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True Crime

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English Literature

True crime has been a popular non-fiction genre since the 16th century. Truman Capote's 1966 book In Cold Blood led to a surge in true crime content being consumed. In the 21st century, true crime books, dramas, podcasts, and documentaries are widely engaged by the public.

True Crime: meaning

True Crime - a non-fiction literary, film, and podcast genre wherein the author examines an actual crime and details the actions of real individuals.

True Crime: history

True Crime: origins

The origin of the true-crime genre can be traced back to the 16th century, when numerous publishers in the U.K. produced pamphlets reporting on crimes. Ballads and poems were also composed to report on the exploits of criminals across the country.

Many of these literary works would take on a morally ambiguous view of the crimes, which would then be sensationalized to sell copies. This is a mode of writing that would become prevalent in the true-crime genre.

True Crime: 19th century

True crime continued to be an important non-fiction genre in the 19th century as it gained popularity in the U.K and U.S.A. During Jack the Ripper's reign of terror over London, where he killed 5 women, local newspapers reported on the crime, selling up to 30,000 copies per day.

Sensational reporting of true-crime cases persisted in its popularity. However, the 19th century also saw the crime and Punishment Reform Movement gain traction, with many literary figures supporting the movement. Charles Dickens' A Visit to Newgate (1836), portrayed the central figures of the true-crime genre in a far more sympathetic light than previously seen.

Prison Reform Movement

The Prison Reform Movement began in the 1780s and advocated for the reform of the prison systems of England. This movement was inspired by The State of the Prison in England and Wales (1777) by John Howard. Many in the movement were religious and used Christian doctrines to advocate for reform in the system. The movement disagreed with how chaotic prisons were in England and Wales, as well as the violent methods used on the prisoners by the staff.

An important figure in the development of the true-crime genre was the English essayist Thomas De Quincey. His essay 'On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts' (1827) is considered by many as the spiritual precursor to Capote's In Cold Blood (1966). De Quincey's essay outlines his aesthetics for murder and compares the act to the philosopher Immanuel Kant's theory of the sublime.

The Sublime - Kant saw sublime as a term used to specify things that inspire awe and terror.

De Quincey's later writing shifted the sensational narrative of true crime from focusing on the act or the criminal to concentrating on how crime and society can influence each other.

True Crime: 20th century

In the 20th century, the true crime genre would only become more popular thanks to the invention of the television and the radio. The story of Lizzie Borden, a woman accused (and eventually acquitted) of killing her parents with an axe in 1892, was subject to much speculation by the public. This case was widely reported in America and many true crime novels and essays were written based on this crime.

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966)

In Cold Blood (1966) is widely viewed as the original iteration of the true-crime novel. The book follows the true case of the 'Clutter murders' - in which all four members of the Clutter family were killed in a robbery gone wrong in rural Kansas in 1959. Capote took a more literary take on the true-crime genre. He told the story of the crime in a similar manner to how fiction novels are written. The author met with both murderers while writing a novel to humanise them in his story. Despite this, the novel was met with widespread acclaim and is credited for developing the true-crime genre in the 20th century.

Did You Know? Philip Seymor Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Capote during this period of his life!

In Cold Blood (1966) shaped the true-crime genre in the 20th century, as it combined a sensationalized retelling of a true event with literary elements that could be found in fictional novels. The critical and popular success of Capote's novel allowed for other true-crime novels and programmes to follow.

The true-crime genre would experience another surge in popularity during the 1990s, following the success of the detective film, Silence of the Lambs. The film was an adaptation of the book The Silence of the Lambs (1988) by Thomas Harris. There was a new interest in serial killers and how the FBI caught them. This awakened interest led FBI profiler John Douglas to release Mindhunter (1995), a true-crime novel centred around his true encounters interviewing serial killers. Douglas' novel was met with success and in 2017 was adapted by Netflix as a TV series.

