"A friend of mine who worked for the Associated Press said we just do crime bigger and better in Texas," says Cedar Hill-based true-crime author Carlton Stowers. "Things are a little off-center down here. We're the theater of the absurd."
And Stowers has seen plenty of performances. He's collected 17 of those macabre one-acts in his book Death in a Texas Desert, culled from articles he published during his stint with the Dallas Observer (a sister paper of the Houston Press). Stowers spent years as a sportswriter before stumbling into true crime in the '80s while he was looking for nonfiction material that would let him explore "a wide range of human emotions." He's since written several books, including To the Last Breath and Careless Whispers, both of which won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Award for the year's best true-crime book, and Innocence Lost, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Several of the stories in Death in a Texas Desert have Houston connections. One involves local girl Holly Maddux, who met her end at the hands of her jealous hippie guru lover, Ira Einhorn. In that case, justice took decades as Einhorn slipped around the world avoiding capture. "Often, the killer is the least interesting person in the story," Stowers says. "This one is really about Holly's sisters and their perseverance, and I admire them a lot. There is a remarkable strength and will I've found in people who have to deal with unimaginable things when their world caves in."
The best true-crime writing, of course, is about far more than just the facts of the case. To draw the reader into the lives and minds of the characters, Stowers has to get people to open up who don't necessarily want a damn thing to do with him. "You have to let them get to know you, to see you at the hearings, trials and in the hallways," he says. "It takes time, but it has a lot to do with the subject's confidence in you as a writer."
In the wake of the Andrea Yates case, Stowers spent hours talking with her husband, Rusty. But he ended up receiving some heavy criticism for his largely sympathetic portrait of the NASA engineer, whose wife drowned their five children in 2001. Rusty was predominantly painted by the media as a soulless robot who put undue pressure on his wife and ignored every sign of her impending breakdown. But Stowers found that one-dimensional reputation undeserved.
"I came away thinking that maybe he didn't do everything right -- and he'd be the first to tell you that -- but he didn't do anything wrong, either. And if we're honest, we'd say the same about ourselves," Stowers says. "He was as much of a victim as anybody. Frankly, I don't know how this guy put one foot in front of the other every day with what happened."
So take that, rest of the country. Our crimes are stranger, more offbeat and more head-scratching than yours. Just another reason to be proud we live in the Lone Star State -- although it probably won't make the tourism brochures.
Death in a Texas Desert, published by Republic of Texas Press, is available at Barnes & Noble, Borders and Brazos Bookstore. $18.95.