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A Brief History of the Rise—and Evolution—of True Crime Books


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An investigator, a judge and a reporter walk into a bar. They’re all promoting their latest true crime books.

There’s a lot of truth to that variation on the old joke. For decades, many of the best-known books recounting real-life murders, kidnappings and “trials of the century” sprang from the minds of cops, prosecutors, judges and the reporters who covered the biggest and most shocking and sordid cases.

Who are the writers of true crime and what draws them to write about some of life’s darkest moments? All of us are ultimately writers, of course, but increasingly the writers have a background that is very different from criminal justice or journalism. And the good news is, true crime writing is becoming more broad-based, drawing from a variety of perspectives.

The question of just who writes true crime books sprang to my mind recently when I participated in an online authors roundtable about my latest true crime book, “The Westside Park Murders,” co-authored with my longtime friend and writing partner Douglas Walker. The other participants in the forum, organized by Arcadia/History Press, were Rita Y. Shuler, a retired South Carolina law enforcement agent who wrote “The Low Country Murder of Gwendolyn Elaine Fogle,” and Raymond A. Guadagni, a longtime California judge who wrote “The Napa Murder of Anita Fagiani Andrews.”

Shuler had been, over the decades, a state forensic photography expert who worked on the Fogle cold case, while Guadagni was the judge in the eventual criminal case resulting from the Andrews murder. Their familiarity with the cases they wrote about could hardly be more first-hand.

While there’s no likely end to true crime books from the three traditional professions—after all, almost no one has more exposure to murders than investigators, judges and reporters, with the possible exception of coroners—the past and present of the true crime genre are finally, slowly, becoming more diverse, in many senses of the word.

The groundbreaking true crime books

The first true crime book was probably the Bible, although there’s little doubt the book is strewn with fables and parables and metaphors and downright lies. But there’s a hell (no pun intended) of a lot of murder and mayhem and slaying with various jawbones of various asses.

True crime writing was long in the province of newspapers and magazines, but began making its way into books in the early decades of the 20th century. Edmund Pearson wrote one of the first true crime books, “Studies in Murder,” in 1924. It included an essay on Lizzie Borden.

Four decades later came a true crime revolution. “In Cold Blood” was, famously, a “non-fiction novel.” Before Truman Capote’s book was published in 1966, some might have wondered what that term meant. (It was an early attempt to place true events into a narrative that felt like fiction.) After reading it, it’s more likely that they were struck by how Capote turned what was really an unremarkable American rural narrative—family slain by drifters—into such a compelling book.

Capote’s story of the 1959 murders of four members of the Klutter family of Kansas by Richard Hickock and Perry Smith showed the impact of such a violent act on a small community. It was a story Capote could have told about any of dozens, maybe hundreds, of such desperate events. (In one of our books, I wrote about the 1956 murder of an Indiana husband and wife whose killer, the wife’s brother, searched via airplane for their yet-to-be-discovered corpses. Presumably the killer knew to pilot his plane away from the water-filled gravel pit where he had submerged the car in which he had placed his beloved family members.) It was the way Capote, a lifelong writer, told their story that made the book so widely read.

(I heartily recommend reading Casey Cep’s 2019 book “Furious Hours” for insight into writer Harper Lee’s role in shaping Capote’s reporting and narrative for “In Cold Blood.” More on Cep’s book later.)

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Charles Bugliosi’s 1974 “Helter Skelter” set the standard, and the expectation, for more true crime books: A thick narrative told in exhaustive detail by the prosecutor in the case. The case, in this instance, was against Charles Manson and his followers after the murders of Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Bugliosi’s book, written with Curt Gentry, was for decades the best-selling true crime book ever published. It is straightforward and by the book, as you’d expect.

Bugliosi went on to write books about other notorious crimes and criminals and would see many of his books adapted for TV and movies. Before he died in 2015, he was seen as the archetypal true-crime author, with all the pluses and minuses associated with that label. 

True crime made personal

Ann Rule was a pioneering female writer of true crime books and she brought something to her first book that few reporters, cops and prosecutors can boast. Rule’s background was in law enforcement, as an officer for the Seattle Police Department in the early 1970s, but it was her time volunteering for a crisis hotline center that clinched her career as a writer. A fellow volunteer at the center was a personable and handsome young man named Ted Bundy.

