True Crime is a literary sub-genre that has been around for more than a century. It consists of accurate, detailed accounts of real crimes and became the focus of several cheap magazines in the 20th century—True Crime, True Detective, and Argosy Magazine. These crime magazines were printed on cheap paper—pulp—and the stories they cranked out were called pulp fiction. (Hence the name of the Quentin Tarantino movie.)
Oh, yes, I read Argosy Magazine as a kid. Now, it certainly wasn’t reading matter approved by my mother or teachers or anyone else with a sense of propriety and decency, but I nevertheless read it. I had a “dealer,” my friend Jimbo’s older brother Greg, who got me Argosy, swiped from his dad. I used money from my paper route to buy Argosy as well as Mad Magazine and read them while sitting on the roof of our garage, alley-side so as to be less noticeable.
Pulp fiction died out in the 1960s and early ‘70s, but the true crime form blossomed in a series of brilliant books, led by Truman Capote’s brilliant “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. This 1969 book told the story of an obscure but horrific murder of a family in rural Kansas. A couple of other great true crime books from that era include Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Vincent Bugliosi’s first-person account of prosecuting Charles Manson in Helter Skelter.
Side note: don’t read this second book if you have a job working the evening shift of a little-used library on your college campus because at some point you’ll be convinced that that sound of footsteps heading for your empty library is Charles Manson when, in fact, it’s just a janitor. And you’ll look pretty stupid when you jump out of your chair and yelp in fear when he comes walking in with a harmless barrel and floor broom. That’s just as a side note, however. Not something that actually happened to a person with a vivid imagination, such as myself.
True crime has been a winning genre for documentary filmmakers as well. Here are some good ones for you to consider.
Filmed while Aileen Wuornos was awaiting the death sentence for 5 murders, this documentary explores whether she was the worst female serial killer in history. Her defense rested on the fact that she was a sex worker, claiming that all the men she killed were killed in self-defense while they were raping her. A number of other questions are raised in this film, including questions about the exploitation of Wuornos and the quality of her initial defense. The justice system rendered its verdict, but director Nick Broomfield makes a case that the verdict may not have been fair.
Cropsey was a New York City urban legend from the 1970s. This film by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio began as an exploration of the tales surrounding this mystery bogeyman, but it led them to the story of a real-life predator named Andre Rand, a man convicted of several child kidnappings on Staten Island in the 1970s. This is a terrifying documentary and a terrifying story.
A deeply sorrowful documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer about the government-sponsored murders of thousands, if not millions, of communists (and others) in 1960s Indonesia. If this all sounds long ago and far away, Oppenheimer humanizes and contemporizes the story by having a middle-aged Indonesian man confront the killer of his brother. One of the best documentaries you will ever see, and a companion to The Act of Killing.
This is not a documentary, but it is a chillingly-accurate dramatization of the hunt for the worst serial killer in history, led by a dedicated Russian detective in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Stephen Rea plays Det. Viktor Burakov, a forensic expert who spends eight years pursuing Alexei Chikatilo, the man who murdered more than 50 men, women, and children. The film shows the toll this investigation took on Burakov, who not only had to put together the clues that led to Chikatilo’s conviction, but also fight a Soviet bureaucracy that did not believe serial murderers could exist in their society.
An Academy Award-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side tells the infuriating tale of an Afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, who was beaten to death by US soldiers while in custody at the notorious Parwan Detention Facility in Afghanistan. If you think torture is a good idea, perhaps you might want to give this film a watch. Spoiler alert: it isn’t a good idea. Something to note: director Alex Gibney is one of the best documentarians in the country right now. He has made a series of outstanding non-fiction accounts covering a variety of crimes and criminals. One of my favorites is Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a devastating account of the rise and fall of one of the biggest scams ever: the Enron Corporation’s manipulation of the energy markets. He also directed the much acclaimed anti-Scientology documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. All worth a watch.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.