Why do people love reading true crime?
There are many reasons, and not just because the public has an appetite for blood.
First, it’s important to realize the genre is quite broad, with many different categories including gory murder, police procedural, courtroom drama, wrongful conviction, etc.
The real-life horror aspects of true crime are exemplified by books about serial killers. Such stories offer readers a sense of the sinister aspects of humanity. The flipside of this genre are true-crime books about police investigations and court battles to bring criminals to justice.
Beyond these parameters, true crime can also touch on politics, economics, social issues, cultural issues, and historic events.
I wrote a book about Depression-era bandits Bonnie and Clyde that discussed how economic conditions in the early 1930s turned a pair of cold-blooded killers into folk-heroes. Bonnie and Clyde were seen as “striking back” against authorities at a time of mass unemployment and misery. During any other period in history, Bonnie and Clyde would have been seen as a pair of dangerous vagrants.
True crime can cast a spotlight on injustice. My book, The Boy on the Bicycle, tells the little-known story of Ron Moffatt, who was wrongly convicted of murder at age 14 in Toronto in 1956. Moffatt was falsely accused of killing a child who died at the hands of a notorious serial killer. While Ron was in custody, the serial killer struck again. Ron contacted me personally to tell his story and I felt honoured to write it.
True crime can offer examples of how the past is both similar and very different than today. My new book, The Beatle Bandit, focuses on Matthew Kerry Smith, a strange bank robber who wanted to finance a one-man revolution in the 1960s. Smith got into a gun-fight with an outraged bank patron who seized a revolver from an accountant. At the time, banks in Canada routinely stocked pistols, which they expected staff to use in case of heists—an astonishing historical detail by contemporary standards.
Smith’s case fueled debate about gun control, insanity pleas and the death penalty—issues that continue to resonate today. The Beatle Bandit also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of armed vigilantes—a topic much in the news given recent events in the United States.
I’m going to suggest that one final reason true crime is popular is because it reminds people of the fragility of life. But that sounds a bit pompous. So, I’ll stick with another proposition: a good true-crime book tells a good story, and everyone loves a good story, especially one that features mayhem, mystery, and murder.
Nate Hendley is the author The Beatle Bandit from Dundurn Press and several other books, mostly in the true-crime genre. Nate’s website—www.natehendley.com—offers details about his books and background.