Murder Books 101: The Rise of True Crime, From Highbrow to Cash Cow

Conventional wisdom claims that true crime writing wallowed in the gutter, dirty and disreputable, until Truman Capote lifted it out of its own filth and washed it clean with the sweat of his literary gift. Earlier efforts are dismissed as crude attempts at what Capote would accomplish with grace and skill. Those were the rough drafts, but Capote’s 1966 In Cold Blood is the masterpiece.

The fact is, the financial triumph of Capote’s In Cold Blood (and the film version the following year) had as much to do with literary achievement as the fact that Capote was a white man who belonged to the right clubs and subscribed to the right magazines. His achievement transformed the marketplace, making true crime respectable in the same way that Maus and Watchmen turned comic books into “graphic novels” in 1986. Capote’s book allowed people to camouflage their morbid fascination with murder and mayhem beneath the seal of literature. In the old days, ministers gave their blessing to true crime to make it acceptable. Now, it was The New Yorker.

In Cold Blood changed how true crime was read, not how it was written. Most of what Capote did, other writers were already doing.

Famous writers wrote true crime for ages. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Ferber delivered corrosive coverage of the media circus surrounding the 1935 trial of the man who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, and Zora Neale Hurston wrote 20 articles covering the 1952 trial of Ruby McCollum, a black woman in Florida sentenced to death (later commuted to 20 years in a state mental hospital) for killing a white doctor. The prosecution claimed it was over an unpaid $6 bill, but Hurston and others revealed McCollum had already given birth to one of the doctor’s illegitimate children and was pregnant with another.

Probably the first writer to bring novelistic style to true crime writing was poet Celia Thaxter, who knew the victims of the 1873 Isle of Shoals murder, and was the first on the scene to comfort the lone survivor. Two years later she published her account of what happened as “A Memorable Murder” in the Atlantic Monthly. Police officers and detectives like Thomas S. Duke regularly issued volumes like Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, but it was Edmund Pearson, a librarian, who started writing more ambitious books about American crime like 1924’s Studies in Murder (his counterpart and pen pal across the Atlantic was the slightly more sophisticated Scottish crime writer, William Roughead).

In the Fifties, three books dove deep into criminal psychology and used single crimes as core samples of society. Journalist Joel Bartlow Martin’s Why Did They Kill? (1952) examined the killing of a nurse in Ann Arbor by three kids, letting the killers relate their act in their own words as Martin searched for what he called “crime-in-context,” writing: “It seemed to me that crimes don’t just happen by blind chance — that something causes them. Sometimes the matrix is social, sometimes psychological, most often both. Writing about an individual criminal case, then, offers also an opportunity to write about a whole society.”

In 1955, reporter Lucy Freeman wrote Before I Kill More… about burglar and serial killer William Heirens, also known as The Lipstick Killer, interviewing his parents and tracing his background, as well as recreating his nightly hunts in Chicago. Finally, there was Meyer Levin’s 1956 non-fiction novel Compulsion, which retold the 1924 Leopold and Loeb kidnapping case in such detail, only changing the names of the perpetrators, that Leopold sued for violation of privacy. Capote’s non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, appeared in 1966 and was clearly of a piece with these earlier works; many critics even pointed out its similarities to Compulsion. Capote’s prose may have been more polished, but there was nothing high-minded about his process, including the fact that he waited for two years in “suspended animation” (according to his biographer) before his criminals were executed, thus giving his book an ending (it was published less than a year after both perpetrators were hanged).

The next landmark true crime book to hit stands was Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s Helter Skelter in 1974, their account of Bugliosi’s prosecution of Charles Manson for his 1969 murders. Full of legalistic detail and with Bugliosi, the author, as one of its central characters, it came out the same year that Ann Rule, a single mother of four, struggling to make ends meet as a freelance writer, got a $10,000 contract for her first book. Rule had grown up with law enforcement in her blood. Her grandparents lived in the same building as the county jail and during summer vacations she helped them prepare meals for the prisoners. She had an uncle who was a sheriff, another who was a medical examiner, and a criminal prosecutor cousin. Rule had been freelancing for true confession magazines before she found a better fit selling stories to Bernarr MacFadden’s True Detective in 1969, writing under male names at her editor’s insistence.

