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David Grann on

True Crime

True crime can be all too easily chalked up as a genre of grisly murders and cheap, voyeuristic thrills—but to do so would be to overlook compelling evidence to the contrary. David Grann, whose new book revisits long-forgotten, or concealed, crimes in the Osage community of Oklahoma, raises the bar with examples rich in historical discovery, literary merit and the kind of political inquiry these murky times are calling for

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    The Executioner's Song
    by Norman Mailer

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    The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
    by Kate Summerscale

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    The Devil in the White City
    by Erik Larson

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    All The President’s Men
    by Bob Woodward

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    The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?
    by Francisco Goldman

David Grann

David Grann is the author of The Lost City of Z, which has just been adapted into a major motion picture, and a collection of essays, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession. His new book is Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. His is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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David Grann

David Grann is the author of The Lost City of Z, which has just been adapted into a major motion picture, and a collection of essays, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession. His new book is Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. His is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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True crime is a genre that comes with quite a few pre-, and often mis-, conceptions. A popular one being that it has to involve grisly murders.

That’s true. True crime obviously deals with transgressions in some form. We’ll talk about All the President’s Men later, for example, which is a political crime and clearly not a grisly crime. It doesn’t involve a serial killer. The true crime stories that draw me in general are the ones that are about something larger than the particulars of the crime or the mere bloodshed. I certainly read a lot of sensational crime stories from the tabloids, but the ones that I consider worthy of books or remembering are the ones that explore larger themes of good and evil, or political corruption, or racial injustice. So, I have certain parameters in mind when I think of true crime books that, to me, have lasting value.

It’s interesting, too, just in a stylistic or formal sense, because you think of the genre as a space which—as Joyce Carol Oates pointed out—has become very crowded. It’s a “flourishing field”, she says, “though few writers of distinction have been drawn into it.” And I think what we’re trying to do today, certainly from the choices you’ve made, is to kind of elevate the genre—to make clear that it’s not something that is unchallenging or devoid of literary merit.

Very much so. I think the genre, when done right, can have great literary merit—that is to say, it can be well written and get at the human condition, with its savageness and its grace. There is a reason why Crime and Punishment is such a powerful novel, and why some of the nonfiction books about crime that we’ll talk about have lasting merit. The problem with the genre is that it can also traffic in just salaciousness or sensationalism. Yet that should not obscure the seriousness of many true crime books.

Your first book, The Executioner’s Song (1979) by Norman Mailer, is a paragon of the genre. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the first true crime book to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Yes. I have to say I read this book probably 25 years ago. I’m getting old. But it has stayed with me. I would love to reread it now and see how my views may have changed, but I remember reading it and being struck particularly by the style. I think Mailer’s personality or his ego can overwhelm his work but in this book he seemed constrained, in a good way, by the material. There’s almost a minimalist quality to his writing. He also had help from [the film director and screenwriter] Lawrence Schiller with a lot of the reporting material. That gave him a ballast of non-fiction and, in a way, I remember Mailer just getting out of the way in this story.

In terms of taking the author’s voice out of it, that fits with the fact that Mailer interviewed everyone involved, no matter how seemingly minor their role in the story.

It had an intimacy to it in terms of the detail. It also clearly dealt with issues surrounding the death penalty in the United States at the time. If I remember correctly, there had been, for a while, a moral shift away from the use of, and public support for, the death penalty. And that was followed by a spate in which the death penalty became much more used in the United States. So, the book dealt with some of those themes. And it dealt with character.

It’s interesting—when I look back—to see which things have stayed with me. The character portrait stayed. The book is rooted in character. It obviously deals with Gary Gilmore who committed a couple of brutal murders. I remember feeling like it got very close to him—which is very tricky to do in non-fiction; Mailer had such great access to all the participants—and thus could reveal the complexities of human character. That’s something else you’re looking for when you’re writing about crime. It’s not just about one-dimensional individuals, who fit into neat categories of good or evil.

Gilmore was very complex. He’d been in jail before the present crimes and was released. He was given another chance and it went badly wrong. He murdered two men. He went back into jail and ended up, in a strange way, becoming a noble figure. He refused to appeal his death sentence (although the lawyers did it anyway); he wanted to die immediately and chose to go by firing squad. The construction of him as a character has to be as multidimensional and conflicted as all that suggest.

