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The Fascinating Evolution of True Crime

Discover where the genre got its start—and what the future may hold.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Crime has been with us for as long as there have been laws to break and, as with any taboo, those who break the law are as often met with a kind of breathless fascination, mixed in with horror and disgust. True crime writing dates back at least as far as the broadsheets and pamphlets that made up so-called “street literature” in 16th-century Britain, while The Book of Swindles, published in China’s Ming dynasty sometime around 1617, details a number of purportedly true cases of fraud. 

Among these early examples of true crime literature, the approach to the subject matter varied considerably, with some being sensationalistic or exploitative, while others presented the case as a moral lesson. Through the 19th century and into the early 20th century, the burgeoning ethics of journalism slowly began to apply to writing about real-life crimes, but it wasn’t until the 1965 publication of Truman Capote’s landmark “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood that the form of the modern true crime genre was really set.

Today, the vast majority of true crime stories focus on murder, with something like forty percent of the field occupied with serial killers, even though such crimes may make up less than one percent of the total number of murders in the United States. We say “may,” because the number of unsolved cases makes pinning down an exact number difficult, and, indeed, that very “unsolved” element has rapidly become one of the leading forces in true crime writing in recent decades.

According to reporting from The Atlantic, the “clearance” rate (cop lingo for the number of cases closed) for homicides was over 90 percent in 1965. By 2017, that number had dropped to just over 60 percent—meaning that in a little more than one in every three killings, someone was getting away with murder. 

Thanks in part to figures like that, not to mention new advances in forensic and DNA technology, and changes in how information can be accessed and shared, true crime writing—in the last few years especially—has come to focus more and more on unsolved cases, rather than reporting the details of closed ones.

Related: The 8 Most Chilling 911 Calls

Indeed, in recent years, true crime podcasts and shows have helped law enforcement agencies close cold cases and capture hundreds of fugitives, oftentimes by simply raising awareness. While Michelle McNamara’s reporting on the Golden State Killer—who was finally apprehended more than 40 years after his crimes began—is among the most famous examples, it is just one of many.

The trend initially began with shows like America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries in the late 1980s, which encouraged viewers to call in with tips that could lead to anything from the arrest of a known fugitive to the location of a missing child to solving an as-yet-unsolved murder. Many of the creators behind today’s true crime novels, podcasts, documentaries, and TV shows—including a recent reboot of Unsolved Mysteries on Netflix—probably grew up watching these programs. 

A natural outgrowth of those kinds of shows has been the rise, in the last decade or so, of the true crime podcast. Prior to TV shows like America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries, true crime was initially the realm of novels and TV movies. The broadcast format eventually morphed into our modern true crime podcasts, with the podcast Serial being one of the earliest and most successful examples thus far. 

Related: 9 Haunting Cases from Unsolved Mysteries That Have Since Been Solved

First released in 2014, Serial—which focused on the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee in its first season—rapidly broke records to become the fastest-growing podcast in iTunes history, reaching 5 million downloads and streams in record time. Within four years, Serial had been downloaded more than 300 million times, and had added two additional seasons.

Serial is notable for more than just its massive number of listeners. The first season’s story actually affected the case itself in significant ways. Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed, had already been convicted of her murder back in 2000, but due in part to the new attention brought to the case by the success of the podcast, a judge vacated his sentence and ordered a new trial in 2016—a decision that was eventually overturned by the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2019.

The ability for true crime podcasts and other stories to affect the cases they were covering, however, was by no means limited to Serial. In 2015, the HBO series The Jinx, which covered the life of real estate heir and accused murderer Robert Durst, actually led to Durst’s arrest, including what appears in the episode to be a confession, taped while Durst was unaware that a microphone was still recording.

The success of shows like Serial led to a boom in true crime podcasts, including numerous hit series like My Favorite Murder, Someone Knows Something, Last Podcast on the Left, Up, Vanished, and many others. While numerous theories have been floated as to the reasons behind the runaway success of true crime podcasts—including the episodic podcast format lending itself to the methodical nature of crime investigation—one thing that podcasts seem to offer that shows like America’s Most Wanted also had is an ability for viewers to feel close not just to the cases themselves, but to the people presenting them.

Where shows like Unsolved Mysteries were defined as much by their hosts as by the crimes they depicted, the same is true of podcasts, where the narrators often become like old friends to the listener—people they enjoy spending time with every week, or however often the podcast drops.

Related: The Best True Crime Podcasts of 2020

Even though podcasts may dominate a lot of the conversation about true crime these days, however, they’re far from the only place where the genre shines. 2018 saw more than 1.6 million copies of true crime books printed, a more than 50 percent increase since 2016. In fact, true crime has been called the fastest-growing book market of the 21st century, with standout volumes such as McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark helping to lead the pack. 

In 2019, more than 3,500 people attended CrimeCon, which bills itself as the “world’s number one true crime event.” That year’s CrimeCon took place in New Orleans, and visitors flew in from a dozen countries all over the world. That was a more than threefold increase in attendance since 2017, when the event was held in Indianapolis. While the pandemic has curtailed this year’s event somewhat, the 2021 CrimeCon will be streaming live from Austin, Texas.

Of those thousands of CrimeCon attendees, most are women. Indeed, women drive the vast bulk of the true crime marketplace, making up as much as 75 percent of podcast listeners and 80 percent of CrimeCon attendees. Women also make up the majority of the market for true crime books. So what makes the genre so attractive to women—and is “attractive” even the right word?

Related: The Most Jaw-Dropping True Crime Books of 2020

In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, crime author Megan Abbott argues that it might just be the “intense identification between reader and victim” that draws women to tales of true crime, pointing out that women are twice as likely as men to be killed by an intimate partner, and that nearly half of all women have experienced some form of sexual violence. “These statistics,” Abbott writes, “refute any notion of true crime as escapist fare. 

Whatever the reason so many of us are drawn to true crime, the fact is that the genre is doing as well today as it ever has, and with the success of podcasts like My Favorite Murder and shows like Netflix’s Tiger King, true crime isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Featured photo: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash