True crime has become a bonafide phenomenon in the last few years with seemingly endless options for documentaries, podcasts, dramatic re-enactments, and books to choose from. There are entire podcasts dedicated to a single case, multi-season shows chronicling things like false confessions, child murderers, and spree killers, and films that delve into how infamous killers turned out that way. The genre is so popular, Netflix even released a parody making fun of it—American Vandal (which you should definitely watch).
Although there has always been plenty of interest in infamous killers from centuries ago like Jack the Ripper and H.H Holmes, one of the first literary true crime novel was Truman Capote’s best-selling In Cold Blood in 1966. The book tells the story of the quadruple murder of the Clutter family in Kansas and the hunt, capture, trials and eventual executions of their murderers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.
Other classic novels in the genre include the number one best-selling true crime book of all time, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Executioner’s Song. For less literary additions to the genre, you can never go wrong with Ann Rule’s body of work, particularly her Ted Bundy epic, The Stranger Beside Me.
Cases have been sensationalized by the media and followed obsessively by the public tracing all the way back to Lizzie Borden in the late 1800s. More recent cases have included JonBenet Ramsay, O.J Simpson, Casey Anthony and many more. The most scrutinized cases have all been made into multiple documentaries and had books written about them. The People vs. O.J Simpson even won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2016.
It’s impossible to mention all infamous serial killers that have been caught and scrutinized over the years, but obsession with cold-blooded monsters is hardly new. Take Richard Ramirez, aka The Night Stalker, for example. He has hundreds of groupies and actually managed to get married while in prison for the murders of multiple people. Most true crime fans wouldn’t go that far, but our fascination with people who do terrible things is in the same vein.
Podcasts are a huge medium for the true crime genre and it’s safe to say it all started with Serial and the case of Adnan Syed. He was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 but has maintained his innocence ever since. Journalist Sarah Koenig started investigating and the resulting podcast became a phenomenon. Since then, countless more true crime podcasts have popped up including Last Podcast on the Left, True Crime Garage, My Favorite Murder and most recently, Dirty John.
True crime TV has evolved in the last few years. Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted paved the way for high brow options like Netflix’s Mindhunter, based on real-life FBI agents who developed the practice of criminal profiling by interviewing serial killers like Edmund Kemper and Richard Speck. Then there’s HBO’s The Jinx, an explosive docu-series on Robert Durst, a millionaire suspected of multiple murders.
Netflix is a true crime fan’s dream with tons of documentaries and series’ to choose from. Among the most popular include Who Took Johnny, The Imposter, Making a Murderer, and Amanda Knox. The detective procedural formula works for both fiction and documentary. Law & Order, which has always taken inspiration from real-life cases, even got in on the true crime action with their currently-airing season about the Menendez Brothers.
The truth is, real life crime is an endless source of mysteries. We’re fascinated because most of it doesn’t make any sense and we’re probably never going to know the truth, but that just means we get to speculate, theorize and discuss. The pop culture phenomenon that true crime has become has even helped bring attention to cases that could use it. The West Memphis Three were eventually released from prison thanks in part to awareness that came from HBO’s Paradise Lost trilogy. Adnad Syed, who has always maintained his innocence, has been granted a new trial after spending 17 years in prison.
It’s important to remember that popular documentaries, podcasts and even books don’t tell the whole story. Criminal cases are detailed and complicated—not exactly ideal for entertainment purposes. There are always going to be biases, so forming an opinion about a case based on one documentary can be dangerous.
That being said, awareness can never hurt. Detectives have a lot of their plate and even as they work hard, many cases benefit from a little crowd sourcing. Web Sleuths is an online community where the true crime-obsessed can volunteer their time. Multiple missing persons cases have been solved thanks to the power of the internet in spreading the word.
True crime has turned into entertainment for a lot of people, but it has also become invaluable for spreading awareness about cold cases and the horrible things that can, and do, happen every single day. Every fan has thought about what it would be like to help solve a case and give a family closure about the death or disappearance of a loved one. Loving true crime might seem a little bit dark and macabre, but it also comes from an interest in solving mysteries and finding out the truth.
Editor’s note: Check back here every Tuesday for reviews and recommendations that will give you that true crime fix you crave. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll have that tiny tidbit of intell that translates to a “break in the case”. Until then, it can’t hurt to stay informed.