Addicted to true-crime pulp and incisive literary memoir? Poet Nelson serves up both.
The author never met her aunt, Jane Mixer, who was murdered in 1969 before Nelson was born. Police thought that Mixer’s death was one of the “Michigan Murders,” serial killings of a group of young women. John Norman Collins was put in prison for one of those deaths but was never conclusively linked to Mixer’s murder. Around 2000, Nelson began writing a collection of poems entitled Jane: A Murder. In it, she rehearsed the crime itself and teased out the myriad ways Mixer’s violent death indelibly marked Nelson’s own family. The poet was stunned when, as the book was just about to be published in late 2004, a cop called her and said he had been working on Mixer’s case. The police now believed Collins had not killed Jane Mixer; they’d fingered a new suspect, Gary Leiterman, who was soon arrested. Nelson chronicles the summer of 2005, which she and her mother spent in Ann Arbor sitting through Leiterman’s trial, drinking glass after glass of wine each night. The trial itself is grueling: Detailed discussions of DNA and physical evidence, like Aunt Jane’s underwear, all concretize the horror of the crime. That same summer, Nelson was also processing the end of an intense romantic relationship, and her over-the-top descriptions of her brokenhearted despair seem out of place in this otherwise subtle narrative. Among the book’s luminous moments: a stirring portrait of the woman who discovered Jane’s body and was so traumatized by the event that 30 years later her doctor forbid her to testify; a conversation over margaritas with the man Jane was dating when she was killed; Nelson’s grandfather “cracking apart with animal sobs” after the verdict was announced.
Meretricious? Maybe. But compelling.