True crime is one of the most popular sections of the bookstore where I’ve been working in Wilkes-Barre. The book I Heard You Paint Houses about Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran can be found in at least three locations throughout the store, and still people ask for it at the info. desk.
I know that scintillating crime shows on are widely popular but (anecdotally) the craving for these true crime novels seems to be greater here in Northeastern PA than elsewhere. Why are they so popular? Is there something about them that resonates with the NEPA identity? There’s definitely self-awareness in the region about rampant corruption cronyism (yet another way that being here reminds me of India!), and links to the mafia are more commonly referenced when discussing community or political problems than anywhere else I’ve lived. Here’s an example of a recognized case of corruption for which there’s no accountability: the government has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovating the vacant Hotel Sterling downtown, and absolutely no changes have been made to the site.
Or, to give a nationally known example, there’s the kids-for-cash scandal. Just two weeks ago a U.S. district judge sentenced former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella for receiving money from Robert Mericle, a builder of juvenile detention facilities, in exchange for harsh sentences handed out to juvenile offenders.
Does this atmosphere have to do with the popularity of true crime literature? The category contains stories of teenagers killing their grandmothers, partners murdering spouses, children disappearing and being discovered 18 years later after a lifetime of rape. It disturbs me just to read the teasers on the covers when I have to re-shelve them, and I can’t imagine why people want to read this stuff. But then, they see similar stories in the news everyday: a grave robber arrested, a deputy sheriff fired after being charged with assault and burglary, a couple arrested for sexual abuse of their foster son, and so on.
As an anthropologist, I want to make connections and analyses about the threads of identity and culture that I’ve observed in conversations and the general feel of this place, but I really haven’t been here long enough to make any conclusions. And I certainly haven’t done enough talking to people about these subjects to have those conclusions be well informed.
In both Hyderabad and Wilkes-Barre I’ve found myself missing the way Palestinians so eagerly tell visitors about various aspects of their culture. Without that opening, and without a particular “research” topic to investigate (I’m not an academic, after all), it’s more difficult to get to know a place and its people, as well as to formulate deeper questions. It’s also difficult to know how to ask questions when I’m not clearly marked as Other. Unlike in Palestine, to the people I meet in the Wyoming Valley, I may not be a local, but I’m not a foreigner either. Yet my curiosity about ways of life and political and economic conditions remains.