True Crime Writing: Sensationalism vs. Scholarship
Perspectives on a Genre
by Richard Lindberg
Copyright © 2002

When asked by a colleague the root of his fascination in the depraved acts of soulless killers, Colin Wilson, the author of "An Encyclopedia of Murder," and "Written in Blood," responded by saying that "it is a symbolic representation of everything that is wrong with human consciousness."

True crime writing draws upon the methods of nonfiction and fiction, turns the American dream of picket fences and summer picnics into the American nightmare; solicits a particular kind of reader response, and cautiously toes the line between fact, fiction, and the temptation on the part of the author to "create and embellish" for the sake of art. Crime writing can be understood as a style, a form-and a genre of universal appeal forever embedded in our popular culture, however sensational and exploitive it has become.

Styles of writing and the themes portrayed are often grisly, morbid and voyeuristic, thus obscuring the work of serious crime historians attempting to establish important links between economic conditions, social mores, and the day-to-day living conditions of people in a given place and time.

The true-crime genre in the U.S. dates back to the 1830s with the appearance of the "penny press." The popularity of the Police Gazette, debuting in 1845, and the various "sporting house publications" circulated in the big city vice districts in the latter half of the century underscored the moral tug-of-war between Victorian Era sensibilities and the vicarious tastes of men confined by the constraints of rigid propriety.

Serious accounts of inner-city crime, poverty, the rise of gambling syndicates and the downward drag of municipal corruption in our large population centers by Lincoln Steffens characterized the age of "muckraking" in the pre-World War I years.

It is around this time that a spate of police "memoirs" written by current and retired detectives trading on their name and reputations to augment their earnings, make their first appearance. Many of these volumes, including Chicago Police Detective Clifton Rodman Wooldridge' "Hands up in the World of Crime" were self-published and often funded by petty graft schemes aimed at extorting sums of money from business leaders to fund publication costs.

By the 1930s, big-city crime reporters covering sensational murders for their respective newspapers were cashing in on lucrative free-lance assignments for True Detective Magazine and a score of lesser imitators. The style of writing played up sex, greed and sensationalism often accompanied by titillating drawings of scantily-clad women, "hard-boiled" gunmen, and the occasional grainy second-generation crime scene image culled from the city desk or newspaper morgue through the reporter's "connections." Reprint anthologies were later re-published in paperback and sold in drugstore newsstands for a quarter a piece.

In the third decade of the 20th Century, Herbert Asbury was the first to write about crime from a historian's perspective, but he aimed his work at mass-market reading tastes. Much of Asbury's research was based on the anecdotal memories collected from city reporters and the yellowed news clips they provided. Among his most notable work were: "The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld;" "Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld;" "The Barbary Coast," "Sucker's Progress," "The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld."

Asbury was mostly forgotten and his books long out of print, until Martin Scorcese brought "Gangs of New York" to the wide screen. "Gem of the Prairie" was re-published as "Gangs of Chicago," and other Asbury volumes including "Barbary Coast" and "Sucker's Progress" were re-issued in trade paper, all within the last 12 months.

The work of Asbury early in the last century was augmented by the pioneering scholarship conducted at the University of Chicago sociology department in the 1920s. John Landesco's (1890-1954) multi-volume "Illinois Crime Survey" and Frederic Thrasher's "The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago" used the city of Chicago as a kind of "living laboratory;" an "ecological approach to urban social structure" if you will, resulting in the publication of numerous volumes utilized by academic researchers and true crime authors (myself included) to this very day.

The distinguished work of the University of Chicago sociologists was arguably the first coordinated and systemized attempt among academics in the U.S. (apart from the standard reports filed by blue-ribbon citizen committees monitoring police efficiency) to consider urban crime as subject matter worthy of serious study.

Beginning in the late 1940s, a terrible hue and cry from educators, local PTAs, and conservative legislators arose against the lurid depictions of crime, primarily in the ever-popular anthology comic book market. The McCarthy-era repression eventually drove Fox Comics, D.S. Publishing, and Prime Comics out of business because of the fear of the corrupting influence of such titles as "Murderous Gangsters," and "Pay-Off" upon sensitive young readers. The creation of the Comics Code in 1954 (the first Code Approved Comics were dated March and April 1955) did not specifically forbid the use of the word "crime" in the title. By the end of 1955 however, not a single comic book on the market used "crime" in the title.

Nineteen-sixty-six was a watershed year in the publishing industry. A stamp of legitimacy was applied to the study of true crime by Truman Capote, with the publication of "In Cold Blood," a significant, well-crafted "non-fiction novel" profiling the murders of the Clutter family in rural Kansas in 1959. Capote proved that the story of a heinous crime and the motivations of the men responsible could bridge mass reading tastes and make an important statement. In a similar vein, Gerald Frank's "The Boston Strangler" (also published in 1966), provides the reader with both a harrowing and touching account of Boston in the 1960s and the lives of Albert DeSalvo's (the convicted Strangler) unwitting victims

Former L.A. Police officer Joseph Wambaugh borrowed heavily from Capote's writing style. In "The Onion Field," published in 1973, he managed to produce a skillful portrayal of a liquor store stick-up culminating in the senseless shooting of a cop, and the intersecting lives of the two police officers with the perpetrators. In the tradition of Hal Higdon's masterful 1976 volume, "Leopold & Loeb: Crime of the Century," (Meyer Levin's Compulsion was a fictionalized account of the infamous 1924 Chicago "thrill killing") it is as much more than the story of a crime, but instead a brilliant psychological study.

