"The land is full of bloody crimes, and the city is full of violence," wrote the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel in the sixth century B.C., and to read these two books is to believe that little has changed since then. History is, of course -- as Frances Fitzgerald's "America Revised" has recently reminded us -- the shining of a highly subjective spotlight upon a vastly populated stage, perhaps equally a matter of who records it as of what is recorded. Yet, the perils of the subjectivity aside, it is noteworthy that, at this time of supposedly renewed respect for law and order, these two presentations of American history through the metaphor of crime should appear almost simultaneously.
In "The American Way of Crime," the more ambitious and far superior of the two volumes, Browning and Gerassi give a grim, near-apocalyptic vision of American history. Their book, which has more of a scholarly than a journalistic bent, extracts from their voluminous evidence a most disturbing, albeit simple, thesis: that crime is not a national aberration, but an institution, not merely the domain of the deviant, but the playground of American society, from the presidency and the corporate boardrooms on down.
Given Watergate and the ubiquitous revelations of white-collar crime in recent decades, the argument is hardly a surprising one. Yet, in terms of both polemic and proof, Browning and Gerassi go other chroniclers of crime in American one better. Crime, they tell and show us, is not merely a national problem of the highest magnitude, but "a sixth estate" (the fifth being our military/intelligence agencies), "an independent force that both permeates and opposes the others and has become endemic to every element of modern life."
And the "cast" the authors call upon to document this pessimistic saga is truly a roll call of our most ignoble citizenry -- a pelthora of gunslingers, cattle-rustlers, extortionists, murderers, drug-traffickers, price-fixers, brothel-owners, forgers and election-riggers that make Richard Nixon & Company look more like embodiments of a national norm than perpetrators of a criminal, national embarrassment.
But "The American Way of Crime" is not merely a catalogue of crime aimed at hammering home a single, quantitative point. There are more abstract villains on the stage as well, one of them best summed up by Cornelius Vanderbilt's oft-quoted bit of braggadocio: "Law! What do I care about Law! Hain't I got the power?"
Power is a major catalyst in what the authors see as "the evolving ethos of American crime," an ethos in which common thugs, lawmen, businessmen, and politicians have, in the course of our blemished national history, finally found a commonality of interest -- crime. This commonality, the authors contend, has led to the insidious rise of "white collar" crime, a situation in which corporate price-fixing, computer embezzlement and tax fraud combined to cost the American public a staggering $44 billion in 1976 alone -- 10 times more than the cost of street crime!
The fault with this book -- and, given the brilliantly organized and well-articulated presentation of its "evidence," perhaps a pardonable one -- is a tendency to wax eloquent with diagnosis and remain mute as to prescription. "If America is to change," the authors warn us, "the inordinate power that all the other [estates] share with the sixth must be curtailed -- by an estate not yet established." One hopes that -- in their sequel to this less-then-optimistic volume -- the authors will give us a hint of where and how that curtailment is to begin.
To move from Browning and Gerassi's volume to Jay Robert Nash's "Murder, America" is like moving from The Wall Street Journal to The National Enquirer. Murder is indeed Nash's subject and he makes no bones about wanting to electrify, rather than merely alarm, us with it. Hitchcock would have been envious: No less than 54 separate accounts of our nation's most brutal murders are related in this volume, appended by a 135-page, year-by-year "Chronology of Murder in America," whose last page portrays First Lady Rosalynn Carter affably shaking hands with Chicago mass-murderer-to-be John Wayne Gacy in 1977. So much for subtlety.
Little more than gory thriller masked as social commentary, Nash's book has only one real relationship with "The American Way of Crime": It, too, makes the point -- albeit in less gentlemanly fashion -- that there is much crime in our nation's complicated past. Nash, too, claims to have a thesis -- that "murder in the U.S. is as democratic as our political process." But by this lofty (and, for him, unusually eloquent) statement, we soon see Nash means no more than lots of different kinds of people kill each other for lots of different reasons.
And Nash proves his point. From the lovely, if somewhat shortchanged, Bathesheba Spooner -- who arranged for the premature departure of her aged, doddering husband in Worcester, Mass., in 1778 -- to the unsavory Frederick W. Cowan -- a 33-year-old Nazi memorabilia collector whose murderous rampage in 1977 left six people, including himself, dead on the grounds of New Rochelle moving company -- this is a story of democracy in action. All sorts of folks, in the course of these pages, kill and are killed -- priests, wealthy publishers, successful dentists, farmers, unemployed baggage clerks and California anesthesiologists. But for its being of such recent vintage, the saga of a certain Scarsdale diet doctor and a Washington schoolmistress would certainly have found its way into this volume as well.
If the idea of seeing "Psycho," "The Exorcist," "Jaws" and "Cruising" in a single evening is your cup of tea, "Murder, America" may be a book you won't be able to put down. In that sense, too, it is truly a democratic book -- anyone will be able to understand its "message." Though, like "The American Way of Crime," it fails to answer the question of whom we should blame for this unsavory heritage, it doesn't even bother to articulate the question.