I don’t remember Mailer ascribing a simple motivation to him either. He allowed the possibilities of, you know, ‘was he born bad?’ ‘Did culture make him bad?’ ‘Why couldn’t he reform himself?’ But he didn’t try to reduce anything. I think sometimes it can be very reductive when we write about people who commit crimes. And I think Mailer allowed different possibilities, different motivations, and let the reader weigh the different elements. In understanding human motivations for crime, we tend to be far too reductive.

The convict sentenced to death is a classic trope of the genre. You’ve written about it yourself in “Trial by Fire” in The New Yorker. The death penalty is so compelling to writers and to readers. Why do you think that is?

Well, I think the subject gets to the most fundamental question of how do you punish somebody who commits the ultimate sin of murder. And it raises questions about vengeance and how do you repair a society after a violent crime. In the name of moral purpose or punishment, do you, in turn, put someone to death? In the US, in the old days when they would mark up the autopsy, they would often refer to it as “death by homicide” even if it was state-sanctioned. So, it raises all those important moral questions.

“In the name of moral purpose or punishment, do you, in turn, put someone to death?”

It also raises a lot of questions about the judicial system, certainly in the case that I wrote about – of Cameron Todd Willingham. It raised the prospect that the judicial system can make mistakes that lead to an innocent man being executed. So, it raised still other ethical questions. Now in the case of Gilmore there was no question about his guilt, but with Cameron Todd Willingham—who was accused of committing arson which killed his children in his house—the case it turned out was just shoddy from start to finish. The notion that he set the fire was based on junk science that has now been discredited. There is overwhelming evidence that the state put to death an innocent man, when it executed Willingham on February 17, in 2004. So, again, this is the kind of true crime story that has enormous stakes: It is about how in the process of trying to address what was assumed to be a crime, the state apparently committed one. The case holds up a light to the problems with our judicial system.

It’s also a distinctly American thing in that the US is one of only very few nations, especially in the western world, that persistently use the death penalty (in that respect it keeps company with Iran, China, Somalia, Sudan and North Korea). So, it does seem peculiarly American. One of the best-known examples comes by way of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood which you said you considered putting on your list and then decided against it. In fact, the case has been back in the news; I saw something about it just this morning.

Yes, I saw there was something in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend about one of the convicts, one of two protagonists in In Cold Blood. He committed the murder and had a memoir—never published—in which he suggested it might have been a contract hit. I can’t quite tell how much credibility to give that. But, yes, In Cold Blood is interesting. I actually reread it not that long ago and it remains, just as a piece of writing, astonishing. From a sentence level, it’s a beautifully written work. But there is something that makes me slightly uneasy about it: its relationship to the truth. I’m just never quite confident of where I am in terms of the truth, and so since we are discussing true crime… I didn’t want to include it.

Capote called it a novel but then he always insisted that every word was true. In a way, if he’d just been more clear about what was true and what was fiction, I would have a much easier relationship with the book. He’s kind of trying to have it both ways and just not being open about it. If he had novelised certain parts of the story and been open about it then you could read the work in that context, process the material accordingly. But, especially when you deal with serious crimes, I think you do have certain moral boundaries and there are certain burdens that come with the work. In some ways, of all non-fiction writing, when you write about crimes, the moral burden is highest because you are dealing with real victims and often traumatic events—especially when there are killings involved.

There are amazing parts of In Cold Blood. Capote really did spend time with the people. He reported and had a deep sense of the characters, which is one of the things you’re really after in true crime. As a writer, you want to interview the people involved and have a real sense of them: they’re complex, they’re three-dimensional. But there are just moments with Capote where I’m just a little uneasy. I think the part that stood out to me came early on, when he’s in the mind or the consciousness of at least one of the victims and you’re like ‘Woah. He’s actually in their heads.’ If he’d just been more honest and said it’s rooted in non-fiction but is fictionalised in places. It’s a question of transparency. It would be interesting for me to read The Executioner’s Song because Mailer called that a novel. But I don’t recall having that kind of uneasiness. I wonder if, if I reread it now that I’m older, and with a closer eye, I would feel differently.

Let’s move on to the next book: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. John Le Carré called it “a classic of the finest documentary writing”.

Yes, and what I liked about this book—and I guess I read this probably when it came out, around 2009—is that it got to one of the larger questions we’ve talked about: it’s about a mysterious murder that takes place inside a house, but she uses the story to get at broader themes of class and the evolution of modern detection.

