Does True Crime Fit In Mystery/Detective Fiction?

By Tim Suddeth

Police car at road block
Police car

True crime is a genre of literature that, at first glance, doesn’t seem to belong in a blog about mystery and detective fiction. But its influence on the other fiction genres and its relationship can’t be ignored.

Mankind has always liked telling the gruesome and lurid details of crime. I can picture Og, sitting by the campfire telling his clan the story about a murder, he thinks it was possibly committed by a banshee, that he had heard from his father or uncles. A true crime story contains just the right mixture of information that we might need for protection, yet it appeals to our baser natures.

True crime includes nonfiction literature, film, and podcasts in which the author examines an actual crime and details the activities of real people. It can be a case that is still in the papers, or a cold case that seems to have been forgotten. Often, the story follows the case from the discovery through the investigation and the legal proceedings.

The most important characteristic is that it is true; it actually happened in the way it is depicted, in the people involved, dates, victims, and villains. There may be some dialogue added and some speculations that are admitted, but it is based on unbiased fact. But finding facts without bias is hard to do if not impossible.

Most true crime stories involve murder, even though it makes up less that 20% of all crimes. The idea of actually murdering someone is so hard to believe that we want to get an idea of what drove the person to kill. What were they thinking? And were there signs that we should be aware of?Are true crime stories your cup of tea? @TimSuddeth #mysteries #amwriting #amreading Click To Tweet

Usually, true crime stories are about charismatic people, maybe with unusual intelligence. Few people are interested in reading about a drunk or someone who thought they had found an easy mark and leaves their id card at the scene. Stories like OJ’s murder trial, the Manson murders, and Patricia Hearst capture our interests because of how unique they were. Some of the best sellers in this genre came from this time period including Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter–the best-selling true crime book of all time by the lead Manson family prosecutors Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me about Ted Bundy.

Women make up the majority of true crime readers.

True crime stories are often very similar to fiction in the details and how the investigators conduct themselves. Novelists use true crime stories as aids as they develop the plot and characters for their books.


History of True Crime Stories

While we don’t have evidence of true crime stories going back to Og, they can be found in the Bible. Even the first murder is recorded. Scriptures record crimes committed by kings as well as the common person.

We do have records of true crime stories from China in the sixteenth century. And we have hundreds of pamphlets from Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as publication became easier and less expensive. Books and pamphlets were still limited to mainly the upper classes because they were the only ones able to read or had the time. Some of these stories conveyed a moral message while others were little better than gossip.

In 1889, the Scottish lawyer William Roughead wrote and published essays for six decades about notable British murder trials he attended. In 2000, many of his essays were collected in the book Classic Crimes. Roughead has been called “the dean of the modern true crime genre.”

The line between fact and fiction began to blur in true crimes books during the mid-ninteenth century, writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Anthony Trollope produced fictionalized novels, short stories, and poems based on true crimes. A popular topic of the time was the Jack the Ripper.

In America in the 1920s and 30s, Edmund Pearson’s true crime stories appeared in popular magazines including Liberty, The New Yorker, and Variety, distinguishing him from others found in the penny press. In 2000, these stories were collected in the book Classic Crimes.

Truman Capote really introduced this class of literature to the public with his In Cold Blood. This is one of the first books that brought attention to creative nonfiction, where a true story uses techniques commonly reserved for novels.

True crime dramas are one of the fastest growing niches today. We can see this by the shows on TV, the podcasts, and the growing true crime sections in bookstores and on Amazon.

True crime enthusiasts can participate in a number of annual conventions including Crimecon, True Crime Podcast Festival, and Death Becomes Us Crime Festival.


Effects of True Crime Stories

The publicity the true crime story brings to the case can help spur new information to be revealed and for the authorities to look at the case in a new way. Especially with cold cases, someone may have known something that they never thought was important or was afraid to spoke up at the time but now the circumstances are different.

A study conducted in Nebraska in 2011showed that watching or reading true crime stories can increase the fear of becoming a victim of a crime. As the frequency of watching true crime shows increased, support for the death penalty increased and the support for the criminal justice system decreased.



True Crime is not one of my favorite genres, in general. While a case held in a courtroom is held to certain standards and has a number of check and balances, a true crime podcast or story is only as factual as its creator decides. They do not have to look at both sides and “the defense” does not get to cross examine the witnesses.

In my opinion, true crime stories are too susceptible to manipulation and bias. Only the character of the writer determines how much it adheres to the truth. We are dealing with real people, as victim, family, suspects, and villain. Once an accusation is thrown out, it can’t be undone. The writer or creator is able to select those who they want to interview and what evidence they choose to tell.

Many people are concern that the story can be disrespectful to the family. It must not cross the line into objectifying the family or loved ones of the victim. Any speculation can have an impact on an innocent person or tamper an investigation if it is on-going.

Many writers and filmmakers only look at cold cases so they will not hamper an active case.

True crime writers include those who act like journalists who adhere strictly to known facts. However, some of the writers, include information that is highly speculative or outright false. In some cases, the deep research involved has helped officers better understand the mindset of criminals.

If you would like to read more on why we enjoy true crime stories, here is a link to twelve reasons.

For more on the ethics of true crime, click here.

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