A guilty pleasure—that’s what true crime is said to be, by everyone from avid fans to literary scholars. A recent article called “The Ethical Dilemma of Highbrow True Crime” by the essayist Alice Bolin describes the “centuries-long obsession” as an addictive hunger, something on which readers have “gorged.”
Reporting on crime has always been voyeuristically enjoyed, yet the taste has often been indulged surreptitiously. Its forebears in the English language include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British crime broadsides originally sold at public executions. The shame of purchasing such crass items, according to one scholar, inspired subterfuge: “Although respectable London families would not themselves be seen buying broadsheets describing the most recent outrage, they would send a footman out to buy half a dozen copies from a street hawker.” Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 satirical essay, “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” mockingly elevates the genre, positing the existence of a gentleman’s club, the “Society of Connoisseurs in Murder,” whose members were aesthetes, “Murder-Fanciers,” who “amidst some carnal considerations of tea and toast” relished “masterpieces” of the art.
Theories have attempted to explain the appeal. There’s the desire to see justice done, the satisfaction of solving mysteries, the need to allay fear by studying crimes, lest they happen to us. But no explanation ever seems to erase the vulgarity by association, and the appetite continues to inspire defensive justification. As such, true crime has become a literary outlier, a strangely unstable genre marketing itself as fact but often falling back on fictitious recreations and resolutions, as if truth alone could scarcely grapple with human depravity. The early broadsides were typical, purporting to be true narratives of offenses committed by the condemned but laced with moral truisms and gory clichés, in which throats were invariably cut from “ear to ear.”
For decades, little changed. While the passion for crime stories in this country began with Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin (in pieces collected in the Library of America’s 2008 volume True Crime: An American Anthology), the genre became the province of yellow journalism and near-pornographic detective magazines, once called “dickbooks” (“dick” being short for “detective”), specializing in the debasement of female sex objects: temptresses, sex kittens, jail bait, and lost women. Even the more respectable modern works, such as Truman Capote’s landmark In Cold Blood (1965), dabbled in fiction.
But now, amid an explosion of renewed popularity, the genre is evolving, its practitioners setting aside self-consciousness and questioning the idea that crime is not worthy of rigorous, accurate, and analytical attention. In true crime’s latest iteration, writers, reporters, bloggers, documentary filmmakers, and podcast hosts—many of them women (alongside empathetic men), many of them energized by the Me Too movement—have taken a soiled brand and turned it into a collective exercise in retributive justice, recording and correcting the history of sexual violence.
True Detective, Master Detective, Real Detective, Startling Detective, American Detective: the covers are so salacious that several years ago the publisher Taschen issued a collection, True Crime Detective Magazines 1924–1969, celebrating their high retro camp graphics and gangbuster tag lines: “Wild Daughters of Satan” and “The Gutter Waits for Girls Like Me.”
Eric Godtland, a self-described “compulsive collector” and author of the Taschen anthology, outlines the history of detective magazines in the United States, claiming they supplied the “first reality entertainment.” After a phase in the 1920s when such publications promiscuously mixed fictional and fact-based stories, the leading titles turned to an all–true crime format by the 1930s. The cinematic cover art always promised more than the articles could deliver, reflecting a noir underworld in which women are whores and villains, wielding guns and knives, or hapless victims of their own lust, barely clad, menaced by men in the frame or just outside it: eyes wide, bosoms heaving, arms (or legs or necks) tied, red lips open, mouths screaming. Resistance, such images suggest, is futile, and those “sex-crazed, shameless creatures” who have dallied too long in “stag parties” and “vice dens” are clearly about to get what they deserve.
Consumers may well have been using the magazines as aids to onanistic satisfaction, since it’s debatable that readers were concerned about what were billed as social issues: white slavery or “reefer orgies…ruining our youth.” But an increase in violence and suicide during Prohibition and the early years of the Depression fueled their popularity, and if the articles were less enticing than the covers, they nonetheless served up crime scene photos, maps, accounts of forensic evidence, and interviews with known associates.
