My introduction to the genre of true crime took place while I was still in high school. I decided to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood after I saw the 1967 film adaptation of Capote’s book. Since I had already seen the film. I had a pretty good sense of what to expect from the book, but it still disturbed me. It wasn’t just Capote’s account of the murders of the four members of the Clutter family that got to me; what troubled me the most was Capote’s ability to bring his readers inside the minds of the two killers. Capote helped me understand these men’s thinking process, and I found it unsettling to see the world through their eyes. Works of true crime can do that. As a genre, true crime is about more than the crimes depicted. Works of true crime can shed light into the dark corners of human nature and reveal sides of our society that we generally like to keep out of view.
Charlotte is home to several excellent true crime writers, including Karen Cox, Pam Kelley, and Cathy Pickens. These three writers have recently published works of true crime that provide readers with insights into the seamier side of life in the American South. Karen Cox, a history professor at UNC Charlotte, published Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South in 2017. UNC Press brought out a paperback version of this book last month. Pam Kelley, a former reporter for The Charlotte Observer, wrote Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South, which the New Press published in 2018. Cathy Pickens, the author of the Southern Fried Mystery Series, wrote Charlotte True Crime Stories: Notorious Cases from Fraud to Serial Killing, which came out with the History Press in 2019. I contacted all three of these authors and asked them to provide me with information about their books and their interest in the genre of true crime.
Here is what Karen sent to me:
I wasn’t searching for a true crime story to tell, the true crime story found me. I was in the Mississippi state archives wrapping up research for a different book, when a story caught my eye. In 1932, an elderly white couple from Natchez, known for their eccentricities and who lived with their goats in a crumbling down antebellum mansion, were charged with murdering their neighbor in Depression-era Mississippi. It was southern gothic come to life. I mean, who could resist such a story? I couldn’t. That is where things began, but it is not where they ended.
Certainly, the notoriety that the case received in the national media at the time made this a fascinating story. Known locally as the “Goat Castle murder,” the focus had remained on the white protagonists for decades. But as I learned, at the heart of the story was a tale of racial injustice. It’s more likely that a journalist or nonfiction writer might have written about this story, but I saw in it an opportunity for me, a historian, to write creatively about various topics that are central to understanding southern history–race relations, Jim Crow segregation, the double-standard of southern justice, the decline of the southern aristocracy, the southern gothic, and mass incarceration. These are tough issues for readers to grasp, but woven into a story of true crime they become easier to digest and understand.
At some point, my interest in writing about this case became an obsession to set the story right, to give some historical justice to the poor black domestic–Emily Burns–who was convicted of the crime and sent to one of the South’s most notorious prisons, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman. She was innocent, but white southern society demanded that someone, especially a black someone, pay the price for taking a white life–even if the eccentric white neighbors were complicit in the crime. I think that writing Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South freed me as a historian to write for broader audiences. Academia can beat the creativity out of a person, but through true crime, I found my way back.
Here is what Pam sent to me:
My book focuses on true crime – cocaine dealing – but when I decided to write Money Rock, I also wanted to explore Charlotte’s legacy of racism. In a way, this book was a do-over. I’d first written about Belton Lamont Platt, a flashy coke dealer nicknamed Money Rock, when I covered his trial for the Charlotte Observer in 1986. When I reconnected with him in 2011, he’d spent more than 20 years in federal prison and become an evangelical minister. That’s when I started asking deeper questions that I hadn’t considered the first time.
I find the genre of true crime a double-edged sword. Done badly, it can be exploitive, reinforcing stereotypes about criminals without exploring why they commit crimes. I’d put my original 1986 story about Money Rock in this category. I focused on the man’s jewelry and money and cars but didn’t dig deeper. On the other hand, the best true-crime reporting can spotlight and even correct injustice. One terrific example – not a book, but a podcast – is In the Dark’s series on Curtis Flowers, a man who was tried six times in Mississippi for the same murder. Its meticulous reporting uncovers a botched investigation and stunning prosecutorial misconduct. The podcast drew national attention to the case, and last week, Mississippi’s attorney general finally dropped it. Flowers is free after 23 years in prison.
When I first began researching my book, I was trying to understand what drove Belton in his Money Rock days. I wanted to hear what it was like to be a major cocaine dealer, why he bought so much jewelry. Eventually, I began to look at larger issues, such as the role structural racism – segregation, urban renewal, mass incarceration – played in his family over several generations. It’s been gratifying to hear readers say the book opened their eyes to Charlotte’s racial history. What I love about the true crime genre is that it can illuminate so many things besides crime.
Here is what Cathy sent to me:
When I decided to become a mystery writer, I journeyed through courtrooms, high-profile trials, morgues and autopsy suites, jails, all the places where we wrestle with often insurmountable questions of good and evil. I was first intrigued with the crime solvers and the crime scientists, rather than the crimes and criminals. Then I stumbled on the crime reporters, those who made reportage its own art form: William Roughead, Edmund Pearson, F. Tennyson Jesse, Rebecca West, Zora Neale Hurston, Edna Buchanan.
Along the way, I’ve learned only the edges are black and white. The stories behind the headlines are the most fascinating, but we seldom get to peek back there.
In trying to understand my fascination with true crime, I’ve pored over academic studies and random apologist essays. None offer satisfying answers. I started reading true crime because I needed to understand. How could I write good crime fiction if I didn’t understand why crimes were committed, how they were solved, what it felt like to be a victim? The real fascination? I love a good story. Nowhere have I found better storytellers than lawyers, police officers … and crooks.
Our fascination with crime stories isn’t new, we just have more ways of engaging with the stories than ever before, the latest being podcasts, cable TV networks, and do-it-yourself social media sleuths. The demographic for the true crime “consumer” skews female. Is the puzzle-solving attraction a simple hearkening to Nancy Drew or Miss Marple? As for readers of mystery fiction, readers of true crime are often attracted by the puzzle, by wanting to mentally (and safely) engage in unraveling the mystery of who-dunnit or why. The stories are complex—and subtle. And endlessly fascinating.
Crime is a mirror that reflects its society, the people, the place, the time when it occurs. To understand any city, it helps to know its extremes, and crime is certainly an extreme, one that alters the lives of those who commit crimes, those who suffer, those who solve, and those who try to understand. In its broad outline, Charlotte crime varies little from that in other cities. But like any city, Charlotte lends its own unique flavor to the ways people can go wrong. Though regularly reported, “annual statistics” or “average” stories seldom grab headlines—and imaginations—for long. So what makes a story become part of the warp and weft, woven into the essence of a city and the people who call it home? With over one million residents, the Charlotte area is full of stories. In Charlotte True Crime Stories: Notorious Cases from Fraud to Serial Killing are stories that started in dark places but that show the heart of a city still southern and, in good ways, a bit small-townish.
Like Truman’s Capote’s In Cold Blood, the true crime books written by Karen Cox, Pam Kelley, and Cathy Pickens can leave readers feeling a bit unsettled, but they can also help readers better understand why some of our fellow humans turn to lives of crime. Karen, Pam, and Cathy have all written books that belong on the shelves of the ever-expanding library that is Storied Charlotte.