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True crime memoires are always fascinating, for much the same reason why true crime is fascinating, because very few of those who consume it are likely to live a life where we are coming face-to-face with the worst of the world on a daily basis. It is something we can dip in and out of, and put to a side when it becomes too much.
Not so for Doyle Burke who in Death as a Living details his time as a homocide detective in the Dayton Ohio Police Department. If you are looking for the next great literary piece of true crime in the tradition of Capote, then this will not be the book for you, and that is exactly as it should be. True Crime while often tending towards the most shocking, spooky or gruesome does reflect life, thankfully an extreme of life many of us won’t experience, but life none-the-less. Burke, who comes across as a down to earth man of the people makes this memoire all the stronger by retaining his authentic voice, which is the books ultimate strength, rather than trying for literary kudos.
For those, who like me, are writing crime fiction this kind of authenticity and realism is priceless, and Burke’s tales of the streets of Dayton are filled with pathos and humanity. There is at least one crime, towards the end, that I feel I need to warn readers about, given how shocking it is – but again Burke’s both feet on the ground professionalism means that he does not over egg this pudding as others may be tempted to do, and his matter of fact reporting goes some way to alleviate what could be a highly traumatic read for many.
This is not to say that other crimes covered in Death as a Living, are not also tragic, there are many and Burke’s over view of decades of murder leaves one with a clear picture of the often time random nature or sheer bad luck that brought many people to their ends.
Burke also touches on community relations and Black Lives Matter (a movement he states he supports) in his writing. I think some people may find his opinion of diversity training grating, especially given the current record of police in America. With no other context, and assuming that Burke is giving us a true representation of what was said it appeared the training was giving advice that could well have the effect of increasing division, not creating more appreciation and understanding for differing lived experience. Coupled with the fact that Burke reports good relationships with the black community of Dayton, I am reluctant to come to other conclusions unless evidence emerges to the contrary.
This however does not mean that Burke’s view is definitive, and all that needs to be said on race and policing, he is after all writing his memoire, which is by definition a flawed version events, because they are only seen through the lens of one person who is emotionally involved in them. It can be highly useful to experience the point of view of others, and as Burke fits nicely into the hegemony it is unlikely that he is the right person to delve into all the subtleties and nuances of what policing and race means in the contemporary United States, backed as it is by a fraught and disturbing history.
It is this that brings us to one of the questions at the heart of contemporary writing, and especially in memoire – how much responsibility does the writer have when it comes to these difficult topics, not just race, but also religion, misogyny, disability and other identities which have often been handled without sensitivity or insight in the past, and at worst have perpetuated harm and stirred up hatred. If writing reflects life, should it only reflect the good? If we refuse to address the negative does that mean it goes unnoticed and therefore is strengthened? Is the writer responsible for how people may interpret or misinterpret her work? How high is the pedestal we put writers, and this art form on? Should there be a pedestal to begin with? Art moves and ebbs and flows much like life does so these question needs a lot more space and time to be explored than this blog is able to give in one post, but they are questions that are important for both writers, readers and the wider publishing industry to interrogate and navigate together.
Burke however is not a writer, well, not until very recently. He has not lived the writers life, spent the time developing craft, and wrestling with the contemporary questions around around the what, who and how of narrative and it’s place in wider culture. He has however lived an extraordinary life, one which I know I would not have the mental or emotional strength to dare to undertake, which is why I remain comfortably writing about it instead. In a culture which currently idolises the superhero and all their impossibilities, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, the limited, the flawed, the ever-so-basically-human feels possibly like a quiet act of defiance.