She also—I felt, wonderfully—used the case to look at the beginning of our fascination with the art of detection. And that reflects my own bias because I’m always interested in the evolution of detection and detectives. One of the fascinating things Summerscale does is document how the case, and the way it was handled by Scotland Yard, influenced so much of the fiction that followed—take Dickens, for example. So there’s this fascinating interplay between a real crime and how it influences literature and popular culture, which in turn influences how we as humans process real crimes. We think of O J Simpson or other crimes that have these deep cultural resonances, and this was a case like that, obviously set long in the past, that had that kind of resonance and influence. And Summerscale really got at the heart of that. She put the crime in a larger context.

And, to set the scene, the murder happens in a house in 1860 and you know from the get-go that it has to have been someone who was in that house who did it. It’s a classic whodunnit and you can see perfectly well why it would be such a great launch pad for Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins et al.

Yes, and Summerscale brilliantly uses the tropes of classic detective stories—the hunting for clues and piecing them together—which gives her book a certain kind of pleasure. Many crimes can also tell you something larger about society, and this one got very much at the notion of how feel about the sanctity of our home, because it was a crime committed by someone in the house. And the book also explored our queasiness with detectives, who are seen as these people who have admirable Sherlockian powers. But there’s often, especially back then, a suspicion: ‘Is he a spy?’ ‘Is he prodding into our lives like another intruder in the sanctity of our home’? The main character is someone who certainly arouses many of those admirations and suspicions.

And, because it was this real case, you were able to see the effect that it had on the public imagination, via the media. That’s intensified in the past two centuries or so, as true crime has become more and more adapted. Summerscale’s book was adapted into a popular TV series; In Cold Blood has been made into a number of films; The Executioner’s Song likewise; your own The Lost City of Z and a number of your short pieces have been adapted too. How do you think the medium fares as it is translated to the screen? Does it necessarily become more fictionalised?

It varies so much. It really depends on the individuals developing it—often it demeans the material, and often it elevates it. What’s interesting about Summerscale’s case is that the story of the crime became fused in many ways with mass communication. As technology made printing newspapers and books cheaper in the 19th century, crime became a way to sell newspapers and one of the first forms of very popular literature, like the adventure stories of the Victorian era.

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What Summerscale does such a good job of is tracing the way this crime captured the popular imagination, and why we are so fascinated with detective stories. They tap into our deepest fear—that some force will rip away our safety and security. And they also deal with our hope that some counter force can come in and resolve the evil or catch the criminal, restoring our sense of security.

Of course, the way these crimes are portrayed over time has changed as well—the criminal has often gone from someone who is seen as purely bad to a more complex antihero. Which is interesting given that crime stories, certainly in literature, reflect what’s happening and the mood of the populace of the time.

The creative elements involved can allow you to convey a deeper truth… I can’t help but think of Werner Herzog’s notion of the ‘ecstatic truth.’ He says “fact creates norms, and truth illumination”; facts have this strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable, which, I suppose, is basically another way of saying that nothing is stranger than fact.

Yes. That’s like the very famous Sherlock Holmes quote. Conan Doyle has Holmes say to Watson that “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”—basically, if you could peer into every house, the stories that come out of them would be more astonishing than anything you could ever invent in fiction. I really believe that is true, and why this genre can be so powerful.

A perfect example being your next book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It tells a story that is very much of the strange and bizarre kind—

the truth seems unbelievable.

It is an astonishing story about one of the earliest known and most famous, or infamous is probably a better word, serial killers in the United States—a guy calling himself Doctor Holmes. It takes place during the 1890s and there are these two parallel stories woven together. One is the construction of the Chicago Fair of 1893—this great World Fair, and all the marvel and wonder and engineering and ingenuity and innocence involving the construction. But there is also this really brutal psychopathic serial killer plotting and using the Fair to lure young women to this house of horror, this chamber that he has built in the basement of a Bates’ Motel type place. It is a classic story of good and evil playing out side by side.

“There is queasiness around detectives: ‘Is he a spy?’ ‘Is he prodding into our lives like an intruder in the sanctity of our home’? ”

Larson was one of the first to show me­—because my new book draws a lot on history—how you can tell these stories and set them in their historical context. The crimes are sensational but, in a way, the things I remember as much in that book are about the World Fair and the engineering and the planning behind it and how people dressed and talked. Larson just has a wonderful eye for detail. And he has a way of showing how a crime is not an isolated incident but part of the larger fabric of society.

The historical backdrop, as you say, is a very specific point in time where you’ve got the past rubbing up against the very modern world. Women perhaps especially had these new freedoms and with them came dangers. The historical moment—and Chicago itself—becomes a character as conflicted as any of the human characters.

