True Crime has recently undergone something of a renaissance, with the immersive nature of long-format internet TV proving an ideal vehicle for exploring messy and complicated investigations which often evolve over years, if not decades (Making a Murderer, The Keepers). The OJ Simpson case has inspired not just a TV show but a seven hour long Oscar winning documentary; there has also been a boom in true crime podcasts such as Serial and S-Town.
The book arguably remains the original and best vehicle for such procedural analyses, and we’d like to highlight a few classics and some recent titles that exemplify the genre at its best (many of which are also available second hand on our lower floor).
Early examples of ‘the novel’ share traits with true crime narratives: the epistolary form found in books such as Pamela or les Liaisons Dangereuses summons an atmosphere of realism against which a variety of nefarious deeds are perpetrated or investigated. In the 19th century, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone in part carried on this tradition. The Moonstone was inspired by the real events of the Road House murder, which was the subject of Kate Summerscale’s bestselling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a title which, more than any other, is responsible for the recent resurgence in historical true crime.
This use of realistic tropes applied to fiction has been successfully reversed in the best true crime books, where non-fiction is given a narrative gloss. Starting with the original ‘non-fiction novel’, here are seven books that have successfully taken journalism to new and strange places.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Penguin, 2012 (First published 1966)
A key 60s text, and a triumph of New Journalism (the book was first serialised in 1965 in the New Yorker) in which the moral ambivalence of the harrowing yet ultimately pointless crime at the centre of the book is remorselessly examined. Capote’s style – detached, forensic, and yes, cold – and the gory subject matter are testament to an America at the crossroads. None of the three film versions do justice to the stark brilliance of Capote’s greatest book, to which he dedicated six years of his life and which some have argued cost him his sanity.
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry
Cornerstone, 2015 (First published 1974)
The best selling true crime book of all time, this study of the ‘Manson murders’ is controversial in many ways, not least with hardcore Manson apologists who maintain that the investigation as detailed in the book was largely fabricated. In the years since Charles Manson’s conviction for first degree murder many legal experts have pointed out that to convict somebody who was not even at the scene of the crime runs counter to every tradition of criminal law. But such was the hysteria that followed the murder in her L.A. mansion of the pregnant Sharon Tate, her hairdresser and five others by members of Manson’s ‘family’ that to this day Manson moulders in the penitentiary, aged 82. Bugliosi was the chief prosecutor in the case, a man entrusted by the state to seek the electric chair for a man with a history of mental health problems (the death penalty was rescinded in 1972 and the sentence reduced to life imprisonment).
Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son by Gordon Burn
Faber & Faber, 2004 (Originally published 1984)
Gordon Burn’s first book was an examination of the Yorkshire Ripper murders which terrified northern England during the late 70s and early 80s. The future author of the unclassifiable Alma Cogan (a ‘novel’ which features, amongst other real-life characters, Moors Murderer Myra Hindley) here sticks to a lucid, factual style clearly indebted to In Cold Blood.
After his death in 2009, the Gordon Burn prize was established in honour of his unique body of work in which fact and fiction merged to delirious effect. One previous winner, Ben Myers, was recently featured in our Folk Horror roundup, Wyrd Landscapes.
People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd-Parry
An Edgar winner in the best factual crime category, this study of the disappearance of Lucie Blackman, an English woman working as a bar hostess in Tokyo in 2000, has a claim to being one of the best books ever written about Japan by an outsider. Once her body is discovered in a cave by the seaside the book shifts up a gear as police hunt for her killer. Everything from the incompetence of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police to the experience of Korean immigrants in Japan is examined in this bewildering and exhilarating study of a culture at times familiar yet utterly alien to most western readers.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Where Kate Summerscale’s Suspicions of Mr Whicher fired the English appetite for historical true crime, Larson’s book had a similar effect on the other side of the Atlantic. ‘Murder at the World’s Fair’ may sound like the title of a hackneyed 1930’s mystery novel, but this investigation into a serial killer who stalked the 1893 Chicago Fair is anything but cosy. Apparently optioned by Leonardo di Caprio and soon to be made into a movie, Larson’s painstaking research and feel for character bring the past exquisitely to life.
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy
David Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Street, first published in 1991, has cast a long shadow across crime fiction as well as true crime. Ultimately resulting in HBO’s The Wire, the sociological approach to explaining the spiralling murder rate in large US cities takes in everything from local corruption, demoralised and underpaid law enforcement and an underclass so perennially short-changed that life has become very cheap. Jill Leovy’s recent Ghettoside uses this approach to look at one murder in one notorious area of Los Angeles, and extrapolates out from here to study the wider issues affecting community, cops, media and government that have resulted in the ‘normalisation’ of extreme violence.
You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson
Very much in the tradition of Gordon Burn, this study of Newcastle hard-man Moat aims for a tempered non-fiction that feels novelistic in style and treatment. As well as picking up a CWA Gold Dagger Hankinson’s book has been slated for a TV remake. In its consideration of the mass-media frenzy that had helicopters buzzing over the Northumberland moors and resulted in the bizarre appearance of Paul Gascoigne offering Moat chicken nuggets, the idea of crime as spectacle is presented, twenty years after OJ Simpson’s capture and trial, alive and well in North East England.