True crime

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True crime is a nonfiction literary, podcast, and film genre in which the author examines an actual crime and details the actions of real people associated with and affected by criminal events.


The crimes most commonly include murder; about 40 percent focus on tales of serial killers. [1] [2] True crime comes in many forms, such as books, films, podcasts, and television shows. Many works in this genre recount high-profile, sensational crimes such as the JonBenét Ramsey killing, the O. J. Simpson murder case, and the Pamela Smart murder, while others are devoted to more obscure slayings.

True crime works can impact the crimes they cover and the audience who consumes it. [3] The genre is often criticized for being insensitive to the victims and their families and is described by some as trash culture. [4]


Murder pamphlet, 1812 Bellingham Pamphlet.jpg
Murder pamphlet, 1812

Zhang Yingyu's The Book of Swindles (c.1617) is a late Ming dynasty collection of stories about allegedly true cases of fraud. [5] Works in the related Chinese genre of court case fiction (gong'an xiaoshuo), such as the 16th-century Cases of Magistrate Bao , were either inspired by historical events or else purely fictional.

Hundreds of pamphlets, broadsides, chapbooks and other street literature about murders and other crimes were published from 1550 to 1700 in Britain as literacy increased and cheap new printing methods became widespread. They varied in style: some were sensational, while others conveyed a moral message. Most were purchased by the "artisan class and above", as the lower classes did not have the money or time to read them. Ballads were also created, the verses of which were posted on walls around towns, that were told from the perpetrator's point of view in an attempt to understand the psychological motivations of the crime. Such pamphlets remained in circulation in the 19th century in Britain and the United States, even after widespread crime journalism was introduced via the penny press. [6]

Thomas De Quincey published the essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" in Blackwood's Magazine in 1827, which focused not on the murder or the murderer but on how society views crime. [6]

Starting in 1889, Scottish lawyer William Roughead wrote and published essays for six decades about notable British murder trials he attended, with many of these essays collected in the 2000 book Classic Crimes. Many regard Roughead "as the dean of the modern true crime genre." [7]

An American pioneer of the genre was Edmund Pearson, who was influenced in his style of writing about crime by De Quincey. Pearson published a series of books of this type starting with Studies in Murder in 1924 and concluding with More Studies in Murder in 1936. Before being collected in his books, Pearson's true crime stories typically appeared in magazines like Liberty , The New Yorker , and Vanity Fair . Inclusion in these high-class magazines distinguished Pearson's crime narratives from those found in the penny press. [8] The foreword of a 1964 anthology of Pearson's stories contains an early mention of the term "true crime" as a genre. [9]

Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood (1965) is usually credited with establishing the modern novelistic style of the genre [1] and the one that rocketed it to great profitability. [8]



The first true crime magazine, True Detective , was published in 1924. It featured fairly matter-of-fact accounts of crimes and how they were solved. During the genre’s heyday, before WWII, 200 different true crime magazines were sold on newsstands, with six million magazines sold every month. By itself, True Detective had two million in circulation. The covers of the magazines generally featured women being menaced in some way by a potential criminal perpetrator, with the scenarios being more intense in the 1960's.

Public interest in the magazines began declining in the 1970's, and by 1996, almost none were being published, including True Detective, which had been bought and shut down by a new owner. [10]


True crime books often center on sensational, shocking, or strange events, particularly murder. Even though murder makes up less than 20% of reported crime, it is present in most true crime stories. Typically, these books report on a crime from the beginning of its investigation to its legal proceedings. [11] Serial killers have been a highly profitable sub-genre. An informal survey conducted by Publishers Weekly in 1993 concluded that the more popular true crime books focus on serial killers, with the more gruesome and grotesque content performing even better. [8]

Some true crime works are "instant books" produced quickly to capitalize on popular demand; these have been described as "more than formulaic" and hyper-conventional. [12] Others may reflect years of thoughtful research and inquiry and may have considerable literary merit. [1]

A milestone of the genre was Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1979), which was the first book in the genre to win a Pulitzer Prize. [13]

Other prominent true crime accounts include Truman Capote's In Cold Blood; [14] the best-selling true crime book of all time Helter Skelter , by the lead Manson family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry; [15] and Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me , about Ted Bundy. [14] An example of a modern true crime book is I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. [16] Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City gives a novelistic account of H. H. Holmes' operations during the 1893 World's Fair.

