So long, Jack Olsen

Posted: Jul 19, 2002 12:00 AM
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.