Panic by Harold Schechter is listed on an Amazon page as Best Sellers in Fiction. On the Amazon page for the book itself, we have this paragraph: “Panic is part of Bloodlands, a chilling collection of short page-turning historical narratives from bestselling true-crime master Harold Schechter. Spanning a century in our nation’s murderous past, Schechter resurrects nearly forgotten tales of madmen and thrill-killers that dominated the most sensational headlines of their day.” Is this meant to be another mystery for me to solve? Are the Schechter works fiction or non-fiction?
This 88-page novel published in 2018 focuses on a series of sexually motivated child killings that occurred in 1937. Schechter introduces a sociological term “moral panic” to describe the near hysterical reaction of the citizenry that is akin to an “end of days” scenario. It is unclear from this work when the term “moral panic” came into common use among sociologists but it is easy to see the usefulness of the label in 1937 and today. School shootings, seemingly unreasoned attacks by knife-wielding “crazies,” and cars piloted into crowds for no purpose other than to kill or wound as many as possible all provoke moral panic today. Schechter makes the case that this phenomenon occurred in 1937 and occurs today with nearly fourteen pages of references. The focus of this novel is on the 1937 events and the social rage the events provoked.
Schechter does not use graphic sexual or violent language to describe either the crimes or the descriptions of bodies once they are found. The author uses almost clinical language for his descriptions. The shock some readers may feel comes from the age of the victims, usually under 12 and as young as four. I suppose this serves as some sort of trigger warning.
The publicity surrounding the 1937 events demanded the motivation for the killings. The immediate motivation was for the sexual gratification of the perpetrators; that part is clear. But what caused these individuals to develop into the persons they became? The proposed reasons for deviant behavior sound familiar. Young people no longer valued or followed religious teachings. Prohibition had been repealed so alcohol could again be blamed. Burlesque fueled sexual fantasies. And my all-time favorite, weird music. Nineteen thirty-seven may not have had Heavy Metal but they had Jazz. Good enough, let’s blame that. Schechter presents reactions of very prominent Jazz pioneers in the defense of music.
Harold Schechter specializes in writing about serial killers. I counted approximately twenty-two Kindle publications. These are the only publications I read because of the high cost of print media where I live. Schechter also has many paperback publications, some of which he has co-authored. His Amazon author site has five pages with 12 publications per page; he has been around for a while. He is a professor of American literature and popular culture at Queens College of the City University of New York.
I like crime novels whether fiction or non-fiction. My expectations for each are different. If non-fiction, I want to see references. For fiction, I want twists and surprises. Sometimes I get both such as with a recently reviewed Rogue Divorce Lawyer, an excellent reading experience with a mixture of solid references and creative writing that covered possible motivation. I like Schechter’s writing style; he projects credibility. Which leads me to a rant about what I do not like.
The absolute worst in non-fiction crime writing is that produced by a “writer” who cobbles together publicly available headlines and newspaper reports and struggles to write transition sentences containing psychobabble clichés. It is amazing to me that such writers make a living from their “craft” but their names appear often enough to assure me they do so. Usually, I am able to identify such plagiaristic rip-offs and abandon the novel after a few pages. Every once in a while I write a one-star review out of rage but I think I am getting over that.
Harold Schechter is a good writer who presents reasoned and logical arguments. Some may find his style dry and almost academic. I like the style and gave this novel four Amazon stars, not five because I would have liked a longer, more detailed examination of issues introduced. I will next read Hell’s Princess, a 336-page novel, to see how Schechter treats a case in greater depth.