In 2006, Associated Content stated that since the start of the 21st century, the genre of writing that was growing the quickest was true crime. Much of this is due to the ease of recycling materials and the publication of numerous volumes by the same authors differing only by minor updates. [17] The majority of readers of true crime books are women. [18] [19]

Films and television

True crime documentaries have been a growing medium in the last several decades. One of the most influential documentaries in this process was The Thin Blue Line , directed by Errol Morris. This documentary, among others, feature reenactments, although other documentary filmmakers choose not to use them since they don't show the truth. [20] Other prominent documentaries include Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Making a Murderer , The Jinx, and The Keepers. [21]

In the early 1990s, a boom of true crime films began in Hong Kong. These films ranged from graphic Category III-rated films such as The Untold Story and Dr. Lamb (based on serial killers Wong Chi Hang and Lam Kor-wan, respectively) to more general audience fare such as the film Crime Story (based on the kidnapping of businessman Teddy Wang Tei-huei), which featured action star Jackie Chan. [22] [23]


Podcasts with a true crime theme are a recent trend. The 2014 true crime podcast Serial broke podcasting records when it achieved 5 million downloads on iTunes quicker than any previous podcast. [24] [25] [26] As of September 2018, it has been downloaded more than 340 million times. [27] It has been followed by other true crime podcasts such as Dirty John, My Favorite Murder, Up and Vanished , Parcast series such as Cults, Female Criminals and Mind's Eye, Someone Knows Something, and many more. [28]

Podcasts have now expanded to more sites such as Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and many more. They exist to provide others an easy way to learn about true crime murders and mysteries. Spotify has an expanding number of true crime podcasts with Rotten Mango, Conviction American Panic, Bed of Lies, Catch & Kill among many more. This genre has been on the rise as psychologist, Amanda Vicary, said her report found “women were most drawn to true crime stories that gave them tips for spotting danger and staying alive”. [29]

It's been speculated that fear could play a role in the popularity of true crime podcasts. These podcasts often recount horrific crimes, which triggers the fear response and the release of adrenaline in the body. Due to the possibility of bingeing podcasts, adrenaline rushes can be experienced in quick bursts. [30] Another explanation for the popularity of true crime podcasts is due to the serialized nature of crime, in which events happen one after another. Podcasts that explore a crime episodically can utilize this aspect in their storytelling. [30]


The investigative process of the true crime genre can lead to changes in the cases being covered, such as when Robert Durst seemingly confessed to murder in the documentary The Jinx and was arrested. [31] [32]

A study conducted in 2011, in Nebraska, showed that consuming non-fiction crime shows (aka true crime) is correlated with an increased fear of being a victim of crime. As the frequency of watching true crime shows increased, support for the death penalty increased, while support for the criminal justice system decreased. [33]

In Australia, the amount of reports given to the crime reporting network Crime Stoppers Australia that led to charges being pressed doubled from 2012 to 2017. This increased interest in crime is attributed to popular true crime podcasts. [34]

The Netflix show Making A Murderer has had a range of real-life effects, ranging from the show being shown in law schools as instructional material to increased mistrust in criminal investigators. [35]


The true crime genre has been criticized as being disrespectful to crime victims and their families. Author Jack Miles believes this genre has a high potential to cause harm and mental trauma to the real people involved. [36] True crime media can be produced without the consent of the victim's family, which can lead to them being re-traumatized. [37] Recent discussions about the consumption of true crime media have also focused on the impact on the audience's mental health. [3]

