by Kristen Greif
“This hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbors and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believed that the murderer was among themselves.”
Truman Capote, in the popular In Cold Blood (Random House, 1966), thus sets the mood of uneasiness that descended on a small town in Kansas following a quadruple homicide. In Cold Blood is one of the first, and certainly one of the most well-known, works from the genre of true crime. True crime books are a unique blend of factual events blended with elements of fiction (e.g., suspense). The purpose of true crime is to create a work that, through conventions of literature, can create a strong emotional connection to readers, thus helping others better relate to real people and actual events.
Take, for instance, the following from Giles Fowler’s Deaths on Pleasant Street:
“And thus, on a cheerier note than usual, began the shimmering final weekend in the worthy life of Colonel Thomas Hunton Swope.”
The use of the word “final” in this conclusion to the book’s first chapter creates suspense through the use of foreshadowing, a common literary tool of fiction. The reader becomes hooked. We know that the colonel is doomed—but how will he meet his end? The fact that the true cause of death for the colonel and two family members remains unknown to this day only adds a greater sense of suspense to this and similar works of true crime. We cannot help but try to figure out “whodunnit” as we read; true crime books, especially those dealing with unsolved cases, allow us to act like Sherlock Holmes, making us more involved in the story.
As actual events unfurl in Deaths on Pleasant Street, we grow more familiar with real figures from a bygone era who could be very similar to people we know today. Many of us probably know someone like the “love-smitten” Frances Swope Hyde, who refused to leave her dearly beloved husband when she learned of his cruel behavior toward others, and even when later he is accused of murder.
So why does it matter if we can relate to people involved in criminal cases. And isn’t it morbid to be so interested in real murders? We can surely get the same entertainment value from watching Criminal Minds or CSI and we wouldn’t, as some would claim, be romanticizing violence. But true crime books, such as Deaths on Pleasant Street, that get us invested in actual crimes, allow us to see victims and perpetrators alike as human beings. Being constantly bombarded by sensational news headlines and too many images of dead bodies displayed as props on the screen can desensitize us to horrific events. We don’t have time to stop and think, “Dear God, that was a human being.” But those dead bodies aren’t props and the perpetrators were probably once somebody’s beloved child. They were people with complex personalities and unique experiences that brought them to that brief moment when we see them on the news.
True crime fascinates because it satisfies our need to see the complexity in our fellow human beings and changes our perceptions of humanity, allowing us to see people as capable of being both kind and gruesome. It is tempting to split the world into black and white, good and bad, to save ourselves emotional pain. But most people aren’t split so cleanly into such dualities. Acknowledging the complexity of others can help us reevaluate how we act toward those around us. It might even help us to recognize warning signs from someone who could become violent. In this way, true crime doesn’t just appeal to us as mere entertainment—it draws us in because we are fascinated in learning about others and ourselves.