Stranger Than Fiction
True Crime Stories
By Dean Jobb
Summertime and the true crime reading is easy—especially when the stories are short and snappy. Here are three recently published collections of true stories of crime, obsession, murder, and mayhem that are perfect for the lazy days of August.
A “cartographic compendium of crime”—that’s the alliterative cover-copy synopsis of Murder Maps USA: Crime Scenes Revisited; Bloodstains to Ballistics, 1865-1939 (Thames & Hudson). But maps are only one of the story-telling devices enlisted to produce this illustrated overview of seventy-four years of American murder. Mug shots bring offenders to life. Graphic photographs document blood-soaked bodies and crime scenes (fortunately, for the squeamish, in black and white). Floorplans help readers trace how killers entered and exited. Wanted posters and closeups of seized murder weapons rub shoulders with press photographs of crowded courtrooms and sullen, handcuffed suspects being led on “perp walks.” There’s even a photo of an unlikely law-enforcement hero—a prison cat that mewed and alerted guards to a convicted killer’s escape attempt in 1913.
This is the second “murder maps”-themed volume from London-based publisher Thames & Hudson, a follow-up to 2020’s Murder Maps: Crime Scenes Revisited; Phrenology to Fingerprint. 1811-1911, with text by Drew Gray, a British author and historian who specializes in Victorian crime. While Gray roamed across borders and oceans—including cases in Britain, Europe, the U.S., and Australia, the latest volume—as the title makes clear—is all-American. Chicago writer Adam Selzer, author of the definitive account of the crimes of 1890s serial killer H.H. Holmes (who’s included in this collection), provides the brief accounts of each case that accompany the arresting—pun intended—images.
There are plenty of the usual suspects here. Lizzie Borden, convicted of murdering her parents in a children’s rhyme but acquitted in court in 1893. Lindbergh kidnapper Richard Hauptmann, a case so sensational it rates a six-page spread. Depression Era killer couple Bonnie and Clyde. Presidential assassins John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (Garfield), and Leon Czolgosz (McKinley). But there are many more obscure, forgotten baddies. A nasty piece of work named Theodore Durrant, who ran a Sunday school, murdered two young women in a San Francisco church in 1895. Earl Durand, a mountain man known as the “Tarzan of the Tetons,” went on a murderous spree in Wyoming in 1939. And bonus points if you have heard of Harm Drenth (how’s that for a creepy name?), a bespectacled dealer in used furniture who was hanged in 1932 for murdering two women and five children in West Virginia; he likely killed many more.
Selzer’s introduction explores the improved police training, investigative methods, and forensic breakthroughs—handwriting analysis, fingerprints, ballistics tests—that transformed crime detection during this period. But some of the cases featured have little to add to this wider story. Two pages are devoted to four California men executed for murder between 1927 and 1930 but, since each case was easily solved, it is more of a showcase for their surviving mug shots. Some of the maps seem to have been added to support the title and theme, such as one that pinpoints Chicago and New Orleans—hardly obscure locations—as cities where a suspected husband-killer once lived. And it’s easy to overdose on the sheer volume of ghoulish images. This book is a must-have for true crime connoisseurs, but perhaps not one to be read cover-to-cover in one sitting.
“What makes two individuals in a relationship together suddenly decide to victimize others, even to the point of murder?” That’s the question author and editor Mitzi Szereto asks at the outset of The Best New True Crime Stories: Partners in Crime (Mango Publishing), her fifth anthology of engaging tales of bad people doing bad things. Previous volumes in her “Best New True Crime Stories” series focused on serial killers, con artists, and crimes of passion (full disclosure: I contributed stories to two previous instalments). This time the theme is relationships-turned-wicked, and fourteen contributors introduce killer couples, husband-and-wife pimps, serial arsonists, and married spies in tales that hopscotch across the globe, from North America to Europe and as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Szereto’s contribution, “Ten Floors of Whores,” recounts the strange story of upwardly mobile Londoners Ivett Szuda and Karl Ring. “They wanted the good things in life,” she writes. “But to afford the luxury lifestyle to which they aspired, they needed money—lots of money. So this aspirational pair came up with a business plan.” The plan? Importing young Hungarian women and pimping them as high-priced escorts. The location? Chelsea Cloisters, a block of luxury flats near Sloane Square, in “one of London’s swankiest and priciest neighborhoods,” where they operated a brothel in rented units in plain sight of other residents as well as visitors and tourists who unwittingly booked stays in other flats. “All that seems to be missing,” Szereto notes wryly, “is Sting standing by the front entrance, singing ‘Roxanne.’” The couple pocketed at least £600,000 from their enterprise before the law finally moved in and they were jailed in 2019 for human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
C.L. Raven, the pen name used by writers who are identical twins—appropriately, given the theme of this collection—contribute the story of a pair of German misfits-turned-killers, Manuela and Daniel Ruda, who claimed Satan compelled them to murder a friend in 2001, a month after they married. The likeminded pair met when Manuela responded to Daniel’s classified ad in a magazine, which stated: “Pitch black vampire seeks princess of darkness who hates everything and everyone and has bidden farewell to life.” It truly was, the writers can’t resist asserting, “a match made in hell.”