Artists and writers, not to mention publishers, were overwhelmingly male. The murder beat of Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers had competed since the nineteenth century to present the grisliest and most sanctimonious crime coverage. Sold in drug stores, detective magazines were quickly co-opted by J. Edgar Hoover. Beginning in the mid-1930s, his byline appeared on articles in multiple titles as well as a column, “With the G-Men,” in Real Detective, elevating the FBI and “G-Man Justice” to mythic status, commemorated in stand-alone issues such as “Confessions of a Federal ‘Dick,’” circa 1930.
In its heyday, just before World War II, True Detective Mysteries sold two million copies a month and had at least seventy-five competitors. But in an ironic twist on Hoover’s exploitation of the medium, the magazines lent themselves to less savory applications, serving as virtual how-to guides, schooling killers in avoiding detection.
In 1957 Harvey Glatman, a young man prone since childhood to sadomasochistic fantasies and a habit of autoerotic asphyxiation, posed as a photographer for detective magazines, luring at least two women to his Los Angeles apartment with the promise of modeling jobs. (He met a third through the personals, or “lonely hearts” ads, hence his moniker, “the Lonely Hearts Killer.”) Assuring them that he was merely taking photographs, he tied them up, then pulled a gun and raped them, eventually driving them to remote desert locations where he strangled them. Caught in the act of trying to abduct a fourth victim in the fall of 1958, Glatman confessed and was executed at San Quentin the following year. One item entered into evidence at the penalty phase of his trial was the April 1958 issue of Master Detective, found in his “toolbox,” featuring an article about his first victim.
Thus true crime, commercializing sexual violence against women, had come full circle, inspiring Glatman’s deeds, aiding in their commission, and (to his delight) publicizing the results. This self-perpetuating loop appeared in Michael Powell’s controversial 1960 film, Peeping Tom, reminiscent of Glatman’s exploits about a pornographer who impales women on a knife attached to his tripod, catching their dying horror on film. What’s more, Glatman’s photos would serve future killers, some of whom cited his images as instructive. According to one FBI agent, detective magazines had become “the serial killer’s Bible.”
In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences appeared first as a four-part series in The New Yorker in 1965 and later that year as a book, creating a sensation with its graphic, hyperrealistic account of the investigation of the brutal murders of a Kansas farm family and the trial and execution of the two drifters responsible. After his best-selling success, Capote made extraordinary claims, telling George Plimpton in a 1966 New York Times interview that he had created a new “literary art form.” Despite the use of interior monologue and recreated dialogue, he said, his “nonfiction novel” was “immaculately factual,” and he boasted of training himself to become a kind of human tape recorder (he disdained the machine itself) who could recall things said to him “within 95 percent of absolute accuracy, which is as close as you need.”
As with so many immaculate conceptions, however, Capote’s became suspect upon examination. That same year, an Esquire reporter began questioning his mnemonic gifts, and substantive revelations followed in 2013, when The Wall Street Journal exposed as fabricated an important scene that portrayed the chief detective on the case as more heroic than he may actually have been. In Slate, Ben Yagoda described finding The New Yorker’s fact-checking proofs, suggesting that little was verified beyond names and dates. In The New Yorker itself, the staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe acknowledged Capote’s “careful embroidery.”
Likewise, Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974), an account of his successful prosecution of the Manson family, believed to be the best-selling true crime book of all time, has been probed, with later writers noting self-serving omissions. Publishers began backing away from claims of accuracy in the “nonfiction novel,” and subsequent crime stories incorporating subjective techniques, such as Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979), were published as fiction or carried disclaimers, as did John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994).
