Edmund Lester Pearson (1880-1937) was a librarian who had a darker passion: investigating and writing about true crime. He is widely considered to be one of the pioneers of the genre in the U.S., and one of its finest practitioners.
Pearson’s most famous collection, Studies in Murder, is pictured here, in this fine 1930s reprint from the Modern Library collection. It contains his most famous piece, simply titled “The Borden Case,” about the murders of Abby and Andrew Borden and the famous trial of Lizzie Borden in 1892.
Person’s writing is unique: his erudition from his years as a librarian shines through, as well as a dry and mordant wit:
“The servant, who prepared the (breakfast), said there was mutton-broth…At all events, for a hot morning and mid-summer it was a breakfast well adapted to set the stage for a tragedy. One trembles at the thought of beginning a day in August with mutton soup. A lady said to me recently that, after more than thirty years, the details of the Borden case had vanished from her mind—all except this awful breakfast.”
Pearson’s writing does have its flaws—he is generally too willing to accept the guilt of the accused, and ignore suggestions to the contrary. But if you read Ann Rule, Dominick Dunne, Harold Schecter, or other true crime writers of the modern era, you owe it to yourself to read Pearson.
Pearson’s books are out of print and hard to find—it’s taken me a few years to find the volumes I have. However, a recent true crime anthology published by the Library of America includes his essay on the ‘Bloody Benders,’ a murderous family who ran a roadside Kansas inn where travelers checked in, and never checked out.
True crime doesn’t get better than Pearson.