Storytelling Through Crime: “People Who Eat Darkness”

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been knee-deep in books that can be labelled in the true crime genre. I’m generally not an aficionado of murder as entertainment (the sensationalize plots, bad acting, and terrible cop lingo of police procedurals on television, which make me want to gag with a spoon).  Yet, what has drawn me to a few of these titles has been more about the storytelling and craftsmanship. For me, it’s less about the gruesome, vial acts that have occurred, but more how the writer chooses to unfold them.

This began with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which discusses a mid-19th Century crime and the subsequent investigation during the early days of organized police deduction. I carried on with John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down, whose voice and point of view is very crucial to the storytelling. Safran is an Australian who goes to Mississippi in the aftermath of an odd crime. In the mysterypod podcast, John Safran discusses his approach to writing his book and how it was not as clear cut as one would have hoped.

My ears perked up when he told the host that he didn’t consider himself a journalist but a storyteller. Safran, too, has a six-part podcast that is worth a listen. It’s titled True Crime and he discusses with famous true crime writers the approach they’ve taken when writing such books. In episode 4, he chats with Joe McGinniss who wrote the magnum opus of crime books, Fatal Vision, which in itself is a master class in how to unravel information through a timeline.
people who eat darknessI hope to wind down from crime books soon (honestly, my threshold for debauchery and violence is being tested). I’ve just finished Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat DarknessIn one word, it was stunning. It was stunning in the complexity of the world it created (Roppongi, a Tokyo district known for its night life), the people who lurk through it, and the “characters” (I use this word as a replacement for the actual real people portrayed). The people are complicated; like Safran’s book, nothing is quite so clear as we would like it to be and like Fatal Vision, answers are not satisfactorily answered like in an Agatha Christie novel.

The crime is brutal and inhuman. If a reader can move past that and read the book for its storytelling, a writer can learn a lot from Parry and the others listed above. They have all moved past the sensationalism of the crime itself and focus on the people, the order of invents, and the style of their writing.

Because I’m currently working on short stories that toe the lines of horror, the uncanny, suspense, and unnerving, when to reveal or withhold are very important. Letting go of too much at one time can undermined the atmosphere and story.

I have a few more on my docket, but these, like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, are from events of years past. There is something about reading about contemporary crimes (let’s say last sixty or so years) that make these books particularly uncomfortable.

True crime can be a hard subject; I found In Cold Blood to be highly difficult to read when I read it six or seven years ago and I’m at my breaking point when it comes to anything Jack the Ripper related. Sometimes, cloaking true events in the guise of a novel can make it a little bit easier to deal with as is the case of the completely gripping The Murder Farm.

Does anyone else read these kinds of books? And if so, what do you make of them? Are they guilty pleasure imbibed in when you’re at an airport bookstore or go to reads when they’re published? It’s definitely been an interesting foray into non-fiction for a while. A different kind of reading experience for sure.

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8 comments

  1. It sounds amazing. I’ve put “People Who Eat Darkness” on hold in my library. Yay for libraries! And this cover art is wonderful. Much better than this other sensational cover (bloody newspaper lead).

    As to true crime, I’m very familiar with In Cold Blood. I agree it’s not an easy read, but I found it very rewarding, especially the first part in Holcomb when paranoia spreads and the last part when they wait for execution. It’s also worth checking the whole backstory of Capote’s writing it (he hid some crucial facts, his relationship with Perry Smith, etc.). The movie Capote (2005), however biased, shows it well. Sorry, I’m babbling. As a Capote enthusiast I had to share my thoughts.

    I don’t think true crime is a guilty pleasure unless you make it so. After all, average crime novels are often inspired by real events. But I know I might be biased. I suffered when I found one novel I wanted to read in the “romance” section in my library. What an embarrassment, to read something romantic, haha.

  2. I hope you like this book. It was unsettling and way too addicting. I read it before I went to sleep the other night and woke up feeling so uncomfortable. I suppose it did its job. I saw both Truman Capote films (they came out around the same time). Yeah, I’ve been reading in the past few years that he was a bit of a white liar and it wasn’t entirely factual. If you like that book, you’d probably like The Murder Farm, which I mentioned above. It had a very In Cold Blood vibe to it and it too is based on a true crime.

    1. I’ve just read Peaople Who Eat Darkness – thank you for this recommendation. It was very unsettling and very good. A diferent side of Tokio for sure. I liked the fact that you get the notion of Rashomon-like story but without the last witness to clarify things. Every person Parry managed to interview seemed convinced about his or her own version of the story – who Lucie really was and what and why happened. I appreciate this uncertainty instead of simplifying facts which journalists are often guilty of. Now I’ve put on hold The Murder Farm – you got me hooked on true crime!

      1. I recently heard a true crime author on the radio saying that she never uses the term “closure.” It would be a complete falsehood in her opinion and I think she’s right. It can most certainly be applied to this case/book as well. Although, I’m a bit of a neophyte with crime books, I have a feeling this one was completely different. Yes! It’s definitely like Rashomon; if you haven’t already, the short story which the film is based on is an excellent read (also quick–“In a Grove”). I do hope you like The Murder Farm. I’ll send you the URL to the article where I talk about the book and interview the author.

  3. I’ve never been able to get into the “true crime” reading. I used to go out with a girl who really into it which, frankly, I found a bit alarming, personally. :-). That said, I have gotten more into reading Japanese-setting books the past few years (thanks in large part to Haruki Murakami) so maybe someday People Who Eat Darkness would be where I make a tentative start…

    1. Neither have I. It’s strange how I’ve been eating them up these past couple of weeks. You might like this title. Setting is definitely important and is almost a main character in the book, too.

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