Rule’s 1980 book “The Stranger Beside Me” recounts the bizarre circumstances surrounding her friendship with her co-worker. Bundy confessed to 30 slayings in the mid 1970s, but considering Bundy’s reputation as a liar, the actual total may never be known. He was executed in 1989 in Florida.

stranger-beside-me-197x300.jpgRule, who died in 2015 after writing many other notable true crime books, was criticized for how reluctant she was to believe her former friend was guilty. She wrote that she believed he was guilty “as devoutly as I wish I did not.”

John Berendt’s 1994 book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” night have opened many eyes to what a true crime book could be in the wake of Capote’s work. Sure, many earlier books had been artful and riveting and lurid and sensational, sometimes cranked out in short order to capitalize on a grisly murder or murders. But Berendt’s book, which made a huge impression on me, introduced not only a crime and a killer but the cast of characters in the city of Savannah, a place Berendt portrayed as still very much a vestige of the old South even by the time of the 1981 death that sets the story in motion.

Berendt’s background is very much one of journalism, with stints at Esquire and New York magazine. His book still holds the record for weeks as a New York Times bestseller.

“Columbine” was Dave Cullen’s 2009 book about the April 20, 1999 massacre of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in the suburb of Denver. Cullen points out that the act of domestic terror by two young white men was really a failed bombing. The book looks at the before, during and after of the attack and punctures some of the myths that sprang up in the wake of the tragedy, which was then the worst school shooting in history. Cullen was, before his book was published, known as a newspaper and Slate writer. He had been early in covering the Columbine tragedy.

Cullen’s background and reporting on the crime provide a strong point of “Columbine.” If early reporting, especially in-depth reporting, is the first draft of history, it is also, intentionally or not, the source of a lot of misinformation.

“I was among the guilty parties,” Cullen wrote. In 2012, Cullen wrote in a newspaper column that he, as well as other reporters who were early on the scene, “created those myths for one reason: we were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon.”

It’s possible there’s no more baffling and distressing true crime than the Jonestown massacre, in which preacher and cult leader Jim Jones led more than 900 people to their deaths at the People’s Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, South America, in November 1978.

The massacre at Jonestown spawned many myths, including the idea that more than 900 people willingly killed themselves, and sayings such as “drink the Kool-Aid,” which is offensive to the memory of the people who died, said author Julia Scheeres, a veteran journalist who wrote the 2011 book “A Thousand Lives” about the people of Jonestown.

Scheeres, who told me she considers herself a “true crime dabbler,” said she’s more interested in cults and the victims of crime than the perpetrators.

“Hannah Arendt mentioned the ‘banality of evil’ in her Eichmann book, and I think this is true in many situations of monstrous, murderous humans,” Scheeres said. “They can come off as one-dimensional. For me, what was far more interesting in the Jonestown case was the reasons that people had for joining Jim Jones’ church—the utopia they sought to create.

“That narrative was far more moving than the story of Jones’ insanity,” Scheeres added.

“Empire of Sin,” Gary Krist’s 2014 book about jazz and vice and death in early 20th century New Orleans, is in a similar vein to a classic true crime history book, Erik Larson’s 2003 “The Devil in the White City.” Both flesh out details of a tumultuous and deadly time in a big city (New Orleans and Chicago, respectively.)

In a question-and-answer addition to his book, Krist, when asked why he chose to focus on New Orleans, answered perfectly: “I love the fact that New Orleans was the first major American metropolis to build an opera house but the last to build a sewer system.” Krist is a writer by trade, for newspapers, magazines and long-form non-fiction.

Larson, for his part, went into journalism for the same reason as a lot of people: He was inspired by “All the President’s Men,” which is certainly a true crime book.

True crime books are plentiful enough to fill a bookstore and many of the best reflect the diversity that is breaking in to the genre.

The rise of the true crime buff and much-needed diversity

The 2000s story collection series, “The Best American Crime Reporting,” did a good job of curating some of the best journalism about crime for each year before the series itself expired around 2010. But the series—maybe a reflection of the state of the genre—paid scant attention to the work of women writers.

As true crime surged into the decade that followed, women wrote some of the best the category had to offer.

In 2017’s “American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land,” Monica Hesse, a journalist, looked at what might at first glance seem like a crime fairly light on life-or-death consequences for a riveting true crime book: A series of arsons in a fading Virginia county.

american fireBut Hesse does more than recount dozens of arsons that terrorized residents of the area. She captures the county and its people, both buffeted by job loss and population loss and loss of faith. The fires, strangely, bring a kind of new life, new conversation, to the county at the same time they endanger firefighters and terrify residents. And I don’t think I’ll quickly forget her portrait of a pair of arsonists who start out as hapless lost people and become hated and hunted.

