May 8, 2018

True crime’s enduring appeal

Prior to its February 2018 publication, Michelle McNamara's true crime book I'll Be Gone in the Dark had already received considerable attention due to the untimely death of its author two years earlier. With the help of McNamara’s research partners Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen, and her widower, comedian Patton Oswalt, the book’s uncompleted chapters were finished, drawing on McNamara’s extensive research on the subject. The unsolved case of the Golden State Killer, California's most prolific uncaught serial killer and serial rapist, became the news everyone was talking about.   

Then, in a shocking twist worthy of the genre’s best, an unexpected break came less than two months after I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’s release. On April 24th, 72-year-old former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested as the suspected Golden State Killer, with DNA evidence linking him to the crimes. Though this story is far from over, the arrest marked a bittersweet end to McNamara's journey documenting the case.

To say that true crime is having a moment would be to deny the genre’s long history, though it’s hard to ignore the fact that true crime stories are everywhere these days, popularized by television programs such as Netflix’s Making a Murderer (which we covered in 2016) and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America, and podcasts My Favorite Murder, Criminal, and S-Town (another NoveList favorite), among many, many others.

The scope of true crime storytelling is broader than ever. Once earmarked for salacious, ripped-from-the-tabloids scandals, with titles that made you feel a little gross (looking at you, Vulgar Favors), the genre has evolved to include tales of white collar crime, frauds and forgeries, heists, and criminal organizations. One of the most buzzworthy true crime debuts this year, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, is a dramatic caper with nary a murder in sight.

As much as the genre itself has changed, so must our understanding of what it means for a book to be “true crime.” After all, one person’s reading interests may be another’s triggers, so we shouldn’t assume that all true crime fans are clamoring to read about violence and murder all the time (I learned this the hard way after trying to interest just about everyone I know in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark).

With these caveats in mind, I started thinking about the ways in which a larger spectrum of true crime stories can be discovered. Use targeted searches in NoveList Plus if you’re looking for true crime that isn’t all doom and gloom, or if you want to avoid certain subjects entirely. For instance, if your true crime interests lie outside the hallmarks of the genre, consider a Boolean search using the NOT operator:

If you don’t want to read about murder, search: GX "True crime" NOT DE "*murder*" NOT DE "serial murders" NOT DE “assassination.”

To avoid books about sexual violence, search: GX "True crime" NOT DE "*rape*" NOT DE "serial rapists" NOT DE “sex crimes.”

Can’t deal with either? Simply combine these search strings to bypass the subjects entirely. NOT searches are helpful in eliminating potentially upsetting results -- and in a genre like true crime, there are always going to be deal-breakers for readers.

You can also seek out titles relevant to your specific interests by using AND searches; for instance, if you want to read more titles like The Feather Thief, try searching GX "True Crime" AND DE "Thieves” or GX “True Crime” AND GX “Nature Writing.”

Tone is a major appeal for true crime, conveying atmosphere and stakes, and often making readers feel like they’re a part of the narrative. Just looking at some of the tonal appeals associated with the genre (haunting, disturbing, menacing, chilling) makes me feel like I’ve stepped into a horror movie, so if you love reading true crime but want to avoid sleepless nights, consider a search string eliminating these tonal appeals from your results: GX "True Crime" NOT TC "menacing" NOT TC "disturbing" NOT TC "haunting" NOT TC "chilling.” Add or remove tonal appeals as you see fit to craft your ideal reading experience. To learn more about our appeal terms and get tips for using them in your searches, visit the Idea Center.

Want a more general browsing experience? Try a keyword search for “true crime” in NoveList Plus, and click the “Lists & Articles” tab for feature articles, recommended reads lists, award winners, and more.

Here are just a couple of our more recent offerings:

  • General True Crime Recommended Reads List (UI 427658)
  • Lock Your Doors, Don’t Talk to Strangers, and Other True Crime Advice (UI 440339)

And be sure to keep an eye out for our forthcoming book discussion guide for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

Kaitlin Conner is a Readers' Advisory Librarian at NoveList. 

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