From its opening paragraph, Pulitzer prize-winner Edna Buchanan’s memoir, The Corpse Had a Familiar Face (Simon and Schuster, 2004), launches you into the legendary crime writer’s world – the gritty streets of Miami in the seventies and eighties during the height of the humid city’s criminal turmoil. During her career as the Miami Herald’s crime beat reporter, Buchanan covered race riots, drug-fueled murders, domestic violence cases, and robberies, and her book reveals what that life was like, and how Buchanan always managed to get the scoop. Known for her short, punchy sentences, Buchanan’s prose is simple, masterful journalese. She lays bare her intentions from the start: her best day, she writes, “is the one where I can write a lead that will cause a reader at his breakfast table to spit up his coffee, clutch at his heart, and shout, My God, Martha, did you read this?”
Though the stories are often shocking, and Buchanan chooses details that perfectly sum up circumstances, the memoir doesn’t only offer cherry-picked details from the most sensational crimes of Buchanan’s career; it also tells the story of her ascension from her miserable childhood in New Jersey to her career in Miami, which sheds a humanizing light on her choice to become a prolific writer of crime. Suddenly, it becomes clear how and why the little girl who read the daily paper to her Ukrainian grandmother would want to grow up and write the same stories she latched onto as a child hungry for interesting reading material.
Beyond the salacious details and Buchanan’s wry prose, this book is worth a read because the advice Buchanan offers on the art of journalism is invaluable. Not specific to budding crime writers; her tips are useful information for all writers of nonfiction, particularly those who conduct interviews. “What a reporter needs is detail, detail, detail,” Buchanan declares. “If a man is shot for playing the same song on the jukebox too many times, I’ve got to name that tune. Questions unimportant to police often add the color and detail that make a story human. What movie did they see? What color was their car? What did they have in their pockets? What were they doing at the precise moment the bomb exploded or the tornado touched down?” (403)
On how to get a reticent source to agree to an interview, Buchanan writes, “I know it sounds foolish, but often people uncomfortable at being seen talking to a reporter will speak more freely over the telephone. It never hurts to remind them that you are out there, waiting. If they know that you never give up, never go away, sometimes they will tell you what you need to know — out of sheer self-defense.”
I recommend that writers enjoy Buchanan’s memoir for all that it offers; as a masterful work of nonfiction that offers technical writing advice, as a wild ride through the underbelly of Miami’s darkest corners, and as a thrilling crime drama that proves that fact is stranger than fiction.
Jewel Edwards is the features editor at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.