The murders she was hired to cover in her first book were considered no more than a series of co-ed killings in Washington State. They would wind up being the Ted Bundy killings, committed by Rule’s good friend and co-worker at a local suicide hotline, Ted Bundy. Rule’s book, The Stranger Beside Me, is tough and unforgiving of her friendship with Bundy. Her willingness to appear gullible, her frank admissions of difficulty with the morality of what she was doing, and cross-examinations of a slippery Bundy helped take the book into deep moral waters. To her credit, Rule did her best to make Bundy’s victims as central as Bundy himself. The book was released in 1980—and after that, the deluge.

New York State’s Son of Sam laws, adopted in 1977, put an end to true crime’s old-style criminal confessions by making it illegal for a criminal to profit from their notoriety. The law was invoked 11 times between 1977 and 1990 before being overturned in a 1991 Supreme Court case brought by Simon & Schuster so they could publish Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, the book which eventually became Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. But the law made it necessary to have an author if you wanted to tell a true crime story throughout the Eighties. By the time it was overturned in ’91, the genre was in overdrive.

Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me sold two million copies, and Joel McGinnis’ Fatal Vision (1983) sold 2.3 million. Authors like McGinnis, Jack Olsen, and Rule sold in the tens of thousands in hardcover and the hundreds of thousands in paperback. Olsen’s Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell, about a gynecologist sexually assaulting patients in a Mormon community, had a 950,000 copy print run. St. Martin’s Press reported in the late Eighties that their paperback true crime books were selling 300,000 to 400,000 copies each.

The field became so lucrative that when Boston’s Charles Stuart murdered his wife in 1989 and blamed it on a Black carjacker, one Boston Globe reporter claimed she received eleven calls from agents, publishers, editors, and movie producers asking her to write a book or movie adaptation. There was even a rumor that assistant DAs were faxing their film treatments of the case to Hollywood producers. The field had become so crowded that the advantage went to whichever publisher got their book out first.

“We try and get writers who are terrific reporters, who can do narrative, and who have speed,” an editor at St. Martin’s said. Lethal Lolita, St. Martin’s 1992 book about Amy Fisher was written by Maria Eftimiades, a People magazine writer, in three weeks. St. Martin’s The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, was written by a UPI reporter named Donald Davis in four.

The hardcover market for true crime seemed to peak in the late Eighties, but the field was still going strong in paperback by the early Nineties. In 1993, St. Martin’s started its True Crime Library, Zebra’s Pinnacle announced it would release two to three true crime books a month starting in 1994, Doubleday launched a true crime book club in June of that year, and Time-Life issued a 20-volume mail-order true crime library after it received what they described as their best ever response to a new product line.

At the start of the Nineties, family murders were the big thing. As Avon’s editor-in-chief Bob Mecoy said, “Family, religion, and obsession drive sales.” However, that soon gave way to serial killers. Jeffrey Dahmer spawned five true crime books. All of them sold well.

As Zebra’s executive editor, Paul Dinas, said, “I look for the sex angle, for murder, adjudicated killers, and increasingly for multiple bodies. The manner of death has to be very violent, very visceral.”

Publishers, increasingly squeamish about padding their bottom lines with the corpses of murder victims, tried to justify what they were doing with high-minded sanctimony, reminiscent of 19th-century ministers justifying their side hustles writing criminal confessions.

Avon’s president and publisher Carolyn Reidy claimed it was “almost self-protective to wish to understand how it happens,” while authors like McGinnis claimed they wrote their books to “seek justice” despite the fact that by the time they wrote their books, justice had already been sought and found by investigators, prosecutors, and juries. As Jack Miles wrote in The North American Review in 1991, “The focus, as in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which all but created the genre, is usually on the criminal. Even when attention shifts to the victims, direct or indirect, it is rarely attention that arrives at a time when they want or need it.”

True crime is one thing and one thing only: entertainment. And our desire for it is and was insatiable. We can dress it up with high ideals, we can talk about justice for the victims, we can tells ourselves it’s art, but at the end of the day, we want blood.

As Zebra’s Dinas said back in the early Nineties, “I got a proposal from a cop and a journalist and everybody at the editorial meeting retched. It has torture, kidnapping and sex. We have pictures of torture sessions from the police. So far we’ve had two printings adding up to sales into the high six figures.”

Grady Hendrix is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, along with a bunch of other books and movies. His new novel is The Final Girl Support Group (out July 13) and you can find more dumb facts about him over at gradyhendrix.com.

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