Chapter 55: Murder, He Wrote
One of the most disconcerting lessons young journalists confront is accepting that in the language of their new profession people do not pass away, pass on, or expire. They die. They die for many reasons, not all of which warrant coverage, even when they die at the hands of others. While this is, strictly speaking, true, violent death conveyed without the softening effect of euphemism can feel like a jolt, especially when you are new and have to write about it.
Fledgling journalists also learn the long held and unfortunate truth that journalism does not regard all killings equally. Who you were, what you did, where you came from, and where you lived has always made a great difference in whether your killing, your murder, your untimely death was worthy of attention.
Just as there have always been novelists for whom killing is a tale with infinite possibilities, so too is there a history of journalists drawn to murder. Some do this for less than admirable reasons – to be what the tabloids, at their worst, call “fun and games” reporters. Others see in murder a story that needs to be told, and not for prurient reasons. My friend, Miles Corwin, has been writing about murder for decades, first as a reporter at a small suburban paper in Southern California, later as a long-time, award-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and also as an author of two best-selling books about murder, as well as three novels.
Miles is a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s Literary Journalism program. We have been friends since we met in Journalism School at Missouri in 1974. Early on we tended to write the same kinds of stories – features mostly, though a lot of stories about prison. But over the years our interests took us in different directions. Time and again, Miles returned to stories about murder, even as I avoided them, especially when the moment came – in what is a grim journalism rite of passage – when I had to pick up the phone or knock on the door and speak to the next of kin. It all felt too much, even though, as a particularly wise editor once told me when I tried to avoid making just such a call, I needed to give someone who loved the victim the chance to talk about him. I knew she was right. But I found it excruciating.
Miles did not shy from this. And though a week seldom passes when we do not speak – we have always lived thousands of miles from each other – I have never directly posed the question of why he returns, again and again, to such difficult, painful, tragic stories. At least until now.
I asked Miles, a private person, if he’d mind talking about a career in which reporting and writing about murder has played such a large part.
This is what he wrote:
“When I started working as a newspaper reporter for a suburban paper and then mid-sized metro dailies, crime stories – in particular homicide stories – were the only ones I deeply cared about. I couldn’t generate much enthusiasm for the usual daily fare: city council decisions, sewer rate increases, civic hirings and firings, etc. But the loss of a single life seemed so significant and poignant and compelling, that this was the subject I gravitated to.
“When I began covering crime for the Los Angeles Times, I gained greater insight into why I was so committed to these stories. In the 1990s, there was a homicide epidemic in America and the crisis was particularly onerous in L.A. There were often more than 400 murders each year in a single neighborhood – South Central Los Angeles. The nightly news rarely featured these stories. The Times couldn’t cover even a small fraction of the murders. And the LAPD didn’t assign enough detectives in South-Central to adequately investigate the cases. I recall thinking that a quiet genocide was taking place and no one seemed to care. It was at that moment – because I’d lost many family members to the Holocaust – when I realized why this story was so important to me. I took a one-year leave of absence from the Times and wrote a book – The Killing Season – chronicling how the homicide epidemic was destroying a community. I later wrote a book about LAPD homicide detectives and the cases they investigated – Homicide Special – and three crime novels – Kind of Blue, Midnight Alley, and L.A. Nocturne.”
For his first book, Miles joined two LA homicide detectives as they responded to yet another call – day after day, and often night after very long night. He saw the bodies. He found the families of the victims and spent time speaking with them. I read The Killing Season almost twenty-five years ago and am still haunted by images of death that Miles witnessed and wrote about. I knew it took a toll.
“When I was researching The Killing Season,” he wrote, “I was at homicide scenes four or five times a week, with detectives giving families the terrible news, at autopsies, and at group therapy session on weekends with mothers who had lost sons to murder. I was immersed in homicide and trauma.
“As long as I had a notebook in my hand and was busy observing, taking notes, and interviewing, I was focused on how I was going to get the details of the story, so I could do it justice, and had no time or bandwidth left to reflect on how it was affecting me. When I returned home, I was distracted with family responsibilities.
“At night, though, I often had terrible nightmares and awoke screaming.
“One night at a homicide scene, standing under a streetlight and talking to a detective whom I trusted, I told him about my nightmares. He responded: ‘Welcome to the club.’"
If you are willing, you learn things about yourself as a reporter and writer, about your motivations, as well as how your work makes sense, and what it means. I asked Miles what he had learned.
He replied, “Hollywood is all about the violence. When you try to write authentically about crime, you realize it’s all about the suffering. Hollywood – and often the multitude of true crime podcasts – usually focus almost exclusively on the cops and the killers and the chase. If you want to write authentically about crime, you need to first focus on the victims.”
We wanted to share with you the names of this year’s Diversity Grant winners. Once again, we received many terrific proposals – an encouraging sign of how many wonderful writers are finding their voices and stories.
Christine Ro has worked with words in many capacities: as a library shelver, a teacher, a bookshop manager, an editor, and now a journalist. She's currently based in Buenos Aires and writes primarily about work, science, the environment, and international development.
Delia Cruz Kelly is a Nonfiction Writing MFA candidate at Columbia University School of the Arts from Santa Clarita, California.
Neha Mehrotra is a freelance writer and reporter in New Delhi.