Yes, very much so. There is a really distinct sense of place and, again, of the social forces that are being unleashed at the time—just as you said, with women having liberties and freedoms at the Fair. I think for these stories to work or to elevate themselves as crime stories, they do need to be almost like a portal—a window into these worlds. A crime story has a sort of built-in narrative power, in the sense that there is often inherent suspense, but within the form, I believe there is an opportunity to delve into important questions. This is certainly the case in The Devil in the White City which is about the birth of a modern country: the United States.

What about Larson’s style? At the level of the sentence or paragraph, what kind of read is it? It’s been described as a very novelistic book, very heavily embroidered which in the true crime genre can cause alarm (see Capote).

It’s extraordinarily evocative. I always get the sense from Larson that he’s done an enormous amount of research, though he doesn’t let it overwhelm the narrative. He definitely shows more than tells, too. And I think when recounting true crimes that is extremely important: to let the facts speak for themselves.

I read somewhere that he did all of the research himself and vetoed the internet. He went the old-school way, knocking on doors and speaking to everyone. He’s a master of the cameo appearance as well, I remember.

What both Larson and Summerscale demonstrate is what I would call the power of investigative history. They are not merely collecting facts; they are unearthing them. And I think that’s what often separates a mediocre crime book from a great one.

Your fourth book—All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—comes as something of a relief after all maniacal murdering. But it’s still a pretty frightening tale, 

and no less so for being so well-known. Talk us through it.

It’s probably the most iconic book of reporting in the United States to this day. It’s written by Woodward and Bernstein, and about their investigation, when they were young reporters at the Washington Post, into the shocking crimes committed by President Richard Nixon. When I first read that book, it gave me a sense that reporting could have a nobility and a moral purpose behind it. Of course, much reporting is not quite like that but…

And, to be clear, the crimes here are moral and political ones. It was articles of the US Constitution that were being butchered, rather than individuals.

Yes. The crimes include everything from breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices to bugging political opponents to covering up evidence. I think the book is particularly relevant today which is partly why I picked it. In a day and age when public officials are trying to subvert and muddy the truth, the need for deep reporting to hold these people accountable is as important as ever. This book is a seminal case of that—a case where investigative reporting was essential to revealing the corruption at the highest levels of the United States and to preserving our democracy.

Too often when we think of crime stories, we think of them in one dimensional ways—we think of a bank robbery, or a holdup, or someone breaking into a house—but some of the crimes that are just as important, in some ways maybe even more important, are those that are political in nature. They don’t need to involve murders. This one almost provoked a constitutional crisis.

And the victim count is much higher. It’s a whole nation.

Precisely, and this was a case where the system was driven to the brink but ultimately functioned: Nixon eventually stepped down. Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting played an essential role in protecting the country. This book, and all the books on this list, have left a mark on me, often in different ways, and what I remember most about this one is the doggedness of the reporting. All the President’s Men is a book where there is no fanciful writing—Bernstein and Woodward are not Mailer or Capote. They are journalists writing perfectly clean, decent prose and they have a story to tell, and they tell it in such a way that it has enormous power.

It’s certainly a case in which the symbiosis of the writer and the detective is as clear as can be. The writer in this sense is like a vigilante—he has charged himself with finding the truth that no one else, through lack of will or ability, has.

Yes. I think what makes important true crimes books is not simply the stories they relate but the authors that investigate them. You can have investigative historians like Larson. Or you can have investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein. In both cases they are trying to unearth some deeper truth. In many true crime books, the author-investigator is not unlike the detectives he or she is writing about. The skills are very similar, I think, in terms of unearthing evidence and trying to create some kind of structure, plot, or narrative that helps to make sense of the chaos, and piece things back together.

It makes me think of Tom White in your Killers of the Flower Moon where you say his job is “to turn a scattering of facts into a taut narrative”; you describe the files on the Osage murders as “bits of data vacuumed up without any chronology or narrative, like a novel whose pages are out of order.” White has to “scour this randomness for a hidden design.”

That case is about the Osage Indians who in the 1920s became the wealthiest people in the world because of oil under their land in Oklahoma. And then they begin to be serially murdered. It becomes one of the FBI’s first major homicide cases. Tom White, who leads the FBI probe, is an interesting character. He traces the emergence of a more modern, professionalised detective in the United States. He began his days riding horseback as a frontier lawman in Texas when justice was pretty much meted out by the barrel of a gun. And then, by the time of the 1920s, when he was investigating the Osage murder cases, he’s trying to learn how to do fingerprinting and ballistic analysis and handwriting analysis.

