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Longread round-up: Tupac Shakur, Truman Capote, Time, and the Thames

Longread round-up: Tupac Shakur, Truman Capote, Time, and the Thames
l-r, Truman Capote, Ed Wilcox, and Robert Blake on the set of In Cold Blood.

If you think I wasn’t tempted to throw “and Tay, and Travis” into that subhed, you don’t know me at all! But enough about The Big Game and its Most Valuable People-Cover Subjects; I’ve got other longreads of interest, old and new, so let’s get into it.

Duane “Keffe D” Davis in court last October. (John Locher-Poole / Getty Images)

A new standard for cataloging and clarifying the complexities of the Tupac Shakur murder case: Rolling Stone 1/25/24 // John L. Smith’s “The Hunt for Tupac’s Killer: Confessions, Conspiracies, and Confusion” is quite long, but although it’s not definitive – the alleged “shot-caller,” Duane “Keffe D” Davis, doesn’t go to trial until later this year – it’s the best longread yet IMO at recounting the particulars of the case; explaining the jurisdictional issues; illuminating, and often dismissing, the leading crackpot theories about the investigation and why it took so long to generate meaningful charges; and keeping all the players and their books and talking-head interviews straight.

One of the biggest murders in Las Vegas history might also be the most tangled investigation. Did the LAPD and Las Vegas police collaborate on solving the murder or try to stymie each other? Did two cops from different departments almost come to blows over a possible murder weapon? Did certain members of Vegas police not want to solve it in the first place? Why weren’t follow-ups done with key players connected to the murder? When exactly did Las Vegas police learn about that crucial agreement Davis made with law enforcement? Did egos get in the way of law enforcement? Interviews with cops, reporters, lawyers, and Davis’ own account of events suggest all that and a lot more.

It’s behind a paywall, but you may want to pony up for an RS sub; there’s at least one deeply reported genre piece in each issue, and if the mag’s commitment to getting it right in the true-crime space is borne of penance for bungling the UVa story, well, whatever works.

A headfirst dive into a wikihole of racial “justice” and midcentury media goss: Time Magazine 10/25/54 // I honestly don’t remember what brought me to this corridor in the Time archive; I think it happened late last year, when I was inputting every single Edgar nominee for Best Fact Crime into the Exhibit B. inventory system, but a lot of midcentury reading has gone under the bridge since, so all I can tell you for sure is that I’ve had the tab open for weeks, waiting to share the tiny pleasure that is a “heritage” hyphen.

Like so:

William Bradford Huie, 43, is a glib, self-promoting free-lance writer who likes nothing better than to be in hot water. He has attacked everything from college football to the U.S. Navy, and has been denounced as regularly and heatedly as he denounces. Last week in Live Oak, Fla., Alabama-born Bill Huie was once again in a cauldron of boiling water, and enjoying every spurt of steam. This time the heat was generated by the case of Ruby McCollum.

Certainly the author meant “foot-ball”? 

In any event, Huie did go on to write a book about the McCollum case – Ruby McCollum, The Woman in the Suwanne Jail – and it did not win the Edgar that year, but it and other meditations on the case and its coverage could keep us all busy for the rest of this year. Has anyone else read C. Arthur Ellis’s historical novel on Zora Neale Hurston’s reporting on the case? Because the story of Hurston and Huie building the story of the McCollum case together is the one that grabs me, and Huie’s letters to Hurston only give me a couple of pieces of the puzzle. Rec on Ellis’s book, or any other case materials? Drop down to the comments!

Zac Brettler. (The New Yorker)

An archetypal TNY piece on the death of a teenage “fabulist” – and of his parents’ belief in law enforcement: The New Yorker 2/12-19/24 // I really can’t do much better of a job describing what makes Patrick Radden Keefe’s “The Oligarch’s Son” exemplary than Sam Circle did in Last Week’s New Yorker Review,

Keefe is a master of the reported neo-noir, and he’s especially patient here – maybe too patient for some readers, as this piece is a longer-than-longread, almost novella length. Keefe takes advantage of that space, fleshing out characters and detailing the facts of the matter, and those who like true crime stories less for their lurid tinge than for the surprises they manage within a procedurally rigid form will find much to love here. …Those who love impostor stories should make time for this.

and I likely don’t need to. The Radden Keefe byline is recommendation enough around here, although Circle does deem this one a “window-shop” versus a “must-read” thanks to its length. 

But as is always true of the best NYer pieces in the genre, I didn’t feel the length. On the contrary, I wanted the story to keep going, as downbeat and frustrating as London police’s intransigence is (after recapping a series of deaths similar to Zac Brettler’s plunge from a fifth-story balcony, followed up by investigators with as little effort and curiosity as Brettler’s was, Radden Keefe snarks, “A vicious killer appeared to be stalking London: gravity”). And his dismissive description of a person of interest’s crypto-exec aspirations is so dry, it could smoke in the shower.

It strikes me that one of Radden Keefe’s gifts as a true-crime/history reporter is one of negative capability. A common and tiresome aspect of (let’s face it) most non-fiction is authors’ inability to resist showing their work – allll of it. As a writer, I empathize; as a reader, I try to persevere; as a reviewer, I’ve noticed that Radden Keefe consistently finds a way to marshal and present the information the story needs, and simultaneously to imply that, while there is more information and he has command of that too, it’s more effective behind the scenes.

