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True Crime Writing Part 2

By August 9, 2019News, True Crime

Why Do We Love True Crime?

Mark Lawson in this article in The Guardian  said,

“Humans are fascinated by evil,” says bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin. “We wonder where it comes from and whether we ourselves could ever carry out such an act. Some readers turn to crime fiction for answers, while others prefer true crime. Of course, there is a vicarious frisson for the fan of either – the reader stands at the shoulder of monsters without being endangered.”

Trisha Jackson, who specialises in crime books as an editorial director at Pan Macmillan, believes stories of criminality “create a psychologically safe space that lets us dare to wrap our minds around otherwise unfathomable emotion. Unlike cinema, whether it’s fact or fiction, books allow the reader more control over what they are exposed to, as we can simply close the book.”

Is Ian Rankin, right? Are you comfortable standing at a monster’s shoulder and know you are safe from their evil intent? I assume some of you are. And good luck to you if you find enjoyment and learning in what you read or observe.

But what of true crime creating a ‘psychologically safe place where you wrap your mind around those unfathomable emotions?’ Because isn’t that the gist of your interest in true crime … all care and no responsibility? Or is it just plain old voyeuristic curiosity?

True crime for me was a paid job that I would have done without pay if I had to. Today I remain fascinated by the complex number of ways humans behave badly towards each other and themselves. But why are so many others drawn to the genre?

Of course, the genre is not just serial killers and cruel psychopaths. One cannot avoid reading stories of paedophiles, rapists, sadists, domestic violence murderers and organised crime gangs such as the Organised Motor Cycle Gangs (OMCG).  The business model of the OMCGs is predicated on the manufacture, sale and importation of illicit drugs, extortion, fraud and stand-over violence.

There is also a plethora of books that try to unravel, in some way, the mysteries of cold cases but rarely provide an accused nor a conviction. The unsolved Bowraville murder of three young Aboriginal children on the NSW north coast is a very good example

But Why?

Normal, you say! What’s normal about Ivan Milat, serial killer and sadist?  Or Sef Gonzales, who thought he was a gangster. He stabbed to death his father, Teddy, mother Mary, and sister Clodine, aged 18 in their Sydney NSW home to hide his bad University results. How not normal was Monsignor John Day who died in 1978 and may have been the worst paedophile priest in Australia?

  • Is it because we cannot look away from a train wreck about to happen?

I’ll confess. I am a voyeur when it comes to the crime scene. Of the hundreds of dead people, I met over my career I can safely say I remember each face, the circumstances of their death and the investigation outcome. Not only is this because of my professional approach to my police work but it was intrinsically akin to my compassion and voyeuristic curiosity about mystery, death and evil.

Truman Capote in his seminal true crime book In Cold Blood wrote: ‘Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.’  That terror or voyeuristic curiosity is the very reason we cannot look away as trains packed with innocent victims hurtle towards each other.

  • Does knowing what evil is and evil does help us feel prepared?

Megan Boorsma , J.D. Elon University Law School , Greensboro, North Carolina writes about the implications of an American audience obsessed with  true crime. One premise of this very interesting treatise is that, ‘a majority of people in the United States receive much of their impressions and knowledge of the criminal justice system through the media.’ If that includes true crime books, blogs, podcasts and television one can see how the genre may make one feel prepared.

  • It gives us an adrenalin rush! It triggers fear in us.

Scott Bonn, criminology professor at Drew University, New Jersey USA, author of Why We Love Serial Killers writes:

‘People … receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds. Adrenaline … produces a powerful, stimulating, … addictive effect on the human brain. If you doubt the addictive power of adrenaline, think of the thrill-seeking child who will ride a roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill. The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.’

So,  why do you love true crime?  That’s for you to know and others to wonder about.

Next week:   The whole crime scene!

Ted Bassingthwaighte is a retired NSW police detective living in Newcastle with his wife and dog. Since his retirement in 2009 he has been writing. He reviews books for the NSW Police news magazine, has entered HWC short story competitions, winning a prize in the HWC 2014 Grieve competition. He is a member of the HWC and participates regularly in HWC events. He hopes to have his true crime manuscript ‘Bloody Odyssey’ edited and ready for publication in 2019.

Ted Bassingthwaighte, member of HWC