Saturday, June 29, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt fourteen)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

That commitment would determine not only her style but also her subject. With In Cold Blood, Capote had chosen an exceptional crime. “Of all the people in all the world,” he quoted one of the investigators on the case as saying, “the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.” That was true, and much the same could be said of the victims in most popular works of true crime that followed; except for accounts of domestic violence, not many of the murders described in those books were representative of violent crime in this country. Their victims were typically wealthy and white, while murder victims, statistically speaking, are more likely to be economically disadvantaged and people of color; their killers were often calculating or deranged outsiders, while most homicide victims are killed by someone they know. Capote, in particular, had gone looking for what amounted to a horror story in the heart of white America: the murder of an entire middle-class household by total strangers.

Lee, by contrast, found a case where the only white characters were the lawyers and law enforcement officers. To portray the victims, the killers, and the survivors, she would be writing about black lives and black deaths, black families and black communities—an unusual move for the genre even today, and a challenge for her, as the black characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are essential to the plot but hardly as realized as their white counterparts. But she had already demonstrated her ability to depict crimes that confronted readers with their own prejudices and those of the criminal justice system, and she’d wanted to go even further before Ty Hohoff discouraged her. To Kill a Mockingbird featured two parallel stories about violence: in one, a black man, Tom Robinson, dies because he is falsely accused of rape; in the other, a white man, Arthur “Boo” Radley, is spared from even being charged for a murder the authorities know he committed. The former portrayed the power of a mob to enforce a distorted vision of justice, the latter portrayed the prerogative of law enforcement to exercise personal preferences, and both dramatized the way that the biases of society are reflected in the criminal justice system. Altnough Atticus Finch has to be talked into sparing his son, Jem, and their neighbor Boo Radley a trial for the murder of Bob Ewell, it takes only a few pages for Sheriff Tate to convince him of the expediency of vigilantism: “There’s a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it’s dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead.”

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