True Crime and the Trash Balance

True crime has a reputation for being trashy, but a recent renaissance has it tipping into advocacy.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 9 minutes (2,514 words)

In his satirical 1827 essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” Thomas de Quincey called himself a connoisseur of murder before assuring us he hadn’t actually committed one himself. In her new book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, late author Michelle McNamara also ensures that we know her interest is personal, not prurient (it originated with an unsolved crime in her childhood neighborhood). Most of us have excuses for our interest in true crime, as though enjoying it offered real insight into our own predilections. The quasi-religious impulse to consider this a perversion of society’s innate morality has led to a flurry of theories about the source of our fascination, with four main hypotheses recurring: true crime can be a cathartic conduit for our primal urges, a source of schadenfreude, a controlled environment to experience the thrill of fear, and way to arm us (women particularly) with the knowledge to keep ourselves safe. A psychologist, speaking to NPR in 2009, provided the perfect précis: “our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime. It’s two sides of the same story.”

True crime is less embarrassing, like so many things, when it’s scrubbed clean. On my shelf, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping and Dave Cullen’s Columbine stick out for how unobtrusive they are amidst the loudly stylized spines of Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, among others. With their unadorned print (no drips) and minimalist art (no claret), these tasteful soft covers pass for literature. They are comparable to “prestige” podcasts like Serial and S-Town and series like Making a Murderer and The Keepers, Netflix shows in which the classic hallmarks of true crime programs — overly explicit, overly emotive — are massaged into character-driven narratives for the graduate set. In the midst of this influx of classy crime content, watching throwbacks like Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, in which survivors are tasked with reliving their abuse and tear-stained grief is the closeup du jour, starts to feel like an ignominious act.

In 2016, at the beginning of the true crime renaissance, The New Yorker asked Popular Crime author Bill James whether, regardless of the highbrow livery, it was fundamentally “distasteful” (New Yorker for “trashy”) to transform tragedy into entertainment. “Well, certainly there is something distasteful about it,” James said, but, “When there is a car wreck, we ask what happened to cause the car wreck.” That is to say: The crime itself is distasteful (or trashy), therefore it’s necessarily distasteful (or trashy) when we address it. So, either we can refuse to interrogate crime, full stop, or we can ensure that the grief we cause is for a greater good. It is a sort of trash balance — less exploitation, more justice — with only one bad ending instead of two.

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True crime was lurid straight out of the birth canal. Born in the mid-sixteenth century, it was the offspring of

Elizabeth Brownrigg, seen here in action, was hanged in 1767 after one of her abused servants, Mary Clifford, died from her injuries. (Hulton Archive / Getty)

two relatively new developments: criminal justice and the printing press. Historic crime reports’ graphic nature is typically associated with a depravity believed to appeal to the unrefined, uneducated, and unmoneyed, but that was not the case with these early publications. Though they were often branded with explicit woodcuts that would have been understandable to even the illiterate, they also boasted rhyming text and only went to those who could afford them, predominantly the upper echelons. In “True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism,” published in The American Historical Review, Joy Wiltenburg writes that “emotive language, direct dialogue, building of suspense through circumstantial detail, and graphic description of bloody violence were common in the genre.”

Favored cases were in-family and usually involved multiple deaths. The focus was on the victims, while the moral of the story was that sin begat punishment. “The combination of truth with appeals to the heart underlined the religious focus of these works,” writes Wiltenburg. “Virtually all crime accounts published during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries connected their stories with an edifying Christian message.” This message associated brutality with the devil and positioned public order as the path to virtue. “[Sensationalism] has had religious, political, and cultural impact,” Wilternburg sums up, “promoting the ready acceptance of punitive government actions, the advancement of religious agendas, the internalization of mainstream emotional expectations, the habit of vicarious emotional experience, and the focus on distinctive individual identity.”