Yet the blurred line between truth and invention, and the glorification of law enforcement, continued to be encouraged by the FBI. After Hoover’s death in 1972, research into behavioral psychology conducted by the bureau led to the creation of a criminal profiling program, whose members compiled data on repeat offenders by interviewing incarcerated mass murderers, including Charles Manson. The program’s colorful founders, John Douglas and Robert Ressler, became celebrity “profilers,” famous for studying crime scene details in order to create speculative portraits of potential suspects. They wrote memoirs and were consulted by novelists such as Thomas Harris, whose memorable characters (Hannibal Lecter among them) were modeled on actual cases. Profilers themselves have become fictional stereotypes, appearing in everything from Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of Harris’s book The Silence of the Lambs to David Fincher’s recent Netflix series Mindhunter.
In this male-dominated and factually challenged field, it was a woman who changed the trajectory of true crime, moving victims and their families to the center of the enterprise. Ann Rule, born Ann Stackhouse in Michigan in 1931, grew up in law enforcement, with relatives who served as sheriffs, a medical examiner, and a prosecutor. As a girl she volunteered at the local jail, helping her grandmother prepare meals for inmates and developing a lifelong curiosity about the people behind bars. After studying criminology and creative writing at the University of Washington, she briefly became a police officer in Seattle in the 1950s but failed a vision test. In 1969, married with children, she began writing up unsolved cases for True Detective under the pseudonym “Andy Stack,” assured by her editor that no one would believe that a woman could know “anything about police.”
Two years later, in the fall of 1971, Rule, who had lost her only brother to suicide, began fielding phone calls as a volunteer at Seattle’s Crisis Clinic, working night shifts with a twenty-four-year-old psychology student named Ted Bundy. Over the next six months, Rule and Bundy became friends, earnestly discussing her impending divorce and his illegitimate birth.
By mid-1974 Rule was well aware of a series of assaults and disappearances that had begun in Seattle that January and radiated outward to college campuses throughout the Northwest. It would be months and many murders later before Bundy was arrested, in Utah in 1975, for the attempted abduction of yet another woman, although that only stopped him temporarily. He escaped twice from inadequate jail facilities and killed again, in Florida. Rule had early suspicions—she had reported Bundy’s name to a homicide detective in the summer of 1974 after seeing a facial composite of a suspect who introduced himself to potential victims as “Ted”—but could scarcely bring herself to believe he was guilty. He had, in fact, abducted and murdered at least thirty girls and women across multiple states, hampering investigations by dumping bodies in remote locations where they were not found for months, if ever, a technique likely learned from detective magazines. Years later, he acknowledged close study of these sources.
Rule’s classic, The Stranger Beside Me, first published in 1980 and an immediate best seller, was a personal yet humble narrative, with none of the literary aspirations of In Cold Blood. It chronicled her fears as a woman and mother—her own daughter was sixteen when Seattle was transfixed by Bundy’s crimes—as well as guilt about her chosen profession. In it, she shared the anguish felt by victims’ families, and a pledge she had made privately to stay true to those they had lost:
When I began writing fact-detective stories, I promised myself that I would always remember I was writing about the loss of human beings, that I was never to forget that. I hoped that the work I did might somehow save other victims, might warn them of the danger. I never wanted to become tough, to seek out the sensational and the gory.
Rule, who died in 2015 at the age of eighty-three, maintained that righteous indignation to the end. The Stranger Beside Me reinvented the true crime category, lifting it from its sordid origins to the level of a cautionary tale. While Rule churned out dozens of books and articles, she also lectured to victims’ groups, counseling battered women to leave their abusers. Women wrote to tell her, “I’d be dead if it wasn’t for something I read in one of your books.” By establishing a sense of her responsibility to the audience, connecting the story to a larger narrative about the individual and social cost of violence, she had initiated a new era.
What woman hasn’t looked over her shoulder? The near universality of that primal fear—exacerbated by women’s widespread exposure to threats, harassment, sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence—has transformed the consumption of true crime, now available in an array of media. Once driven by male avidity, the genre is today shaped by female anxiety. According to an editor interviewed by Publishers Weekly, interest in it “is at an all-time high,” with 1.6 million copies of titles sold in 2018, up from 976,000 in 2016. Women write 70 percent of Amazon true crime book reviews.
