Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Is true crime's death exaggerated?

By Ron Franscell

Author Joe McGinniss, whose "Fatal Vision" is among a handful of acknowledged classics in true crime (and irrevocably skewed true-crime titles for almost three decades), recently pronounced the genre deader than Marley:
"The last three books I've written have been about soccer, which nobody in America cares about; horse racing, which nobody in America cares about; and true crime, a genre that expired sometime last century . . ."
If the genre is dead, it's died fairly young. It hasn't even been 50 years since Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" plucked crime reporting from the pages of pulp magazines and plopped it down in a book.

Even for a true-crime writer, death isn't usually a matter of perspective. Dead is dead. Maybe true crime is dying, or maybe it has ceased to produce the kinds of profits that McGinniss and other big-time writers expect, or maybe it's just evolving. But a gaggle of new true-crime books are being produced every year, along with an unprecedented number of TV shows dealing with the reality of crime. So "dead" might be a little strong.

For sure, the genre has made a deliberate, intentional shift away from the narrative grace of Capote and Norman Mailer in an effort to appeal to a less sophisticated reader who is more likely to be influenced by faux blood on the cover and will almost always check to see if the book includes gruesome photos before buying. I know of some authors out there who genuinely want to write (or have written) beautiful books that, like Capote, explore bigger issues reflected in crime and punishment, but they are discouraged by editors ... while just about any grocery clerk can publish a quickie book about a local murder case (as long as there is a lurid element, great pictures and the word "fatal" in the title).

McGinniss might be right. If we only took then pulse of true crime's literary merits, the genre definitely died ... right about the time of "Fatal Vision" (1983). McGinniss was among the first big names in true crime to veer away from stories with complex moral reflections on society to the lurid, commercial crap that appealed to a different kind of audience. So it's hard to disagree with Joe -- even though he certainly didn't make the comment knowing that he was part of the sea-change, along with Ann Rule and others.

Moreover, as True Crime Book Reviews noted recently at its Facebook site, "as self-publication become easier and less expensive, [the quality of] all genres will suffer."

Thankfully, there have been a few remarkable exceptions in the past 20 years, among them John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and Erik Larson's "Devil in the White City." They are likely to take the rightful places as classics in a genre that, at best, is still defining itself but wants desperately to be just like its earliest forebears.

It's quite possible that the last 20 years have simply been a phase, true crime's adolescence, where it was doing stupid things because of hormones. Maybe the adult years will reflect the genre's early precociousness and return to its sturdier, more robust, more literary roots.

But maybe not. Maybe it will simply decay back into its pulpy DNA and die out completely. Maybe the future of true-crime writing is on life-support in the small houses and POD presses.

You are a true-crime fan. Talk to me. What is the current state of true crime? How does it compare to the past and how would you describe its future?