A strange strength to single out in an article this long, perhaps, but not everyone knows the difference between “texture” and performative info-dumping. Fortunately New Yorker editors seldom make us suffer through the latter.

The February 12 & 19 issue also had my esteemed colleague Inkoo Kang’s dissatisfied review of FEUD: Capote vs. The Swans; I concur with all of Kang’s stated complaints (especially the anachronisms; uch) while still thinking better of the overall effect. Mostly I mention it as a springboard to the last item on today’s menu…

From Esquire‘s June 1966 issue.

A contemporaneous interrogation of juuuust how “non-” Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel” really was: Esquire 6/1/66 // The same issue of the mag also contains an overlong, excessively New Journalism profile called “In Cold Comfort,” in which Village Voice sportswriter Barbara Long (she’d covered the Ali-Liston fight the previous year) seems to struggle with appearing taken in by Capote’s charm offensive. 

It’s not an uninteresting read, but if she didn’t want to seem cheaply bought by Capote’s chatty compliments, she might have considered…cutting those, instead of including literally every comment and car trip, then trying to set them off with bitchy asides. It really does read like Long (or Long’s editor) retrofitted the piece to sound less star-fucked.

“In Cold Fact” is more concise and compelling. Phillip K. Tompkins, a Kansas native and author/professor, is out not just to fact-check In Cold Blood but to investigate on a meta level whether it ought to be fact-checked. 

Capote’s expenses list. Note “salary” for “Miss Lee” (that’s Harper) and “payment”s to Smith and “Hitchcock” (that’s…not appropriate). (Library of Congress)

From the jump, Tompkins seems to have his mind made up – the subhed, “We might ask of the ‘nonfiction novel’ that it contain no fiction. And if it does, why does it?”, doesn’t have a terribly forgiving tone – and much of the piece is devoted to illuminating “reimagined” scenes that the principals present deny took place. (CW: one of the disputed accounts involves repeated and unmediated use of the N-word.) Tompkins acknowledges that most of the disparities are negligible, but wonders whether it’s not a slippery slope, i.e., if Capote transposed or conflated little things, what’s to say he didn’t do it with larger things. Or everything.

Tompkins’s conclusion is more generous than you might predict. He’s a bit impatient with Capote’s need for “that very conventional element of the novel as he knows it—a dramatic climax, a moment of truth,” but as Edith Wharton might have put it, he sees, and pities, Capote’s…narrative attachments:

It is Perry Smith—not the victims, the investigators, the lawyers, not even the pair of killers—who dominates this book. When Smith stood up, wrote Capote, “he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child.” The Avedon photographs of the two standing together reveal that Capote, if anything, is a “slippery spray” of hair shorter than Smith. Furthermore, Smith had a miserable childhood. Harper Lee, who has known Capote long and well, told Newsweek, “I think every time Truman looked at Perry he saw his own childhood.”

The killer cries. He asks to have his hand held. He says, “I’m embraced by shame.” He apologizes. It is a moving portrait but not, I submit, of the man who actually was Perry Smith—the man who, in real life, told his friend Cullivan he was not sorry … Capote’s characterization of Smith clearly tells us more about the former than the latter.

Tompkins isn’t the first (and there won’t be a last in our lifetime) to observe that Capote probably could have got over with “non-fiction novel” – and with various and sundry exaggerations and literary turd-polishings – if he hadn’t claimed in (I suspect) a spasm of defensive grandiosity that “every word” of In Cold Blood is true. He did claim that, and invited envious bad-faith attacks forevermore, which isn’t to say that reviewers and scholars shouldn’t ever question his methods and sourcing – of course we should, and for what it’s worth ICB‘s version of Perry Smith struck even sheltered teenage me as bullshitty. 

But if the idea of the non-fiction novel is to allow dramatic license to clarify the “true” part, then honesty about how much license was taken is crucial. In Capote’s defense, in the blinding glare of the book’s success, neither he nor the culture had the vocabulary for what he had made, quite. And “I fell in love with a murderer and watched him die on a scaffold” wasn’t a story Capote could sell even to himself.

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Happy discussing!

C. Arthur Ellis Jr

Monday 12th of February 2024

Sarah,

Thanks for ressurecting the story of Ruby McCollum.

I wrote Zora Hurston and the Strange Case of Ruby McCollum, as well as an annotated transcript of the trial, since the story has always fascinated me. I knew all of the characters, and Adams delivered me in the front bedroom of my parents' home.

I think that the case is especially relevant today, when social justice is sometimes poorly served by a legal system that all to often panders to politics and the will of the power brokers in society at the expense of the rest of us.

Ruby's story is the story of racial equality and women's rights over their own bodies in a time when abortions were illegal.

As it relates to abortion, wealthy women took "vacations" and came home healthy, without child, while poor women used coat hangers.

As to equal standing under the law, for example, women were deemed to deserve only a child's share of their husband's inheritance, even if they had spent a lifetime helping that husband acquire the family wealth. Not infrequently, a widow with 12 kids found herself begging them to live in her own home rather than have it sold from under her, as did my grandmother.

Thanks so much for your article. Best to you in your future.

Sincerely,

Art

(C. Arthur Ellis, Jr., Ph.D.)

Sarah D Bunting

Tuesday 13th of February 2024

@C. Arthur Ellis Jr, thanks so much for checking in here, and now I REALLY can't wait to read your book. Any other resources I/we should check out around the case, please let us know!