My obsession with crime began in 1976, the year Charlie's Angels debuted. My first grade friends and I would act out our own version of the series during recess. Jessica was Kelly, Jamie and Shannon took turns being Jill, and I portrayed Sabrina. We even had a Bosley, our effeminate friend Jim. I don't remember if we ever actually created an imaginary crime story from beginning to end; I think we just enjoyed the idea of being crime solvers with stylish clothes and pretty hair.
Shortly after Charlie's Angels began airing, another crime series came along to capture my heart and imagination, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. What started out as just a pre-adolescent crush on Joe Hardy, played by dreamy Shaun Cassidy, soon developed into a full-fledged fascination with Nancy Drew, played by Pamela Sue Martin. I was aware of the fictional teenage girl detective before there was a TV series because my older sister collected the Carolyn Keane novels with the canary yellow spines. But, as a child raised on television, it wasn't until the spunky redhead was animated on the screen in front of me that I understood how cool she was. (How many teenagers do you know have a hobby flying gliders when they're not out solving crimes?).
As I was discovering the existence of fictitious crime stories, murder was gripping my hometown of Del Rio, Texas, a quiet oasis tucked away on the southwest border of Mexico. Marion Russell, a well-known piano teacher in the community, lived right down the street from the studio where I used to take dance lessons. She was found murdered, an unheard of criminal act in this area of "The Friendly State." There was a rumor serial killer Henry Lee Lucas's partner in crime, Otis Toole, was responsible, but nothing ever came of it, and the case has never been solved. Even though I felt safe for the most part, I still have memories of finding it uncomfortable to go to the dance studio knowing such a horrible crime happened so close by. I became aware of the fact that murder doesn't just happen on TV.
As I got older, my tastes in crime shows grew more sophisticated, thanks in part to the clever sleuthing of Laura Holt, brought to life by Stephanie Zimbalist on the NBC series, Remington Steele. Here was a plucky female detective figuring out the whodunits while the men stood idly by, unable to put two and two together. Of course, the notion of having a partner as romantic and handsome as Pierce Brosnan's Steele certainly helped fuel my interest in all things private and mysterious.
Then came a periodperhaps due to a lack of interesting female detectives on televisionwhen I took up reading to satisfy my appetite for unlawful adventures. It was during this time I discovered two of my all-time favorite novels, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Dostoevsky's tale of murder and its consequences that was told through the crazed mind of poor student Raskolnikov astounded me. They can't convey all that psychological tossing and turning through the picture tube, I realized. In Cold Blood took insight of the killer mind even further. When it was first published in 1965, Capote's research techniques and factual evidence were questioned and criticized; yet, no one could deny his storytelling skills and the narrative's power to tingle the spine. The recounting of the murder of the Clutter family by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock was credited with a new form of journalism, one that presents real-life facts in an almost fictional way. The serial killers seem like made-up characters with personalities and backgrounds.
Unfortunately, this technique, while captivating, left me a little damaged. These men were as real as the strangers you meet at the checkout line. I was too young to fully understand the gravity of the piano teacher Marion Russell's murder. Whatever I felt at the time probably was in response to what the adults were feeling. In Cold Blood, however, made me take notice of how heinous a crime murder is and how easy it is for someone to commit it. It left me in a state of genuine fear and paranoia.
It comes as little surprise that my interest in others' evil doings would manifest itself beyond TV or books. I have been both a criminal and a victim. My turn as a criminal came in high school when I was visiting my friend Karen, who lived in Austin. As is typical of teenagers in Texas, our evenings consisted of cruising around the city neighborhoods. One night we ended up in a cul-de-sac where other kids were. These kids had alcoholic beverages. I was curious and decided to have a Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler. I think I was just starting my second one when the lights started flashing. The scene went something like this:
Me: But, Officer, my daddy's a judge.
Officer: That's nice. Here's your ticket.
My parents were not pleased and grounded me for what seemed like "forever" to my teenage self.
In college, I became a crime victim. I was staying at my apartment while my roommates were off spring breaking. The perp thought that since I was alone he could turn off my electricity, pretend to be a neighbor coming to my rescue during the power outage, and then proceed to attack me, but he thought wrong. I fought back. The scene went like this:
Me: Fuck you, asshole!!
Him: O.K. (Then he lets go of me and runs away.)
I have no idea if they ever caught the guy but I got a call a few months later from the Austin Police Department informing me a similar attack occurred in my neighborhood, this time the young woman was not as lucky as I was. She was raped.
Not until I began researching crime for this issue of annabelle did I understand just how pervasive crime as topic of conversation and form of entertainment is in our society. Turn on the television and you're guaranteed an episode of one of the many Law & Order or CSI spin-offs. There's Court TV for the serious and scientific crime enthusiasts. If you're not interested in watching crime, you can read about it. Go to the local library, check out the Social Sciences section, and you'll be amazed at the immense volume of books with a range of titles like:
Your Right to Privacy
Your Rights in the Workplace
Your Legal Rights
The Crime Victim's Handbook
The Complete Book of Wills, Estates and Trusts
Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty Debate
The Salem Witchcraft Trials
The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America
Murder in Brentwood
Murder in Spokane
Murder in Greenwich (all by Mark Fuhrman)
The Private Life of Lyle Menendez
Or, you can always just watch evening news programs and read newspapers. According to the Nielsen Ratings for Dec. 1-8, 2003, the number one show was CSI with 14,739,000 viewers. I take comfort knowing I'm not alone in my obsession with crime. I'm just not sure my sanity can handle much more of it. Maybe I should turn off the TV, read a nice romance novel, and find another hobbysomething like knitting or cooking. Anything that will remind me there's good, clean, simple recreation to be had in this world.
Features: Interview: Ann Rule | Interview: Texas Justice | Law and Order | Kid Fears | What You Should Know The Next Time You're Arrested |Vacation: Alcatraz | Murdered Denizens of Green-wood Cemetery | Quiz: Are You A Criminal? | Photo Gallery: Crime Scenes Before and After | BONUS: Stupid Laws | Crime: That's Entertainment!
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