Accounts of real-life crimes have appeared in literature throughout recorded history. Some of the oldest such accounts can be found in early scriptural writings that many people regard as real history. Both the Torah and the Bible tell the stories of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel by his brother Cain and of the kidnapping and sale of Joseph by his brothers. The births of both Moses and Jesus were followed by the murders of infants. Indeed, the pivotal event of the Christian faith is told in the story of a political crime, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Some of the tragedies and histories of William Shakespeare depict politically motivated crimes such, as the assassination of Julius Caesar and the crimes committed by the Scottish king Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible dramatizes the stories of the late seventeenth century Salem witch trials, which were documented in such works as Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693).
Modern true-crime stories, however, trace their origins to several developments in the nineteenth century, particularly the establishment of police forces in response to growing urban crime problems, the emergence of the novel as a dominant literary form, the development of the social sciences—especially psychology—and the influence on literature of the philosophy called determinism. The modern true-crime novel, a descendant of the tradition of American literary naturalism, reached its apex in 1966 with the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and has remained among the most popular subgenres of literature.