It goes like this: A detached and usually mercenary author parachutes into the scene of the crime – often after an uncomfortably long interval – and pieces together the story from court transcripts, interviews (a bigger advance for an "exclusive" with the killer!) and a few grisly photos.
And the result – again, with notable exceptions – has generally been fodder for a mass market whose book-shopping starts with a surreptitious glance at the grisly photos printed in the middle of the paperback.
But then there are those exceptions. Truman Capote’s "In Cold Blood" was the seminal, postmodern true-crime tale. Vincent Bugliosi’s "Helter Skelter" was the first great true crime-insider blockbuster. Joe McGinniss’ "Fatal Vision" and Joseph Wambaugh’s "The Onion Field" made relatively common crimes intensely personal. Each shares one thing: A "true" ending that isn’t any ending at all, but a gateway to unanswered questions about humanity we might never answer satisfactorily.
Comes now Robert Rivard’s "Trail of Feathers." Aptly labeled a "true crime/memoir," it’s not just one story of crime and punishment, but also an exploration of deeply hidden personal secrets, bonds between men, the nature of contemporary journalism, cultural differences, the nature of justice and, ultimately, what one editor believed he owed a friend and reporter.
In December 1998, San-Antonio (Texas) Express-News reporter Philip True, 50, disappeared on a solitary hike into a dangerous Mexican wilderness. It was to be the Mexico City correspondent’s last great adventure before the birth of his first child, but he also hoped it would provide material for a story he desperately wanted to write about Mexico’s isolated Huichol Indians:
"True described a world unknown to his editors or readers. He seemed gripped by the possibility of walking out of the late twentieth-century commotion of Mexico City and, all alone, entering a place lost in time. The proposed trek combined two of the three great passions in his life: testing himself in the wilderness and unearthing great newspaper stories."Author Rivard – then and now editor of the Express-News – joins a small search party that plunges deep into the alien region. Miraculously, he follows a trail of downy feathers from True’s sleeping bag to a shallow grave where they find his decaying body. He’d been murdered.
Rivard’s search doesn’t stop in that rugged gorge, even as Mexican authorities arrest two Huichol Indian suspects in the killing, setting in motion a labyrinthine trial process. Delving deeply into True’s past, Rivard finds both unnerving secrets and peculiar similarities between himself and True to bind them even closer in this tale of unsettled lives and unexpected death.
The perverse rhythms of Mexican justice add a final, disturbing twist to Rivard’s story. Even now, almost seven years later, True’s confessed killers remain free, safe within the invisible walls that surround the Sierra Madre Occidental and their reclusive culture.
Rivard, a former foreign correspondent himself, writes with clarity and sensitivity. His research is impeccable and voluminous, yet his storytelling isn’t larded with footnotes and cumbersome arcana. He imbues common stories of human frailty and triumph with an engaging universality, and he brings often unfathomable issues of international relations and cultures in conflict to the human level.
But more importantly, he has submitted a far more intimate true-crime book than the market has seen in many years. He understood he was a part of this story and he accompanies the reader every step of the way, holding a hand when necessary.
Another failing of contemporary true-crime writing has been its tabloid-y texture, valuing blood splatters over social studies. "Trail of Feathers" deftly explores the effects of a single choice as they ripple outward. Philip True’s ill-fated journey set in motion several other journeys, some of which have not yet ended.
That might be an uncomfortable conclusion for mass-market true-crime fans, but it’s real. It’s true.