True crime, as a genre, has never been more under the cultural microscope, its perennial ability to transform murder into mass entertainment now the cause for greater scrutiny. Thank the weeks of protests sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Ahmaud Arbery (among so, so many) and the ensuing calls to defund the police: The greater abolition movement, ignored for years, has taken on greater urgency — and yielded tangible results.
Night after night protesters came in peace, masks on, while police officers in military gear, largely unmasked, used brute force against them — all documented by phone footage that made the social media rounds. The police have always had an antagonistic relationship with Black and brown people, but the number of white protesters who were also targeted by officers drove media coverage for weeks. The ongoing protests prompted a broader reckoning about racism in America, filtering down to what people read, listen to, and watch.
Or rather, what people no longer had the stomach to read, listen to, or watch. Cops, a television staple on several networks since 1989, was canceled. So too was the popular show Live PD, which filmed police patrols in smaller American towns. But the A&E series became increasingly untenable as a TV show concept, especially when it was revealed that the 2019 police killing of Javier Ambler had been captured on film by the production crew.
The scales have fallen from the eyes of true crime consumers. Murder and violence as entertainment was always difficult to stomach, but there was the hope — and I certainly felt this — that the ethical thorniness could be counteracted, by centering victims and de-emphasizing traditional law-and-order narratives. It seems clear that true crime hasn’t gone nearly far enough. It also seems clear that the genre as a whole needs to be upended from the ground up. If the true crime boom of the past six years has begun to wane, where does it go next, and what is the genre’s future?
It’s worth considering how this current version of the true crime craze began. Crime has attracted a reliable, hungry audience for centuries. Nineteenth-century newspapers and serials were less concerned with accuracy than with titillation, and lurid murder stories proved to be a perennial crowd-pleaser. Every new medium — be it radio, film, television, or podcast — succeeded on the backs of crime stories, the more sensational and violent, the better.
The genre, with its glorification of Dead Girls and Cunning Serial Killers, adhered strongly to tidy narratives that swept aside personal details that made the story too messy. Here’s one scenario we’re all familiar with: a girl, usually beautiful, often white, is killed far too young. We learn a little about her life, but filtered mostly through the prism of the investigating police detective, who tends to feel bad about her premature murder. The case grows cold. Then a suspect is apprehended. An intimate partner, perhaps. Or a stranger. His villainy assured, he is quickly put on trial, convicted, and imprisoned.
The scales have fallen from the eyes of true crime consumers.
But violent crime, especially rape and murder, is hardly tidy. The abrupt ending of life, the violation of a person’s body, causes untold ripple effects for victims and those closest to them. For those brutalized by intimate partners— the way women, in particular, most likely experience violence — the shame and stigma, and at times, the violent behavior itself, passes down from one generation to the next. Trauma and grief are nonlinear, stochastic experiences. Misunderstanding their effects, as we still do, leads to grievous errors.
True crime has improved its understanding of the dangers of a cohesive narrative. Approval for the death penalty is at its lowest in half a century, when the Supreme Court, led by Earl Warren, delivered several rulings between 1962 and 1966 codifying due process and how suspects should be treated. Too many overturned convictions for those on death row, coupled with botched executions from improper drugs, will do that. What made Serial, the 2014 WBEZ/This American Life podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig, so popular in the first place, and so galvanizing for true crime as a genre, is precisely because it shied away from the usual narrative surrounding a suspect’s guilt. The question of whether Adnan Syed did, in fact, kill Hae Min Lee is unanswered in the podcast — a more honest conclusion.
Nearly six years later, though, Serial plays much differently. Not only because so many other true crime books (Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry), podcasts (Undisclosed, cohosted by Chaudry), and documentaries (The Case Against Adnan Syed, directed by Amy Berg) have taken up the story, but because Sarah Koenig, a white journalist, could not fully immerse herself in the respective communities and cultures of Lee and Syed.
Serial doesn’t properly grapple with the conflict at the root of Syed and Lee’s relationship. Syed was a first-generation Pakistani American Muslim who was dating the Korean American Lee, and both families’ disapproval of their relationship led to the breakup. And Koenig fails to challenge the anti-Muslim sentiment on display at Syed’s trials, and show how that prejudice irrevocably affected the police investigation as they zeroed in on him as the culprit.
The good cannot, however, overcome the schlock.
The true crime wave that followed Serial led to excellence, yes. American Public Media’s In the Dark podcast and the two seasons of CBC’s Missing and Murdered, hosted by Connie Walker, are exemplars of the audio format. Rachel Monroe’s 2019 meta true crime book Savage Appetites; the podcast You’re Wrong About, cohosted by Sarah Marshall; Emma Copley Eisenberg’s 2020 book The Third Rainbow Girl; and Patrick Radden Keefe’s podcast Wind of Change all interrogate and bend the tropes of true crime to larger purposes. The genre, at its best, combines individual humanity with larger systemic questions. Crime is the result of racist, unjust societies, where the old Jim Crow of outright discrimination and lynchings is supplanted by the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration and police killings.
