Essays

A Personal Reckoning With True Crime as a Genre

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It started where a lot of people started: the podcast Serial. I’d read some true crime before (mostly just some Ann Rule paperbacks I found at a library sale in my teens), but I really dove headfirst into the genre after realizing how many well-reported, journalist-backed stories there were out there in podcast form. Then I moved to more modern true crime books, reading anything and everything labeled true crime. 

I honestly can’t explain my fascination, and it’s always one I’ve attributed to anxiety: if I read about all the different ways I can be murdered, I’ll be more prepared in a situation if I were to almost be murdered. But I really don’t know if that’s it anymore. Perhaps it’s the “can’t look away because I’m scared” situation, perhaps it’s because I do want a good story, particularly one that puts away the bad guys for good, or perhaps it’s none of those things and I’ll never really know why I’m interested in the genre. 

But the more I consume true crime media — books, podcasts, documentaries, Netflix specials — the more I’ve been forced to confront why exactly I am interested in this media and my role of responsibility with it. 

True Crime Burnout

A few years ago (thanks, pandemic), I began experiencing burnout from all the tragic stories, both fiction and non. That is incredibly privileged to say, that I’m “burned out” from reading stories about real people who have had real crimes happen to them in the most horrifying ways. But that’s where my question truly began: do I have the right to feel this way? Why am I reading this anyway? Am I doing more harm than good by reading this? 

And as the months stretched on, it seemed like society’s obsession with true crime was continuing to grow with no end in sight. Tiger King, Unsolved Mysteries, An American Murder, Making a Murderer, The Keepers, etc. This has also been the case in publishing, with new true crime books being published monthly, as fast as publishers can get them out: The Murderous Case of Dr. Cream, We Keep the Dead Close, Couple Found Slain, The Devil’s Harvest, Hell in the Heartland, etc., etc. They go on and on. 

These books are exploring good topics: in most cases, writers, journalists, or people affected by these crimes are trying to truly get to the bottom of the case, figure out what happened, and bring justice. The problem lies in the marketing hype and discussion around this media. By the time these books are making their way into stores and into the hands of readers, they’ve morphed from a quest to bring justice to “gripping” and “unputdownable” “fast-paced adventures!”

While there’s nothing inherently wrong about using the words “gripping” or “unputdownable” in relation to a book, there is something that rubs me the wrong way by using both of those words to describe fictional thrillers and real true crime. The two should not be equated, and by using terms like these, it puts true crime in the “engaging content” category rather than the quest for justice and truth. 

It brings to mind a lyric from Bo Burnham’s “Welcome to the Internet” that I have not been able to forget about since hearing: “Here’s a tip for straining pasta; here’s a 9-year-old who died.” This is exactly what the true crime industry is now. It’s content. It’s not a story of a human person; it’s content for your enjoyment on a Friday night with pizza. And each new piece of content is extremely traumatizing to the victims and families of victims at the heart of these stories, some of whom are angry they are being publicized in this way. 

Whose fault it is that true crime is now in a content category is extremely fluid, and we may never pinpoint the exact origin, just like publishing cannot predict when or how a book will go viral on TikTok. It just happens, and then it becomes the fault of everyone involved: the publishing companies, the advertisers, the readers, the media buzz, or the books themselves.

What does this mean for me as a reader? 

I’ve taken a step back from consuming all things true crime. I’m trying to be pickier about the things I’m choosing to pick up, focusing on books that tell the stories of marginalized communities who never are given the same media attention as white victims. I am picking up books that don’t have flashy marketing pitches but instead have authors, publicists, and editors who tell me the book is a thoughtful journey and someone fighting hard for the truth, not sensationalized puzzle solving. 

One book I am particularly engaged in is Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites, in which she explores not only crimes but also the obsession that comes with following them, taking a thoughtful approach to discussing the crimes while maintaining respect for the victims of them. When she attended CrimeCon (which perfectly encapsulates my unease with the genre — why are there fan conventions for true crime?), FBI profiler Jim Clemente said:

“And why are you here? Do you love the genre? Do you want to solve a cold case?” Clemente’s voice slowed and deepend; he was transitioning into serious mode. “Or you know or knew someone who got murdered? Or you yourself were a victim of a crime? I have a theory. You want to learn so you can protect those you love. It’s a very altruistic goal.” His voice changed again — I had a feeling these tonal shifts would get exhausting over the long weekend. “Have fun,” he bellowed. “And remember: hashtag CrimeCon on your posts!”

Rachel Monroe, Savage Appetites.

The split dichotomy of being invested in true crime for the sake of ending a sometimes decades-long search and the strange thrill and excitement from being part of a case is a hard one for me to swallow. I’m not saying we should stop telling these stories. We need to tell them, especially those of missing and murdered Indigenous women (Highway of Tears by Michelle McDiarmid is a thoughtful look at this), people of color (A Knock at Midnight by Brittany K. Barnett), and other victims of marginalized communities (Elon Green’s Last Call, about missing gay men in 1970s NYC, when it did not care about the gay community at all). 

But we also need to stop sensationalizing and equating real crimes with that of fictional content that is strictly there for entertainment. The onus is on us to fix it, because the more sensational we are about it, the more content that will be produced to place in front of an audience, hungry for entertainment. 


Related Reading

True Crime: Beyond Serial Killers and Sensationalized Crimes

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