Grab Bag: The Sad Case of Carlton Smith
By Jim Thomsen
A few years ago, I set out to be a true-crime author. Like Carlton Smith. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to make a living? Running around the country, sitting in on murder trials, conducting jailhouse interviews, poking through courthouse files? Banging out deathless prose late at night over whiskey and cigarettes in one airport hotel room after another?
At the time I made my move, I worked at a newspaper. Like Carlton Smith. Although he was a bit higher up the food chain than I when he made the jump twenty years ago.
He was a star investigative reporter at The Seattle Times, whose exhaustive work on the investigation into the nation’s most prolific serial killer in the 1980s nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. It later was the basis for a well-written, well-received book called The Search For The Green River Killer.
I, on the other hand, was stuck in a dead-end job as the night and weekend news editor of the smaller daily paper on the other side of Puget Sound. I won awards, too, but they were for writing headlines. As much as I enjoyed that, I dreamed of working in longer-form journalism. Much longer. I began cultivating my dream in my early forties, about the same age that Carlton Smith broke away from The Times and went all-in as a true-crime author.
While Carlton Smith was nearing the end of a remarkably prolific run — twenty-five true-crime paperbacks in twenty years — I was sitting in on Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board hearings and digging through the board’s old case files at the governor’s office, in search of the perfect stories of crime, punishment and redemption. I dreamed of making a pitch, landing an agent and a publishing contract and following in the celebrated footsteps of Gregg Olsen and the lack Jack Olsen (no relation), two true-crime authors who had become friends of mine. I dreamed of an advance big enough to let me quit my job and spend my days driving around the state interviewing witnesses to long-forgotten crimes and typing up notes in the back booths of roadside restaurants.
My dream, like Carlton Smith’s, was not terribly practical. I gave up early, and he gave up far too late. I gave up because I learned that I couldn’t get a publishing deal unless the crime I chose to write about was fresh and high-profile, full of sex and pretty people that attracted lots of TV cameras. I wasn’t interested in those stories; I thought I’d found a nice niche looking into stories of old murders in which the killers had done their time and were ready to re-enter society as changed beings, but I was told over and over that there was no market for such stories. And I couldn’t self-publish them, even though I’m a big believer in self-publishing, because I would have had to pay for legal vetting and libel insurance to protect myself from the prospect of lawsuits based on what I wrote. And did I mention that I had a bottomed-out newspaper job? I couldn’t afford anything like that.
Carlton Smith, though … he made it. Big. At least that’s how I saw it. I read a lot of true-crime books, fascinated with the stories as much as the techniques by which they were written, and it seemed that a new Carlton Smith paperback could be found once or twice a year on the shelves of the local Fred Meyer or Target or Walmart. He was fearsomely prolific, and prolific in a high-profile way, churning out books on many of the nation’s most notorious crime cases (alleged wife-killing Chicago cop Drew Peterson, legendary record producer Phil Spector, family-killer Christian Longo, Jon-Benet Ramsey, the BTK killer, etc.).
I think that because I was so in awe of his journalistic pedigree and his prolific publishing pace, I allowed myself to not think too deeply about my belief that Carlton Smith’s books were, well … not very good. I liked thinking about the author, in the rumpled sportcoats he wore around The Seattle Times newsroom, jetting from one city to the next, using his name and reputation and publishing deal to get enviable and privileged access to the inside of the nation’s most fascinating crime cases. I liked thinking about the velvet rope being pulled aside for him, the deference and respect I imagined he would be given, the idea that the people who lived cheek-by-jowl with insanity and murder would unburden their delicious secrets to the man with the notepad and the sympathetic nod and the string of questions that never seemed to end.
But the more I thought about that, and the more I saw how true-crime sausage was made through my own journey, the more I realized that Carlton Smith’s books didn’t reflect that image. Rarely, I came to see, did he sit in on a trial. (In fact, the books were often finished and even published before a trial.) Rarely did he interview anyone, let alone the principal figures in a given case. Rarely did his research turn up anything that wasn’t readily accessible public record. And rarely did these threadbare narratives, with titles like Dying For Daddy and The Prom Night Murders, square easily with the comprehensive and exhaustive work he did as a newspaper reporter on the Green River killings. I used to keep track on a notepad of how many times in a given book Smith would write “It is not known ….” as a way to building a papier-mache bridge between a given story’s yawning chasms in chronology or understanding. It’s a phrase that no good newspaper editor would ever allow a reporter to get away with.
It became clear to me that Smith was operating in the shallow end of the true-crime pool, churning out quickies on the cheap as chunks of fatty raw meat for the Court TV constituency. And a skim through Smith’s Amazon page reinforces that realization. Of Smith’s Murder At Yosemite, a reviewer wrote: “Unfortunately, I probably got more information and insight about this crime from reading the local newspaper. The editing was poor and the story lacked substance.” Other reviews called the book a “tabloid” treatment that was “poorly written” and “sparse” in details. A few called out occasionally contradictory facts. Of Reckless, his book about Spector’s murder case, another reviewer wrote: “If you like student research papers in which the author simply looks at the other books and articles on the subject and then overwrites them with personal observations, then that’s what you get here. Very boring.”
The more I thought about it, though, the more I couldn’t decide who I held responsible for that. Did Carlton Smith, one of the great investigative newspaper reporters of his time, sell himself out and go for the quick buck? Or did his publisher put him in a box he couldn’t get out of, paying meager advances and holding him to impossibly tight deadlines?
I didn’t get my answer until I saw Carlton Smith’s obituary last weekend in The Seattle Times. It’s not hard to read between the lines of the article, which focused largely on his earlier newspaper glories, and see the sad ruin that his life must have become. He died alone outside his Reno apartment, his body found on the stairs by a neighbor. According to his ex-wife, “he had become depressed about finances.” While he was glad to be finishing the final true-crime book of his final contract and start work on a historical novel, she said “he was hoping to get part-time work at a newspaper.”
That last line hit home with me. Me, as I sit in a small room I’m renting in my sister’s house, having been laid off from my newspaper job a few months before. Me, who’s casting about for work in writing and editing, and finding only the occasional ill-paying freelance gig. Me, nineteen years younger than Carlton Smith was when he died, hoping my next nineteen years won’t be as hardscrabble as his. And knowing that they probably will be. Because I don’t know how to do anything else and I don’t want to do anything else. Like Carlton Smith.
“It was not an easy way to make a living,” the article says. “The deadlines were punishing, the cases were all over the country and ‘sometimes he would lose money on a book because he spent so much time researching,’ according to his ex-wife.” A woman, by the way, he pushed away during his newspaper days. And nights and weekends, according to the obituary.
I want to be a published book author. But I also want to be loved back by something I love, and have a shot at making a living at it at something above a subsistence level. Like Carlton Smith, I imagine. I also imagine that love was never really requited by a publisher that took its prime cuts from each book and left him with table scraps. As a friend who’s a true-crime author put it on a Facebook post: “I imagine he died of a broken heart.” I can believe it, if “hope” for a part-time newspaper job was all the great Carlton Smith was left with in the end. What does that portend for the not-so-great Jim Thomsen?
I don’t know, but I do know this: The way Carlton Smith went, that’s not the way I want to go. Or the way I want to be, in the here and now. How I’ll manage that, I don’t know. But now, thanks to Carlton Smith, I do know what I won’t do. And that’s a start.
Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work on The Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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