What is “true crime”?

This blog is going to explore “true / crime / discourse” by getting at all of the words in that sequence. Like any cultural (humanities) investigation, the very terms are always under interrogation. We’ll* need to define “discourse” separately to better understand what we’re even engaging with, but let’s first lay out some basic frameworks for “crime discourse,” the primary object of this blog.

“True Crime” is a label given to (primarily/presumably) non-fiction media representations of criminal events, primarily events that result in one or more deaths. Other types of crimes, such as fraud, sexual violence, and theft, might also be the focus of the genre (another term I want to explore separately).

The history of true crime media representation is difficult to trace if we consider any reporting of crime, and circulation of this reporting to an audience, as “true crime.” But we should consider true crime this way.

Section of Ballad Broadside depicting woodcut of murder scene, 1650
“The downfall of William Grismond, or, A lamentable murther by him committed at Lainterdine … the 22 of March, 1650.” Ballad Broadside, printed between 1663-1675. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2011, Douce Ballads 1, fol. 57v.

In her study of German and English newspapers and pamphlets produced during the Early Modern period (a.k.a. the historical period between what we think of as the “Middle Ages” and “The Enlightenment”), historian Joy Wiltenburg has documented the circulation of crime reports and trial proceedings in the 1500s that used many of the same tropes (or narrative hooks) we associate with true crime sensationalism today, and for some of the same social purposes.

In her 2012 book, Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany, Wiltenburg argues:

“Crime touches the most basic human values of life and death, taboo and violation, self and other—even as it mobilizes political institutions for the maintenance of order and punishment. Although perennially absorbing, the narration of crime is not merely a reflection of humanity’s timeless taste for gore. Instead, it changes substantially from one culture to another and one time to another, a reflection of the distinctive values, fears, and experience of its time and place” (Wiltenburg 2012, 2).

This framing helps us establish “crime discourse” as a cultural object we can learn from, and it also reminds us that we could look beyond the Anglo-European context, and beyond “modern” historical periods, to find other examples of the circulation of crime stories for public audiences — which, by the way, often came in the form of songs and literature, performance, and other visual arts.

In fact, Wiltenburg’s research shows that visual illustration of crimes and punishments was an important mode of representation and circulation in low-literacy periods and places. And we’ll probably take time to look at some specific histories and trends in future posts, including a closer look at the broadsheets and ballads from Germany in the 1500s that Wiltenburg has curated. We might also consider variations/precursors to contemporary True Crime in its 19th century British and US-American forms, or in non-western cultures like Japan that pre-date western Modernity, as well as how crime is represented in colonial and postcolonial contexts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Cover illustration of weekly newspaper with scene from Lizzie Borden murder trial, 1893.
The Borden murder trial—A scene in the court-room before the acquittal – Lizzie Borden, the accused, and her counsel, Ex-Governor Robinson. Illustration in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. 76 (1893 June 29), p. 411. Img: B.W. Clinedinst, CC by 3.0.

Most folks will tell you that the term “true crime,” however, is commonly associated with the post-WWII genre of writing exemplified in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965, 1966), which is often referred to as a “true crime novel.”

Capote combined the methods of journalism (interviews, research of primary sources, reporting of facts and direct quotes) with the methods of a creative writer (attention to formal devices to evoke feelings). Throughout In Cold Blood (which first appeared as a series of long-form journalism in The New Yorker), thoughts, feelings, actions, and dialogue attributed to victims, investigators, and the accused are created or embellished in Capote’s narrative (importantly, this is a practice Wiltenburg identified in early crime representations, too). The sequence of events, too, is presented out of order for a particular narrative effect. Many refer to this as a “fictionalized” re-telling of the Clutter family murders, which is an actual multi-homicide that happened in Kansas at the end of 1959.

True crime, then, prioritizes narrative structures and devices to convey information about a specific, actual crime. As a result of the emphasis on narrative and other artful devices, however, “true crime” lives in a murky area between “fiction” and “non-fiction.” It is this murkiness that allows us to explore examples of crime discourse that come from both fiction and non-fiction. My primary goal is to understand the stories that are told through crime discourse, whether focused on actual or allegorical crimes, and what those stories tell us about, as Wiltenburg so clearly puts it, the “values, fears, and experience” of social life in specific contexts.

We won’t have any trouble finding examples of True Crime in current media, that’s safe to say, as this genre is one of the most popular media categories across books, TV, film, and new media like podcasting. From whole cable networks like the Investigation Discovery channel, which has been around since 1993, to the recent podcasting sensation like My Favorite Murder, which launched in 2016 and has topped popular podcast lists since, it would be hard to NOT interact with some type of True Crime discourse within our pop-cultural consumption.

It will be part of this blog’s investigation to consider how representations of “true crime” and of crime in “fiction” both reflect cultural narratives.

Even though I’ll be considering the ways that different representations transgress the borders of real/fiction for particular purposes, however, it will also be important to remember the differences between the non-fiction genre of “True Crime” and the genre of “Crime Fiction.” Here are some questions that I’ll be keeping in mind:

  • What are the characteristics that these different literary/media categories share?
  • Where do they part?
  • Why might a reader/consumer gravitate towards one or the other?
  • What can an author/producer do in one form and not the other?

If you, dear Reader, have questions to add to this list, tweet at me or comment on this post.

(I’d love for this blog to be collaborative, and transparently so — so much of academic and professional work is actually the product of many people, but often that work is tied to a single name after the many stages of group work has been completed, from shared drafts to conferences and seminar courses and editorial reviews. Another aspect of this blog format I’d like to make use of is the real-time public collaboration it can afford.)

So let’s get to work on these questions!

* I anticipate that I will go back and forth between first person singular and plural, and some of this may be incidental but it also probably marks the differences between information *I* already know/believe and information I hope “we” will be producing through this blog. That means, at some level, and at certain times, I imagine a reader, or at least a blog-goddess, which co-performs the exploration *with* me. I hope the “we” voice doesn’t make it sound like I’m talking about a “royal we” or that I assume everyone will agree with my takes. So it’s important that I clarify this I/we bug that might recur!

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