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I read my first true crime piece a couple decades ago. The experience was so visceral that it sticks with me to this day. It was in a photocopied zine I’d traded through the mail with another publisher. The writing wasn’t great; the author didn’t even capitalize the first word of each sentence. It was barely even an article, but more of a laundry list of atrocities committed by the century’s worst human butchers. It was late at night and I was, admittedly, a little bit stoned, which increased my immersion and made it all the more terrifying. My heart pounded in my ears. My breath caught in my throat and I felt a little nauseated. I distinctly remember having to press the zine flat against my pillow to read because my hands were shaking. I’d been into horror novels for years, but this was the first time I’d had that kind of reaction to words on a page.
And so a true crime fan was born.
We’ve Always Been Rubberneckers
True crime as a genre is popular across all media. We watch shows like Making a Murderer and tune in to podcasts like Serial. Those of us addicted to the written word get absorbed in books like A Deadly Game: The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation. It’s debatable how guilty we should feel about enjoying true crime tales. Usually at least one person had to die, often horrifically, for us to hear the story. (In a survey done in 2002, a solid 40% of true crime was about serial killers.) It can’t be denied that people love gritty, sordid narratives, and true crime has them by the bucket. Truman Capote is widely considered to be the godfather of modern true crime. He wrote In Cold Blood, a “non-fiction novel” about a quadruple homicide that rocked a small town in 1959. He read as much as he could about the case, interviewed as many people as he could, and took thousands of pages of notes. With his friend Harper Lee, he traveled to Kansas to attend the trials of the accused. Capote’s grim 1965 classic set the standard for what we expect in true crime books today: engaging, novelistic prose that lays out the facts as accurately as possible. People have had a natural, morbid interest in the brutal actions of their fellow man long before Capote put his literary spin on true crime. Joyce Carol Oates noted, “Accounts of true crime have always been enormously popular among readers. The subgenre would seem to appeal to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally.” Amateur criminologist William Roughead was attending murder trials and writing them up as essays in journals as early as 1889. These were very dry and clinical by today’s standards, so hats off to Truman for making murder so much more fun.
Cheap Thrills or Something Deeper?
True crime offers the cheap, dirty, voyeuristic thrills of slowing down for a car crash, but the best of the genre has more to offer. It can show us places where our legal and social systems are cracked and leaking, or make us question our basic ideas of what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes it can help us at least try to make sense of the senseless, however futile the endeavor might seem. In While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family, Kathryn Harrison writes about the murders of both parents and a sibling of an abused teenager. She ties it in with her own narrative of abuse and survival, doing what she can to come to grips with her own history. Critics have complained that having your dad kiss you on the mouth isn’t comparable to having your brother bludgeon the rest of your family, but another element of true crime is that it tends to be controversial. It makes people think and it makes them talk. We need to do both. My own guiltiest reading pleasure is one that makes me feel so dirty I won’t even tell you the name or author. It’s a book-length autobiography and manifesto of a young spree killer, mailed to various news outlets in 2014, shortly before committing his crimes. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, and his twisted perspective is utterly terrifying in that it’s not far removed from viewpoints you’ve probably read on the internet. It’s a fascinating document. I read it in one sitting. True crime exposes our deepest fears in much the same way horror does, only the horrors depicted within are real. It provides windows into the darker corners of our society, and ideally helps us understand them better. With understanding, perhaps we can prevent some of these tragedies from repeating. Until then, there will be no shortage of true crime stories.