It’s a perfect marriage of words and pictures, but above all it is a love letter to the city of his birth. LA, says Ellroy, ‘is the town that made me and that I must return to, again and again.’ As must we.
The Tatler Magazine review of LAPD ’53, a collaboration between James Ellroy and the Los Angeles Police Museum. It is a stunning publication and a gruesome coffee-table read. The book contains a series of photographs taken from crime scenes in Los Angeles in 1953. It is a indication of what real life was like in the city of angels.
We’ve looked before at nonfiction crime books but today I wanted to look at some of the best examples of how storytelling, broadcasting and real life events can combine. What follows is a list of stories that are moving, terrifying and completely true.
- Serial – From the producers of This American Life, Serial has changed the face of podcasts. Adhering to the best Victorian traditions journalist Sarah Koenig painstakingly unpicks the 1999 case against Adnan Syed, who remains in prison for the murder of his girlfriend. Though Serial ended in December 2014 fans can still get their fix from the Undisclosed Podcast which features new evidence which has since come to light. Be warned though, once you start listening to Serial you can’t stop. You have to know how it ends.
- The Jinx – A 2015 documentary from HBO about Robert Durst, the wealthy son of a property tycoon. The Jinx was filmmaker Andrew Jarecki’s second attempt to tell the story of Robert Durst and his connection with his wife’s disappearance in the 1980s and two others murders in 2000 and 2001. The first attempt was All Good Things, a feature length mystery film starring Ryan Gosling in 2010. Whilst Gosling portrayed Durst The Jinx featured the man himself. Jarecki interviewed Durst and the investigation team from the original cases. The result is heartstopping, compelling and crashes headlong into a stunning ending.
- The Detectives – A 2015 documentary series on BBC television featuring the work of the Serious Sexual Offices Unit of Greater Manchester Police. It has redefined our understanding of police procedure and is a fascinating insight into the grim reality of case building, trawling evidence and questioning suspects. The footage was raw and harrowing despite the time that had passed since the original crimes. As Detective Carter concluded it was a different time then but raping schoolgirls was still raping schoolgirls. Competent detectives doing a difficult job, without fuss and without the usual tropes that come with fictional incarnations of police procedurals. Storytelling at its best and perhaps its most uncomfortable.
- The Central Park Five – A 2012 documentary by Ken Burns about the Central Park jogger case, one of the most infamous crimes of the 1980s. Trisha Meili was subject to a brutal assault in 1989 and a year later four black and one hispanic men were found guilty and convicted. Burns’ film was released at Cannes and is a searing indictment of racial stereotypes, injustice and trial-by-media-frenzy. The five men eventually had their convictions quashed and in December 2014 were paid over $40m in damages by the City of New York. Their story has not ended as they are still pursuing further claims. In a way though it can never end for them. They served between 5-15 years for a crime they didn’t commit. Burns’ film won a Peabody Award in 2013 and you watch scarcely able to believe how much the media fuelled the outcome.
- Into the Abyss – A 2011 documentary from Werner Herzog about a triple murder in Texas. Subtitled A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life the film had a successful festival circuit period before going on general release to widespread acclaim. Michael Perry, the inmate at the film’s centre, gave interviews to Herzog right up until a week before his execution for the murder of nurse Sandra Stotler. His accomplice received a life sentence. The film is partly an analysis of the devastating impact of murder on the lives of those left behind and partly an exploration of the morality of death and the death penalty.
- Talhotblond – A 2009 documentary from Barbara Schroeder about beefcake, marinesniper and talhotblond, the online usernames of three people at the heart of an internet relationship that ended in murder. Marinesniper murdered beefcake after discovering they were both romantically linked with talhotblond despite neither having actually met the woman behind the username. Had they done so they would have realised that talhotblond was not 18 year old Jessi, as they had been led to believe, but was in fact Jessi’s mother posing as her daughter. Jessi only found out what had occurred after beefcake had been murdered. Tragically beefcake was the only person not pretending to be someone else. The film’s strapline is everybody lies online and it is a stark lesson in the perils of the internet.
- Cropsey – Launced at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009, Cropsey is one of the scariest things I have ever watched. Filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio examine the legend of Cropsey, a fictional boogeyman used by parents to frighten their children into behaving. The filmmakers are from Staten Island where the legend takes the form of a mental patient who lived under a school. The school had once been home to disabled children before it was closed because of shocking conditions. The legend was supposed to keep children away. What starts as a film about the boogeyman morphs into a terrifying tale about how myth and legend could have influenced the outcome in a real life child killer case. Cropsey is tragic and terrifying.
- The Imposter – an incredible documentary from 2012 about the disappearance of a 13 year old boy from Texas in 1994. It features both real life footage, including interviews with the boy’s family, and dramatised scenes. It also features conman Frederic Bourdin, known as The Chameleon, who for several months lived with the family pretending to be their missing son. The film explores many themes, not least whether the family knew Bourdin was an imposter or whether they just wanted to believe their son was alive despite the obvious lack of physical similarity. The differences in eye colour should have been an immediate clue. Bourdin was eventually imprisoned and continued to pass himself off as missing persons for many years afterwards. The film is difficult to watch, and impossible to switch off.
Reality then continues to hold us in its grip. Writers and filmmakers are blending the dramatic tension of real life with their own creativity and deep knowledge of storytelling. It seems we can’t get enough of it. As Ellroy concludes in his introduction to LAPD ’53,
You need that noxious nachtmusik of 1953. You’ve had it with repugnant rap and the hoo-ha of hip-hop. You want Lawrence Welk – blasphemously blended with baaaaaaaaad bebop. Here it is – magnificently, motherfuckingly yours.
Real life. You couldn’t make it up.