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Bad News From All Over

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Best American Crime Writing : 2004 Edition, edited by Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook. Pantheon. 521 pages. $29.95.

Crime is a personal business, and so are writing and reading about it. An ace crime writer gets too involved in his work and takes you with him; in the process, he reminds you of both your vulnerability and your mortality.

So, anyway, are my thoughts after reading the latest anthology from Penzler and Cook. It covers a broad range of turf from both sides of the aisle, cop and criminal, and a number of them pull you right into the heart of the writer’s own private obsessions.

Take James Ellroy. Riffing away in his trademark staccato style, he gives us the story of Stephanie, a straight-arrow middle-class teenager whose body is discovered one bright day in August, 1965, leaving behind no motive and no suspect. Nearly 40 years later, as the cold trail suddenly heats up again, Ellroy finds himself getting closer to her as he gets close to the case: “Stephanie was a daughter or a prom date. I don’t know her. I can feel her. She’s twirling. She’s showing off her prom gown. I can smell her corsage.”

In Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “Who is the Boy in the Box?” an aging detective is similarly haunted by a frustrating case involving the murder of a child from decades before. Cecilia Ball’s “Ciudad de la Muerte” takes us to a desert in Northern Mexico that has become a dumping ground for the maimed corpses of poor young Hispanic women who fell into the hands of the mob. Ball can’t help but relate; if she lived here, she might end up the same way.

In the single best piece here, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., recounts the recent trial and conviction of his cousin Michael Skakel for the 1975 slaying of Martha Moxley. Kennedy sees Skakel as the innocent victim of a media circus led by Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne and his partner Mark Fuhrman, who helped revive the unsolved murder by depicting the local authorities as fraidy-cats who wouldn’t dare go up against the Kennedys. Kennedy has an ax to grind, alright, but he delivers a compelling defense that is surprisingly not defensive. It’s passionate and thoughtful, and it made an at least nominal believer out of me.

In “Night of the Bullies,” Robert Draper revisits a story which all but the principals have forgotten: the random brutalization of a young teenager by a band of Texas fraternity thugs in 1978. Delving into the case 25 years later, Draper finds a victim who is haunted by his memories, and well-to-do perpetrators who are too ashamed of their past to face it. More than that, Draper examines himself, too, drawn to this peculiar story by his identification with both sides; like every man, he’s had his ass kicked, and he’s also joined the crowd to deliver the same treatment to others.

Lethal testosterone is also on display in Clara Bingham’s “Code of Dishonor,” an investigation of the “rape culture” at the Air Force Academy that will sicken anyone who reads it.

James Fallows’ “Who Shot Mohammed Al-Dura?” reminded me of Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, where a photographer discovers that he may have accidentally captured a murder on film. Fallows’ story is about a presumed death that, according to some, wasn’t recorded on film: the shooting of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was presumably felled by an Israeli bullet during a skirmish with the Palestinians. Subsequent examination of the news footage, which has turned the boy into a martyr in the Arab world, suggests the bullets may well have come from the other side, spawning a host of shaky conspiracy theories that the death was a staged Palestinian exercise in demonizing Israel.

Aside from the perfectly serious stuff, there’s David Grann’s “The Old Man and the Gun,” about a senior citizen who has excelled at the art of bank robbery and breaking out of jail. I also thoroughly enjoyed grossing out the folks at the coffee shop by reading aloud from Pat Jordan’s “CSC: Crime Scene Cleanup,” which tells more than you may want to know about decomposing bodies and the hardy souls who scrape them up.

On the philosophical side, don’t pass up two meaty think pieces: Scott Turow’s thoughtful reconsideration of the death penalty and Mark Bowden’s tough-minded article on the lifesaving morality of torture.

I wasn’t crazy about everything here, but the best are knockouts. In Ellroy’s apt phrase, they “hook you fast and drag you in slow.”

More to read at Rodney Welch: The Blog

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