With a reputation for being insensitive to and financially exploiting both criminals and their victims, true crime is often accused of sensationalism, but that term wasn’t coined until the 19th century, a time that favored rational thought over the emotive prose of journalists. “While sexual scandals and other shocking events have become staples of modern sensationalism,” writes Wiltenburg, “its chief focus has always been crime, especially the most bloody and horrifying of murders.” The 1800s also gave us our first detectives, who inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin stories and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, the latter not only centering crime fiction as a genre, but granting it a modicum of respectability. The gutter was still within spitting distance, though. Penny dreadfuls arrived — demon barber Sweeney Todd in tow — as early versions of popular culture in the form cheap mass-produced serials for young, increasingly literate working-class men, featuring salacious gore; like the true crime paperbacks of today, they supplied affordable, digestible scandal to entertain tired people with no time. The last gasp of the penny dreadful coincided with the precursor to O.J. Simpson’s so-called trial of the century: The Lizzie Borden case. The 32-year-old Massachusetts woman’s trial for the axe murder of her parents spawned a media phenomenon and firmly established the mass appeal of true crime. The next century saw the trash-fired genre shooting off in various directions, from tabloids like The National Enquirer to paperbacks like Lacey Fosburgh’s Closing Time to shows like America’s Most Wanted.

Then there was In Cold Blood.

“Until one morning in mid-November 1959, few Americans — in fact, few Kansans — had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” Before In Cold Blood, this is not how real crime stories read. What Arthur Conan Doyle did for crime fiction, Truman Capote did for true crime. His 1965 experiment was released as a four-part serial in The New Yorker and became the reference point for every other high-brow true crime work in every other medium. “The motivating factor in my choice of material — that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case — was altogether literary,” Capote told The New York Times. “It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it.” He believed only those with the “fictional technical equipment” — novelists, not journalists — like him could do it. The factual inaccuracies that have since emerged suggest that Capote’s belief in his own skills — he neither taped nor took notes during interviews — were as sensational as the genre he was hoping to reinvent. His book is still, however, considered the pinnacle of crime lit.

It was Capote’s book that the Times referred to when designating Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line a “nonfiction feature film,” per its distributors, in 1988. This exercise in lyrical fact was groundbreaking in its own right: an elegant piece of true crime as an advocacy tool. The subject of a false conviction, Randall Dale Adams had his case thrown out with the help of evidence Morris uncovered. It’s a straight shot from The Thin Blue Line to Serial, which blew up true crime podcasting in 2014. But while an appeal followed this program’s highly subjective long-form reexamination of Adnan Syed’s conviction for killing Baltimore teen Hae Min Lee in 1999, it was Capote — “a leap in narrative innovation on the scale of In Cold Blood” — who was once again cited, this time in The New Yorker. Serial’s executive producer has said they were trying to avoid an exploitative “Nancy Grace type of a titillating thing,” but the program was serialized with its own version of a cliffhanger each week, and provided its own hero, the avatar in our ears, reporter Sarah Koenig. Yet Koenig bristled at the suggestion by the Times’ Magazine that this was entertainment. “I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “I’m still reporting.”

As though the two were mutually exclusive. As though true crime could only be trash if it were

MP Christopher Atkinson in a pillory (with his hat) in London in 1783 after being convicted of perjury. (Hulton Archive / Getty)

entertainment, and could only be entertainment if it weren’t journalism. Of course, this negates the nature of media. To entertain — to entertain a thought, for instance — is merely to take it into consideration, to allow it to hold one’s attention. Journalism is made to entertain; if it weren’t, reports would not be called “stories” and there would be no need for inverted triangles or kickers or pull quotes or anything else to catch our attention. Because to deliver the news there has to be someone to deliver it to, and that necessitates their entertainment. Otherwise the news is nothing but fact; there is no story.

