped – caught by their obsessions, their fantasies, and their addictions in an endless web of repeating behavior and insincere apologies. They can’t even quit smoking, much less control their other, more violent unhealthy impulses. Nakamura’s writing is as psychologically astute as it can be while also representing a vision of the world twisted and screwed, without joy or happiness. In other words, Last Winter, We Parted is the epitome of literary noir.


Last Winter, We Parted is now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Who Wrote ‘In Cold Blood’? – Guest Post by RJ Ellory

We’re currently hosting a weekly series of guest posts by bestselling crime fiction author RJ Ellory. He came through Austin in January while on tour for A Quiet Vendetta. We had the pleasure of having him here at the store, and will now have the pleasure of sharing a new Ellory post with you every Monday for a few weeks. If you haven’t checked out his thrillers yet, I highly recommend you pick one up and find out what British readers have been raving about for years.

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In mid-November, 1959, Truman Capote, renowned author of Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was struck by a newspaper article that appeared in the New York Times.  Little more than a brief squib, it outlined the brutal shotgun-slaying of a farmer, his wife, and their two children.  It reported that in the small village of Holcomb, Kansas, Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon, had been found bound and murdered, the mother and daughter in their beds, the father and the son in the basement of the home.

Capote, at the time a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, decided that this was the story he next wanted to write about.  He left for Kansas almost immediately, taking with him as his ‘researcher and bodyguard’ Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird and lifelong friend of Capote’s.  As children they had grown up beside one another, and even in Mockingbird, the character of Dill was supposed to have been based on Capote.

So began one of the most famous and fascinating trips in literary history – the diminutive, effete, homosexual Capote, the methodical and pragmatic Lee.

But the story of how In Cold Blood came to be written is not really the subject of this little article.  That story has been covered in two recent films – Capote (with a deserved Oscar-winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Infamous starring Toby Jones.  The book itself is the issue at hand, and there are two very simple reasons I have chosen this book above all others.  I am of the belief that non-fiction possesses as its primary purpose the conveyance of information, whereas fiction is there not to entertain (as we are so often told), but to evoke an emotion.  Those books that continue to stay with me, regardless of how long ago I read them, are those that somehow connected and impinged on an emotional level.  I remember being quarantined at boarding school with chicken pox, aged thirteen and sleeping alone in a locked room.  Through the porthole window in the door all I could see was a black and white chequerboard-floored corridor, and what did I read while I was there?   The Shining of all things.  Half of it I didn’t understand, the other half scared me witless.  That was emotional impingement.

So we have these two elements – non-fiction conveying information, fiction evoking an emotion – and in In Cold Blood Capote does both brilliantly.

Even before you begin the book you know that the Clutter family are dead.  This is a matter of public record.  It is a fact.  And yet we begin the book with them alive.  A human, real, honest, hardworking, religiously-minded family, helping one another, helping their fellow townsfolk, the bright and talented Nancy, the father – a rock, a pillar of the earth.  Capote leads us down a road, a brilliantly constructed road, and as we travel he shows us everything we need to see to become so emotionally involved with this family, this town, these events.

The ending is inevitable, terrible and brutal.

And his protagonists – Hickock and Smith, the brief and breathtaking events of the night of November 15th, 1959, and the subsequent years they spent on Death Row.  The way that Capote draws it out, the way he shares their viewpoint with us, the way he opens up this world and shows us all the inhabitants.

A truly remarkable work.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the edges of the longstanding and unresolved question: Who wrote In Cold Blood?  Was it Capote?  Was it Lee?  Did they write it together?  And who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird?  Again, was it Capote, was it Lee, or did they conspire to produce two of the most remarkable books in modern American literature?  To Kill A Mockingbird was the only book Harper Lee ever published.  We do not know whether it is the only book she ever wrote.  It spawned a film that won an Oscar for Gregory Peck.  In Cold Blood made Capote one of the most respected and influential authors in American literary history, and yet he spent the subsequent twenty years drinking himself to death and never really published another word.  Norman Mailer wrote an article about this very issue, and he raised the question: Were they individual authors in their own right as far as these two seminal works were concerned, or did they create them together, and then keep that truth from the world?

Who knows?  I believe we will never know.  I just know that In Cold Blood, certainly for any crime author, is perhaps one of the most necessary books to read, and written in an inimitable style, and constructed so well.  A work of genius.

Though it is utterly impossible to say ‘This is my favourite book’, I believe that if I was destined to be marooned on a faraway island and could take one book and one book only, then In Cold Blood would very likely be first on the list.