The only real exploration of the appeal of true crime stories I’ve ever found is Popular Crime by Bill James, a rambling journey through major crime stories of American history, with a healthy dose of social critique and analysis. There’s no real thesis, unless it’s that true crime is useful for something other than prurient interest, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The author’s habit of stringing together a long list of vaguely similar cases from vaguely similar times gives the impression of patterns, but his regular admission that he’s not really a historian makes me suspicious of actually trusting these patterns.
He’s so invested in proving that true crime stories have worth, though, that he doesn’t pay any attention to true crime done wrong. And let’s be real – there’s an awful lot of that going around. The ones that drive me up the wall are the ones (frequently serial killer stories) that imply that the victims had it coming. This happens a lot when the victims are prostitutes, slightly less often when the victims are working-class women, and almost never when the victims are well-off white women. (Men are rarely the victims in true crime stories, which is a different analysis all its own.) I still look back with irritation on Murder in the Heartland, a book about a really psychologically interesting crime that ultimately comes to the conclusion, “Bitches be crazy.”
Not only is this insulting, it’s unhelpful. I mean, the insulting is bad enough, but I’m willing to accept uncomfortable truths for the sake of learning something. Thing is, uncomfortable truths are usually not insulting, because insulting is generalizing from biases and it’s really hard to get truths out of that. You have to go out another level, look at the generalizations instead of the thing you’re generalizing about. For instance, from reading Murder in the Heartland, I can’t tell a lot about the crime itself (a woman with delusional pregnancy murders a woman with a physical pregnancy to steal her baby) but you can tell that it comes out of a society that already tends to treat women as irrational creatures and pregnancy as a weird special condition that creates a special moral zone in which everything becomes that much more important. Of course, we already knew that.
Helpful true crime, to me, would be true crime stories that tell you something about why somebody does something awful and what can be done about it. This kind of thing happens most often in historical true crime, which I guess makes sense because then we have enough distance from both the crime itself and the culture to draw connections that make sense. It’s much easier to talk about what made Leopold and Loeb killers than it is to say what made Robert Durst who he is. Not that that means we’re right about Leopold and Loeb – just that we’re more comfortable talking about it.
And maybe you can only get that kind of helpful out of patterns. (That’s how science works, after all. In patterns.) James takes a good stab at it in his book, and even if I’m not entirely sure about all of his analysis, it is kind of interesting that kidnapping was the crime of choice in the 1920s and domestic murder in the 1990s. Whether that’s because one type of crime was considered more newsworthy or because it really did happen more I don’t know, but the pattern has to mean something. (Likewise the rash of women breaking windows in Wisconsin in the 1890s, as chronicled in Wisconsin Death Trip. I don’t know what it means but it was a thing, you know? It was a thing that people did, and I don’t know why.)
All of which is a really roundabout way of saying: I really like reading true crime. Yes, sometimes it feels like a guilty pleasure. Yes, a lot of it is exploitative and that’s gross. But there is something there, something about humanity. In order to understand how something works you have to understand the way it fails.