By Charlaine Harris.
I am currently reading Skip Hollandsworth’s excellent true crime book, THE MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN. It’s the account of the horrendous series of crimes which shattered Austin, TX, beginning in 1884. In an eerie parallel to the Jack the Ripper murders, the perpetrator was never seen clearly, and yet struck in populated areas. And like Jack the Ripper, this killer was never caught, and the deaths stopped abruptly. Also like Jack, the Austin murderer killed women.
We’ve become so acclimated to the TV version of scientific crime solving that it’s very hard to picture a scenario in which the police had no clues to follow. The few people who lived to describe the attacker said he wore a mask, or that they never saw him clearly. They could not even determine his race. Blood hounds brought to the scene were unable to pick up a scent. And this was what we might term today a “disorganized” killer; he used a gun, a knife, a rock, and a thin metal rod of some kind, at different sites.
The solution of the law enforcement at the time was to round up any ‘suspicious’ black male, chain him to the floor, and beat him up. But they obtained no confession that way.
THE MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN is (at times) distressing, appalling, and fascinating as a picture of the way life went in Texas in the 1880s. And I began to wonder if that’s not the fascination with true crime accounts. Whether the crimes took place in the far past or in contemporary times, we get a cross-section of life, death, and law enforcement in a specific time and place.
The inevitable conclusion is that (trite but true) people haven’t changed in any significant way. People in the late eighteen hundreds in Texas were just as shocked by violent crimes as are people these days. Law enforcement officers struggle to find a solution, to get a killer off the streets, to discover the truth. Contrary to the belief that people were more caring in past times, two people who heard a black man, severely wounded, screaming for help after his wife had been killed, turned him away from their doors.
I suppose, apart from the picture of society we can study, we are fascinated by the puzzle inherent in the crime. Who was the murderer? Why did he stop? How did he go undiscovered?
Do you read true crime? If not, why not?