That genre is supported by popular podcasts. More than half of the hosts and 80 percent of listeners are women, a trend that surfaced with the 2014 debut of Serial, hosted and produced by Sarah Koenig, formerly of public radio’s This American Life. Its Peabody Award–winning first season examined the Maryland police investigation of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Korean-American high school student, and the conviction of her former boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed. On the strength of new evidence highlighted by the podcast, Syed’s conviction was briefly vacated, although the decision was overturned on appeal. Downloaded a billion times, Serial demonstrates the power and reach of such scrutiny.
Other podcasts, billed as “true-crime comedy,” offer up a homeopathic remedy: steep yourself in murder, and the murderers can’t get you. This weird logic is openly acknowledged in the first episode of My Favorite Murder, the Gen-X and Millennial answer to True Detective. With hosts Karen Kilgariff, a stand-up comedian, and Georgia Hardstark, a cooking show personality, it launched in 2016 with the women saying, “Let’s get cozy and comfy and…talk about murder!” Girlfriends huddling around a campfire sharing scary stories, they take violence to be inevitable. “Tell me everything so I can avoid it!” says Hardstark in that first episode. Kilgariff replies, “I just want to collect information and hear theories and stories so I can be braced, so that…I’m ready.” She goes on: “It’s the law of physics…the more you know about something, the less likely it will happen to you.” That’s more fantasy than physics, but this program too has been downloaded millions of times. The hosts’ motto and title of their 2019 joint memoir is Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered. It’s a joke, but it’s not a joke.
Behind the superstitions lies a skewed perception. In the US, where crime rates have been falling for years, it’s still men, not women, who make up the majority of homicide victims, with males nearly four times more likely to be killed. But even if women face a lower murder rate than men, the dread is there. The prevalence of sexual assault may explain the paradox, operating as a “master offense” and heightening alarm. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women will suffer domestic violence, and one in five will be victims of rape or attempted rape (for men, it’s one in forty). Such concerns may be especially acute among women of color and those living in vulnerable, poorer communities where residents, with good reason, fear calling the police for help.
Hence the need to be “braced.” Sarah Weinman, the editor of the recent anthology Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession, argues that women live their lives “consciously or unconsciously, dealing with fear…and it’s running as a background process all the time, 24 hours, seven days a week.” That women, and Black women particularly, live with the apprehension of ambush is what sparked outraged protests after the recent, if disparate, murders of twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor, a medical worker shot by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment in 2020 and, this year, of Sarah Everard, a white, thirty-three-year-old marketing executive who was kidnapped by a police officer while walking home from a friend’s house in South London, then raped and strangled. Emma Brockes, a Guardian columnist, lamented that “thirty years after I was taught about male violence, nothing has changed for my daughters.”
In today’s true crime, however, lamentation is not an option. The genre has “weaponized” women’s fears, as Megan Abbott, a crime novelist, puts it, yielding the single-minded determination that led Michelle McNamara, a Hollywood screenwriter, to devote years to hunting the then unidentified man she dubbed the “Golden State Killer.” Between 1973 and 1986 he had committed a relentless series of rapes and murders throughout California. In her blog True Crime Diary and then in a 2013 Los Angeles Magazine article, McNamara pursued every possible theory, amassing scores of boxes of police files, examining potential suspects, and interviewing surviving victims, detectives, neighbors, and amateur sleuths. Consumed by the story, she put herself under pressure to solve the case while struggling to finish a book on it. She died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs on April 21, 2016, leaving behind her husband (the actor Patton Oswalt), a young daughter, and an unfinished manuscript.
