Ellen J. Green’s new novel, Murder in the Neighborhood: the True Story of America’s First Mass Shooting (Thread 2022) is an in-depth look at the gun violence in post-war America through the lens of one man’s violent crime in a small community.
The text begins in East Camden, New Jersey on 6 September 1949, when Howard Barton Unruh descended from the apartment he shared with his mother onto the street and proceeded to shoot and kill thirteen people in less than twelve minutes. His victims were known to him, and the shooting was planned. Howard was the oddball of the neighbourhood, obsessed over perceived slights and taunts from his neighbours. The shooting constituted his revenge, and in the process, men, women, and children died. The shooting galvanized the small neighbourhood and many were never the same. Furthermore, Green points out that, in committing this act of violence, Unruh became the one of the first mass killers in US history.
The story is told primarily from two perspectives. First, twelve-year-old Raymond, who was on the street the day of the shooting and who witnessed his friend and neighbour Howard gun down people Raymond had known his entire life. Raymond’s narrative is deeply personal and entrenched in the community that surrounds him, as well as the trauma that follows such an act of violence. The second perspective. Second, Howard’s mother Freda’s perspective provides the other half of the narrative. Her voice serves as the “other side” to the story, highlighting Howard’s childhood, his trauma after serving in the second world war, and his life after the shooting. Told in alternating chapters, the book explores the impact such a shocking act of violence had on the people close to the victims and the perpetrator.
The structure of this book is highly narrativized; it reads almost like a work of fiction. This might be due to the fact that the author is also fiction novelist, but the book had the cadence of fiction rather than nonfictive true crime. For some, this might appeal; Murder in the Neighborhood certainly has an immersive and narrative quality that speaks to its careful structure. For me, I was looking for a more “zoomed-out” tone that took into account the social and political contexts of the text’s events. Freda and Raymond seem at times like characters, and I think a little more editorializing for context would have helped in this book. The final pages provide the kind of authorial voice I was looking for throughout, and these were my favourite sections.
Overall, this book was thoroughly researched, well informed, and very interested in the microcosmic issues, traumas, and outcomes of the case and the people involved. Murder in the Neighborhood paints a thorough picture of life in 1940s New Jersey, and transports the reader into the narrow confines of one city block. The way that a shocking act of violence cuts in on an otherwise average and idyllic scene is well crafted and serves to underscore just how unheard of and world-shattering such an act was for those involved.
What I would have liked to see more of was a comment on the way this case and its reverberations map onto the state of mass-shooting violence in the US today. In the current climate, it seems impossible to write a book like this without grounding it in the increasingly horrific lack of gun control and resources to prevent the now countless mass shootings occurring in the US every year. Although the text does some of this, Green chooses to focus much more centrally on the people involved in this specific case, rather than overtly reflecting on the throughlines apparent in this crime and, sadly, in so many contemporary crimes.
Overall, I highly recommend Murder in the Neighborhood for those interested in historical and landmark true crime that focuses on character portraits and individual consequences.
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About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.