One of the most infamous true-crime cases was the 1994 double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Following the double homicide, Simpson's husband, NFL player O.J. Simpson was arrested and acquitted of the killings. The trial of O.J Simpson was subject to great media attention, and formed the basis of the novel The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J Simpson (1996) by Jeffrey Toobin. Simpson's trial became a touchstone in the courts and popular culture.

True Crime: 21st century

It can be argued that in the 21st century, true crime is more popular than ever. The rise of streaming services and the podcast format has led to more true crime content being produced than in the previous centuries. A new type of true crime also gained popularity during this period, which focused on advocating for incarcerated individuals.

Novels such as Devil's Knot: Case of the West Memphis Three (2002) by Mara Leveritt, Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (2011) by Sarah Burns as well as the podcast Serial, all advocated for the innocence of those accused of murder.

True Crime: categories

While "True Crime" is often associated with murder cases, it is a broad genre that covers many different types of offences.

TypeDescriptionKey Works
Homicide Media dedicated to the retelling of the unlawful killing of one or more persons by an individual or group. In Cold Blood (1966) - Truman Capote, Helter Skelter (1974) - Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
FraudMedia centred on stories of criminal deception for personal or financial gain. The Big Con (1940) - David W, Maurer, Three Cups of Deceit (2011) - Jon Krakauer
RobberyMedia focused on acts of taking property unlawfully.The Monument's Men (2009) - Robert M. Edsel, The Irish Game (2008) - Matthew Hart
TrialsMedia that retells the stories of the trials that occur following the crime.The Conspiracy Trial of the Chicago Seven (2020) - John Schultz, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J Simpson (1996) - Jeffrey Toobin
Advocating Media whose purpose is to advocate for the innocence of an individual or group.Devil's Knot: The Case of the West Memphis Three (2002) - Mara Leveritt, Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (2011) - Sarah Burns

True Crime: books and stories

True crime books are the oldest form of the genre and can be found across history in different cultures. Arguably, the first true crime book was the Book of Swindles by Zhang Yingyu, which was written in 1617. This book compiled a list of alleged frauds that had occurred during the later part of the Ming Dynasty's reign of China. The modern form of the true-crime novel began with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966), which presented the criminal case in a similar manner to a fictionalised crime story.

True crime books detail the events leading up to the crime, the crime itself as well as the real-world consequences of the event. However, the genre is broad, with some novels focusing on the psychology and actions of one individual (such as Killing for Company (1985) by Brian Masters, which detailed the crimes of serial killer Dennis Nilsen) and others centring on how detectives catch criminals (such as John Douglas' Mindhunter (1995)).

Notable Works: In Cold Blood (1966) - Truman Capote, Helter Skelter (1974) - Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, Mindhunter (1995) - John Douglas.

True Crime: documentaries and dramas

Documentary - A film or television programme that uses pictures or interviews with people involved, to provide a factual report on a particular subject.

One of the earliest true crime documentaries was Errol Morris's 1988 piece The Thin Blue Line, which followed the trail of Randall Dale Adams after he murdered police officer, Robert Wood. This documentary was influential on the genre, as it featured interview testimonials as well as a re-enactment of the crime. While many modern true crime documentaries do not utilise re-enactments, their inclusion was common during the late 20th century.

The first modern iteration of the true-crime documentary was The Staircase (2004), which documented the trial of crime novelist Michael Peterson, who was accused of killing his wife. Peterson argued that he did not kill his wife, and instead she had been attacked by an owl before falling down the stairs. This case was also the subject of the 2018 Netflix documentary of the same name.

The popularity of streaming services has led to an increase in true crime documentaries produced. The true crime documentaries produced during the 2010s and 2020s are made for 'binge-watching.'

Binge Watching - The practice of watching a tv show for a prolonged period of time.

A notable example was the 2020 documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. This documentary followed the big-cat breeding industry in America and its eccentric personalities. The programme culminated in a murder-for-hire plot and the incarceration of the documentary's protagonist, Joe Exotic.

