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Posts Tagged ‘crime’

Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Glass Hat

February 11, 2015 | by

Richard Price and the evolving role of pseudonyms.


From the cover of The Whites.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, isn’t by Richard Price, except that it is. It’s by Harry Brandt, Price’s pseudonym, but it’s also not really by Brandt—Price’s name is on the cover, too, and so Price is Brandt, obviously, and it follows then that Brandt is Price, and thus, uh …

Let’s start over.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, is by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It says so right there on the cover. Big deal, you might say; another author slumming it in genre fiction by creating a false identity for himself. But by publishing both his name and his pseudonym on the cover, Price has parted with centuries of pseudonymous convention. He hasn’t just pulled back the curtain. He’s brought up the house lights and waved to the audience. And he did it all, according to the New York Times, because he got sort of annoyed. Read More »


A Dissatisfaction with Life

January 19, 2015 | by


Patricia Highsmith on After Dark, 1988. Photo: Open Media Ltd.

You don’t agree with George Bernard Shaw’s idea that the artist is very close to the criminal?

I can think of only one slight closeness, and that is that an imaginative writer is very free-wheeling; he has to forget about his own personal morals, especially if he is writing about criminals. He has to feel anything is possible. But I don’t for this reason understand why an artist should have any criminal tendencies. The artist may simply have an ability to understand … I would much rather be an entertainer than a moralizer, but to call murder not a social problem I think is ridiculous; it certainly is a social problem. The word existentialist has become fuzzy. It’s existentialist if you cut a finger with a kitchen knife—because it has happened. Existentialism is self-indulgent, and they try to gloss over this by calling it a philosophy … I once wrote in a book of mine about suspense writing, that a criminal, at least for a short period of time is free, free to do anything he wishes. Unfortunately it sounded as if I admired that, which I don’t. If somebody kills somebody, they are breaking the law, or else they are in a fit of temper. While I can’t recommend it, it is an awful truth to say that for a moment they are free, yes. And I wrote that in a moment of impatience, I remember distinctly. I get impatient with a certain hidebound morality. Some of the things one hears in church, and certain so-called laws that nobody practices. Nobody can practice them and it is even sick to try … Murder, to me, is a mysterious thing. I feel I do not understand it really. I try to imagine it, of course, but I think it is the worst crime. That is why I write so much about it; I am interested in guilt. I think there is nothing worse than murder, and that there is something mysterious about it, but that isn’t to say that it is desirable for any reason. To me, in fact, it is the opposite of freedom, if one has any conscience at all.

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The Death Instinct

December 12, 2014 | by

The autobiography of one of France’s most notorious criminals.


Mesrine’s mugshot, 1973.

On the morning of November 2, 1979, a gold BMW pulled up behind a blue truck stopped at a stoplight in Porte de Clignancourt, in northern Paris. After a moment, a tarp covering the back of the truck opened to reveal four men with rifles. They opened fire in unison, blasting holes into the windshield. The man driving the BMW was hit fifteen times; the woman in the passenger seat was blinded and crippled by the attack. Her pet poodle died, too. And that was the end of Jacques Mesrine, France’s public enemy number one.

For nearly twenty years, Mesrine had humiliated the country’s judicial system with repeated high-profile bank robberies, murders, and daring prison escapes. But now the police had caught up to him. His bloodied corpse laid limp in his car, left out for the paparazzi. One of the officers tossed Mesrine’s wig, riddled with bullets, onto the car hood like roadkill into a dumpster. That last detail comes from one of the many YouTube videos you can watch of the shooting’s aftermath, waiting to be compared with Jean-François Richet’s 2008 two-part film Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, both starring Vincent Cassel. And through the bullet holes of mythology, you can see in this tableau a bit of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and a little bit of Jean-Paul Belmondo dying on the pavement, calling Jean Seberg a bitch.

This was a fitting death—and has been a fitting afterlife—for Mesrine. He was France’s most famous criminal not only because of his crimes but for the way he hot-wired the machinery of fame. While he was on the most-wanted list, he gave interviews and was photographed for the cover of Paris Match. Two years before his assassination, Mesrine wrote his autobiography, The Death Instinct, while incarcerated in the inescapable La Santé Prison, from which he later escaped. It was 1977, a bleak time for culture and politics: in England, it was “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten whinnying “no future” into recorded oblivion; in Germany, it was the Red Army Faction, their crimes, and their deaths in Stammheim Prison. For many in France, a few decades out of existentialism, the late seventies were a time of startling political conservatism, a time when the hopes of ’68 were being actively erased. It was this regime of erasure that Mesrine fought against, and that killed him two years later. Read More »


The Well on Spring Street

September 15, 2014 | by

America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.


Archibald Robertson, Collect Pond–Bayard Mount, NYC, 1798.

Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.

Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.

—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815

On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.

Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.

On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water. Read More »


The Faint, Gray Areas

August 23, 2013 | by


“‘It’s not black and white,’ a young doctor from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles had told me, in 1982, about the divide between life and death.”
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

I had been avoiding the research, the further reading, about my father’s death. After discovering that the Detroit Police kept appealing the lawsuit, trying to pin the “accident” on the fourteen-year-old they were chasing before he crashed into my father’s car, I became depressed, and stopped digging. This was two days before Detroit declared bankruptcy. Before I heard about a man, Dwayne Provience, who was suing the city of Detroit for “accidentally” convicting him of a crime he did not commit. Now the city was bankrupt and his lawsuit was frozen, like the nine years of his life spent in prison. Provience’s lawsuit is for police misconduct, similar to the one that my mother filed after my father’s “accident,” but that was the late nineties. Provience said he wanted to use the potential money to pay off the child-support debt that had accumulated during his time away and to help pay for his children’s education. The insurance cities rely on in incidents like this, “accidents” like this, is exactly what allowed me to afford college. Read More »


Kleist’s Crime Blotter

January 8, 2013 | by

On the afternoon of October 1, 1810, people started gathering in front of Berlin’s Hedwigskirche, where a new paper would be selling its first issue. By evening the crowd had grown so large that guards were posted to maintain order. The whole city, it seemed, had turned out for the launch of the paper, the Berliner Abendblätter. Even the king had asked for a copy.

Officially, the Abendblätter was edited anonymously. Among the city’s literary elite, however, it was widely known that the paper was written almost single-handedly by Heinrich von Kleist, a young writer. Kleist’s plays and novellas were written with exceptional elegance, but were preoccupied with rape, war, and natural disaster. Kleist had once enjoyed the patronage of Goethe, but after a disastrous theatrical collaboration the two writers found it impossible to continue working together. Goethe admitted that his protégé filled him with revulsion and horror, “as though a body nature had intended to be beautiful were afflicted with an incurable disease.”

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