true crime

The Tragic Tale of Lucie Blackman: A Londoner Disappears In Tokyo

pplwhoeatdarkness

At first the story was a puzzle, which developed over time into a profound mystery. Lucie emerged as a tragic victim, and finally as a cause, the subject of vigorous, bitter contestation in a Japanese court. The story attracted much attention in Japan and Britain, but it was fickle and inconsistent. For months at a time there would be no interest in Lucie’s case, then some fresh development would bring a sudden demand for news and explanation. In its outlines the story was familiar enough— girl missing, body found, man charged— but, on inspection, it became so complicated and confusing, so fraught with bizarre turns and irrational developments that conventional reporting of it was almost inevitably unsatisfactory, provoking more unanswered questions than it could ever quell.

This quality of evasiveness, the sense in which it outstripped familiar categories of news, made the story fascinating. It was like an itch that no four columns of newspaper copy or three-minute television item could ever scratch. The story infected my dreams; even after months had passed, I found it impossible to forget Lucie Blackman. I followed the story from the beginning and through its successive stages, trying to craft something consistent and intelligible out of its kinks and knots and roughness. It took me ten years.

–Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness

People Who Eat Darkness is an example of true crime being stranger than fiction right from the start. Beautiful, young Londoner Lucie Blackman was a hostess in the Roppongi District of Tokyo, lighting the cigars of Japanese businessmen and flirting with them as they drank. She went for a drive to the seaside with one of the men from the club, and never came back. Her panicked roommate, who immediately suspected something was wrong, received a phone call from a man insisting that Lucie had joined a cult and wouldn’t be coming home. Although roommate Louise begged to speak with Lucie, the man refused to let Louise speak with Lucie. “She’s not feeling well,” he said, “she’s starting a new life now.”

Roppongi - photo by David Fuchs

Roppongi district of Japan, where Lucie Blackman worked as a hostess – photo by David Fuchs

Thus starts the strange and tragic tale of Lucie Blackman’s disappearance. People Who Eat Darkness has popped up on so many best of true crimes lists as of late I took it as a sign to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Well-written true crime books are hard to find, as they often get so bogged down with dates and facts that they lose some of their humanity, or at the other end, they pay so little respect to the humans involved that they feel flagrant.

Richard Lloyd Parry, as a London correspondent living in Japan, was witness to the entire investigation surrounding Lucie’s disappearance, and ultimately, became an odd sort of part of the story himself, when the man put on trial for Lucie’s death sued him for libel. He is in the unique position to identify with Lucie, as much as an older man can, as a foreigner living in Japan. He seeks, vigorously, from the book’s introduction onwards, to establish and understand Lucie as a human, rather than as just part of a headline. He takes this compassionate stance with every person involved in the story, from Lucie’s misunderstood father who doesn’t seem to behave correctly in the aftermath of Lucie’s disappearance, to her murderer, whom Parry examines through his history and familial experience as well as his shocking, atrocious acts.

Roppongi - photo by David Fuchs

Roppongi – photo by David Fuchs

Without giving too much of the story away here, I think the story of Lucie’s disappearance also illustrates the difficulty of investigation in general, as police have a bizarre brush with their bad guy before they have all the facts, and they let him off. Tokyo as a city is known for its relative safety, and the police are simply unprepared to handle this sort of dark stuff, once it is exposed. The sad story of Lucie, with all its odd turns and stops, reminds me of how different the real world is from the mystery novels I love to read. If mystery novels are full stories chiseled out of a raw piece of marble by an author, true crime is an author stumbling through a quarry after police and criminals and victims, picking up rocks, trying to hold as many as he can in one basket before they all fall loose. From the confusion surrounding what exactly a hostess does to the odd ruling in the trial, Parry manages to patiently explain the convoluted case and its circumstances, while keeping up the pace.

People Who Eat Darkness on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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Important Book of the Day – Jon Krakauer’s ‘Missoula’

missoulaJon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a Small Town uncovers the staggering mistreatment of University of Montana rape victims by the Missoula, Montana justice system. Stranger rape is an easy issue to talk about, as the lines between right and wrong are clear. Acquaintance rape, especially when a party is also too inebriated to give consent or consent seems unclear–this is where college rape culture lies, and this is where Jon Krakauer finds himself investigating. Men who can’t recall exactly what happened because they drank so much, women who awoke from a blackout with someone on top of them.

What shocked me most was the varying treatment Krakauer chronicles between victim and assailant by law enforcement. As women are immediately challenged about their claims, the men brought in for questioning are comforted. “You aren’t thinking of committing suicide, are you,” they are asked the men. At one point, a woman with clear bruises around her throat who was drugged with GHB is asked if she could have just fallen down the night before.

Krakauer notes throughout the book that despite the title of Jezebel’s article, ‘My Weekend In America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital’ (the author is referring to a quote given by a student), Missoula’s seemingly high rape statistics are quite normal. They just aren’t commonly discussed, as rape isn’t commonly discussed.