Notable Works: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (2020) - Netflix, The Thing Blue Line (1988) - Errol Morris, The Staircase (2004) - Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

True Crime: criticism

The true-crime genre has been subject to criticism. The genre has been accused of making its consumers (predominantly women) paranoid. Documentaries such as Mark Lewis' Don't F**k with Cats (2019), focused on how amateur internet sleuths who caught killer Luca Magnotta could inspire vigilantism, for example.

One of the biggest criticisms of the true-crime genre is how it has a tendency to sensationalise crimes. Many true-crime books, documentaries, and podcasts centre on the criminal in these stories, rather than the victim. Therefore, the genre has been criticised for re-traumatising victims of crime to create a more 'exciting' story.

Remember: When consuming true crime content, it is important to remember the victims of crime and be respectful to these individuals and their families.

True Crime - Key takeaways

  • The true-crime genre dates back to 16th-century reports of crimes in both the U.K. and China.
  • Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) is widely viewed as the first true-crime novel.
  • True crime is very popular in the 21st century due to the influx of podcasts and documentaries.
  • There are many different types of true crime content including fraud, robbery, and trials.
  • The true-crime genre can be used to advocate for the innocence of an individual or group.
  • True crime is criticised for inspiring paranoia and vigilantism as well as re-traumatising the victims of crime and their families.

True Crime

True crime is a non fiction literary, film and podcast genre based on real life events

The public has been interested in true crime since the 16th century. Interesting aspects of true crime include the psychology of those involved, as well as the methods, use to catch criminals. 

Examples of true crime books includes, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J Simpson (1996) by Jeffrey Toobin, Devil's Knot: Case of the West Memphis Three (2002) by Mara Leveritt, and In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote.

There are many reasons why people are interested in true crime. These reasons can include being interested in the psychology of crime as well as the methods used to catch criminals. 

To write a true crime book, you need a case. Once you have picked a case, write about the events leading up to the crime, the crime itself and its impacts. Try and asses why the crime occurred and what it says about society.  

Final True Crime Quiz

Question

What is true crime?

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Answer

A nonfiction literary, film, and podcast genre where the author examines an actual crime and details the actions of real individuals.  

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Question

What century can the true crime genre be traced back to?

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Answer

16th century

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What two countries were producing true crime literature in the 16th century?

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Answer

The U.K.

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While Jack the Ripper was active in London, how newspapers were sold per day in the city?

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Answer

30,000

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What is a detective novel?

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Answer

A story where the plot revolves around the investigation of a crime. 

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Question

Thomas de Quincey cited which philosopher in his essays on true crime?

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Answer

Immanuel Kant

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Question

Which novel is seen as the first modern true crime book?

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Answer

In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote is seen as the first modern true crime novel. 

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Question

What new media has led to an increase in the production of true crime content in the 21st century?

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Answer

Podcasts

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True or False: True crime can not advocate for the innocence of an incarcerated individual. 

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Answer

False! True crime can advocate for the innocence of an incarcerated individual. 

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What is a documentary?

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Answer

A film or television programme that uses pictures or interviews with people involved, to provide a factual report on a particular subject. 

Show question

Question

Did  Errol Morris' 1988 piece The Thin Blue Line use reenactments? 

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Answer

Yes! Errol Morris' 1988 piece The Thin Blue Line did use reenactments.

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Have streaming services altered the true crime genre?

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Answer

Yes! True crime documentaries are now constructed to encourage 'binge watching'.

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Has the true crime genre been criticised? 

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Answer

Yes! The true-crime genre has been criticised. 

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What are two critiques of the genre?

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Answer

That it re-traumatises victims of crime. 

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Question

What was the first modern iteration of the true-crime documentary?

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Answer

The first modern iteration of the true-crime documentary was The Staircase (2004) by  Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

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