An Introduction to the True Crime Press
Vicky Munro, University of Minnesota
“His Den of Death was a human slaughterhouse. They smelled the foul odors. They heard the power saw buzzing in the dead of night. But neighbours never imagined the horrors happening right next door.” (Don Davis, The Milwaukee Murders)
Before O.J. Simpson or Susan Smith ever made it to trial, the stories of their lives and alleged crimes were on sale in the True Crime sections of bookstores across the country. On shelves next to books about serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, books about children who killed their parents, parents who killed their children, nurses who killed their patients and children who killed each other, the hastily written stories of Simpson and Smith are some of the latest examples in the prolific genre of true crime.
It is generally held that the genre of true crime has been around since the latter part of the 19th century. As a precursor to these non-fiction accounts of crime, writers such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and William Thackeray borrowed incidents and characters from real crimes for their novels. In The Moonstone, for example, Collins took events and characters from an 1860 murder (the Road House case) to use in his novel.
Even before crimes were written up in novels and later in non-fiction accounts, accounts of sensational crimes were spread to the public through other formats. In Bloody Versicles, verses and ballads about crimes and criminals demonstrate that particular crimes have caught the public eye for centuries. Broadsheet ballads from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries presented gory details of crimes along with moralistic overtones. Sometimes verses were even written by the criminal him/herself. “True confessions” by criminals were printed in pamphlet form in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and continued through moralistic crime stories such as the Newgate Calendar published in 1773. Verses and parodies ranged from serious to the more humorous like the famous one about Lizzie Borden:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her Mother 40 whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her Father 41.
Lizzie Borden has been the inspiration for novels, plays, a ballet (Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend) and songs such as Michael Brown’s 1952 song, “You Can’t Chop Your Poppa Up in Massachusetts,” as well as carefully researched and more scholarly treatments of the case. Although she was acquitted, the popular belief that Borden was guilty continues.
With the advent of the popular press and the ability of daily newspapers to circulate details of criminal events to a wide audience, these details became public property and were soon in great demand. In addition, the historical shift from a judicial process centered on torture and confession to one centered on trial by evidence added a whole series of events (the search for evidence, interviews with witnesses, tracking the suspect, the trial where the evidence is displayed) that could be included in a discussion of a case. The forming of police forces throughout Britain and the United States brought a new character in criminal cases into being – the detective. Both fictionalized detective stories and those relying on the details of real cases utilized police detectives as a basis for their writing.
Detective Fiction and True Crime Writing
Detective novels and true crime accounts share some common elements, and the roots of today’s true crime press can be seen clearly in detective stories from the last century to the present. From stories that include endless realistic detail to those that take place in homes inhabited by people much like the readers and their neighbours, from stories written from the perspective of the detective to those that probe the psychological aspects of the criminal’s mind, the way to the present true crime press was being paved. Arthur Conan Doyle’s style, for example, came from a culture of mass circulation much of which was devoted to sensational subject matter such as lurid crime, and this choice of sensational subject matter also continues in the true crime press. Dashiell Hammett gathered experience for his hard-boiled fiction during his stint as a Pinkerton’s operative.
As books became a source of entertainment for more than the working class, stories about crime expanded to include accounts of crimes taking place in middle class homes in settings familiar to the middle class audience as opposed to the more “fantastic” settings of earlier books. Where the working class looked to crime stories for escape from their everyday world, a world that included real crime, the middle class readers seemed to be more intrigued by the idea that sensational crimes could take place in homes much like their own (as they do, for example, in the ‘Home Counties’ novels of Agatha Christie). In more recent crime fiction, the focus of attention often shifts from the processes of detection to the disturbed mind of the criminal, and this trend, as well, is evident in the true crime press which includes a real range of writers and viewpoints from those who write about detective work and the steps taken to solve a crime to those who take particular criminals and try to determine why they did what they did.
The Authors of True Crime Stories
There are a number of perspectives as to the best approach to writing the true crime account. Publishers often hire journalists to write about cases currently in the news. The journalist as author brings a particular perspective to the writing: the search for facts, for cases that are in the headlines, for speed in getting information to the public, and for eye-catching photographs and prose. The journalist as author tends to use the police as his/her typical source and perspective. Another perspective is that the best true crime authors are those trained as historians. In choosing a particular crime to write about, the historical crime writer requires the case to stand the test of time to determine which ones should receive serious consideration. In writing as a historian, meticulous research, straightforward presentation of detailed facts, and an avoidance of the kind of guess work (such as imagined conversations between characters or what the thoughts of a victim or criminal were at a particular moment) that is often used in the more journalistically based true crime accounts is required. Other typical authors include those who start writing and continue as true crime authors only, perhaps starting with articles for magazines such as True Detective and eventually write a full length book. Finally, a variety of those involved in a particular case (for example the OJ Simpson case has seen books by Simpson himself, jury members, cops, attorneys on both sides of the case, family members, friends, and others no matter how superficially involved) may write their version of their story or tell it to someone else who writes it for them. Each perspective brings a slightly different focus to the writing.
In addition to using elements from journalism or history, there are many writers who feel that in order to make their work appealing to an audience, it is necessary to borrow techniques from detective fiction. Those who write true crime articles or books advise aspiring writers to look to detective fiction for their examples, with attention given to introduction, story build-up, climax and resolution – for example, teasing readers by withholding (when the case is not too well-known) the identity of the killer. Part and parcel of this process is the readiness of ‘true’ crime writers to give themselves at least a degree of poetic license in fleshing out details of crimes, and in supplying the thoughts and feelings of the people involved.
In fact, one of the books mentioned most often as a landmark in making the true crime genre respectable and popular is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a fictionalized account of an actual murder.
As with television shows about crime however, the public has demanded increasingly realistic accounts of true crimes. Just as reinactments of real crimes on television have to some extent given way to actual footage at crime scenes, so too this trend is apparent in the publishing industry where fictionalized accounts have given way to books that discuss crimes in every gory detail, from the crime itself through the detective work to the capture of a suspect and the following trial, accompanied by sometimes very graphic photographs.
The True Crime Audience
The main audience for true crime works, according to publishing houses, is generally the middle class with more women than men buying the books. There is also a fairly strong teen market, and books of regional interest have specialized markets. For example, both Texas and the Pacific Northwest are strong locales for the true crime market. The broad selection from the very lurid, quickly written accounts to the more thoughtful work of Ann Rule and Joe McGinnis to the more historically based, detailed and carefully researched work of Jonathan Goodman provides a variety to the public and results, in turn, in an appeal to a range of audience members. There is however, very little crossover of readers of mystery fiction into the true crime area. In addition, secondary texts such as gossip, inside information, and fan club newsletters let true crime fans symbolically participate in the production process as well as in the consumption of true crime.
Copyright © 2002 Vicky Munro