Sisters in Crime

During a recent social gathering, the middle-aged man, attracted by the easy laughter of the woman standing next to him, launched a conversation that finally got around to the question of what line of work she was in. Aware of the response an honest answer often generated, she opted to respond with a question of her own. "What do you do?" Patricia Springer asked.

"Well," he answered, "I'd just as soon not say." Thus began the cat-and-mouse, you-tell-me-first game that Springer, a successful Dallas writer, often plays.

"Finally," she recalls, "he admitted that he was an IRS agent." Only then did she determine they were, in a sense, kindred spirits--people whose chosen careers were certain to raise eyebrows--and admitted that she writes true crime books, tragic-laden tales of creepy psychotics and sociopaths, serial killers and other human dregs that lurk in dark corners.

"Actually, I've really never felt any need to apologize for what I do," Springer says, "but at the same time I understand that there are a lot of people out there who view those of us who write true crime as book-world stepchildren." She doesn't bother pointing out that such works have been a Publishing Row mainstay, particularly embraced by a female reading audience, since Truman Capote "invented" the genre with his worldwide best seller, In Cold Blood, nearly 40 years ago.

Or that New York editors, keenly aware of the strange and complex crimes that occur in places such as Dallas and Houston, have come to view Texas true crime as something of a genre within a genre. "One of the reasons," says St. Martin's senior editor Charles Spicer, "is that Texas crimes often tend to be bigger than life. The characters and the landscape are fascinating, offering the best and worst of American society."

Author of six books that range from chronicles of the gruesome rape-murder sprees of Ricky Lee Green, killer of two Wise County women and two Fort Worth men, and Faryion Wardrip, who confessed to the murders of four young Wichita Falls women and a Fort Worth mother, to the highly publicized case of Darlie Routier, convicted of killing her two young sons, Springer is a member of a fast-growing sorority of Texas women now working in what was once a male-dominated genre.

Among those competing with her for readers and space on the bookstore shelves are fellow Dallas resident Irene Pence, who has just finished her fourth true crime paperback, the story of mentally troubled accountant John Battaglia who shot and killed his two daughters as their mother listened on the phone; Austin's Suzy Spencer, author of three, including the best-selling Breaking Point, the story of Houston mother Andrea Yates who drowned her five children; Houston's Kathryn Casey, whose latest is a highly praised story of homicidal Harris County Deputy Sheriff Kent McGowen; and New Braunfels' Diane Fanning, whose first venture into the marketplace, due out in April, will detail the lengthy crime spree of admitted serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells.

"Looking into behavior that is so foreign to what most people ever encounter," Casey says, "is, frankly, fascinating. And I think there is something of value that comes from writing or reading about the workings of an evil mind. If nothing else, it puts potential victims on alert to the fact things like this can happen anywhere, to anyone." In her book, A Warrant to Kill, she points out, the victim lived in her neighborhood. Suzy Spencer remembers childhood days when she happily attended summer camp with a girl who would grow into a killer she eventually found herself writing about.

Says Springer, a psychology major in college, "What I find fascinating is trying to figure out what makes a Ricky Lee Green or a Jack Wayne Reeves [the Arlington man convicted of murdering two of his three wives, whom she profiled in her Mail Order Murder] do the things they do."

All the while, she adds, there are the victims to remember. "I make sure they never leave my mind; that they're actually who I'm writing for," she says. As a reminder, she keeps their pictures taped to her computer. "It's important to see their faces," she says.

Fanning agrees. "I'm a mother with three grown children," she says, "and there wasn't a day while I was writing my book that I didn't think about the mothers of Sells' victims."

It is, suggests Spencer, such a mind-set that has recently drawn a growing number of women to the field. "There's a part of me that wants to say women are more in tune with real-life emotions," she says.

All agree it is not an easy craft.

Spencer recalls how Rusty Yates provided her a home video of his murdered children, which she found herself waking late in the night to watch repeatedly. "I got to the point where I began to hear their voices in my sleep," she says. Even now, a year after publication of the book, she admits she continues to take anti-depressants. "I allowed myself to get very emotionally involved in the first book I did [Wasted, the story of an Austin love triangle murder]," she says, "and vowed never to do it again. I made up my mind to remain as detached as possible with the second one." By her own judgment, it was not nearly as good. Thus when she agreed to take on the high-profile Yates case, she decided to "live it." "I went to sleep reading trial transcripts; I constantly thought about the story I would tell," she says. The result was a book that has now sold more than 100,000 copies.

Springer, a former Weatherford newspaper and radio reporter who has lost track of the number of jail and prison interviews she has conducted for her books, recalls being asked by subject Green to travel to Huntsville and witness his 1995 execution. "It was one of the most difficult things I've ever done," she says, "but it finally occurred to me that if I was going to continue in this field, it was something I had to do. Too, he had made it clear that he would have no one there if I wasn't present."

Newcomer Fanning, formerly an award-winning advertising writer, conducted 15 prison interviews with Sells while researching Through the Window. "I had no idea how mentally draining the experience would become," she says. "I finally reached a point where I had to call on an emotional cut-off valve to distance myself from the man and the person I was writing about."

For Casey, former senior editor of Houston City magazine and now a regular contributor to Ladies' Home Journal, the accused killer she wrote about was still free on bail when A Warrant to Kill was published in 2000. "Being a former law enforcement officer," she reflects, "I knew it would be easy for him to find me if he wanted to. I would get uneasy if I saw a strange car parked in my neighborhood or someone seemed to be following me." Only recently, with her book now in its fifth printing, did she finally feel comfortable doing her first public book signing.

What draws a woman like Pence, a former Richland College business instructor, to travel to a prison visiting room to interview Fort Worth millionaire and convicted murderer Miles Bondurant, as she researched her first book, Triangle? "All of my friends were absolutely appalled," she says. Why would she wander through the trailer village near Cedar Creek Lake to retrace the steps of the notorious Betty Lou Beets, who murdered husbands and buried them in her yard, to research Buried Memories?

"I'd like for the reader to learn from the books I do," she says, "to be aware of what can happen if they put themselves in vulnerable positions." Additionally, Springer says, "As a true crime writer, you quickly realize that the stories you're working on are far stranger and more interesting than most fiction you'll read."

With the exception of Spencer, who earned master's degrees in business administration and professional writing at Southern Cal, all were avid readers of true crime long before venturing professionally into the genre. And each credits Seattle's best-selling crime writer Ann Rule, a regular on The New York Times best-seller list, with pointing the way. "She's the undisputed queen of true crime writing," says Springer, who one reviewer recently referred to as "the Texas version of Rule."

Casey, who has long corresponded with Rule, refers to her as a valued "mentor." "She's been very helpful, generous with advice."

There seems, in fact, to be a unique camaraderie among the women authors. Springer, Spencer and Pence are good friends, discussing projects, comparing sales figures and often appearing together on true crime panels at writers' conferences around the state.

If there is a competitive battle going on, it is well hidden. "Fortunately, or unfortunately," Springer says, "there are plenty of fascinating crimes to go around."