Hallie Ephron on True Crime
Hallie Ephron is the author of the forthcoming psychological suspense novel “Never Tell a Lie” (Wm. Morrow/HarperCollins, 2/09); crime fiction book reviewer for the Boston Globe; author of an Edgar-nominated how to write book; and author of the brand new “1001 Books for Every Mood.” She can be reached through her web site: www.hallieephron.com
Giving true crime its due respect
True crime-I admire anyone who can write about it. Early on in my writing career, I tried. The book was my first, and it concerned the murder of the brother of a dear friend. I’ll call her Marilyn, him Frank.
It happened one morning when Marilyn missed a meeting with a client because she was late getting to the office (she had to take her son to the doctor.) Frank met with the client instead, filling in for Marilyn as they often did for one another.
The man was unhappy with and insurance settlement that Marilyn had brokered for him. He became angry during the meeting, pulled out a gun and shot Frank. When he was finished, he calmly walked out of the office and drove off. He fled the country and wasn’t arrested until months later when he tried to return.
Grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, Marilyn suffered panic attacks in the wake of the murder and was housebound. She felt the murder was her fault. After all, the killer had been her client. She should have been there. She was in agony over the misery she felt she’d brought down upon her family,and especially on Frank’s wife and his three young daughters.
Six months later she met me at a restaurant. Over dinner she remembered the day of the murder. How she’d arrived at work to find the office building ringed with emergency vehicles, never imagining her brother had been killed until she greeted a reporter whom she knew and saw the horror on his face when she asked him what had happened. She remembered the trivial kitchen fire and the settlement that the killer felt she’d mishandled. The funeral, and how the mourners that hot summer afternoon at the cemetery had filled the grave with dirt themselves. How angry her father, always a difficult man, had become in the aftermath of his oldest son’s death.
I wept when she told me how she’d finally gotten up the courage to return Frank’s office. How she’d touched the places in the wall behind his desk where the police had gouged out bullets, probing the holes like empty sockets where a tooth has been removed. “Only the victim gets the death penalty,” she told me, quoting a poster she’d seen when she went to a meeting for families of victims of homicide. “The rest of us are sentenced to purgatory.” What made it even worse, she told me, was much the media coverage focused on the killer and how little there was about Frank.
We left the restaurant, and as we said our good-byes and Marilyn got into her car, she seemed lighter-as if the burden she carried had shifted. And we decided to meet regularly. I’d bring a tape recorder and together we’d try to write the story of the real havoc that murder wreaks.
Months later, I had transcriptions of hours and hours of unburdening. Marilyn read each chapter as I wrote it, and in the reading, as in the telling, it seemed to unburden her.
We finished the book, but ultimately I tucked it away in a drawer. Even after fictionalizing the characters and the setting, publishing it seemed an obscenity, an invasion of privacy, one more indignity to inflict upon Frank’s loved ones.
After that, I determined to write crime as fiction–no “real” victims, no aftermath, no pain to be harvested. As I moved on to write the five Dr. Peter Zak mysteries by “G. H. Ephron,” I carried a lesson with me, and that is always to respect crime and its victims.
Never, even in fiction, take murder lightly.
I don’t know if you’ll read this, since I’m now adding to “yesterday’s blog,” but I guess, from reading your response, that the value of the book lies in the writer’s conscience. In other words, if you honestly feel good about writing it, then write it.
What do I see as the difference, and where does one draw the line–great question. Sadly, I think it’s in the eyes of the beholder. What seems “redemptive” and worthwhile to one person may seem exploitive to the next. Dwelling on prurient details of a case pushes it into exploitation. And it’s a big problem when the writer starts to blame the victim or just reveals a not-so-perfect past…and if you’re writing true crime, that may inevitably be part of the story. The truth is, we don’t write true crime to beatify the victims. Not to make criminals into heroes. It’s complicated, and I wish I had the answer because then I could publish that book.
I had thought of writing a true crime book that involved the rape and murder of two young girls. It is a fascinating story (as most are) that consumed the lives of the investigators. Both friends of mine.
But, someone I know thought that to write such a book would be to “exploit” the girls and dredge up terrible memories in the community.
Many such books may have some redemptive value, while others may be exploitive.
What do you see as the differenrce, and where does one draw the line?
I think you gave your friend a gift, whether or not the manuscript stayed in the drawer or went off to a publisher. Lee, you may be giving the family the same kind of gift.
There is something in talking about it…
Hallie – Kate’s book is on my nightstand right now. It’s a great book. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes reading true crime.
Yeah, Kendra, I think it did help Marilyn. Just the process of talking about her brother and what she’d lost. But it also helped me–it taught me that I could write drama, something I’d been running away from–a pretty great gift.
Lee, I hope the project goes well…I loved Kate Flora’s Finding Amy, true crime which also told the story of a murder and the investigators nearly heroic efforts to find the killer.
Well, I’ve just started writing a true crime book. I’ve been working on the research for several months, and now I find myself totally immersed in the lives of the families of both the victim and her killer.
I’ve spent a lot of time with the investigators, the coroner, etc. I’ve visited the crime scenes, and I’ve been to the cemetery where the victim’s remains were buried. It’s like I’ve reopened the case and started a new investigation.
I’m really involved with this project. More so than any other. It’s such a tragic and compelling story.
I almost feel as if I knew the young girl who was so brutally murdered.
Hallie, what a painful story. It sounds like you did Marilyn a great service by writing her story. It may have been the best therapy for her.
I admire true crime writers. I can’t imagine the amount of time they spend buried in the lives of each person the crime touched. And then publish the book only to have someone argue the validity of a “character’s” POV.
I agree with you. I’d rather write no real victim and (idealy) no aftermath fiction.