by Robert C. Hahn
Fourteen highly accomplished writers of crime fiction have lent their time and talents to exonerees in Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted (Liveright, $26.95) edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger.
Most of us have considerable faith in the justice system as practiced in the United States, but these stories, each one involving an innocent citizen caught up in its tangles and imprisoned for years or decades, should open a lot of eyes and minds to the shortcomings of the justice system.
The stories are genuinely horrifying, even though they are told almost dispassionately: Here the fiction authors easily recognized the natural force and weight of the tales they recounted.
Laura Caldwell is a professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and founder of Life After Innocence. Leslie Klinger is a lawyer as well and an Edgar-winning author and editor. They provide an introduction that tracks the growing awareness of wrongful convictions accompanying the growth of DNA testing in the mid 1980s. They also note common themes illustrated by these fifteen stories: the shock of arrest, nightmarish trials (and appeals), the horrors of imprisonment, and the struggles following release.
Many of the authors who participated in this venture are part of a long tradition of writers such as Émile Zola, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Erle Stanley Gardner, who stood up for those wronged by justice systems.
S. J. Rozan relates the story of Gloria Killian, a woman sentenced to thirty-two years to life for murder based on the purchased testimony of a convicted murderer. She served more than seventeen years before being exonerated.
Tortured by the Chicago police, David Bates’s story as related by Sara Paretsky recounts a forced, false confession, conviction, and more than ten years in jail.
False (mistaken) eyewitness testimony helped convict Ray Towler of a heinous child rape, and despite the glaring weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, as Laurie R. King points out, Towler ended up serving more than twenty years in jail before DNA testing established his innocence. The editors note that “eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing,” playing a role in over seventy percent of convictions overturned nationwide.
Each case illustrates one or more of the contributing factors that lead to a wrongful conviction, including corrupt cops; inept or incompetent counsel; prosecutorial zeal and ethical failures; false testimony—both accidental and deliberate—and unreliable forensic evidence.
Among other authors are Lee Child, Gayle Lynds, Jan Burke, Phillip M. Margolin, Sarah Weinman, Gary Phillips, and Jamie Freveletti. Even a 2002 essay by playwright Arthur Miller, a longtime opponent of the death penalty, about exoneree Peter Reilly is reprinted here. It recounts how the fortuitous death of the original prosecutor uncovered evidence that led to Reilly’s exculpation.
Credit the editors with providing appropriate statistics to make the collection more than a microscopic look at individual tales. It’s also a macroscopic consideration of the problems. They note, for example, that “in 2014, nineteen states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons were operating their prisons at more than 100 percent capacity, with states like Illinois at 171 percent, California at 136 percent and Ohio and Wisconsin each at 131 percent.” Lest people think that more or better DNA testing is the answer, they note that “overall, DNA evidence was a factor in just over 24 percent of the exonerations.”
True crime fans, crime fiction fans, and concerned citizens should be aware of the problems exposed in this book and may wish to make use of the appendix that lists organizations seeking to establish the innocence of those wrongfully convicted.
Reference publisher McFarland produces works that are both informative and entertaining. Their latest is perfect for the mystery fan who likes both classic mysteries and their film adaptations: Mystery Classics on Film: The Adaptation of 65 Novels and Stories (McFarland, $39.95) by Ron Miller.
Miller’s introduction includes wonderful examples of the strange and terrible things sometimes done to books when filmmakers begin to fiddle with plot and characters. Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, filmed as Murder at the Gallop, starred Hercule Poirot in the book, but Miss Jane Marple in the film.
Other famous mysteries were filmed with the books’ hero removed entirely. For instance, Albert Campion, Margery Allingham’s series detective, is missing from Tiger in the Smoke. Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin is absent from the 1971 version of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
More recently the film version of Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time resurrected Joe Leaphorn’s wife Emma (dead in Hillerman’s book) and gave her a role in solving the crime.
Throughout, Miller’s strong opinions are given freely and unapologetically. He says of Charlotte Armstrong’s The Unsuspected that “the story is almost impossibly contrived poppycock with plot holes big enough for Godzilla to skip right through.” Miller is equally lavish with his praise of strong script writing, such as when he notes the way the duo of Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner adapted Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep while dismissing the 1978 remake starring Robert Mitchum with the comment that “It might be too harsh to suggest he walks through the role, but the thought does come to mind.”
Prolific editor Otto Penzler has gathered together fifteen stories originally published in his Bibliomysteries series of “short tales about deadly books” and made them available in the large (526-page) volume Bibliomysteries: Stories of Crime in the World of Books and Bookstores (Pegasus, $26.95).
Not only has Penzler chosen uniformly excellent authors (Jeffery Deaver, C. J. Box, Anne Perry, Ken Bruen, Laura Lippman, and others), but the collection includes one story that is so good it alone makes the collection worth the purchase price. John Connolly steps away from his series hero Charlie “Bird” Parker with the brilliant “The Caxton Private Library and Book Depository.”
An accountant, middle-aged Mr. Berger leads an unexciting life that takes a turn when his job is changed, his mother dies, and he retires to his mother’s home in the little town of Glossom. One day on his usual walk near a railway line, Berger observes a beautiful young woman approaching a crossing as a train bears down on her and despite his shouted warning, the woman throws herself in front of the train.
Berger sees no body and no sign of the young woman after the train passes, but he dutifully reports the incident to the nearest police station in Moreham. When a search of the area uncovers nothing, Berger is questioned by a suspicious Inspector Carswell.
Berger is both upset and bothered by a niggling memory that sends him digging in his own books, where he discovers in Anna Karenina the passage that matches precisely what he saw happen. Time passes before Berger has the nerve to walk the same path again, but when he does he encounters the same woman and the same train, but this time he manages to intercept the woman, who then runs away and disappears into the seemingly abandoned Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository.
Berger eventually is able to meet the current caretaker of the Caxton Library and discover its marvelous secrets and its incomparable treasures. Connolly’s wit and imagination are terrific, and Berger, like other heroes such as Pandora and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, finds that getting a handle on the library’s mysteries is far from simple.