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Mystery & True Crime • News, Features & Interviews

Harold Schechter:

A True Crime Master with a Knack for Finding Forgotten Killers

Reprinted from the Spring 2015 issue of Prose ‘n Cons™ Mystery Magazine

In a 2014 New York Times interview, linguist and author Steven Pinker described true crime author Harold Schechter as “one of the great stylists of our time” - a fact  in keeping with Pinker’s believe that violence “attracts gifted writers.” Perhaps that’s true. But, for Schechter, it’s not the savagery that attracts him to serial killers and madmen; it’s simply the compelling nature of their story.

  Schechter says he’s written one book per year since age 30. His body of work includes novels, textbooks and - as of this year - even a middle-grade young adult book. He is also credited with writing one episode of Law & Order but found the work ill-suited to his temperament. “Too high-pressured,” he explains.

  Schechter’s true crime career began with Deviant, a book about Ed Gein - the real killer behind Psycho’s Norman Bates and a multitude of other cinematic iterations. During Schechter’s research, he interviewed Psycho author Robert Bloch. Schechter asked Bloch’s opinion about why audiences were so fascinated by Gein. “Because they’ve forgotten about Albert Fish,” Bloch replied. Fish was a serial killer known as the Brooklyn Vampire, among other sensational monikers. He was also the subject of Schechter’s second book, Deranged.

  “I believed I was pioneering a new genre,” Schechter says. “Not true crime, but true horror. Books about real life killers whose crimes were so appalling that they resembled those of mythic monsters.”

  Indeed, each of his books lead him to discover even more grisly cases. Fiend tells the story of Jesse Harding Pomeroy who murdered four children in Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Fatal chronicles female serial poisoner Jane Toppan. It lead to Schechter’s writing of The Devil’s Gentleman about another sensational poison-murder trial.

  In 1994, ten years before Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Schechter released Depraved about notorious serial killer H. H. Holmes. Unlike Larson who used the Chicago World’s Fair as the umbrella theme, “My book is strictly about Holmes and it covers his life and criminal career more thoroughly than Larson’s.”

  While Schechter’s true crime subjects are typically historical, his knowledge of the serial killer phenomenon is encyclopedic. He holds the well-considered opinion that the 1980s and ‘90s will be viewed as the “golden age” of the serial killer, not in the sense of glorification but rather their hold on the public’s psyche. “That period witnessed the emergence of some of the most infamous serial killers in American history: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Edmund Kemper, the Hillside Stranglers, Richard Ramirez, et al. It was also the era when the serial killer became the mythic monster that haunted the public imagination.”

  Today, Schechter says, the serial killer has been supplanted by a new nightmare: the mass murderer. It is this “suicidal terrorist,” he believes, who incarnates our current widespread fear.

Yet we still read - and Schechter still writes - about the madmen who take lives in more personal, yet startling, numbers.

  In The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder That Shook the Nation, Schechter details a triple murder perpetrated on Easter Sunday, 1937. Robert Irwin strangled a young model named Veronica Gedeon, strangled and stabbed her mother, and repeatedly stabbed and killed a boarder in the apartment. Irwin’s occupation as a sculptor seemed a godsend to the tabloid reporters of the day, as did Veronica’s (unrelated) modeling work for pulp detective magazines. Schechter turned the lurid case into an Edgar Award-nominated critical and commercial success.

  While also a college professor teaching American Literature, Schechter says his writing routine is consistent. “Right after breakfast, each and every day, I sit down and write one finished page of prose. At the end of the year, I have a book of roughly 350 to 400 pages.” This isn’t as much discipline as it is habit. “If, for whatever reason, I’m prevented from writing for more than a day, I become very anxious.”

  In searching for topics, Schechter says he seeks the same qualities present in every other successful narrative: a gripping story, a compelling villain, an interesting supporting cast, and a suspenseful investigation and trial. Unlike many who believe that Truman Capote was the first to incorporate these literary fiction techniques into true crime, Schechter says this honor actually goes to Celia Thaxter’s A Memorable Murder. Published in Atlantic Monthly in 1875, the article told of an ax murder on Smuttynose Island off the coast of New England. Thaxter lived on a neighboring island and knew the victims well. Extreme movie buffs might remember its somewhat unsuccessful re-telling in the Sean Penn film The Weight of Water, but otherwise, Thaxter’s work is now largely forgotten.

  So what of Schechter and fellow contemporary writers of true crime? Is their work a simple, temporary diversion, or does it serve a higher purpose? “Yes, it’s entertainment,” concedes Schechter, “but it fulfills, I believe, a specific psychological and societal need. [It is] a safe, socially acceptable way for us moral, law-abiding citizens to ventilate our dark, lawless impulses by indulging in dangerous, forbidden fantasies. It’s a release valve.”

  In August 2015, Amazon Publishing will release Schechter’s latest book, Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal. Also, Schechter will be teaching a week-long writing course called “Researching and Writing Narrative Non-Fiction.” For more information, visit http://haroldschechter.com/news. PnC

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