"Fatal Vision," Joe McGinniss' 1983 account of Jeffrey MacDonald's careful murder cover-up sold 2.3 million copies in the 1984 Signet edition alone. Before cashing in on true-crime McGinniss authored "The Selling of the President, 1968." The genre was approaching a high-point, and soon major publishing companies in New York would commit to launching dedicated mass market true-crime divisions, most notably St. Martin's Press, Avon and Pinnacle.

The relationship between cheap, mass-produced true crime paperbacks and tabloid television opened the floodgates for a new generation of writers, many of them former police investigators, prosecutors, FBI agents, or criminal profilers including Ann Rule, Vincent Bugliosi, William F. Roemer, Mark Fuhrman, Robert Ressler, John Douglas and Roy Hazelwood. So, by the early 1990s, the true crime market had nearly reached a saturation point.

Important true-crime books identify trends and probe the human psyche below the superficialities of an event, rather than glamorize the salacious and lewd. Sadly, the bulk of contemporary true crime writing is driven by cable television coverage of celebrity scandal, and the tendency of film makers to manipulate the macabre and the grotesque in the guise of serious "documentary" journalism to jack viewer ratings. Cable and "tabloid" television programs fuel a steady demand for true crime "product." Among the current cable and network programming dedicated to the genre attempting to emulate the serious "journalistic approach" is:

  • FBI Files
  • Cold Case Files
  • American Justice
  • The New Detectives
  • Forensic Files
  • COPS
  • History's Mysteries
  • Trial Heat
  • Justice Files
  • Mugshots
  • America's Most Wanted
  • Dateline NBC
  • Dead Man's Secrets
  • Texas Justice
  • Body of Evidence
  • Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice
  • Caught
  • City Confidential
  • Extreme Evidence
  • Masterminds
  • Open Court
  • The System
  • Evidence
  • Hollywood Justice
  • I, Detective

True-crime publishing fills the pipeline of television programming, thus the time lapse between the commission of the crime and the appearance of a mass-market book is becoming shorter. Shoddy rush-to-print paperbacks researched and written exclusively from newspaper clips have flooded the market in the last twenty years. Recent examples of exploitation publishing:

"Held Captive: The Kidnapping and Rescue of Elizabeth Smart," by Maggie Haberman. Avon True Crime.

"The Murder of Laci Peterson: The Inside Story of What Really Happened," by Cliff Linedecker.

"Laci: Inside the Laci Peterson Murder," by Michael Fleeman. St. Martin's True Crime.

"Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Manhunt in History," by Maureen Orth. Dell Publishing.

"If Loving You is Wrong: the Shocking True Story of Mary Kay Letourneau," by Gregg Olsen.

"Jon Benet," by Steve Thomas with Don Davis. St. Martin's Press.

"Jon Benet Knows Evil Love," by Richard Rubacher, Writer's Club Press.

"Massacre in Milwaukee: The Macabre Case of Jeffrey Dahmer," by Richard Jaeger and William Balousek. Waubesa Press.

"Milwaukee Massacre: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Milwaukee Murders," by Robert Dvorchak & Lisa Holewa. Robert Hale, Ltd., publisher.

"The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough: The Secret Murders of Jeffrey Dahmer," by Anne Schwartz. Titan Books.

"Grave Secrets: A Leading Forensic Expert Reveals the Startling Truth About O.J. Simpson, David Koresh, Vincent Foster and Other Sensational Cases," by Cyril Wecht, Mark Curriden, and Benjamin Wecht. E.P. Dutton.

Rush to print, quick to the remainder table exploitation books of this ilk have been with us for many years. In general they have a short shelf life and suffer from high rates of return.

Prior to his death in 2002, Jack Olsen, author of 31 books including the Edgar Award winning "Predator," withdrew from the genre all together because of his disgust with the sleazy kind of paperbacks clogging the racks in the supermarket checkout line. "What now passes for 'true crime' is a weakly researched overblown kind of National Enquirer writing with a heavy emphasis on fictionalization and blighted romance," he noted. "The marketing of murder has devoured itself. Quality has been driven out by a malignant derivative of Gresham's Law: Bad money drives out good. So does bad writing. The very best and best-selling true-crime authors have turned to other genres and left the genre to shlockmeisters."

In an interview with CNN in 2000, Joseph Wambaugh echoed the disillusionment of Olsen, noting: "I get a little bit put off by 'true crime' ... when I have enough knowledge of the crimes to know that this story is so loosely based on the actual one that I'm not sure how to get away with calling it 'true crime,' " he said.

"I don't fudge or try to make it better by editorializing or dramatizing, I try to be a real investigative reporter and write it as it happened as best I can. When I recreate dialogue, I base it on something I can corroborate. I met the FBI agent who handled the murder described in Capote's book ("In Cold Blood"), and he had great admiration of what Capote did. There's usually where you'll find your toughest critics, the cops you write about when you do true crime. They nitpick everything."

Fiction writers are limited only by the limits of imagination. Nonfiction authors must tread upon a narrow investigatory path and are doubly challenged to construct a moving narrative that satisfies the reader's demand for a compelling, suspenseful yarn while at the same time adhering to the truth as much as that truth can be known.

The true crime author often draws upon the techniques of the successful mystery writer. He must test the limits of imagination and carefully outline a point of view in selecting material, fleshing out the characters in the book, and arranging details. It is as a truth seeker that he solicits our belief. However, the "art of the genre" is rarely achieved these days, and since the high-water mark of true crime publishing was reached in the early 1990s, there has been a corresponding drop-off in industry sales likely due to the perceptiveness of the reading public who have rejected the sensational junk for what it is, and turned to more satisfying literary genres.