Photo: Nina Subin
With ‘Evidence of Things Seen,’ Sarah Weinman Exposes What Society Often Shuns
In a Q&A, the Canadian true-crime doyenne talks about why people are attracted to the genre, the danger of glorifying serial killers and why it's important to remember the victims / BY Robert Wiersema / June 29th, 2023
Sarah Weinman has got the crime beat covered. Not only does the Ottawa-born writer (now living in New York) review mystery fiction for the New York Times, her long-running newsletter ‘The Crime Lady’ has become a vital resource for fans of the genre (and for Weinman fans in general). Her first book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World, explored the real-life inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel, while her second book, Scoundrel, chronicled the relationship between a convicted murderer and noted conservative William F. Buckley, and its tragic results. Weinman has published three collections of crime writing by women: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives and the two-volume Women Crime Writers for the Library of America. She also edited the true crime anthology Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit and Obsession. Her most recent book, Evidence of Things Seen: True Crime in an Era of Reckoning (July 4), continues her exploration of the genre and her relationship to it, which she describes as “deeply complex and messy.”
Robert Wiersema: Why did you choose Evidence of Things Seen as the title for your new book?
Sarah Weinman: I wanted it to be that title for a couple of reasons. One is that it is a specific call back to James Baldwin’s 1985 book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which is itself taken from a Biblical passage. Baldwin was writing about the Atlanta Child Murders after getting a commission from Playboy magazine. And being James Baldwin, he wasn’t going to produce a typical true crime narrative. He was going to write in his Baldwin way about the failures of policing, how the communities had been failed over and over again, how Black kids were completely marginalized and forgotten. It was a profoundly misunderstood book at the time of its publication in 1985, but now I think it’s really seen as a forerunner of the kind of examinations of systemic issues and larger concerns that I really wanted to address in this anthology. I took out the “not” because we do see evidence of everything all the time. But often, society willfully ignores it or pretends like it’s not there. I really wanted to put the focus back on what’s actually happening.
RW: How would you describe your personal relationship with true crime media?
SW: Deeply complex and messy. I mean, I critique it, but I’m part of it. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because to critique it and not accept my own responsibility and sense of, I guess, moral culpability, I mean, it’d be ridiculous. I was attracted to crime stories going back to being a very young child. And that attraction is why I read mystery fiction. It’s why I first moved to New York to pursue a degree in forensic science at the masters level. What it comes down to is that I’m fascinated by extreme behaviour and how any human is capable of it, given any kind of circumstances. And those circumstances also include major systemic inequities. Looking at extraordinary crimes only gets you so far. But looking at crimes within the more ordinary, infuriating frameworks of how we live day to day, I think tells you a lot more about what’s going on.
RW: As you say that, I’m reminded of recent news reports about the New York subway vigilante killing of Jordan Neely.
SW: Yeah, that’s an example of someone who was in desperate need of mental health help, and wasn’t getting it. He was unhoused, he was crying for help, and ranting and raving. Living in New York, as I do, you see people on the subway like that all the time. Your instinct is not to then put them in a chokehold and kill them. Maybe you put in your earbuds and just hope that it will abate, or you move to the next car, or you actually try to see if people are okay, or wait for help to arrive. But he died. And it took a major outcry for the person who was responsible for his homicide — and I’m saying that only to be squarely within legal grounds — for this person to be charged with manslaughter. It definitely brought out some really ugly sentiments, in terms of whose lives do we value and whose do we definitely not value.
RW: Sticking with the personal at this point, is there an urtext for you that was your entry point for true crime?
SW: I feel like the urtext was reading local newspapers. Reading the Ottawa Citizen at an impressionable age, and watching CTV and CBC and seeing reports on missing kids. The cases I keep bringing up are the disappearance of Etan Patz: he disappeared the year I was born, in 1979. A little bit later the still-unsolved murder of Sharin Morningstar Keenan; Christine Jessop, which is a case that obviously has taken many subsequent twists and turns after the fact, with wrongful conviction. David Milgaard was the first wrongfully convicted individual I learned about, but Guy Paul Morin was not long after, in terms of the task force and reports and queries and all that. And, now it turns out it was a neighbour who managed to keep the secret until his death. It staggers me that people are capable of doing that. And, of course, the Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy cases, because they were only a few years older than I was. You notice that I’m mostly bringing up white women and it’s because I am a white woman. So that is my bias, but also because the murders of women of colour or Indigenous women and girls, in particular, were not reported on either at all, or in the same way, with the same care in the early to mid ’90s, as they would be now. And there’s a lot of undoing that must be reckoned with about why didn’t people care? And if they’re caring more now, is that real? Or is that lip service?
