It is a truth universally acknowledged that normal people enjoy murder. Well, watching documentaries about crime and murder, to be more precise. And by normal people I mean me and every other female over 25 that I know. We can’t get enough of it. From Serial, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, The Keepers, Tiger King to The Tindler Swindler, we have watched them all and crave more. When not watching true-crime documentaries we are reading crime fiction which continually outsells most other genres.
My own fiction is influenced by real life. I don’t tell other people’s stories but it’s hard not to be influenced by what happens around you. Sometimes a crime novel is asking not who did it, but why and in doing so we resurrect the victim. Mystery is at the heart of crime fiction but in real life we don’t have to have all the answers. One of the reasons that we read crime and are drawn to it is that we get to control the narrative. Unlike in real life, justice is usually served, even if it is complicated.
So, what is the allure of crime stories? Well, for starters it isn’t a recent or new phenomenon. Elements of crime fiction exist in Old Testament stories and Shakespeare’s plays, with the genre coming into popularity in the late 18th century. The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 set up the first disciplined police force for the Greater London area, and this, along with the popularity of the Newgate Novel, a form of true-crime journalism, led the way for fiction based on crime and its detection.
Real-life crime often inspired plots for sensation novels of the 1860s and 1870s, while Edgar Allan Poe is credited with creating the first detective story with The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock mysteries and Monsieur Lecoq (1868) by French author Émile Gaboriau have established the early form of what we know as detective fiction, based on the detection of crime using logic and evidence gathering.
The Newgate Calendar, published in book form initially in 1773, was inspired by the violent and intriguing cases of the inmates in Newgate prison who usually ended up in the gallows. These sensational chronicles were the go-to read to fulfil the morbid fascination of the masses with murder and mayhem. Undoubtedly, the Newgate novels shaped popular culture and undoubtedly influenced work by authors like Dickens.
Interestingly, true crime has a dirty reputation not too far removed from that of crime fiction. But while we have had this long-running fascination with stories of crime, it is not without impediments. To begin with, the police are not always the good guys. When the upholders of the law are predominantly white, male and middle class, it has profound repercussions for delivering justice to a population that is not. In the north of Ireland stories of collusion have long marred our political history. Only this month, Marie Anderson, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, identified that the police and loyalist paramilitary groups had demonstrated “collusive behaviours” in relation to murders, some of which were as recent as the 1990s.
America has its own history of bad policing. The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, caused outrage and calls for change to racially biased policing that has a long history of affecting marginalised communities.
The abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in England last March by a serving Met police officer, Wayne Couzens, highlighted the dangers women face from those in positions of power. As a result of the Everard murder case a culture of misogyny within the police force was exposed when WhatsApp messages sent by a group of police officers, including her killer, came to light.
Then there came the arrest and conviction of two Met police officers Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis, who took and shared photographs of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry in June 2020. Not only did they take and share the photographs, dehumanising the victims, but they also risked violating the crime scene. Both cases highlighted the systemic misogyny and racism within the police.
So, if the police can’t be trusted then where does that leave the ever-popular sub-genre, the police procedural? As a writer of police procedurals I have been conscious of the complexities that exist within a sub-genre that traditionally portrays the police as restorers of social order. But what crime fiction does best is to illuminate the inherent complexities of society. We use our narratives to challenge the misogyny, racism and homophobia.
Writers like Claire Allan, whose latest book, The Nurse, digs deep into incels and gendered violence, and Kelly Creighton, whose Harriet Sloane police procedural series focuses on themes of gender and class, show that the crime fiction form is pliable and well able to accommodate concerns of institutional misogyny.
SA Cosby wrote last year’s smash hit, Razorblade Tears. Justice in Cosby’s book is delivered not by the police or the judicial system but by ex-convicts avenging the murders of their gay sons. Line of Duty, the must-watch cop show, deals with corruption from within the police. Bent coppers are nothing new but the popular show gives an unflinching portrayal of just how prevalent and deep-rooted bad policing is.
And what about the ethics of true-crime stories? Do they cross the line from being respectful to salacious? Entertainment is unquestionably a consideration for true-crime creators, but is that so wrong? True-crime narratives often centre on female victims and give a voice to the “dead female” in ways that traditional crime fiction has often failed to do. Furthermore, there have been examples of true-crime docuseries uncovering new evidence and seeing wrongful convictions quashed.
Crime writers have been mining true crime for a long time. It’s our life blood but I bet if you had some sort of psychological analysis of crime writers, you’d find we are are all softies, big scaredy cats who craft our darkest fears into stories as a means of conquering them.
My new book, The Midnight Killing, began with me wondering what might happen if a group of friends made a terrible choice that had repercussions throughout their lives. The story of my character, James McCallum, unfurled, with tendrils that had their roots in the past. I write to understand that which disturbs me, frightens me, often looking for meaning as opposed to answers.
You find the story you want to tell and use the genre and literary devices to do so, employing all the tricks of the trade to invite the reader to suspend belief and go along for the ride. I go out of my way to not be exploitative, so I work to dispel misconnections. I foreground the victim, subvert the tropes and show that those who take a life don’t get away with it but also that there is often reason behind the death. So, while a real-life case can sometimes be the initial inspiration we use them as a jumping-off point, fashioning it into something else entirely.
Have a look around – crime is everywhere so it’s not surprising that we are interested in understanding the motivation behind it and its detection. And besides, what we all seek at the end of the day is to know what truly happened. Watching others in the pursuit of truth, however subjective, is totally addictive.
The Midnight Killing by Sharon Dempsey is out now