Thursday, May 3, 2018

Genre Overview: True Crime

True Crime as a popular genre developed from pamphlets published in the 16th century, and is one of the first genres of literature consumed by the newly literate lower classes.  Sensational accounts of crime, mostly murder with the occasional rape or heist, often with little interest in factual accuracy.

Through the 19th century, true crime and detective fiction influenced each other.  Periodicals emerged: the Police Gazette (1845-1877) and True Detective (1924-), and Truman Capote gave the novel-length True Crime book some unearned credibility with In Cold Blood in 1966.

There's a blurred line between crime reporting and True Crime as we know today.  There are non-fiction books about crime and criminals which stick to facts in evidence.  On the other end, we have "based on a true story" and "ripped from the headlines" fare ranging from Dragnet to Law & Order.

And in between, we have True Crime, which tends towards sensationalism, artistic license, and just plain making stuff up.  The full books tend to be the worst offenders, probably from the need for padding.  Even if the facts are roughly accurate, the reader is given full quoted conversations and even interior monologues, which are clearly invented from whole cloth to give the events a narrative feel.

The audience for True Crime seems to have shifted dramatically in the last few decades - True Crime magazines were borderline softcore porn for men for over a century, but now the audience for things like Discovery ID and Serial seem to be more female.

There are a lot of elements I find distasteful in True Crime.  There's often a refusal to acknowledge police and prosecutorial misconduct and incompetence, and a smug sense of superiority over the loathsome criminal, which seems like an easy target.  There's a lack of ambiguity, as if all cases are not only solvable, but all facts are knowable, down to the thoughts running through a victims' head before they die.  And the padding, lord, the padding.  Very few cases have enough information to fill an entire book on their own.

In terms of non-fiction, I enjoy the Crime Library, which lives on thanks to the Wayback Machine.  Short on padding, long on gruesome detail.

For proper True Crime, my favorite era is the pulpy magazines, especially from the 1960s through 80s.  True Detective, Front Page Detective, Master Detective, etc.  These are consumed best, I find, like professional wrestling.  We know it didn't happen that way, but we're kind of pretending it's true for the story.  Read as fiction, I enjoy the stories as they don't conform with literary formulas.  I can usually guess the outcome of TV mysteries by counting the number of red herrings.  In real life (and fake stuff based on real life), people don't make any damn sense.  These are not bad people acting rationally in their best self-interest.  These are bad people acting impulsively because they're crazy and stupid.

By the 90s the focus, especially on TV, was towards the investigation and prosecution, but the True Crime magazines kept on the good stuff - the criminals and their crimes.  Unfortunately, these magazines do not have a high internet presence.  Ironically, there are more True Crime magazines from the pulp era available than from 40 years ago.

The best source I've found are in the "From the Files Of" reprints that came out starting in the 80s.  Names to look for include John Dunning, David Jacobs, Rose G. Mandelsberg, and Art Crockett.

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