Veteran crime journalist Jack Olsen jokingly called himself my
"one lefty friend." For the past couple of years, we traded notes berating
and cajoling each other. Well, mostly it was Olsen needling me. "O for
Chrisakes, Michelle, lighten up," he wrote in response to a column I did on
touchy-feely conflict resolution seminars in the public schools.
"You are incorrigible," he ribbed when I told him that (SET
ITAL) was my idea of lightening up.
He griped when he thought I was letting conservatives off the
hook on some issue; he sent treasured kudos when I called attention to some
under-reported fakery or injustice. Olsen wanted to make clear that he was a
liberal, but by no means a Democratic partisan. Our connection transcended
political ideology. He had a passion for fairness. And always, he encouraged
good writing, which is why his gruff praise and collegial critiques meant so
much to me.
With awesome breadth, depth and innovation, Olsen wrote one book
for every year that I've been alive -- 31 of them published in 15 countries
and 11 languages. He delved into history with "Silence on Monte Sole," a
monumental account of a forgotten Nazi massacre in Italy. He co-wrote a book
on playing bridge and a page-turning eco-thriller about grizzly bear attacks
in Glacier National Park ("Night of the Grizzlies"). He wrote a fictional
account of a heroic fire-fighting unit ("The Secret of Fire 5") and a
non-fiction account of a mountain-climbing tragedy ("The Climb Up to Hell")
decades before these topics became trendy with publishers.
But what earned Jack Olsen his greatest fame and commercial
success were his best-selling books about crime and criminals. He was known
as the dean of "true-crime writers," but the moniker was shamefully
inadequate. Olsen was a brilliant former police reporter, feature writer,
sports writer, radio and television newswriter and newscaster, magazine
writer and editor who pioneered a genre of stunningly reported and
masterfully written psychological profiles. His most famous studies
included: "Son: A Psychopath and His Victims," which won a Special Edgar
Award from the Mystery Writers of America; "Predator," the American Mystery
Award winner for Best True Crime, and "Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell,"
which garnered the 1991 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.
The explosive popularity of Olsen's work ultimately led to
disillusionment with a market he helped create. "What now passes for 'true
crime' is a weakly researched overblown kind of National Enquirer writing
with a heavy emphasis on fictionalization and blighted romance," he noted.
"The marketing of murder has devoured itself. Quality has been driven out by
a malignant derivative of Gresham's Law: Bad money drives out good. So does
bad writing. The very best and best-selling true-crime authors have turned
to other genres and left the genre to shlockmeisters."
When we last corresponded, Olsen was wrapping up what he said
would be his last foray in this genre. It is called "I: The Creation of a
Serial Killer," a book written from the perspective of convicted murderer
Keith Hunter Jesperson, the so-called "Happy Face Killer," and it is
scheduled for release next month by St. Martin's Press. But Olsen will not
be here to promote it. Or trade barbs about the business. Or pass along any
more of his trenchant observations about writing and rhetoric and refusing
"to settle for crap."
On July 16, Olsen died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age
of 77. His wife found him at home, lying in bed, with a magazine on his
chest. The family has asked that remembrances be sent to the Sierra Club.
To honor the remarkable career and colorful life of a lefty
friend, my improbable check is in the mail.