30 May 2019

True Crime or Not True Crime

by Brian Thornton

Lately I've been thinking about the space that lies between writing fiction and nonfiction. I've tried my hand at both.

My professional background in writing nonfiction includes earning an advanced degree in history and penning a number of books on a variety of nonfiction topics–some historical, others not. One (which I ghost-wrote) was even on the topic of long-distance fatherhood; and this several years before I became a father myself.

My fiction includes a number of published short stories, several edited story collections, novellas, and coming soon, a novel. It's been the focus of my writing career for the past several years.

To be clear, I loved writing all of my books (hey, getting paid to do something you love–isn't that really the definition of the perfect job?). I did, however, put off writing book-length fiction for a number of years because there were far too many well-paying nonfiction opportunities out there.

Which renders the one opportunity I did actually turn down all the more striking by contrast. Several years I passed on the opportunity to write a true crime book.

And just last week I had occasion to revisit that decision. More on that in a bit.

First, I have nothing against the subgenre of true crime writing, or against those who practice it. In fact, I number several true crime writers among my friends in the writing community. It's just not my thing.

For me it all started with Truman Capote's landmark In Cold Blood, which, in many ways, effectively launched true crime writing as a subgenre. While I found Capote's writing compelling (no disputing the fact that it's a masterwork.), I also found it profoundly disturbing.

That book stayed with me. It was as if Capote transcribed a nightmare.

Now, some people will point to that as an example of great literature, and they're right.

And while I read literature to be affected, to be moved, I don't read it looking to be kept up at night. I don't find anything the least bit entertaining about that. (If I did, maybe I'd read horror.).

On top of that, I didn't read Capote's book until after I myself had been the victim of crime (both violent and nonviolent) multiple times.

I can't speak for other crime victims (nor would I attempt to), but having been on the receiving end of a mugging, of multiple all-too-plausible death threats, of more than one robbery, and of more than one beating, I can honestly say that I don't need to read "gritty true crime," because I've lived it.

Ficional crime I can handle. "Realism" is not "reality," and I well understand the remove in place between them when it comes to fictional treatment of crime and punishment. So while I strive in my own writing to make my characters feel each punch, swallow hard when staring down the barrel of a pistol in their face, it's fiction. Realistic fiction, but fiction, nonetheless.

Which brings me to the events of last week. I won't go in to particulars here, but readers of this blog (BOTH of you!*rimshot*) know what my non-writing day gig is. Suffice it to say that someone threatened to shoot me last week.

There is a process my place of employment follows in situations like this, and that process was followed. The threat was not found to credible, and I supposedly don't have anything to worry about.

But that split moment when I realized I was being threatened?

That flutter in my stomach; the way my throat closed; every hair from my forearms to the back of my neck standing on end – every autonomic and visceral reaction I had at that moment and in the ones which have followed, flashing to thinking of how it would affect my family if something happened to me, wondering whether I was safe walking to and from my car at work or out in town, the hundreds of glances over my shoulder in mundane moments...

I don't need to relive any of that.

And reading about that particular manner of emotional and physical terrorism being actually visited upon real, living, breathing people?

I think I'll stick to crime fiction.

Thanks for reading, and see you in two weeks!


  1. So glad it was a non-credible threat!
    I too have been on the receiving end of some crime and some threats, and I too prefer fiction, despite the fact that In Cold Blood was a masterpiece of writing.

  2. Nice posting. I had made the mistake of writing a true crime book once. The publisher butchered the manuscript (cut 1/3 of the book out) and the book made no sense. It was like writing a glorified police report. Wish I would have written it as a novel or as Truman Capote once described IN COLD BLOOD - a non-fiction novel.

  3. I'm very glad it was a false alarm. No doubt you will be able to make use of all those visceral feelings in one of your stories. That is really how writers get their own back!

  4. Glad you are safe, Brian. I remember reading a piece once by someone who had interviewed a mystery bookstore owner on the radio. Her first question was: "Why do mystery fans like true crime?" The owner replied: they don't, two different audiences. So the interviewer had to throw out her next few questions....

  5. “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

    You’d think by now, with all those videos and news reports out there that students would know what happens when a threat is made and comes to the attention of officials. Evidently, this kid didn’t pay attention in history class?

    Well, you can't cure dumbness except with education. It's just that some people resist being educated.

    Be safe, old friend.

  6. A fascinating read Brian! I’d include Ed Sanders’ The Family as another worthy true-crime book.
    There was a time when I was addicted to true crime TV. I swore that when/if I had kids I’d make them watch Cops and Americas Most Wanted so they’d learn what things not to do. Now that I am a dad, I wish those shows were still on the air!

  7. I just amazed while seeing your content!
    Keep Posting like this stuff
    Happy Fathers Day Quotes 2019


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