The story of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde Barrow is not retold here, but their names are invoked often as other murderous couples—who took the words “until death do us part” to heart—are introduced. David and Catherine Birnie were twisted sex-killers in 1980s Australia. Dale Jones, a bank and train robber, and his moll and accomplice, Margie Celano, died like Bonnie and Clyde in a hail of bullets in California in 1918. They were “kindred spirits” and “adrenaline junkies,” concludes contributor and Los Angeles true crime specialist Joan Renner, who built their toxic relationship “on their mutual love of danger.” The chapter “Whirlwind Romance” by British author Paul Willetts transports readers to London during the Second World War, where young wannabe actress Georgina Jones teamed up with American GI Karl Hulten in 1944 to pull robberies that netted them a pittance, left a cab driver dead, and badly injured a young woman they thought they had killed. Willetts deftly captures the somber, bomb-scarred world that served as a backdrop to the pair’s tawdry affair and inept, thoughtless crimes. The press dubbed them Chicago Joe and Blondie and the literary heavyweights George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell debated the lessons of their sordid deeds.
What do a Mexican drug lord, plane-bombing Libyan terrorists, a reality-television mogul, a scientist-turned-mass shooter, and a pedlar of rare but fake vintage wines have in common? They have all captured the attention of Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer for The New Yorker and one of the best writers on the true crime beat today. Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels, and Crooks (Doubleday) is a collection of a dozen dazzling stories published in the magazine between 2007 and 2019. “They reflect some of my abiding preoccupations,” Keefe notes in a preface, “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial.”
Hardy Rodenstock, a German professor with a knack for finding caches of wines dating to the late 1700s, is just one example. His name was not Rodenstock, of course—it was Meinhard Goerke. And before he became a prolific forger of vintage wines, Rodenstock/Goerke was a railroad engineer, not a professor. Keefe unravels the incredible story of how an old wine bottle doctored to look like it might once have been in the cellar of Thomas Jefferson proved to be the undoing of a con man who fooled some of the world’s leading wine experts and pocketed millions of dollars from credulous collectors.
Drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera is better known by his nickname, El Chapo. When Keefe profiled him after his arrest in 2014, his Sinaloa cartel was believed to be the source of as much as half of the illegal narcotics smuggled into the United States. He pioneered the use of tunnels to ship his drugs under the Mexican border and he was undoubtedly responsible for the murders of thousands of people in Mexico’s brutal drug wars. He was also an accomplished escape artist, thanks to a network of safe houses, elaborate efforts to prevent his communications from being traced, and widespread corruption that for years kept him one step ahead of raids by the Mexican authorities.
Keefe, the award-winning author of the bestsellers Say Nothing and Empire of Pain, has gained a reputation at The New Yorker as the go-to guy for the “writearound”—a story about an elusive character who refuses to cooperate or be interviewed, forcing the journalist to dig deeper to find associates, witnesses, and other sources who are willing to talk. His research skills received an endorsement from an unlikely source. After Keefe’s story on the ruthless El Chapo appeared, he received a call from a lawyer representing the drug lord, who had an unexpected request: Would he consider ghostwriting El Chapo’s memoirs? Keefe politely declined.
The long-form story, as magazine-length pieces have become known in the age of online journalism, is “the most glorious form” of nonfiction, in Keefe’s opinion, demanding “economy in the storytelling.” Each one is “substantial enough to completely immerse yourself in but short enough to finish in a sitting.” That’s true of all the absorbing, meticulously researched offerings in Rogues. Grab a deck chair or a beach blanket and dive in.
Dean Jobb’s latest book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), won the inaugural CrimeCon Clue Award for True Crime Book of the Year and was longlisted for the American Library Association’s 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Find him at www.deanjobb.com