“The Osage Indians, in the 1920s, became the wealthiest people in the world, from oil under their land in Oklahoma. Then they begin to be serially murdered”

He’s wearing a fedora and a suit, and he has to file paperwork and reports which he can’t stand doing. In his life you can trace part of the story of the modern United States. When he began his career, the frontier lawman—the cowboy lawman—was very popular in literature, especially in novels. And then, by the 1920s, there’s a new figure emerging in literature and culture which is the ‘G-man,’ the FBI agent.

How does the nature of the true crime beast change when the story involves and relates to the memories of people who are still alive, as opposed to being drawn from a historical record, where the accused and the victims—or the victims’ families—can’t react to new evidence or theories? Does it make you feel like you need to dampen your novelistic flourishes?

In general, I try to be pretty minimalistic when describing crimes. My hope is to be respectful of the story and faithful to it. I try to just get myself out of the way. One of the reasons I remember liking The Executioner’s Song was because it had that minimalistic approach. And I don’t think that the approach should change whether it’s writing about crimes in the past or in the present. I’ve written about both types: with the story about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, he was not alive when I was working on the story, but family members were, as well as the prosecutor and many of the detectives. This required enormous sensitivity. But even with a historical case like the Osage murders, I tracked down many of the descendants of both the killers and the victims. And, speaking to them, you realize how the impact of crimes can effect generations. The descendants gave me a sense of how the past still lives in the present. So, in some ways, it felt no less alive to me.

Your last book is The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? by Francisco Goldman. That continues very much in the political vein and it’s a gooey, multi-layered whodunit, beginning with the sudden murder of Juan José Gerardi Conedera, in Guatemala in 1998. Let’s set the scene.

So, this is in some ways different to the other books I’ve picked in that it is a political case like All The President’s Men but it actually does involve a murder. It’s set in Guatemala at a time when there was great repression from the military regime and dissidents were hunted down and killed. These were really genocidal crimes. One of the most infamous killings was of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who had spoken out against the regime and in defence of the victims. He helped publish a report that helped to detail many of the genocidal killings of the regime. And so, he was targeted and killed—shot. What makes this such a powerful book is how Goldman tries to peel back the hidden layers of the conspiracy behind the murder. Goldman also looks at the way we make sense of crimes, how we get at the truth and how we process it. That’s how, in some ways, we’re able to live with the crimes—but that doesn’t mean we have closure or anything so simple. The whole construction of these detective stories and true crime stories is that there is a crime, there is an investigator, the investigator pieces together elements of the truth and helps, at least, to make sense of the chaos we live in.

“The notion that the legal institutions that are supposed to expose the truth are instead covering it up or manipulating it adds a real terror”

Goldman’s case shows how, when there is a political killing, when there is a criminal power structure involved, you can corrupt the organs of justice and subvert any sense of truth. It creates an added nefariousness to the crimes themselves. That is certainly the case here. And so, the context of this crime is different from the context of some of the other crimes we’ve talked about. It’s backdrop is a system of fragile institutions where corruption is widespread. The notion that the legal institutions that are supposed to expose the truth are instead distorting it, covering it up or manipulating it, adds a real terror. The murkiness of the case, the knottiness of it, is extreme; Goldman lets you get a sense of what it’s like to be in a sea of these counter-narratives with everyone spinning a different version in order to cover up the real truth. And he tries to sort through it all. The book ends up being about so much more than a singular killing.

And it’s one of those unavoidable ironies that the best stories come from the grimmest realities where the establishment, sometimes the law itself, is the antagonist. There’s a line in the Goldman book by a ‘clean’ lawyer who points out that the line between crime and politics here can be so fine as to not even exist.

Yes. The Art of Political Murder is that rare title that is perfect—it really reflects what it is. There is such a sinister art to it. It takes you back to Machiavelli. But, in fact, I think it also gets at why we’re so drawn to detectives in popular culture: they provide this kind of—I don’t want to oversell it but—psychological role for us. They can bring justice or at least some meaning or sense to senselessness. But if that is corrupted and the people doing the ordering are themselves actually creating a fake order—creating a tissue of lies, an illusion, a façade—to me that’s just such a horrifying thing.

