Anya Lipska: My top 5 true crime reads
Anya Lipska, author of Where the Devil Can’t Go, a crime thriller set among London’s Poles, chooses her top five true crime reads.
1. Shot in the Heart– Mikal Gilmore, 1994
In 1977, Gary Gilmore’s demand to undergo the death penalty passed against him – a battle he would finally win at the hands of a firing squad in Utah – was a huge news story. It was also the first real-life ethical dilemma that I remember debating with my parents over the Sugar Puffs. Should a cold-blooded murderer be allowed to choose what he considered a preferable punishment to spending the rest of his life in jail? Could state-sanctioned killing ever be justified anyway?
Shot in the Heart, the story of Gary Gilmore’s life as told by his younger brother Mikal delves into what led to those final, bitter five minutes of fame, building a devastating portrait of the darkness at the heart of one ordinary American family. Its intimate insight into Gilmore’s family life made it, for me, far more compelling and moving than the more famous Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer’s take on Gary’s story. It’s a slow motion interstate pile-up of bad choices, parental inadequacy, religious dogma, fallings-out with family, and above all, the damage that a violent father can sear into the souls of his children. Mikal never attempts to excuse Gary’s callous crimes, but the sheer awfulness of his brother’s young life reads like a finely detailed blueprint for a life of destructive rage.
2. Homicide – David Simon, 1991
When writing the screenplay for the monster TV hit The Wire, journalist David Simon clearly drew heavily on the year he’d spent shadowing the cops in Baltimore’s homicide unit. But the first fruit of that experience was Homicide, the true story of Baltimore’s finest. It’s a masterful and meticulously detailed account of the murders, the politics, the gripes and personal foibles of a fascinating bunch of detectives.
It would read like great fiction, but for the fact that we too often see the bad guy getting off, or plea-bargaining his way to a lesser charge. By turns gritty, funny and depressing, it also proved to be great research material for my own – fictional – London cops because so many aspects of a murder detective’s life – such as the unrelenting graveyard humour – turned out to be the same whether in Baltimore or London’s East End. It’s also great fun trying to spot the real McNulty, Lester, Cedric et al…
3. Helter Skelter – Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry 1974
Along with Vietnam, the 1969 murders of the pregnant Sharon Tait and six other randomly chosen victims by Charles Manson and his Spahn Ranch followers came to mark the end of the decade’s Woodstock dream of peace and love. It’s a story resonant with late Sixties detail – Helter Skelter was a track on The Beatles’ White Album, its title appropriated by Manson to describe the apocalyptic race war he believed was about to engulf America.
What makes this book so chillingly memorable isn’t just one co-author’s in-depth knowledge of the case – Vince Bugliosi was chief prosecutor of The Manson Family – but his gift for description and storytelling. He is master of the telling detail: it’s decades since I read the book but even now, something will unexpectedly spill into my consciousness. I recall, for instance, that Polanski gave the police an audiotape of a dinner party, some of whose guests would subsequently be killed alongside his wife. A badly placed microphone meant that the recording captured a sinister sound – the carving knife grating repeatedly against the bone in the joint of meat.
4. Beyond Belief – Emlyn Williams 1967
The Moors Murders remain imprinted on the public’s retina, and perhaps won’t start to fade until Ian Brady, the surviving half of the child-murdering duo, dies. Williams’ classic account of the case has been criticised in recent years for imagining scenes between the protagonists and getting some of the facts ‘wrong’. In fact, he always made clear that the book combined three elements: fact, interpretation of fact, and surmise, so I don’t object to his occasional novelising. His aim is to attempt to anatomise the evil confluence of Brady and Myra Hindley, an aim I think he achieves remarkably well. What marks Beyond Belief out from the other books on the case are the fact that it was written within a year of the trial, making its attitudes, atmosphere, and the cadences of people’s speech feel utterly true to the period.
The Moors Murders have a particular resonance for me because the case was the subject of one of the first TV documentaries I directed, for the Heart of the Matter series, presented by Joan Bakewell back in the Nineties. The programme examined both sides of an issue that was in the headlines at the time – whether Myra Hindley, then still alive, ought to be released or should die in prison. During the filming I was phoned by Hindley ally David Astor, the retired editor of the Observer, who tried to browbeat us into not interviewing the mother of ten-year-old murder victim Lesley Ann Downey, on the grounds that she was a ‘propagandist’ paid by the Sun. I remember being shocked that a former journalist would argue to suppress the voice of someone so directly affected by Hindley’s crimes, in what appeared to be a bid to sway the tone of the programme toward the pro-release side of the argument.
Joan Bakewell was reliably robust on the issue and, to Astor’s chagrin, we did interview Lesley Ann’s mother, as well as some impressive contributors from the pro-release side including Hindley’s priest, Bert White.
5. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil– John Berendt, 1994
It feels wrong to describe Midnight as a bit of light relief after the grim nature of the previous choices – after all it does concern the true story of the killing of a rent boy by his wealthy and well-connected lover, but it is, above all, a love letter to the beautiful Southern city of Savannah. Through the eyes of a semi-fictional journalist covering the trial, Berendt peels Savannah like some luscious overripe fruit, revealing layers of corruption, enmity and intrigue, but there is, nonetheless something so alluring about his portrait of the city and its people that is impossible not to be seduced. Midnight reads like a gripping crime novel, and its genteel Southern belles, transvestite drag queens, voodoo priestesses provide a vivid cast for Berendt’s witty and acerbic prose.
More about Anya’s work and upcoming events can be found at: www.anyalipska.com
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