Her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, completed by her researcher, Paul Haynes, and Billy Jensen, a friend and investigative journalist, was galvanizing. In it, she recalled the moment when a preoccupation with murder abruptly entered her life. She was fourteen on the night of August 1, 1984, when a woman jogging in her suburban Chicago neighborhood was snatched off the street. Kathleen Lombardo, twenty-four, was dragged into an alley and raped; her throat was slit. A few days later, McNamara found pieces of Lombardo’s broken Walkman scattered on the ground. Of such cases (Lombardo’s is still unsolved), she wrote, “Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life.”
The book concludes with a fragment of her writing appended as a prescient epilogue, titled “Letter to an Old Man,” in which she addresses the Golden State Killer. Having pored over his bizarre modus operandi, which eventually targeted couples—he often tied up the man and placed dishes on his back to alert him to movement, then raped the woman in another room—she relays information to the reader with the same hostile intimacy the killer brought to his surveillance. Just as he cased the homes of prospective victims when they weren’t there, learning the layout, cutting phone lines, hiding ligatures to use on his victims, emptying bullets from guns, so she became the voyeur’s voyeur, watching his every move, stalking him through the sensory record of those who knew him best:
You were your approach…. You were a hard-soled shoe felt fleetingly. A penis slathered in baby lotion thrust into a pair of bound hands. “Do it good.” No one saw your face. No one felt your full body weight. Blindfolded, the victims relied on smell and hearing. Floral talcum powder. Hint of cinnamon. Chimes on a curtain rod…. A glimpse of royal blue brushed-leather tennis shoes.
The barking of dogs fading away in a westerly direction.
You were what you left behind: a four-inch vertical cut in the window screen at the ranch house on Montclair, in San Ramon. A green-handled hatchet on the hedges. A piece of cord hanging in a birch tree…. The outline of a crowbar in dust.
Eight crushed skulls.
On April 24, 2018, as Oswalt was on tour promoting his late wife’s book, Joseph James DeAngelo, a doughy seventy-two-year-old, was arrested in Sacramento, identified as the Golden State Killer, and charged with eight counts of murder. He ultimately pled guilty to thirteen, the statute of limitations having run out on the more than fifty rapes he committed. He was caught through painstaking forensic genealogy by a team of researchers, aided by Barbara Rae-Venter, working with DNA taken from crime scene samples. They had tracked his family tree using GEDmatch and other genomics websites, identifying distant relatives and filling in the blanks. But the intense focus that McNamara brought to bear on the case had compelled the search.
DeAngelo is a former police officer, and the HBO documentary made about McNamara’s story (named for her book), directed by Liz Garbus, an Emmy award–winning filmmaker, tracks the spreading repercussions of sexual violence. Clips from Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of McNamara’s favorite horror films, convey the power of the unseen menace as it causes widespread panic. While sympathetic to the dogged work of detectives who pursued the case, Garbus exposes ways victims were traumatized by the police themselves, at a time when rape was considered simple assault under the law.
Gay Hardwick, case number 31 (her husband, Bob, was bound in a bedroom while she was raped), of Stockton, California, described the police presence as “phase two of what goes on after an attack.” The aftermath of her 1978 assault intensified her distress:
There you are, bound, incapacitated, in shock, and now there are four more men in the room that you don’t know. To have somebody else sit down next to you while you’re still unclothed and, you know, take out a knife and have to cut the bindings off was scary, too…. We were very quickly inundated with crime scene investigators and more police officers and fingerprint technicians. We were just a piece of evidence in our own home.
She was curtly instructed not to use the bathroom or to cover herself with a robe. Police had no female officers to take her to the hospital.
