The classic collection of true homicide stories, Killings, written by the master of American journalism, Calvin Trillin, originally released in 1984 to much acclaim, was just rereleased by Random House on April 4 with half a dozen additional pieces written since the original publication. The stories verge from an eccentric old man in Eastern Kentucky who is outraged by the presence of documentary filmmakers to a high profile criminal defense attorney from Miami who has a number of enemies that want him dead to the feud between two Mexican-American families that is handed down from generation to generation. I had a chat with the former New Yorker journalist to find out why he loved to chase down a good murder story, what he learned about the mechanisms of the criminal justice system when it comes to murders, and what he feels is revealed about human nature through these stories.
Why do you love to chase down a good murder story? A murder story is a good excuse to write about people's lives. Rocks are overturned. Hearings are held. Transcripts are produced. Also, there's a ready-made narrative -- a beginning and a middle and, of course, an end.
What have you learned about the mechanisms of the criminal justice system when it comes to murders? It differs in different parts of the country. It also differs depending on race and class and, most importantly, wealth, or lack of it. But I don't think you have to write murder pieces to be aware of that.
When you were writing these stories for the New Yorker what elements grabbed you about them that made you go, this is a good story? I was often interested in stories that could be told within the context of the place. I think good fictional murder mystery writers are often good at setting the scene -- the Navajo reservation, Southern California, etc. I looked for stories that seemed to have the potential to do that. What I was hoping for was a story that revealed the place. Also, I was often drawn by one part of American society rubbing up against another.
You’re known for putting the reader right there on the scene, how do you fashion and immerse yourself in the story that deep? I think that how well a story comes to life depends partly on just a lot of reporting. The specific is obviously more effective than the general, and you can only be specific if you've talked to a lot of people and gone through a lot of documents and done a lot of leg work.
Why do you think the violent deaths and desperate circumstances you write about appeal to people so broadly Not all the stories are about murders. Some of them are about sudden death in different circumstances -- e.g. a work place accident involving a woman who fought to get the job, a family attempt at suicide by a refugee family that had reached the safety of Iowa. When it comes to murders, the motives are varied -- money, sex, rage. I suppose you could say that murderers are just people in that the people in this book are not career criminals. Whether people in general are capable of murder is a question for a philosopher, not a reporter.
How can we put into context the recent craze with true crime podcasts and TV shows? I think that there has always been an interest in crime, particularly murder, and how it's presented depends partly on the delivery system. We now live at a time when television -- or at least something watched on a small screen -- dominates story-telling
As an early purveyor of the true crime genre how has it changed? After I'd done the U. S. Journal series in The New Yorker for fifteen years, I decided that I wanted to do the same sort of narrative pieces but at a greater length. It turned out that the time required for reporting didn't change dramatically; I just had more writing room, and I suppose those stories are a more complicated weave.