Author Lustgarten, equipped with a sharp, legally trained mind and a novelist's eye and heart, is probably just the man to succeed William Roughhead and Edmund Pearson as top writer in the true-crime field.
-Time Magazine, 1955
You've never heard of him, but if your grandparents were interested in true crime, they knew his voice.
Long before Court TV and Dateline and 48 Hours and the plethora of other true crime shows on the tube now, one man dominated true crime on three continents. Edgar Lustgarten, that British attorney who hosted true crime programs for both TV and radio was, from about 1950 to the mid-‘60s, literally the face and voice of true crime.
Today this author and long-time daytime television star in the UK, USA, and Australia is forgotten by all but the most senior members of the AARP set and obsessive historic true crime fans.
Edgar Marcus Lustgarten was a barrister (that’s British for trial lawyer) whose true crime stories for CBS, CBC, BBC, ABC, and their Australian counterparts ruled all kinds of airwaves in the 1950s. His TV series included “Scales of Justice” and “Scotland Yard,” while his most famous radio show was “Advocate Extraordinary.” He was also a syndicated columnist for the London Express Service. His short pieces appeared in newspapers across the globe.
In both his books and broadcasts, Lustgarten focused sometimes on the criminals, but more often on the performance of the attorneys involved in the cases he studied. He dramatized the art and science of cross-examination and explained to laymen the clever tricks employed by legendary lawyers the way some reveal the secrets of the great magicians.
He really is unique in that way, because no true crime writer today does anything similar (except maybe attorney Lawrence Schiller, who wrote Cape May Court House in 2003).
Lustgarten was born in 1907 and practiced law for a short time before he went into early television as a news anchor. His first true crime book, Verdict In Dispute, instantly catapulted him into what one reviewer called the “royal enclosure” of of legendary crime writers William Roughead, F. Tennyson Jesse, and Edmund Pearson. From the 1950s to the 1970s, he was considered “the foremost living writer in the field” (but it's noted that his rivals in the “enclosure” were all dead by then).
Lustgarten himself died in 1978 doing what he loved – he dropped dead of a heart attack while doing research at a library.
I wonder what he was reading?
Not everyone can appreciate Lustgarten. He had his critics (“relentless hyperbole” said one; “potboiler writing” said another), but for every snide reviewer was another who called him a “master reconstructionist of great trials” and one who noted his “ability to convey the essential significance of even a major and complex case in a few words.”
Summaries of Lustgarten’s TV shows have been written by a true crime fanatic even more obsessed than I am: http://www.78rpm.co.uk/tvy.htm With that last name, he was also very popular in German translation.
Lustgarten’s books, fiction and non-fiction, include these titles (and many more). The three most famous books are listed first:
- One More Unfortunate (a/k/a A Case to Answer) (1947) – fiction - considered one of the 20 best courtroom novels of all time, or one of the top 100 crime fiction titles, anyway, or at least a “cornerstone” for the complete classic crime library.
- Verdict In Dispute (1950)– Discusses many famous and obscure cases, including Florence Maybrick, Lizzie Borden, Steinie Morrison, and Edith Thompson.
- The Illustrated Story of Crime (1976)– seven long chapters divided by type of crime and reviewing the most famous examples of kidnapping, sex crimes, and murders like the work of Leopold and Loeb. Largely duplicative of The Murder and the Trial (1958).
- Blondie Iscariot (1948)
- Game For Three Losers (1952)
- Prisoner at the Bar (1952)
- The Woman in the Case: Four Famous Murder Trials (1955) – including the Alma Rattenbury and Madeline Smith cases.
- Defender’s Triumph: Four Classic English Murder Trials (1957)
- The Judges and the Judged (1961)
- The Business of Murder (1968) – covers famous mass murders, France’s Landru.
- The Chalk Pit Murder (1974)
- A Century of Murderers (1975)
- Turn The Light Out As You Go (1978)
http://www.Addall.com is a terrific place to hunt for Lustgarten titles. If you've read this far, you might like your grandpa's favorite crime writer.
For more on Lustgarten, see this article by Peter Underwood for the Casebook.