The History of True Crime Writing

Ted Bundy. Charles Manson. Jeffrey Dahmer. The names of these people are forever etched in the memories of the American public thanks to the gruesome crimes they committed and the mystery surrounding their crimes.

 

Their notoriety was also amplified thanks in part to the media frenzy, as well as the numerous literary works and films produced to dissect the events, the lives of their victims, and the killers’ motivations.

Today, true crime is still one of the most popular genres in the publishing world, in television, and in films. Lately, the genre has branched out to podcasts. Popular podcasts, such as Serial, In the Dark, The Murder Detectives, and Murderville, Georgia (to name a few), continue to fascinate and feed the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the morbid. Visit any bookstore in any city in the country and you’ll discover a staggering array of true crime books sitting on the shelves.

But what exactly is true crime writing, and why is it so popular? Let’s take a look at its humble beginnings, and how the true genre has evolved over the years to become one of the most popular and fascinating literary genres.

 

The Beginnings of True Crime Writing

True crime is a non-fiction literary genre which delves into and analyzes a crime committed by living or deceased people. The crimes are often violent, but the mystery and the lurid details surrounding the crimes contribute to the public’s seemingly insatiable fascination with true crime. Although stories about con men, extortionists, and kidnappers are enough to hook some audiences, the majority of true crime readers still prefer the violent tales of rape and murder. Serial killers, in particular, occupy a special place in the heart of this macabre business. Surprisingly, women continue to outnumber men as the primary consumers of true crime books in spite of the books’ grisly contents.

The genre now known as true crime traces its origins in the Renaissance period. Books, at that time, were reserved for members of the clergy, the royalty, and the upper class. Even for the middle class, books and other sorts of reading materials were hard to come by, and the majority of the population in Europe could not read or write. Since books were hard to come by, the sordid tales of rape, murder, and other crimes were told orally and through songs (ballads). As the years passed, some of these ballads were transcribed into texts by scholars.

Some of the ballads have already been transcribed into text by the time the Elizabethan period rolled in. Thanks to the invention of the printing press and the slow rise in literacy among the Europeans, the number of upper and middle-class people who could read; slowly grew. Enterprising people saw an opportunity to make some money with these tales, so they traveled far and wide to sell crime ballads that were printed on broadsides and pamphlets. These Elizabethan-era “tabloids” contained titillating tales of the supernatural and the downright strange, as well as sensationalized crime narratives for the consumption of the public.

Many of the broadsides and pamphlets were even sold (not unlike programmes at theaters) at public executions. Critics consider them of little literary merit, but apparently, they sold like hot cakes.

The triumphes of Gods revenge agaynst the cryinge & execrable sinne, of willfull, & premeditated murther [sic], written by the English writer John Reynolds, was a collection of crime narratives that often had a sensationalist and moralist slant. The first stories of the collection were first published as pamphlets in 1621, and Reynolds’s work is considered one of the earliest collections of crime narratives in history. It contained accounts of murders, followed by a moral message with a distinctly religious undertone.

Execution sermons were popular among Puritans in the New World. Puritan preachers delivered these moralistic sermons at church or on the site of the execution itself. The sermons were later transcribed and printed on a pamphlet. At first, these pamphlets were sold individually, but later on, they were collected and turned into books.

 

True Crime During the Victorian Era

During the early 19th century, true crime writing became more secular. Gritty and realistic articles and pieces in periodicals, newspapers, and penny dreadfuls largely replaced the moralizing tone of the execution sermons during the 1800s in America and in England. In the United States, the American writer Celia Thaxter found renown for her essay, A Memorable Murder. Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz,  William Makepeace Thackeray’s Going to see a man hanged, and Thomas de Quincey’s On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts both entertained and horrified the English people.

The line between fact and fiction in true crime writing began to blur during the mid-19th century. Writers, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, and Robert Browning, produced and embellished fictionalized novels, short stories, and narrative poems that were based on true crimes. This period also produced the much-maligned Newgate novels, a type of Victorian-era novel wherein criminals were romanticized to appeal to the sentiment of the readers.

 

20th Century True Crime Writing and Beyond

Interest in the genre came roaring back with the publication of works such as Frank Norris’ gritty true crime novel, McTeague, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. True crime authors such as James M. Cain and Meyer Levin elevated true crime as a literary genre with masterpieces such as Double Indemnity and Compulsion.

Critics would continue to snub their noses at true crime during the mid-20th century — and with good reason. Crime and detective stories usually found their way into cheap pulp magazines, contributing to the belief that the genre did not have literary merit and was only being used by writers to make a quick buck. The belief that the genre should be dismissed outright would change with the publication of Truman Capote’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. Capote’s path would be followed by Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.

A lot has changed since the publication of Capote’s groundbreaking In Cold Blood. Other authors, such as Jon Krakauer, Ginger Strand, Hampton Sides, James Ellroy, Robert Graysmith, and Michelle McNamara, have joined the ranks of venerated true crime writers. True crime films, television shows, and podcasts remain to be popular and all have a devoted following. And there is no doubt this literary genre will continue to flourish in the years to come, all thanks to the human psyche’s inexplicable fascination with and insatiable appetite for the macabre.

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