"True crime" is a recently coined term used to refer to nonfictional accounts of actual crimes, usually murders. There has been little systematic study of the genre or its readers; critics and publishers offer contradictory theories about true-crime literature. Although the term and the popularity of the genre are relatively new, factual accounts of crimes are not. True-crime accounts date back as far as the 18th century, and such writers as Edmund Pearson, William Roughead, and Jonathan Goodman described the exploits of criminals earlier in the twentieth century. Critics agree that Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) gave birth to the genre. Called a nonfiction novel, the book was a not-strictly-factual account of the murder of a Kansas family in which Capote focused on the killers—not the victims, as was the norm previously—in attempting to explain why the killers acted as they did. Capote's work and Norman Mailer's book The Executioner's Song (1980) are considered classics of the genre.
In the 1980s, the true-crime book market enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. Many critics suggest that the advent of tabloid television, the desensitizing of violence, and the rise in media coverage of crimes led to an increase in demand for factual accounts, particularly of serial killings. Although some critics contend that the popularity of the true-crime genre is a uniquely American phenomenon, other commentators point out that true-crime books are very popular in England, a country with a low homicide rate. Some scholars have suggested that readers are reassured by writers' descriptions of killers as monstrous and inhuman, placing them outside the realm of normal society. However, writers like Capote and Mailer have focused almost sympathetically on how incidents in the criminals' youths transformed them into killers. Most commentators agree that the most popular true-crime books feature victims who are ordinary Americans, not unlike the readers themselves; focus on a crime which is violent and gruesome; end in a conviction of a criminal; and offer commentary on some aspect of contemporary society. Some of the most popular true-crime writers today are Ann Rule, Jack Olsen, and Joe McGinniss.
Representative Works Discussed Below
Baker, Mark: Bad Guys: America's Most Wanted in Their Own Words (nonfiction) 1996
Berkow, Ira: The Man Who Robbed the Pierre: The True Story of Bobby Comfort (nonfiction) 1987
Bolitho, William: Murder for Profit (nonfiction) 1926
Capote, Truman: In Cold Blood (nonfiction) 1966
Davis, Don: The Milwaukee Murders (nonfiction) 1991
Defoe, Daniel: True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the late Jonathan Wild; not made up of Fiction and Fable, but taken from his own Mouth, and Collected from Papers of his own Writing (nonfiction) 1725
Egginton, Joyce: From Cradle to Grave: The Short Lives and Strange Deaths of Marybeth Tinning's Nine Children (nonfiction) 1989
Elkind, Peter: Death Shift: The True Story of Nurse Genene Jones and the Texas Baby Murders (nonfiction) 1989
Englade, Ken: Beyond Reason: A True Story of a Shocking Double Murder, a Brilliant and Beautiful Virginia Socialite and a Deadly Psychotic (nonfiction) 1990
Goldfarb, Ronald: Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes: Robert F. Kennedy's War against Organized Crime (nonfiction) 1996
Graysmith, Robert: The Sleeping Lady: The Trailside Murders Above the Golden Gate (nonfiction) 1990
Hammer, Richard: The CBS Murders: A True Story of Greed and Violence in New York's Diamond District...
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History And Analysis
William Goldhurst (essay date Fall 1989)
SOURCE: "The New Revenge Tragedy: Comparative Treatments of the Beauchamp Case," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 22, Fall, 1989, pp. 117-27.
[In the following essay, Goldhurst remarks on several literary treatments of the Beauchamp-Sharp murder case, which transpired in Kentucky in 1825.]
Poe's strategy of setting an American literary situation in a remote and exotic environment has a special and complex application in the verse drama Politian, written in 1835. Set in Rome during the Renaissance, the play is a retelling of the Beauchamp-Sharp murder case, which took place in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1825 and is known to historians as the Kentucky Tragedy. The story has attracted the notice of numerous authors from Poe's day to our own, including Thomas Holley Chivers, William Gilmore Simms, Charles Fenno Hoffman and Robert Penn Warren.
The lurid aspects of the sordid affair needed little blowing up to please sensation seekers of the period. Sex and violence are the foundation, while seduction, pregnancy, desertion, slander and revenge all play vivid roles in the elaboration. There is no single climax: but a bloody murder and then a trial ending in a guilty verdict, a suicide pact, and a public hanging are high points of intensity near the conclusion.