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” Michelle McNamara’s riveting 2018 book that documents not only the rape and murder spree, over the course of decades, of the California unsub she dubbed “The Golden State Killer,” but also McNamara’s “obsession” with the case. (The subtitle of the book is “One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.”) As the principal author of the website True Crime Diary, McNamara turned her hobby—researching some of the darkest chapters in crime history—into a compulsively readable online resource.

McNamara died on April 21, 2016, two years before her book was published. The book was completed with help from writers and journalists Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen and McNamara’s husband, Patton Oswalt.

It remains one of the best true crime books of the modern era, despite the posthumous nature of some of the writing and editing. The book is open about this and almost certainly gained some strength by making McNamara more of a “character” in the story—contacting investigators, gaining their confidence, piecing together disparate police reports—than she otherwise might have been.

There’s a strong and somewhat unusual plot point that’s sewed through the book, with McNamara the mom, wife and driven amateur—amateur only in the sense she didn’t carry a badge—detective. It represented a different kind of voice for the genre and a much-needed female perspective.

In 2013, years before the book, McNamara wrote about her search for Los Angeles Magazine. “By day I’m a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom with a sensible haircut and Goldfish crackers lining my purse. In the evening, however, I’m something of a DIY detective. I delve into cold cases by scouring the Internet for any digital crumbs authorities may have overlooked, then share my theories with the 8,000 or so mystery buffs who visit my blog regularly.

“When my family goes to sleep, I start clicking, combing through digitized phone books, school yearbooks, and Google Earth views of crime scenes: a bottomless pit of potential leads for the laptop investigator who now exists in the virtual world.

“The Golden State Killer has little recognition; he didn’t even have a catchy name until I coined one,” she wrote in that article. If this was hubris, it was damn well deserved.

McNamara’s transparency was not only bracing but took us into a territory we’d never visited before: Mom by day, relentless hunter by night. It’s possible her True Crime Diary site could be considered the forerunner for the seeming thousands of podcasts that have come since.

Michelle MacNamara I'll Be Gone In The Dark

HBO later developed a documentary series based on McNamara’s book. When a suspect in the crimes was arrested in 2018, authorities said the high profile of the case over the years had helped.

McNamara’s book is often chilling – I don’t recommend reading it late at night – but no more so than in the closing pages, when McNamara speaks directly to the killer.

“One day soon, you’ll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk. … This is how it ends for you. ‘You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,’ you threatened a victim once. Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”

Casey Cep’s 2019 book “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” accomplished a hell of a feat. Actually more than one feat. She wrote an interesting true crime story, about a small-town Alabama preacher suspected in multiple murders. She gave us insight into how Harper Lee, who considered writing about the preacher but didn’t, researched the case. And probably most entertainingly, Cep detailed the huge role Lee played in the research and writing of her friend Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

Lee was a figure the people of Kansas were at ease with during the research for “In Cold Blood.” She really handed Capote much of the insight and information he used in the book. Her contributions undoubtedly made the book better than it might have been.

And it made Cep’s book a fascinating mix of true crime and literary history. Interestingly, Cep set out to write for the New Yorker about “Go Set a Watchman,” the posthumously-published Lee novel that was a different version of the story the author told in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In her research in Alabama, however, she discovered that Lee had intended to write a true crime book about a set of murders involving a faithless minister.

So like a lot of books, and some true crime books, “Furious Hours” started as one thing but ended up as something else. And readers were the better for it.

A way to process the dark

I’ve only scratched the surface of great true crime books by great true crime writers and barely scratched the surface of great true crime books written by great women writers. I still need to read “The Real Lolita” by the compulsively readable Sarah Weinman and “Ghettoside” by Jill Levy. And many others.

In a 2018 column for the Los Angeles Times, crime writer Megan Abbott noted that she had been a true crime reader since reading Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter” as a school-age girl. She cited a 2010 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science that women are more significantly drawn to true crime than are men. Are women more interested in crime stories because they’re so much more likely—at something like 70 percent—to be killed by an intimate partner than are men?

Abbott wrote that she believes women see true crime books (and presumably popular true crime TV series and podcasts) as a way to read about and process the “dark” factors of their lives that they’re “not supposed to talk about,” like domestic abuse, sexual assault, conflicted feelings about motherhood and the many ways the justice system can fail women.

Surely there’s something of the same motivation for the people of any gender who write and read true crime: The books offer a glimpse of a worst-case scenario for any of us and give us a chance to feel our way through our fears.

And the more the writers of true crime books look like the subjects of their books and the readers of their books, the better for all of us.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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