Official misconduct, ranging from simple incompetence to gross dereliction, becomes a theme of recent crime documentaries, many of which focus on victims instead of perpetrators. The Ripper, a four-part BBC/Netflix series, examines the rigid ineptitude of the police investigation of thirteen murders and additional attacks committed in northern England by a Yorkshire truck driver, Peter Sutcliffe, from 1975 to 1980. Directed by Jesse Vile and Ellena Wood, it employs multiple images of grid searches performed by uniformed officers—virtually all male—shoulder to shoulder, stabbing with rakes, probing for evidence. It’s a common technique, but their militarized regalia and puzzled miens capture the myopia of an inquiry that labeled all victims as “prostitutes” who were less than “innocent.” Some were sex workers; some weren’t. But police disregarded survivors’ detailed and accurate recollections of the perpetrator’s accent, leading them to exclude Sutcliffe, who was questioned and released nine times. Freed, he continued killing. Period footage of British women marching for reform during the “Ripper” era prefigures the protests sparked by Sarah Everard’s murder. The police officer who pled guilty to her kidnapping and rape has not entered a plea on a charge of murder.
Women of color are at disproportionate risk of sexual violence and are two and a half times more likely to be murdered than their white counterparts. Despite that, true crime has been, in the words of Elon Green, a journalist writing on the topic for The Appeal, “very, very white,” from consumers to subjects, with editors fixated on the perfect victim, generally a sexy, white, upper-class female. That “pernicious” situation endures, he says, “largely because the definition of crime is so narrow,” determined by class and skin color, with publishers shying away from atrocities such as lynchings or state murders of civil rights leaders. Works by and about poor and nonwhite subjects have long existed, he points out, but have struggled for decades to find mainstream acceptance of their urgency and import.
That’s changing. Newer podcasts, including Crime Noir and Affirmative Murder, cover American policing, hate crimes, and underreported cold cases in communities of color. In the book The Blood of Emmett Till (2017), Timothy B. Tyson pries an admission from Till’s accuser that she lied in court. Jessica McDiarmid investigates a series of unsolved crimes on British Columbia’s notorious Highway 16 in Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019). Green’s 2021 book, Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York, exposes the indifference that hampered investigations of a series of murders of gay men in the 1990s, extending from the mayor’s office to the FBI. These books epitomize the metamorphosis of true crime, rising to the level of social history, and are justly furnished with the apparatus so many lack—notes and, in most cases, an index.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper, a 2014 film by the English director Nick Broomfield, is another kind of corrective. It ostensibly concerns a Black serial killer, Lonnie Franklin Jr., who may have murdered a hundred or more women in South Central Los Angeles from 1985 to 2007. A former sanitation worker, briefly employed as a mechanic by the LAPD, Franklin was not arrested until 2010. (“Grim Sleeper” refers to his apparent fourteen-year sabbatical, although it transpires that he may have killed throughout, disposing of bodies in a landfill.) Broomfield, a gumshoe with a boom mic, his son Barney toting the camera, does the door-to-door that cops neglected, revealing the film’s core subject: the brutalization and abandonment of a despised community by the wealthy city surrounding it.
The apathy of the police is dramatized by the astonishment of Franklin’s friends and neighbors, the mothers of victims, and survivors as Broomfield—a white man—turns up to ask questions and listen to the answers. Clearly, few had been afforded that respect. Working with Pamela Brooks, a former sex worker who knew Franklin, Broomfield discovers witnesses and survivors never interviewed by police. Ballistic evidence established in 1987 that a serial killer was active in the community, yet officials did not release this crucial information for more than twenty years. The silence surrounding the killings was covered by Christine Pelisek, a reporter for LA Weekly, but the city’s malign negligence was so egregious that an activist group, Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, protested outside LAPD’s downtown headquarters for years. “He’s only killing hookers,” police told them. As Brooks put it, “I’m a Black woman. Who gives a fuck about me.”
Murder by murder, the sisterhood of true crime and of their allies across the genre has been dismantling the age-old Master Detective myths—that women are responsible for what’s done to them, that policing necessarily makes us safer, that cops are good at catching killers. These writers of true crime have shown us the nightmare paralysis of lives ruled by fear. They are placing blame where it belongs, and the genre of guilty pleasure is finally part of something constructive: seizing control of the story.
July 22, 2021
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