As someone who is currently writing a dissertation on California literature, I couldn’t wait to pick up Bob Calhoun’s The Murders that Made Us: How Vigilantes, Hoodlums, Mob Bosses, Serial Killers, and Cult Leaders Built the San Francisco Bay Area (ECW Press, 2021). My work focuses mostly on Southern California, so I was eager to see what Calhoun had to say about Northern California. Part social history, part California history, part true crime, The Murders that Made Us serves a wide variety of interests. Calhoun discusses crimes that occurred in and around San Francisco from the mid-nineteenth century all the way through to the 1990s. Some of the more notable cases and topics he discusses are the creation of Alcatraz Island Prison and the capture of Al Capone, the murder of Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia), the murder of Harvey Milk, the Jonestown Massacre, the Manson murders, and the Zodiac killings. Calhoun summarizes these cases, as well as more obscure ones, in a casual, humorous tone —Calhoun never seems to forget that he is, above everything else, here to tell his reader a story. While reading The Murders that Made Us, I felt as though I was sitting across from Calhoun, a native San Franciscan, as he told me all he knew about the Northern California crime world. The book’s conversational tone is bound to draw in readers of all backgrounds and interests.
Calhoun intrigued me as a reader within his introduction. He cements the cultural landscape of San Francisco, a city that he claims is always just beyond our grasp:
“San Francisco seems to hold that a more real version of itself existed sometime before you got there, poured into its very concrete and seeping out of the wood of its old Victorians. The city that was is the city that is, inseparable but kept apart of by the chasm of time.” (1)
The idea that the “real” San Francisco occurred and existed in the past is a thematic concern of Calhoun’s text, coming in as early as the book’s dedication, wherein he thanks his father for “showing me around the neighbourhood that was while driving through the streets that weren’t there” (v). The stories that Calhoun shares only add to the feeling that the real San Francisco has not only already happened but has already happened in a way you know nothing about. After reading Calhoun’s accounts of well-known cases, I realized I knew little about how most of these cases related to the city of San Francisco. His chapter on Jonestown, for example, contains a wealth of San Francisco-related knowledge that I discovered for the first time. Calhoun’s sardonic delivery makes you feel as though you are coming into this well-trodden territory from a direction you never have before.
In chapter one, “My Mother, the Murder Suspect”, Calhoun relays a crime that occurred in San Francisco that his own mother was suspected of committing. This was one of my favorite chapters in the book—it is detailed, personal, and funny. Calhoun had the challenge of discovering the truth about what occurred after his mother had passed away, and so in some ways, it is a tribute to her. Calhoun’s
section on the murder of Elizabeth Short (the Black Dalilah) was another one of my favorites. He speaks sensitively and truthfully about the murder—this is especially refreshing since so much misinformation surrounds this case. Calhoun mentions that “Elizabeth was labeled a prostitute and an actress in stag flicks, even though she wasn’t. She was a young girl who fell on hard times and wasn’t above dating a guy to get a meal out of him. That was all, but reporters and their sources were still overcome with the need to embellish” (102). The respect he has for victims who have been written unfairly into true crime history is admirable and refreshing to read.
The sections on both the Patricia Hurst kidnapping, as well as Edmund Kemper were extremely intriguing for me. I hadn’t known much about the Hurst kidnapping and Calhoun gets into every gritty detail. I knew a good deal about Kemper and his Co-ed killings, but again, Calhoun has a way of telling a story that makes you feel as though you’ve never heard it before. The same is true for Calhoun’s sections on Harvey Milk and his tragic murder. Calhoun tells the story of both Milk and his murderer Dan White, somehow lightening it all with his particular brand of dark humour. Calhoun’s humor is balanced; however, with moments of genuine sincerity, such as this moment after Calhoun has explained the uprising that occurred after Milk’s death:
“San Francisco’s gays and lesbians weren’t able to take power with their siege on City Hall, but they would never be truly powerless again. Milk had given his life to win them a seat at the table. They weren’t giving it back.” (220)
There are as many insightful and provocative moments in Calhoun’s book as there are humorous and sarcastic ones. This is a balance not easily or often struck within the genre of true crime, and it makes Calhoun’s book a stand-out in the genre. This book is for fans of history, of humour, of true crime, and of plain good storytelling.
A copy of this proof was graciously provided to True Crime Index via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.