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“Many of the differences between trash culture and high culture show only that storytelling adapts to changing economic, social and political conditions,” Richard Keller Simon writes in Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition. It’s something to consider when watching Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly. The series was produced by a network for women branded by its schlocky aesthetic and penchant for frothy romance. An exec at Lifetime has admitted it has “erred on the tabloid side” and Surviving R. Kelly, which has a number of black women recounting the decades of abuse they say the singer has inflicted on them, exhibits the familiar tropes: the inflated score, the voyeuristic set pieces, the abused women on display. In an interview with Complex earlier this month, showrunner dream hampton revealed that she received a number of notes from Lifetime and that she was pushed to find more victims. “I didn’t like the salaciousness of stacking up all of these people who survived him,” she said, “but I got the corroboration part.” The result is a series that orchestrates rescue attempts and highlights the explicitness of Kelly’s brutality, while only gesturing vaguely at the cottage industry he has fostered over the past three decades in order to victimize black women and at our collective failure to see these women as victims at all.

When I watched it, I couldn’t shake a feeling of ickiness, particularly when one of the victims was asked to describe her abuse and dissolved into tears. We didn’t need to see that scene from the pee tape so many times, we didn’t need a tour by one victim of the room where she was allegedly tortured, we didn’t need to watch as one mother reunited with her daughter. (I’m not even including the questionable stylistic choices). The whole endeavor read trashy, old-school Lifetime. “I saw someone kind of try to drag me about why isn’t this on something more premium like Netflix. But this to me is the perfect place for it,” hampton told Complex. “I know that women watch Lifetime, and that black women make up the majority of those viewers.” Reading this made me doubly uncomfortable. It suggested that to get black women’s attention you had to feed them trash. And, okay, maybe black women weren’t trying to mute R. Kelly over The Chicago Sun-Times’ original reporting, but none of us were! The world has changed since 2002, and all of us — including black women — have become more sophisticated about predation.

“The average American today has greater familiarity with the legal process, thanks in part to procedural dramas and the round-the-clock media coverage of splashy crimes that began with the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s,” writes Lenika Cruz in The Atlantic. “And people are more aware than ever of flaws in the criminal-justice system, including police brutality and wrongful convictions.” This means that true crime has had to hustle to keep up with its audience, reframing from the crime itself to seeking its closure. NPR noticed the new true crime formula in 2015, with programs like Serial and HBO’s The Jinx (and later Netflix’s Making a Murderer and APM’s In the Dark) concentrating on ongoing cases that could be affected by new reporting. Andrew Jarecki, director of The Jinx, called this subject matter “live ball,” and so here we are in the live-ball era of true crime in which Robert Durst literally burps up a confession on camera before he is charged with murder. “Can the genre sustain this? Can they really sustain true crime as an advocacy medium?” Michael Arntfield, founder of the Cold Case Society, asked The Pacific Standard. “The success and the legitimacy of the medium hinges on being able to stay within this framework of advocacy ahead of strictly sensationalism or profitability.”

But even advocacy has its limits. Netflix’s runaway success Making a Murder eschewed Serial-like narration and Jinx-like reenactments, but contorted almost 700 hours of footage into supporting a theory that the filmmakers had already formulated, that convicted murderer Steven Avery was innocent despite everything pointing to the contrary. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos told the Times they secured interviews where others didn’t because of their “tempered approach.” Like those books on my shelf, this refined series passed for high culture.

The most balanced true crime isn’t actually true crime. Last year, American Public Media launched the second season of their hit podcast In the Dark, hosted by Madeleine Baran. Over 11 episodes, it examined the six trials of Curtis Flowers for the same murders. Even though the precipitating incident was the crime, the attention was on everything else; the reporting team embedded itself in Flowers’ Mississippi hometown for a year, ultimately producing not only a strong — dare I say entertaining? — sense of place, but a rigorous analysis of the systemic failures of the investigation. “For us as reporters, we’re here to look at the people in power and look at the systems in place that raise questions about whether or not the criminal justice system is fair, whether it is just using facts,” Baran told NPR. “So what that results in is not our place to say. But certainly, in this case, what we’ve shown is that the evidence against Curtis Flowers is weak. So this becomes a question now for the courts.” While other podcasts rely on their relatability, this one doesn’t have to — the story is enough. In the aftermath of Baran’s team’s exhaustive reporting, the Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider Flowers’ conviction. It is a rare case in which the balance seems to be moot. It’s all justice.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.