Monday, May 18, 2009

Red all over

I love true crime books. This is not a confession so much as a fact, though I should make clear that I don't love the horrible crimes that these books are borne out of. My wife tells me I shouldn't read so many "murder books" when I complain about the terrible nightmares I sometimes have. It is not advice that I heed.

My true crime interest combined with my love of poetry virtually ensured that I would read Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts, a memoir she wrote about the murder of her aunt.

From the New York Times: "In March 1969, Jane Mixer, a 23-year-old University of Michigan law school student, ... was found with two bullets in her brain and a stocking so ambitiously wound around her neck that her head was nearly severed. The killer decorated the corpse with Jane’s belongings, in an effort almost as laborious as the ones undertaken over the next three decades to make sense of her murder."

The Red Parts is but one of the two books Nelson wrote about Jane’s killing, which was for years believed to be one of the infamous “Michigan Murders.” Her other book is a book of poetry titled, simply, Jane. I have not yet read it, but will.

The oddly crossed paths of criminology and poetry is demonstrated perfectly in this passage from the book:
"When Jane comes out in March 2005, [Detective-Sergeant Eric] Schroeder will go through each poem with a highlighter. We will correspond about some details--where I got the information about the timing of a phone call Jane supposedly made on the night of her murder, if I know where he might find the guest book from Jane's funeral that I mention, and so on.

I can honestly say that it's the first book of poetry I've ever read, he will write.

I will write back, equally honestly, that it's the first I've ever written to be highlighted by a homicide detective."
Unbeknownst to Nelson, Jane was coming out at the same time that Jane's murder case was being reopened and a suspect, thanks to DNA evidence, was in sights.

The Red Parts is best -- and it is quite good -- when Nelson is focused on the case. There is, perhaps, a bit too much "me time" here, which is perfectly understandable considering the subject matter and the genre. But Nelson doesn't always manage to lift these parts above naval gazing prose. Still, The Red Parts makes me want to read Jane, which is, I think, high praise. It also, admittedly, makes me want to read an actual true crime book. Something with a bit more grit and gristle. In fact, I've got a book on my shelf about the Boston Strangler that's calling my name...

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