The good cannot, however, overcome the schlock: The “Wikipedia Browns” who rely on regurgitated narratives that accept the police as a reliable narrator and that assume the perpetrator is some kind of Big Bad Wolf, with all of the negative, dangerous stereotypes, for example. The amateur sleuths who insert themselves into cases, lacking an understanding in how basic journalism works and how families might require being handled with great care. And the ways in which crime stories in one medium appear in other media, in ways that are less about elevating the story and more about exploiting someone’s intellectual property.
As the pandemic swelled in March, the most popular documentary on Netflix was Tiger King, about the exploits of a zoo owner known as “Joe Exotic.” He’d been the subject of two magazine features and a podcast, but most of America hadn’t heard of him. When the episodes aired, Joe became the guy to root for, despite his harsh treatment of employees (as well as husbands and lovers), his cruel treatment of animals at his so-called tiger refuge, and his murderous obsession with Carole Baskin. Carole was the villain, and the employees, especially those belonging to marginalized communities, were an afterthought.
No show better displayed the Unbearable Whiteness of True Crime, and the end of this current wave as we know it. Good true crime projects have emerged since — the HBO documentary version of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, directed by Liz Garbus, and Netflix’s reboot of Unsolved Mysteries among them — but they feel part of the Before Time, when a little bit of discomfort was palatable. Now it’s time to dig deeper and move far past true crime’s tendency to double as middlebrow comfort food.
Crime has been a professional and personal preoccupation for most of my life. This month, I’m publishing a true crime anthology, Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession, featuring writing from journalists and essayists like Pamela Colloff, Michelle Dean, and Alice Bolin about subjects as disparate as the community response to a missing Black trans teen, and the history of the Customs and Border Protection. Still, it is a strange time to be publishing a true crime anthology when the genre’s entire reason for being is under scrutiny.
The comfort narratives of true crime can’t hold when we’re shown, again and again, how the criminal justice system doesn’t work for untold millions of Black Americans.
My anthology only features one nonwhite writer and no Black writers. While I did attempt to license work by Black writers, this absence is as much a reflection of my editorial blind spots as indicative of the inherent paradox of mainstream true crime. When pain and trauma is grist for the entertainment mill, certain stories are, still, valued over others. True crime, as entertainment, prioritizes clear narrative arcs, defined protagonists and antagonists, and endings where a suspect is apprehended, justice delivered.
The comfort narratives of true crime can’t hold when we’re shown, again and again, how the criminal justice system doesn’t work for untold millions of Black Americans. The cathartic release of a trial leading to conviction falls away with the understanding that mandatory minimum sentencing, underfunded public defenders, discriminatory jury selection, and prison abuses work together to destroy lives. Even wrongful conviction narratives, outrageous as they are, serve as comfort food for white audiences, who pay more attention to newfound freedom than they do the decades of despair over indifferent cruelty, and the lack of resources upon venturing out into the outside world.
No wonder, then, that Black journalists and authors aren’t playing by true crime’s narrative rules. Instead they offer richer, messier, less linear narratives, that look at larger systemic inequities upon communities, and upon crime as a by-product of America’s original sin of slavery. Listening to Ear Hustle, the podcast co-created and hosted by those currently and formerly incarcerated at San Quentin, is a revelatory window into life on the inside, all the more wrenching in light of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in both the maximum security and death row wings of the prison. The seven-part podcast Somebody, hosted by Shapearl Wells, explores the 2016 death of her 22-year-old son, Courtney Copeland, shot in the back outside of a Chicago police station. And my favorite true crime book of 2020 is poet Natasha Trethewey’s evocative and unforgettable Memorial Drive, a memoir about the murder of her mother, which comes out this month.
As Donald Albright, president of the podcast production company Tenderfoot TV (which produced the podcasts Atlanta Monster and Up and Vanished) told Vanity Fair earlier this month: “I’ve been Black all my life. Personally, these are stories I’ve always wanted to tell, of being profiled while driving or being harassed by police, but also mentored by police officers in San Jose, California.” He continued: “You can find a way to make an impact socially and bring awareness even while entertaining.”
The whiteness of true crime, whether in podcasts, documentaries, or books, can be overcome. It will take a tremendous amount of work. Lip service to Black and other nonwhite creators, to stories that they are best equipped to tell, are not enough. Changing the very nature of the stories that are published, produced, and marketed is paramount. Rethinking the concept of “entertainment,” and what narrative structure is supposed to accomplish, is critical.
Only then can the myths that underpin the true crime genre — where murder and sexiness are permanently decoupled, where the “Wikipedia Browns” aren’t parroting the police party line, where serial killers aren’t transformed into bogeymen, and where catharsis doesn’t come at the expense of Black bodies — be banished for good. ●
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita and editor of Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession (Ecco).