Depending on the writer, true crime can adhere strictly to well-established facts in journalistic fashion or can be highly speculative. [12] Writers can selectively choose which information to present and which to leave out in order to support their narrative. [37] [38] Artists have offered fact-based narratives blending fiction and historical reenactment. [39] Author Christiana Gregoriou analyzed several books of the genre and concluded that tabloidization and fictionalization are pervasive in the works of some of the authors of true crime literature. In some cases, even books by the same author disagree on specifics about the same killer or events. [12] For instance, some facts reported in Capote's In Cold Blood were challenged in 2013. [40] Capote's second attempt at a true crime book, Handcarved Coffins (1979), despite being subtitled "Nonfiction Account of an American Crime", was already noted for containing significant fictional elements. [41]

Related Research Articles

Truman Capote American author (1924–1984)

Truman Garcia Capote was an American novelist, screenwriter, playwright and actor. Several of his short stories, novels, and plays have been praised as literary classics, including the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) and the true crime novel In Cold Blood (1966), which he labeled a "non-fiction novel." His works have been adapted into more than 20 films and television dramas.

Mystery fiction Genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved

Mystery is a fiction genre where the nature of an event, usually a murder or other crime, remains mysterious until the end of the story. Often within a closed circle of suspects, each suspect is usually provided with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The central character is often a detective, who eventually solves the mystery by logical deduction from facts presented to the reader. Some mystery books are non-fiction. Mystery fiction can be detective stories in which the emphasis is on the puzzle or suspense element and its logical solution such as a whodunit. Mystery fiction can be contrasted with hardboiled detective stories, which focus on action and gritty realism.

<i>In Cold Blood</i> Novel by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood is a non-fiction novel by American author Truman Capote, first published in 1966. It details the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas.

<i>Music for Chameleons</i> Book by Truman Capote

Music for Chameleons (1980) is a collection of short fiction and non-fiction by the American author Truman Capote. Capote's first collection of new material in fourteen years, Music for Chameleons spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, unprecedented for a collection of short works.

James Renner American journalist

James Renner is an American author, investigative journalist, producer, and director. He worked as a reporter for Cleveland Scene and was editor of the alternative newspaper The Cleveland Independent. He is known for his work in the thriller, science fiction, and true crime genres. In 2019, Renner founded The Porchlight Project, a nonprofit dedicated to offering support for the families of the missing and murdered.

An inverted detective story, also known as a "howcatchem", is a murder mystery fiction structure in which the commission of the crime is shown or described at the beginning, usually including the identity of the perpetrator. The story then describes the detective's attempt to solve the mystery. There may also be subsidiary puzzles, such as why the crime was committed, and they are explained or resolved during the story. This format is the opposite of the more typical "whodunit", where all of the details of the perpetrator of the crime are not revealed until the story's climax. The first such story was R. Austin Freeman's The Case of Oskar Brodski published in Pearson's Magazine in 1912.

<i>In Cold Blood</i> (film) 1967 film by Richard Brooks

In Cold Blood is a 1967 American neo-noir crime film written, produced and directed by Richard Brooks, based on Truman Capote's 1966 nonfiction book of the same name. It stars Robert Blake as Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as Richard "Dick" Hickock, two men who murder a family of four in Holcomb, Kansas. Although the film is in parts faithful to the book, Brooks made some slight alterations, including the inclusion of a fictional character, "The Reporter".

Maury Travis American serial killer

Maury Troy Travis was an American serial killer. Travis was named in a federal criminal complaint for the murders of two women. At the time of the murders, he was a hotel waiter, and on parole for a 1989 robbery. While Travis claimed in a letter to have murdered 17 women, some authorities were doubtful; others thought he may have murdered up to 20 women. He committed suicide by hanging in custody in St. Louis County, Missouri, after being arrested for murder.

David Parker Ray American serial kidnapper and torturer

David Parker Ray, also known as the Toy-Box Killer, was an American kidnapper, torturer, rapist and suspected serial killer. Though no bodies were found, Ray was accused by his accomplices of killing several women, and was suspected by the police to have murdered as many as sixty women from Arizona and New Mexico while living in Elephant Butte, approximately seven miles north of Truth or Consequences.

