Once upon a time there was a magazine called The Mystery Review, for which I wrote a column about crime nonfiction. The column ran for several years, until the magazine ceased publication. I had a lot of fun writing it. I love good crime nonfiction, which is why I love Chasing the Boogeyman, the new book by magazine editor, novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter Richard Chizmar.
Back in the late 1980s, around the time he was founding Cemetery Dance magazine, Chizmar wrote a stunning work of nonfiction, a deeply affecting account of the way in which his own life intersected with the life of a serial killer who terrorized Chizmar’s hometown of Edgewood, Maryland, in 1988. It’s a tragic story that affected Chizmar so deeply that, to this day, he’s haunted by the dark memories. This new edition is an updated reprint of the original 1990 edition, and — okay, almost none of that is true.
Cemetery Dance is real. Chizmar did grow up in Edgewood, Maryland. Otherwise, Chasing the Boogeyman is a work of fiction posing as a work of nonfiction, a delightfully meta novel in which a fictionalized version of the author becomes tormented by a fictional killer. It is a (mostly) fake memoir pretending to be a real memoir, with overtones of horror and invented childhood memories interspersed with genuine memories.
This is an incredibly gutsy book. It could have failed, collapsed under the weight of its own literary conceit, any number of times, but Chizmar is such a talented storyteller that he not only pulls it off, he makes it a unique and powerful experience for the reader. It may be a made-up story, but it is just as dramatic and emotionally resonant as, say, Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me — or, to use a more recent example, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
Chizmar absolutely nails the true-crime style, too: there is a vivid portrait of the community; there are quotes from family and friends of the victims, details about the official investigation. The book even has a photo insert and a fake introduction written by a real investigative journalist. Chasing the Boogeyman sounds like something Ann Rule or Carlton Smith might have written, and that’s why I love it so much. I love verisimilitude. I love the small, precise details that make a piece of fiction feel like a true story. I love it when a novelist shows the true-crime genre respect. And the respect Chizmar shows the genre — and, by extension, its readers — cannot be overstated. This is a brilliantly conceived, perfectly executed work of literary art.
Copyright David Pitt 2021