I remember reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, his personal account of an Everest climb gone wrong, in a buzzy good-book-haze, totally unaware of some of the aspects of climbing the highest mountain of the world. I had the same feeling again when I read his Under the Banner of Heaven, a terrifying look at the fundamentalist LDS church. Krakauer never shies from providing riveting accounts on the toughest of topics, attitudes towards acquaintance rape in Missoula are as scary as any of the other material he’s covered.

Missoula on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

From Lifestyle Reporter to Something More Serious: Pete Crooks Dishes on Lying PIs and Dirty Cops in The Setup

Pete Crooks’ The Setup: A True Story of Dirty Cops, Soccer Moms, and Reality TV is so bizarre at every twist and turn it could only be true. The players’ motives here are petty, the suspects’ behaviors inexplicable, Dr. Phil enters the story twice, becoming first excited, then disappointed. The Setup is, in other words, an incredibly human tale.

What does it look like Inside the Criminal Mind?

Far from a true crime story, where the brutality is shrouded in the mystery of motive and emotion, Samenow clinically lists his case studies, quoting the criminals where possible, and citing what he continuously calls “their errors in thinking.” Samenow argues that it is these errors in thinking, not growing up in bad neighborhoods or past abuse, that cause criminal behaviors.

The Significant, Sad Case Of Alice Mitchell, Told By Alexis Coe in Alice + Freda Forever

Rather than building the facts into a single story line for the reader, Coe takes the reader on a historical journey, examining the implications of race, sex, and class in 1892 Memphis. This works well as the artifacts from the case are plentiful, and love letters, news headlines, and trial excerpts intertwine with Coe’s telling of the story, which feels dedicated to telling the story without sacrificing truth.

Want More Serial? Five Other True Crime Cases To Keep You Up At Night

Can’t wait until the next episode of podcast Serial comes out? Here are five other true crime cases, where false convictions, unclear motives, and uncaught killers keep the rivers of justice flowing dark and murky. Hop on in, the water’s fine!

On Knox – The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox by Nina Burleigh

knox cover 2_Fotor

Falling into the rabbit hole of media spectacle swirled with true crime drama that creates the Amanda Knox story is easy. Like Dorothy being swept up from Kansas and crashing down into Oz, Knox seems caught in a perfect storm of good looks and incomprehensible behavior that, when thrown to overzealous and conspiracy-seeking police and press, can be just as inescapable as any fairy tale.

I read Knox’s own memoir, Waiting to Be Heard, shortly after it was released in April of last year. Like so many others fascinated by the case, I was eager to hear Knox’s own recounting of events. When Knox and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were found guilty of Meredith Kercher’s murder for the second time at the end of January, I researched other books on the whole debacle and decided on Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.

Burleigh’s book interested me, amongst all the others, as it addressed the petri dish which grew the police and media attention on Knox. I knew there was a man convicted of Kercher’s murder that no one seemed interested in. I knew Knox’s sexuality brought up as a piece of evidence used to indicate her guilt. I saw the list of sexist, appearance-based names Knox was called by the press.

Burleigh spends much time exploring the circumstances in which this perfect storm was created. She explains Perugia in detail: as an ancient city, “creative people who find themselves there today complain that the city retains a feudal mind-set that resists creativity and change.” In recent years Perugia has become a pit stop on organized crime trading routes, where prostitutes are trained before being moved along to larger cities. The headlines scream of crimes contradicting the laid-back and party-fueled college town atmosphere. The city’s beauty, Burleigh says, can be deceiving.

The Fatal Gift of Beauty also introduces another concept I wasn’t aware of, the idea of “cronaca nera” or a black chronicle. Burleigh explains that while murder is common in Italy, “a cronaca nera possesses an element of the macabre, diabolical, or obscene that journalists instantly recognize.” Of course it isn’t just Italians that are intrigued by this type of crime. Media in America pander to the white, beautiful girl.

Our first lesson should be to acknowledge and try to understand why we are so much more interested— obsessed even— with the occasional allegedly evil female and so bored with the much more common, and therefore more lethal, sexually aggressive, domestically violent male. When was the last time we saw a garden-variety wife- or girlfriend-beater or violent rapist perp-walked through one news cycle, let alone hundreds? -Nina Burleigh, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox

Rudy Guede's mugshot via

Rudy Guede’s mugshot (via)

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Kercher murder media coverage, the buzz and chatter surrounding the beautiful white Amanda Knox, is the lack of equal coverage of Rudy Guede. Whenever the case comes up in discussion with those around me, I find myself explaining the basic facts to someone who is unaware a man is in prison for the murder of Meredith Kercher. I think (hope) this has changed now as more articles are released, and more people read Knox’s own memoir. Rudy Guede, for those who don’t know, was without a doubt involved in the crime. Physical evidence concludes that. His handprint was on a pillow under Kercher’s body, his DNA was on Kercher’s purse and in her body, and his bloody footprints (police originally claimed these were Sollecito’s) stepped through the crime scene.

Katie Crouch, who is writing a novel based on the events of Kercher’s murder, said in a Salon article, “It is strange, actually, that Knox has the starring role in this drama, as Rudy Guede had the most interesting life of them all.” I certainly agree. Why does the media insist on discussing the fairly unremarkable Knox, when a fascinating (black, male) character much more deserving of attention is kept at the sidelines.

