Dave Cullen

So much of the true crime books I see are so lamentable as to actually cause me despair.

The classic example for me is Kill Grandma for Me by Jim DeFelice. It’s a mass-market, schlocky examination of what seems to be a real tragedy, with gruesome crime scene photos in those glossy middle pages. I can deal with bad romance and mystery easily enough. Even the thought of James Patterson’s more violent novels don’t merit a second thought. But that books like Kill Grandma for Me take actual lives for the subjects of their exploitation is really awful.

And so many true crime books seem like that. So, when a book like Dave Cullen’s Columbine is published, I feel a lot better about the world – paradoxically, since it’s about one of the more tragic events in recent American history.

Check out my review of the book after the jump.

The publisher, 12, has the lofty stated goal of putting out no more than one book every month, aiming for the whole “quality over quantity” thing. They publish books across the board, including the novels of one of my favourite authors, Christopher Buckley. They also make a habit of publishing substantive true crime works, such as David R. Dow’s The Autobiography of an Executition and, of course, Columbine.

What immediately stands out about Columbine is that it’s project is so drastically different from that of Kill Grandma for Me. Cullen, who covered the tragedy at Columbine High School for publications including the New York Times and Salon, doesn’t revel in the details, though he doesn’t shy away from them either.

For example, he describes how one of the students, Patrick Ireland, is shot, and then tumbles out of a window in an injury-induced stupor. Cullen doesn’t stop there, however. He examines the implications of that event, for Patrick, his family, his friends, and for the community. While delving into the personal stories of the shooters, the victims, the force tasked with investigating the massacre, and all those effected, Cullen never loses sight of the individual but also never forgets the larger context of the shootings and their consequences.

To this end, he parts from how a lot of true crime books would treat the subject. His research is in depth and meticulously documented in the book itself and on his website. In an author’s note, he explains his decision to not include photos, saying that they would only show the players in the story caught in a moment in time, while he wants to show them as multi-faceted people with depth.

In the end, though, I think a large part of the attraction to Columbine for me is that it seems so antithetical to the mass of true crime I see, since Cullen can find the balance between the human stories at work and the larger issues; mostly, how the media covered the massacre.

In talking about the initial reaction of the media to the massacre, Cullen outlines some of the main problems with how the public would come to view what happened at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999:

The narrative unfolding on television looked nothing like the killers’ plan. It looked only moderately like what was actually occuring. It would take months for investigators to piece together what had gone on inside. Motive would take longer to unravel. It would be years before the detective team would explain why.

The public couldn’t wait that long. The media was not about to. They speculated.

Columbine suggests a style of true crime book that not only holds some worth over that of its schlocky peers but is also socially important. These books have the capacity to examine some of the most vital issues at work in modern society, and people like Dave Cullen are just the writers to address them.