The Crime Lady: More Cases That Haunt

Dear TCL Readers:

Last year, one of my favorite crime writers, William Boyle, reached out to ask me to contribute to a project he was guest-editing for a film website. We batted around some ideas for what I might write, since he was looking for a true crime essay of the kind that has become — it is still incredibly weird to say this — my specialty. None were quite right, and it was only when I mentioned an unsolved murder that I’d been obsessed with long ago and that I still thought about, every now and then, that everyone got excited.

Last fall, I went through my notes on the life and death of Serge Rubinstein, a 46-year-old Russian-Jewish financier who was murdered in the bedroom of his Fifth Avenue townhouse, thinking I would write a memoiristic essay of what it feels like to be in the grips of a research and reporting obsession, and how Rubinstein’s behavior fit in alarmingly well with recent news stories about Very Bad Men.

Then I discovered I’d written down the name of the likely culprit, after a conversation with the eventual biographer of Woodrow Wilson, whose first book had been on the case. And the essay shifted gears, because it turned out that man — Peter Crosby, and I can name him because he’s been dead for more than two decades — lived as dissolute a life as did Rubinstein, a story involving French starlets, multiple swindles, gossip columns, intimate partner violence, family strife, and Atlantic City casinos. It was, to be honest, way more than I bargained for. And it’s all in this essay, finally published last Friday at ByNWR.com, the film website owned and operated by the director Nicolas Winding Refn, along with other amazing features, audio, and video projects.

Sometimes, to exorcise a ghost, you end up reviving more ghosts. But I’m glad I did, and thanks to Bill for prodding me to do so, surprising myself in the process.

**

It’s a little less than 3 months to the publication of Unspeakable Acts, and while (virtual) events are still being finalized, I am happy to share three prepublication reviews from the trades. Kirkus deemed it a collection of “perceptive” and “well-chosen sampling” of true crime writing; Library Journal’s starred review concluded: “This enthralling volume insists that there can and should be humanity within true crime. Whether readers are spellbound or disgusted by the genre, this is a must.” And Booklist also gave the anthology a rave: “essential reading for all true crime fans.”

**

A few weeks ago I found myself inflamed and infuriated by the rise in so-called “armchair epidemiologists.” It didn’t help that I was once friendly with one of them, and watching that person slide into their current state has been…extremely discombobulating, as I suspect must be the case for others who knew (and might still know) them. To better understand the phenomenon, I rang up the social psychologist David Dunning, who described (along with Justin Kruger) a now-infamous effect of overconfidence and bad outcomes. It was an extremely delightful conversation about the catastrophic effects of refusing to admit wrongness or a lack of expertise.

**

READ/WATCH/LISTEN

  • Friday, May 1 was a banner day for true crime-related essays. Casey Cep wrote about James Baldwin’s Evidence of Things Not Seen, his 1985 book-length essay on the Atlanta Child Murders, which grew out of an assignment for Playboy by Walter Lowe, the only black editor ever at the publication. I had read Baldwin’s book last month thinking I might want to write about it, and Cep’s piece hit all the notes I would have wanted to hit, and then some. (Also, I never get tired of linking my favorite Baldwin essay, which I’m doing again for Reasons.)

  • Megan Abbott also published a wonderful reflection on an unsolved serial child murder case that haunted her own childhood, but subconsciously, for the New York Times’ new true crime storytelling project.

  • I cannot tell you how excited I am for Patrick Radden Keefe’s new podcast Wind of Change, which drops on May 11. And it’s great to see In The Dark return with a new mini-season, reflecting on how the Coronavirus is affecting those in the Mississippi Delta.

  • Maj Sjowall, co-author of the greatest Scandinavian crime fiction series, for which there are still no equals, has died.

  • There will be a new Tana French novel in October and it’s….a Western? I have also read Elizabeth Hand’s new Cass Neary novel, The Book of Lamps and Banners, and it is a propulsive exploration of obsession and addiction; and Denise Mina’s The Less Dead, which ponders the question of what happens when you learn your birth mother was, perhaps, murdered by a serial killer, though that’s less important than than the women you encounter along the way.

Stay safe and healthy, and stay home, even (and especially) with the nicer weather out there.

Until next time, I remain,

The Crime Lady