True Crime doesn't pay: a conversation with Jack Olsen

by Michael Hood

from Point No Point,
Winter 1998/99

"The true crime genre is dead and I'll tell you why." Jack Olsen declares, holding forth on his favorite subject these days, the sorry state of writing and publishing non-fiction books.

Jack Olsen, 73, is a former Time magazine bureau chief and Sports Illustrated editor. The Bainbridge Island resident has written more than 30 books, including six novels, but he's best known for his reportage over a half-century career. his work covers a wide range of subjects with books such as The Bridge at Chappaquiddick about Ted Kennedy's bad night; The Night of the Grizzlies, an eco-thriller; and Silence on Monte Sole, a detailed study of a Nazi massacre in Italy. His account of an ill-fated Alpine expedition in 1957, The Climb Up to Hell, is being re-released this fall by St. Martin's Press.

Olsen has made his most visible mark, however, in the genre of true crime, or "crime journalism," as he prefers. He began chronicling psychopaths before anyone (himself included) really knew what they or their diseased behavior were bout. Olson wrote one of the genre's defining classics, Son: A Psychopath and His Victims. It is the story of Kevin Coe, Spokane's South Hill rapist, whose rich and influential mother was sent to prison after trying to hire a hitman to kill the judge and prosecutor responsible for convicting her son.

Another of his major works is Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell, an incredible account of a Wyoming doctor who relied on his small town patients' naivete and Mormon female submissiveness to rape generations of them on his office examining table. Olsen has won two prestigious Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, including a special Edgar for Son and the 1989 prize for Best Fact Crime for Doc.

So why does Jack Olsen pronounce his genre dead?

Because he feels that it no longer stresses accuracy, substance over style, and the reporter's responsibility to get the facts right without inserting himself or herself into the story. Olsen believes these values are being abandoned by current writers, but the complaint is as old as the true crime genre itself

The problem presented itself at the very beginning with Truman Capote's inventive conjecture and manufactured quotes in writing In Cold Blood. This extravagantly successful "non-fiction novel" about the 1957 Clutter family murders in Kansas is considered the first true crime book.

Blood's success also pumped up a New Journalism that emphasizes character and social analysis over the who, what, when and where of traditional reporting. Olsen is definitely and defiantly a member of the old school.

"I recognized it as a work of art, but I know fakery when I see it," Olsen says. "Capote completely fabricated quotes and whole scenes.... The book made something like $6 million in 1960's money, and nobody wanted to discuss anything wrong with a money-maker like that in the publishing business."

Nobody except Olsen and a few others. His criticisms were quoted in Esquire, to which Capote replied, "Jack Olsen is just jealous."

"That was true, of course," Olsen says, "I was jealous -- all that money? I'd been assigned the Clutter case by Harper & Row until we found out that Capote and his cousin, Harper Lee, had been already on the case in Dodge City for six months.

Olsen explains, "That book did two things. It made true crime an interesting, successful, commercial genre, but it also began the process of tearing it down. I blew the whistle in my own weak way. I'd only published a couple of books at that time -- but since it was such a superbly written book, nobody wanted to hear about it."

Olsen fast forwards 30 years to the tremendous success of the so-called "non-fiction" book, Sleepers, by Lorenzo Carcaterra. "Here was an $8 or $9 million book, a story of injustice in Hell's Kitchen. Very sensational -- a priest suborning perjury, the DA putting in the fix, two heroic boys getting even for a year in a reformatory where they were sodomized."

Just one problem, Olsen adds: "It was 100 percent bullshit." He and six other crime authors petitioned the publisher, Ballantine, to withdraw the book, to refund the money of those who bought it under its pretense of non-fiction, and to reissue it as a novel.

All to no avail. Though thoroughly exposed to be unfactual by Olsen's group and many others, the paperback was published a year later still claiming to be a true story. "I was trained as a journalist. I wasn't trained as a wonderful guy [but] an accurate guy, an honest guy. I was trained as a journalist and if you're a journalist, you better get it right! That's the difference between myself and all these shuck and jive artists.'

Take Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, another extremely successful book, a unique combination of travelogue and true crime in Savannah. Olsen says, "It's an amazing story. As I was reading it, I was saying to myself: John Berendt goes down to Savannah, Georgia, he meets all these fantastic people, he meets the killer, he gets intimately involved in this whole murder -- I'm saying to myself, why can't this ever happen to me?" Then Olsen met Berendt at a writers' conference and learned that he hadn't been involved in the murder at all, he'd merely inserted himself into it as a vehicle for telling the story.

"So here's perhaps your best-selling hardcover book in modern history and the main thrust of it is faked. He came down later and constructed the whole thing with himself in it. It was a literary device he never let us in on. I have to say it was a good job of craftsmanship -- except it was not true."

Random House sells Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as "true." The New York Times has listed it for nearly four years as a "non-fiction" best seller, even though Berendt acknowledges "rounding the corners" and inventing dialogue "to make a better narrative."

"Apparently it's no longer important to the reading public whether you go out and bust your ass to get the facts right or you just make it up. That completely wipes out the main tool we journalists have -- technique, journalism, research. You don't need that any more."

Book sales are down for true crime which has always been, surprisingly, predominantly a women's market. True crime no longer pays and the best crime journalists are quitting. The list of deserters is impressive.

Edgar winner Harry McClean, an attorney who made The New York Times best seller list twice, has taken to writing legal thrillers a la John Grisham.

Darcy O'Brian, a Tulsa literature professor and author of the classic study, Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers, publicly abandoned true crime shortly before his recent death, declaring "It deserves to sink."

Masquerade author Lowell Cauffiel told the New York Daily News he's written his last work in the genre because "It's gone the way of westerns."

Barry Siegel, author of A Death at White Bear Lake, is now writing novels. And you can now add Olsen as the latest MIA. He has forsaken the genre and is now working on a "justice book" relating the story of Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

True crime's decline can also be blamed on so-called "instant books," which exploit the public's prurient interest in lurid crimes with bad writing and superficial research mostly based on newspaper clippings. Ann Rule, the genre's "queen," laments that true crime is "drowning in its own blood."

"I've reached the point," Olsen says, "if my next door neighbor turned out to be the goddamndest quadruple murderer involving sex, incest, serial murder, I wouldn't dream of writing about it. Because it would go right on the true crime shelf, in between this piece of crap and that piece of crap, and the average reader is going to say there are three pieces of crap."

Economics also plays a role. The cost of researching serious true crime accounts, with all the travel and other expenses, is usually over $50,000 per book. Most authors have to front these expenses out of their own pockets. "The best true crime authors can no longer afford to spend a year and a half, two years getting it right when there's no premium for it," he says. "We could just as easily sit home and make it up.

"Other forms of journalism have been engaged," as Max Frankel observed in The New York Times Magazine, "in a heroic battle... to preserve the meaning of fact and the sanctity of quotation marks.... Reporters have been losing their jobs for committing fiction, a crime that is no crime at all in too many other media."

Olsen agrees. "These other forms of journalism insist on things being true, but the one form that'll be sitting around a hundred years from now -- books -- nobody cares. I've suggested that book publishers have fact-checking departments just like newspapers, but they say it's too expensive, that books cost too much already. With the computer and its search facilities -- this should be the heyday of truth and accuracy in journalism. My career would be over if it weren't for the computer. The computer has extended my career by 10 or 15 years."

Another reason for this situation, Olsen says, is a lack of good critics. "The fact that Carcaterra can get away with Sleepers [is because] we don't have critics like Dwight MacDonald or A.J. Liebling -- they would've taken that guy apart."