I confess it. I’m a sucker for crime books of all kinds – mysteries, thrillers, serial killers. The darker the deeds, the more likely it is that I’ll be huddled under my duvet long into the night, riffling through the white pages of my Kindle, in total oblivion of the clock ominously ticking its way towards the morning school run. But – and this is a big BUT – the crime stories I really love are not just ‘stories’ – by which I mean, concoctions formed from the dark imaginations of their authors. The stories that have me reading into the night are made of darker material – the stuff not of dreams, but of reality. The stories I love are true.
The first crime book that really had me in its grip, in my early twenties, was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Something about the orgy of murders in a lonely, windswept Kansas farmhouse of the 1950s haunted me long after I put down the book. That started me on a trail of real-life American Gothic: next on my reading list was Deviant, Harold Schechter’s masterful re-telling of the story of Ed Gein, the ‘harmless’ and jolly ‘village idiot’ who, throughout the 1950s, silently plundered graves and stripped the skin of his trophy-victims in a grey, non-descript Wisconsin town. The most paradoxical aspect of the Ed Gein story is that, whilst it inspired the whole American ‘slasher’ genre of twentieth-century film and writing – from Hitchcock’s Psycho to Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs – the story is more incredible and grotesque in fact, than any of the fictional versions it inspired. Indeed, the very part of The Silence of the Lambs that was most criticized for being unreal and exaggerated – the Buffalo Bill sub-plot – is directly taken from the Ed Gein story. Truth, in so many ways, is stranger than fiction.
Schechter’s book on Gein is more than the mere re-counting of a true-life tale of horror that unfolded in a sleepy Wisconsin town. Like Capote before him, Schechter – a professor in literature and popular culture at the City University of New York – sets the tale in its full Gothic context, translating it into what it actually became: a blueprint for the modern American horror story. In fact, interpreting the social ripples created by great crimes is no more than what all the best writers of so-called ‘true crime’ writing do. From the origins of the genre in the early twentieth-century chronicles of the Scots lawyer William Roughead, to Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Executioner’s Song, the joy of the best true-crime stories is that we come away with a sense of having shed some light – not just into the minds of murderers and psychopaths – but into the psychology of an age, illuminating the darker side of the human story.
And yet, the label ‘true crime’ has always carried vaguely pejorative connotations. ‘True crime’, for many, is synonymous with schlock: lurid, opportunistic accounts of grotesque crimes churned out by hack journalists to make a quick buck out of a current media shocker. And of course, many such books exist – as a look at any of the bestseller lists will show. However, the vaguely derogatory connotations of the ‘true crime’ label do not do justice to the many truly great books that are produced in the genre, continuing the tradition of cultural commentary and novelistic approach started by In Cold Blood: Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Harold Schechter’s The Mad Sculptor, William J Mann’s Tinseltown, or British writer Sean O’Connor’s chilling post-war tale of the serial killer Neville Heath, Handsome Brute. Books such as these are becoming more and more prominent in the genre, especially in America – as the 2015 Edgar Award fact-crime nominees list shows (http://www.theedgars.com/nominees.html)
Perhaps, then, the answer is to come up with a new name to replace the old, worn-out and outmoded label, ‘true crime’: a chance to re-invent the wheel, like the 2013 coinage of the term ‘domestic noir’ captured the spirit of a whole new genre of books dealing with the toxic marriage. Today, ‘true crime’ is as powerful as any literary fiction. Even better, it’s actually true…..
And so, the new generic name? – Suggestions on a postcard, please…..
Piu Eatwell trained as a lawyer and later worked as a documentary producer for the BBC. She now divides her time between London and Paris and writes full-time on French-themed books and historical true crime. Her latest book, The Dead Duke, his Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse – a true-life Edwardian mystery – is published by Head of Zeus in the UK and WW Norton in the USA.
@PiuEatwell and www.piueatwell.com