It’s also a reminder of how fragile these institutions are. We talked about All The President’s Men and that was a time when the institutions of the United States, despite being on the brink of a constitutional crisis, put the interests of the country and the truth first. Both parties—including the Republican Party, the party of President Nixon—provided a role that went beyond simply partisan ends. And now it seems increasingly that the institutions that are supposed to hold politicians and officials to account are under siege. So, we’re not in the same dire situation as that described in The Art of Political Murder, but you can see the seeds of what happens when the institutions that are set up to help the police and investigate aren’t able to do their jobs because they are, for various reasons, undermined.

While working on the killings of the Osage Indians, I became acutely aware of this. There was a tremendous lawlessness in the United States back in the 1920s which I was unaware of until I really got into the research—I had no idea how lawless America was, and how corrupt so many of the legal institutions were. So many of these crimes were covered up because of prejudice and because there just wasn’t a system of law. We often—at least, I’m speaking for the United States—think of ourselves as kind of exceptional, and that what’s happening in Guatemala in The Art of Political Murder can’t happen here. But it happened to a great extent in the towns in Oklahoma that I wrote about, where these crimes were covered up and fake narratives were being created, a tissue of lies, or just silence. The Art of Political Murder has a particular resonance today.

This was the first work of non-fiction by Goldman, a writer who had, until then, made his name with quite lyrical and often very elaborate novels like The Divine Husband and The Ordinary Seaman. Goldman teaches creative writing in literature, and it’s striking how much effort he puts into picking apart all the lies, rumours and conspiracy theories—which I guess you could call fictions.

Solving a crime, and writing about crime, always involves an arranging of facts into some sort of logical design. Yet it’s possible for criminals, especially those who wield power and control instruments of communication, to construct a narrative that is an elaborate deception: that makes people think there is order when there is not.

And so, it’s interesting that Goldman, who was a novelist, is so thorough in his reporting and picking apart these devilish fictions. What I like about his reporting, going back to some of your other questions, is that he allows for doubt to creep into his own narrative. I think that’s very important in reporting. There’s a tendency to want to obliterate doubt. I think too many writers want to create a perfect narrative or perfect clarity or attribute a simplistic motive or be reductive; it’s like they almost don’t trust the reader to handle uncertainty. And I bristle at that. What makes true crime interesting is that murkiness because that’s what makes it true. It doesn’t always mean that the truth doesn’t exist—I’m a big believer that the truth does exist, but getting at the truth can be difficult. It can be obscured. If it’s an historical case, we might not know everything; trails of evidence might have been lost. Unless there were 27 cameras focused on the crime, reconstructing the truth can be very difficult. And so one of the things I took away from reading this book was how Goldman pursues every line of inquiry but still allows for the murk.

Not to go on about Herzog but the murk sort of reminds me how there’s always an element of the unknowable in his films. There’s an element of wonder that you can’t quite fathom. In your book, you speak of “the force that was there and was not there, Wah’Kon-Tah”—the idea being that there’s something that man will never understand, will never be able to get a purchase on.

Yes. One of the things, again, with Killers of the Flower Moon, is that the book is told through three narrators. It gets back to our question of investigators because we’re all investigators in our own way. An investigator doesn’t always wear a deerstalker cap. And so, the first chronicle is told from the point of view of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family is being serially murdered. She is trying to make sense of this incredibly sinister conspiracy. And then in the second chronicle, you have the more traditional investigator, Tom White. And then in the last chronicle you have my role as the historian or reporter or whatever you want to call me, coming in to try to look back and make sense of the gaps in the narrative. A deeper sense of what happened only emerges over time, with different perspectives, and even then the picture is not complete.

“The horror in many cases is the unknowability… the most terrifying thing is when Sherlock Holmes can’t put it all back together again”

Indeed, when I was doing the research, one of the things that I discovered early on was that there was going to be a number of unsolved crimes and thus unknowables. So, there were different ways to deal with that. You could try to minimise them, but I think that’s really—going back to Goldman—not going to bring you to the truth or the reality. Instead, you could make that unknowability part of the very fabric of the story—which is that we all have partial information. Facts elude us. And going back to what you were saying, one of the things that struck me in doing the research for the book was that I had always thought of crime stories as the horror of what you know. But in writing The Killers of the Flower Moon there were so many unsolved cases—cases for which there is still no accounting and in which the evidence has dried up or disappeared.

The horror in many cases is the unknowability. To me that was very scary because that gets, again, at the very question of what we’re driving at in these detective stories, trying to impose some order and meaning on the world. But what if the order isn’t perfect or complete? That is something I wrestle with, because, in some ways, the most terrifying thing is when Sherlock Holmes can’t put it all back together again.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

April 20, 2017

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