True-Crime Literature Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

True-Crime Literature

"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.