Martin Edwards (author) British crime novelist, critic and solicitor (born 1955)

Kenneth Martin Edwards is a British crime novelist, whose work has won awards in the UK and the United States. As a crime fiction critic and historian, and also in his career as a solicitor, he has written non-fiction books and many articles. He is the current President of the Detection Club and in 2020 was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association's Diamond Dagger, the highest honour in British crime writing, in recognition of the ‘sustained excellence’ of his work in the genre.

Edward Edwards (serial killer) Convicted American serial killer (1933–2011)

Edward Wayne Edwards was a convicted American serial killer. Edwards escaped from jail in Akron, Ohio, in 1955 and fled across the country, holding up gas stations. By 1961, he was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

The Jeff Davis 8, sometimes called the Jennings 8, refers to a series of unsolved murders in Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana. Between 2005 and 2009, the bodies of eight women were found in swamps and canals surrounding Jennings, Louisiana. Most of the bodies were found in such a state of decomposition as to make the actual cause of death difficult to determine.

Michael Andrew Arntfield is a Canadian academic, author, true crime broadcaster, university professor, Fulbright scholar, and former police officer.

<i>Casefile</i> Australian true crime podcast

Casefile True Crime Podcast, or simply Casefile, is an Australian crime podcast that first aired in January 2016 and is hosted by an Australian man who remains anonymous. The podcast is released on a Sunday (EST) for three consecutive weeks, with a break on the fourth week. The series deals with solved or cold criminal cases, often related to well-known murders and serial crimes. Many early episodes relate to Australian cases, although notable crimes from the UK and the US are increasingly featured, and well-known cases from other countries have also been included. Unlike a number of similar podcasts, the series is scripted and narrative, relying primarily on original police or mass-media documents, eyewitness accounts, and interview or public announcement recordings. Larger and more-complex cases have received multiple-week serialised broadcasts, and case updates to previously aired cases are also provided from time to time. The series has been well received, and has won a number of awards since its debut.

<i>Crime Writers On</i> Podcast that reviews true crime

Crime Writers On... is a twice weekly podcast hosted by a four-person panel consisting of American true crime authors: married couple Rebecca Lavoie and Kevin Flynn, crime noir novelist Toby Ball, and journalist and licensed investigator Lara Bricker. The podcast started on December 12, 2014 as a commentary on and review of the hit true crime podcast Serial, starting with the show's tenth episode about Adnan Syed and continuing into its later seasons about Bowe Bergdahl and the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas at the Justice Center Complex in Downtown Cleveland. Crime Writers On quickly grew to cover journalism and a variety of crime-related pop culture topics including other podcasts, films, television shows, and more. The panel often provides updates on the real life cases discussed in previous episodes as they develop.

Amanda Howard is an Australian fiction writer, true crime author, and expert on serial killers.

Paul Holes American former cold-case investigator

Paul Holes is an American former cold-case investigator for the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office. Holes is known for his contributions to solving the Golden State Killer case using advanced methods of identifying the killer with DNA and genealogy technology. Since retiring in March 2018, Holes has contributed to books, television, and podcasts about the Golden State Killer and true crime.

Clutter family murders 1959 killings in Kansas

In the early morning hours of November 15, 1959, four members of the Clutter family – Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon – were murdered in their rural home, just outside the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas. Two ex-convicts, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, were found guilty of the murders and sentenced to death. Smith and Hickock were executed by the state of Kansas on the same day, April 14, 1965. The murders were detailed by Truman Capote in his 1966 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood.

Kieran Patrick Kelly

Kieran Patrick Kelly was a convicted murderer and suspected serial killer.

Chris Clark is a British author who writes chiefly about serial killers and their possible links to unsolved crimes. He is a retired police intelligence officer who worked for Norfolk Police. In 2022, his book Yorkshire Ripper: The Secret Murders, which was jointly written with journalist Tim Tate and alleged links between Peter Sutcliffe and unsolved murders, was made into an ITV prime-time documentary series of the same name.


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