Guede was born on the Ivory Coast, in Africa, to a polygamous, Christian father. Roger Guede was a bright guy with hopes of attaining a degree in mathematics, forced to give up his dream and work as a mason once he and his son immigrated to Italy. Rudy Guede was neglected from a young age, and his teacher, in The Fatal Gift of Beauty, remembers Rudy wandering the streets as a child. Teachers and neighbors would come together to feed Guede dinner. As a teenager, Guede was brought into a wealthy family, only to be kicked out of the family as his behavior became more erratic. He continued his wandering into adulthood, begging to sleep at friends’ homes or sleepwalking into stranger’s homes or businesses, eating their food and using their bathrooms. Despite all the evidence linking him to the scene and the somewhat bizarre aspect of his sleepwalking (what if this was a sleep-murder?), it is Knox the press wants.

Amanda Knox (via)

Amanda Knox (via)

People built myths around feminine beauty before they learned the written word. Helen and her beauty are at the center of the fall of Troy in The Iliad. Making appearance the focal point of any story, however, is like trying to summarize what is written in a book by glancing at its cover. We know very little of Helen’s actual character, other than the uproar raised by the men surrounding her. Helen of Troy is a contradictory figure in many ancient accounts, maybe sad and lonely, maybe nefarious and mocking men in the Trojan horse. All we know for sure is that she had a pretty face.

Knox, like Helen, was little in the press (definitely at first, now she is able to speak for herself) but her appearance, her supposed sexual activities, her inappropriate kisses and yoga poses. Knox behaved inappropriately, failing to properly emote over the death of her roommate and causing some serious cultural misunderstanding. Burleigh explains:

Americans traveling abroad must learn and respect other national norms and points of view. . . . Neither Knox’s parents nor she had the foggiest idea that her athleticism, sexuality, extroversion, naiveté, stoicism in the face of tragedy, and lack of gravitas would doom her in the eyes of Italians, whose young women are not athletic, who grieve openly, and who comport themselves with great formality— who dress and speak and act within a code of conduct that is far different from what passes for the same in Seattle or, for that matter, most American cities.-Nina Burleigh, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox

Italian police and press vilified Knox for her odd behaviors and lack of proper emotional display after the death of Kercher, her roommate. I sympathize with this, as I know so many young women who smile when they are nervous or fear they might cry. In uncomfortable situations, I tend to laugh.

In The Fatal Gift of Beauty, Knox describes herself as someone who loves to smile at strangers on the bus, trying to make them smile back at her. This can seem charming, but it also possibly could be some sort of nervous affectation. So much of the trouble Knox got in with the police stemmed from trying to anticipate the needs of those around her, with a dangerously naive lack of understanding of what was truly at risk. While her Italian roommate’s lawyer was at their home almost immediately after the murder, Knox didn’t think to imitate this behavior. Certainly, a girl who wants nothing more than to see those around her smile is at the most risk for giving a false confession when placed in a room with police officers who want nothing more than an admittance of some sort.

The most important lesson to take away from the case is that all authorities in any country where the rule of law is paramount, all police and prosecutors, should remember that it is far, far better to admit error and pursue due diligence in investigations than to force facts to fit theories that defy logic and, ultimately, derail justice.-Nina Burleigh, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox

Burleigh, most alarmingly, spent time detailing the history of Giuliano Mignini, Perugia’s town magistrate. A man admittedly obsessed with conspiracy theories, he told Burleigh, ““Why do they call it a conspiracy theory?” he asked. “What does ‘conspiracy theory’ mean? How can you call a conspiracy theory the fact that more than one person did a crime together? Why are they called conspiracy theories? Caesar was killed by twenty senators, is that a conspiracy theory? It’s normal that people work together.” A man who cites the epic conspiracy of Caesar’s men to assassinate him as an example of normal human behavior should be cause for concern right away. At one time working closely with a psychic, Mignini developed a theory for a string of unsolved murders involving masons and satanic rites. Investigating this theory eventually led him to an abuse of office charge in 2010. This was the man investigating Kercher’s murder–a man not interested in looking at facts, but seeking to connect dots. He was interested in Knox’s behavior of hitting her head when trying to think during interrogation, because masons hit their foreheads in their rites.

The spectacle surrounding Knox has caused the police to lose sight of justice and, in their struggle to capture Knox, let the real killer practically go free. Guede is now able to leave prison to study. Guede, who has changed his story regarding the whereabouts of Knox and Sollecito during the crime multiple times, seems to be benefitting most from the police interest in Knox and Sollecito. Originally sentenced to thirty years, his sentence has now been reduced to sixteen years; this sentence is less than both Knox and Sollecito received at their most recent retrial. This is despite the fact that Guede is the only one involved with physical evidence linking him to the scene.

The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox by Nina Burleigh on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Related Links:

  • Amanda Knox and Italy’s ‘Carnivalesque’ Justice System
  • Amanda Knox, what really happened: Writing toward the actual story
  • Injustice in Perugia site