Becky Walton, MLIS, Collection Development Librarian and Beth Reinker, MSLS, Manager, Collection Development Adult Materials
Why is true crime a perennially popular genre? As true crime junkies, we both know the appeal of the genre firsthand. We have a lot of ideas about what drives the interest in these stories, but we believe that much of the appeal comes down to how the stories help us face our own anxiety and fears.
Criminology professor Scott Bonn, author of Why We Love Serials Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers, also believes that true crime lets us explore our own fears in a controlled way. In a Time article, he explains, “As a source of popular culture entertainment, [true crime] allows us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real.”
Books were among the earliest form of media that gave true crime fans their fix. Some of the best ones written decades ago still circulate and are being bought and sold today. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966), Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974), Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer (1979), The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule (1980), Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore (1994), and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994) can be found in many libraries and bookstores and even on high school summer reading lists.
In the 1980s, network, cable, and premium TV came along and delivered a thrill ride with TV series and documentaries. TV shows such as Unsolved Mysteries (NBC/Lifetime, 1987-2002), America’s Most Wanted (Fox/Lifetime, 1988-2012), City Confidential (A&E, 1998-2005), Medical Detectives/Forensic Files (TLC/Court TV, 1996-2007), and I Survived (The Biography Channel/Lifetime Movie Network, 2008-2015) can still be found in reruns today.
True crime events have also become part of our water cooler conversation: just how many of us remember watching the white Bronco, low-speed chase of OJ Simpson?!
True crime podcasts have grown in popularity over the last few years, and fans are always looking for new series to enjoy. When you think of true crime podcasts, Serial immediately comes to mind. It is typically considered the gateway series that fueled millions of listeners’ interest in true crime. Now, podcasts such as S-Town, True Crime Garage, In the Dark, Criminal, Someone Knows Something, and Last Podcast on the Left reach millions of listeners each month. Some of these podcasts explore a single case in depth, while others feature new cases in each episode. Either way, it’s clear that their popularity shows no signs of slowing. Fans can easily find lists of the best new podcasts to download for their commutes.
The two of us are dedicated Murderinos, the nickname for fans of My Favorite Murder, a true crime comedy podcast (We know it sounds weird, but it just works!) featuring Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff. The duo is about to release their first book, Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide, and their fans can’t wait. Those fans also attend live events in droves. It’s not uncommon for venues to sell out when My Favorite Murder is being recorded. We had a hard-fought battle to obtain tickets to their April 2019 show here in Nashville.
True crime podcasts are very popular among women. Many people don’t realize that true crime as a whole is more popular with women than men. In fact, a 2010 study found that “women are more drawn to true crime stories” than men. The popular Wine and Crime podcast has over 500,000 downloads per month, and we were surprised to learn that 85% of that audience is female.
The popularity doesn’t end with podcasts, though. Documentaries are a popular medium for telling true crime stories. The case of the West Memphis Three garnered no fewer than four documentaries: West of Memphis (2012) and the Paradise Lost trilogy (1996, 2000, 2011). In 2015, HBO aired The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, a documentary miniseries that had what Esquire’s John Hendrickson called “one of the most jaw-dropping moments in Television history” as Durst appeared to admit guilt while on mic in the final episode.
Recently, there has been a resurgence in interest in true crime documentary series. This may be due in part to the audience’s ability to binge-watch them via streaming services. When Making a Murderer came to Netflix, it resulted in nation-wide conversation, and several books have since been published on the case. Updated episodes of The Staircase on Netflix also became a phenomenon in 2018. Whether you believe Kathleen Peterson’s death was an accident, a murder, or you’re on board with Owl Theory, there’s been an incredible amount of conversation and attention around that story.
Those conversations aren’t limited to the people you know anymore. Technology and social media have made it easy for true crime aficionados to find community online. Fan forums and social media allow people to connect with others who share their obsession.
Today, social media plays a huge role in getting the word out about these cases and the related books. Michelle McNamara, a true crime writer and the force behind TrueCrimeDiary, passed away in 2016. Her book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer was published posthumously. The book told the story of the Golden State Killer, a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s. The book’s publication was only the beginning of the story, though. In April 2018, police found and arrested a man believed to be the Golden State Killer, due in part to the attention that McNamara’s work brought to this cold case. Social media lit up as word got out about the arrest. The book and McNamara’s dogged investigative work became a part of the story as the case got more publicity.
One thing is clear—fans of true crime stories are insatiable. If your patrons are as dedicated to the genre as we are, our librarians can help.
We’ve pulled together the best new titles to make your true crime collection… killer.