The New York Times Book of Crime, edited by Kevin Flynn, is a thorough collection of history's greatest crimes covered by one of the top news sources of all time.
The title says 166 Years of Covering the Beat, and nothing makes that clearer than the opening chapter: “Assassination.” This compilation of articles is kicked off by an 1865 article on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William Seward on the same evening. The breakdown of the crime and its aftermath serves as the starting point for a very thorough and interesting exploration of The New York Times’ journalism on some of the most fascinating crimes in history.
Editor Kevin Flynn has gathered the stories with the largest impact of the past century and a half. Each chapter depicts a different kind of crime: assassination, heists, kidnappings, mass murder, the mob, murder, prison, serial killers, sex crimes, vice, and white collar criminal activity all get their moment on the page. And every page is covered by some of the best journalists who have ever lived. You want to know the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the biggest news stories in the last 166 years as presented at the time they happened? Then this book is for you.
I’m a big serial killer fan, and this non-fiction collection contains “Dismay in Whitechapel: Two More Murdered Women Found.” History buffs will know the only man to cause “dismay” (probably the understatement of the century) in the Whitechapel area of London is the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper. But, since this article was written contemporarily with the Ripper’s rampage, the reporter does not have the killer’s nom de guerre just yet. So he’s a nameless “fiend.”
The Whitechapel fiend has again set that district and all London in a state of terror. He murdered not one woman but two last night, and seems bent on beating all previous records in his unheard-of crimes. His last night’s victims were both murdered within an hour, and the second was disemboweled like her predecessors, a portion of her abdomen being missing as in the last case. He contented himself with cutting the throat of the other, doubtless because of interruption. Both women were streetwalkers of the lowest class, as before.
While it’s fascinating reading primary sources in this format, you do have to keep in mind that these are pretty much just introductions to the crimes that are presented. Because of the format, there’s no way to dig into the subject matter in depth. All you get of the Whitechapel murderer, for example, is this breakdown of the double homicide; there’s nothing of his other murders and only a brief synopsis of the aftermath. And this is the case for just about every crime in this collection.
But, knowing that, it’s still impactful to read these stories today. These are the stories that everyone still asks of one another: Where were you when …?
Like JFK’s assassination:
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.
He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade.
Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was riding in the third car behind Mr. Kennedy’s, was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy’s death.
The one that struck the most personal chord with me was the story “Terror in Littleton: The Overview; 2 Students in Colorado School said to Gun Down as Many as 23 and Kill Themselves in a Siege,” as broken by James Brooke. I’ve stood on the staircase Harris and Klebold walked up at Columbine High School (I was there as part of a forensics meet when I was in high school, a couple years before the shooting). I remember watching the whole thing unfold on television at my college and thinking, What is happening? Today, I still occasionally sit in traffic behind cars with columbines on their license plates.
The reporting takes me right back to that moment.
In the deadliest school massacre in the nation’s history, two young men stormed into a suburban high school here in Littleton, Colorado, at lunch time today with guns and explosives, killing as many as 23 students and teachers and wounding at least 20 in a 5-hour siege, the authorities say.
The two students believed to have been the gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were students at Columbine High School, were found dead of self-inflicted gunshot wounds in the library, said Steve Davis, the spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.
Beginning about 11:30a.m., the gunmen, wearing ski masks, stalked through the school as they fired semiautomatic weapons at students and teachers and tossed explosives, with one student being hit nine times in the chest by shrapnel, the authorities said. Gunshots continued to right out at the school for hours. One bomb exploded in the library and one in a car outside. Two more cars were rigged with bombs.
Flynn corrects the numbers, which were confused in the initial reporting. Harris and Klebold killed twelve students and one teacher before committing suicide themselves.
I guarantee there is a story in this compilation that will affect you the way the Columbine story affected me. Not only that, but by understanding these are real stories that touch real lives, history becomes that much more real, too. Sure, Lincoln was assassinated 150ish years ago, but his life becomes that much more real when you realize that the newspaper that reported his death is the same newspaper breaking today’s biggest stories. So, if you’ve ever been interested in history or crime, there’s something in The New York Times Book of Crime for you.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.
Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.