Two components of this story line are...
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Reviews Of True-Crime Publications
David Lodge (review date 11 January 1980)
SOURCE: "From a View to a Death," in The Times Literary Supplement, January 11, 1980, pp. 27-8.
[In the following review, Lodge discusses The Executioner's Song.]
What the American short-story writer Leonard Michaels calls "the condemned prisoner story" (in a book, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, which contains and alludes to several examples of the genre) has exercised a powerful fascination over the modern literary imagination. This is not surprising. Capital punishment, and the ritual associated with it, dramatize the inevitability and finality of personal death with a stark intensity that no other action, not even terminal illness, can match. We all know that we must die, but most of the time we suppress the knowledge, or others suppress it for us; only the condemned prisoner must live with the certain knowledge of the exact day and hour at which he will pass from life to death. And, since capital punishment is a legal institution, an act through which the State asserts the sanctity of human life by taking one, it brings into consciousness the paradoxes and contradictions on which civilization is founded, and poses in an extreme and daunting way the perennial problems of evil, responsibility and justice.
Among literary polemics against capital punishment, Orwell's "A Hanging" is a classic of the...
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William K. Beaver (essay date September 1990)
SOURCE: "Writing True-Life Crime," in The Writer, Vol. 103, September, 1990, pp. 17-19.
[In the essay below, Beaver discusses how to write a successful true crime article.]
The true-life crime genre originated in the late 19th century and has grown in popularity ever since. After nearly forty true-life detective magazines were born and died, modern magazine and book publishers discovered that a solid audience exists for the true-life crime story. Books like The Preppie Murder or The Stranger Beside Me consistently find their way to the bestseller lists.
Writing about true-life crime is not for hack writers. Finding a fresh detective story inside a crime that has already been widely covered by the media requires the skills of a sleuth and the style of a novelist. Here are seven secrets for writing successful true-life crime articles.
1. Find the perfect crime. Recognizing the perfect crime for a true-life article eventually becomes an intuitive flash. Many of the detective magazines will accept a story about almost any crime, but to increase the chance of success, search for a crime with some notoriety and color to it.
Serial killings, mass murders, and terrorist-related murders are obvious choices, but smaller crimes can also provide excellent material. Consider the...
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Robert Dahlin (essay date 18 October 1991)
SOURCE: "Joe McGinniss," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 238, October 18, 1991, pp. 40-1.
[In the following essay, Dahlin profiles true-crime writer Joe McGinniss.]
Until the telephone rang in mid-February last year, Cruel Doubt hadn't been even a scribble in Joe McGinniss's notebook.
He'd signed a two-book contract with Simon & Schuster in the summer of 1988, but the subjects were not specified, and he had no desire to follow up Fatal Vision and Blind Faith with another disturbing scrutiny of a family slashed apart by murder. His commitment was only for one manuscript by the end of 1991 and the second by the end of 1994.
"I wanted to sell books like a novelist," says McGinniss of the agreement, negotiated by agent Mort Janklow. "You don't ask Philip Roth for an outline of his next book."
He's on the terrace behind his commodious home just outside Williamstown, Mass. Tall and invincibly low-key, McGinniss looks his age—48. Known as an intrepid reporter and something of a cynic, in person he seems genuine and not at all glib. His broad lawn flourishes under a late-summer sun, as do flower beds in a swirl of colors. In the distance, a steamy haze dims the lofty profile of Greylock State Reservation, which rises just a few miles south of Vermont's Green Mountain...
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Boyer, Allen D. "The Trials of Dr. Sheppard." New York Times Book Review (8 October 1995): 26.
Reviews Mockery of Justice.
Huddleston, Eugene L. "Literary Nonfiction: Extending Its Definition." Midwest Quarterly 33 (Spring 1992): 340-56.
Discusses the nonfiction novel as a genre and comments on the legal problems faced by nonfiction writers.
Mortimer, Penelope. "Lusting after Ghosts." New Statesman (23 November 1979): 812.
Offers an unfavorable review of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.
Stern, Richard. "Missingeria and Literary Health." The Georgia Review 34 (Summer 1980): 422-27.
Reviews Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song along with several other books. Sterns argues that Mailer was concerned in the book with "the power of narrative" with creating a "grand, even a tragic pattern."
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