RW: I appreciate how you refer to all of those crimes by the victims’ names.
SW: Well, partly, it’s because I don’t think killers really matter that much, and they don’t deserve to have outsized importance compared to the people that they harmed. And, I think an ongoing problem with true crime and media is that we create this sense of killer as archetype, or as boogeyman, or even as superhero. So you end up with how many iterations of the Ted Bundy story, where we know his name, and we’ll know his name forever, and yet, I still find it so difficult to immediately rattle off the names of many of his victims. Only a handful come to mind, and they tend to be from his last spree in Florida. The fact that I can’t immediately just come up with the names of the women he killed in Washington State, in Colorado, and other places, that’s on me, but it’s also on culture as a whole. It really does come down to how we glorify serial killers, but they’re just not that interesting.
RW: That puts you on the outside of a lot of contemporary true crime.
SW: Reversing it to put the focus on the victims is something that I think we are seeing more and more of, especially in terms of big, tabloidy cases like the Idaho murders. Because it’s been so picked over, they’re essentially just re-traumatizing everybody who knew the four college students who were murdered or lived in the town. No wonder they don’t want to talk to anyone ever again. And meanwhile, there’s this vacuum before the suspect starts off on the road to being tried. Vacuums are crying out to be filled, and they end up being filled by speculation and conspiracy. My fear is that what’s going to happen to true crime is this mix of conspiracy theory and going further down the road towards intellectual property exploitation. I mean, these are real people that died, they are not IP.
RW: People have been saying there is a “current boom” in true crime, but as someone who was a bookseller for many years, I feel like this has been going on for a long time. Why do you think it’s such a popular form?
SW: What I said in the introduction to my last anthology, Unspeakable Acts, is that true crime has been having a moment for at least three centuries, because human beings are fascinated by crime and by lurid subjects and by anything that makes them rubberneck. It’s a natural instinct we all have. Many of us try to work against it, many of us fail. But you also have this more participatory element. All you have to do is log on to a subreddit or go on to Websleuths, which has existed forever, or go to TikTok, and find the true crime community. And I think it also speaks to, in particular, why women are drawn to true crime, which is partly to alleviate or to reckon with certain fears they may have about being women in society and how scary it can be. To kind of laser focus on more outsized crimes, you can feel less alone because other people are also doing the same thing.
RW: This seems like a good time to ask if you have any recommendations?
SW: I review crime and mystery fiction for the New York Times, so I’m recommending books there pretty much every month. I will say that one book I did not review, because some random dude named Stephen King reviewed it, is All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby. It’s as fantastic as advertised, if not more.
RW: It really is. I read it over the weekend and I was blown away. But I’ve been blown away by all of his.
SW: Oh, yeah, he’s clearly one of the best new writers. We have Eli Cranor, who wrote Ozark Dogs that came out this year. He is clearly also just headed for a stellar career. Margot Douaihy, whose first novel, Scorched Grace, came out in February. It’s the first of the Sister Holiday mysteries; she’s a lesbian tattooed nun in New Orleans, who’s solving crimes. The writing is so good, and Sister Holiday is such a magnetic character. I loved it, and I’m pretty sure I will love subsequent books. And one other series that I am absolutely in the tank for is Stephen Spotswood’s Pentecost and Parker mysteries that are set in the 1940s. Imagine a gender flipping Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin and they’re solving crimes. They’re so fun; I love them so much, and he has a new one out in December so I’m excited.
RW: Any true crime recommendations?
SW: Just this year alone, I can think of Roxanna Asgarian’s We Were Once a Family, which starts with two women who drove their car off a cliff and killed their adoptive Black kids. But she’s much more interested in looking at how these kids were removed from their biological families and what was going on in the child welfare system, especially in Texas. So it becomes this larger examination of, again, societal failure. Or Alex Mar’s Seventy Times Seven, which is ostensibly about Paula Cooper, who was an underage Black girl on death row who whose sentence got commuted, but it’s really about the relationship that developed between her and the victim’s grandson. One that is sort of true crime adjacent is called The Sullivanians by Alexander Stille, about this Upper West Side cult. It’s just such a bonkers story. I don’t even like a lot of cult books. They don’t fascinate me in the way that, quote, regular crime does. But this one … when I first moved to New York, I lived on the Upper West Side. So I know some of the buildings that these cult members were part of in this psychoanalytic institute that just went completely off the rails, and the reporting is really wonderful.