17 September 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part One

I don't read or write True Crime. At least not anymore. And not for a long time. Given the popularity of the genre, and the subject matter of this site, I do not expect this to be a popular opinion.

But bear with me. Let me explain.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington. During my early teens the city was terrorized by the "South Hill Rapist," a serial rapist who focused mostly on the aforementioned South Hill, an affluent walking suburb of the city. When he was finally caught and convicted, the South Hill Rapist turned out to be Frederick Harlan {"Kevin") Coe, the son of the managing editor of the one the city's two major newspapers, Gordon Coe. In a twist right out of a Hollywood movie, Coe Sr. was responsible for monitoring a tip line set up by his paper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle, intended to help find the rapist who turned out to be his own son.

By the time the Spokane police caught up with him, Kevin Coe had been running amok for the better part of three years, and brutally raped dozens of women. His parents were socially prominent, "pillars of the community," and his mother was also a whack-job (who first tried to give her son an absurd alibi, and then went to jail herself for trying to hire a hitman to kill both the presiding judge and the prosecutor in her son's court case), so his trial, where the brutality of his rapes was put on lurid display, was a regular media circus.

As such it is unsurprising that Coe's crimes, capture and subsequent trial attracted the attention of one of America's great True Crime writers, Jack Olsen. Olsen, who had famously written for publications from Sports Illustrated to Vanity Fair, and everything in between, spent eighteen months researching and writing a book about Coe, the critically acclaimed Son: A Psychopath and His Victims.

I was sixteen when Coe was caught and convicted, working my first real job, at a hospital which sat right at the foot of the South Hill. And my parents bought and read Son when it came out a couple of years later. And once they had finished it, I did too.

Olsen, a Washington state transplant who passed away on Bainbridge Island at the age of seventy-seven in 2002, was a hell of a writer. I was transfixed by Son, both recognizing and not recognizing the setting as my own hometown. This monster, Kevin Coe, drove the streets where I drove, ate where I ate, hung out in the parks I and my friends frequented, shopped where I shopped, and raped a whole bunch of innocent women along the South Hill's High Drive, where I dated a few girls and attended more than my share of parties.

It was not the start of a lifetime spent reading True Crime books though. And it wasn't until years later that I even gave much thought to the question of why. I found the story compelling. The setting, Spokane, was a place I thought I knew well, and yet I learned a lot about it I might have otherwise never learned, simply by reading Olsen's book. And, as I said above, Olsen could tell a story.

I just didn't find anything particularly compelling about the psychopath at the heart of the story. As I got older this proved to be the case with the relatively few other well-written, exhaustively researched True Crime books I read: Vincent Bugliosi's superb take on Charles Manson and his cult in Helter Skelter. A compelling account, and horrifying in the details of the things those hippies did on Manson's orders. And it's a story rendered all the more remarkable because it was written by the man who brought the whole lot of them to justice (Bugliosi prosecuted Manson and his followers for their killing spree). And yet Manson? A career petty criminal who never killed anyone himself, but somehow managed to convince others to kill for him. I was no more interested in him than I was in Coe.

The guy who prosecuted Manson and then wrote one hell of a book about it.

I started Ann Rule's classic The Stranger Beside Me, which dealt with her collegial relationship volunteering at a Puget Sound suicide hotline with eventually convicted and executed serial killer Ted Bundy, but didn't finish it. Something about the way Rule both documented her relationship with Bundy and also excused herself for profiting from that relationship, which she continued to cultivate for her own ends long after Bundy had been arrested and sentenced put me off. I just found it gross. All of these poor women who suffered at Bundy's hands, terrorized, tortured, and brutally murdered, and Ann Rule's giving the guy publishing advice while he's in jail awaiting sentencing on kidnapping charges. 

Did Rule have any inkling what Bundy had done? She mentions earlier in the book that she discussed with a police detective the possibility of Bundy being the killer the police were searching for who had identified himself as "Ted" to a potential victim at a popular Lake Washington park where another woman disappeared that same day. But after his kidnapping conviction she withheld opinion (at least for the time being), and even offered to co-write something about his experiences and split the profits with him.

I stopped reading not long after that.

And in this particular profit motive, Rule was something of a trailblazer. Nowadays you have popular podcasts such as "My Favorite Murder," which bills itself as a "true crime comedy" podcast, and boasts thousands of fans ("Murderinos," in the show's parlance). I thought it only fair to sample this podcast before mentioning it in this post, so I listened to a few of its episodes. Definitely not my thing.

And then I mentioned in passing that I was writing about both True Crime and the current True Crime podcasting craze during a conversation with a friend and fellow writer who once harbored ambitions of writing within the genre (he has since moved on to other genres). His response was worth quoting, so here it is, with his permission:

I especially dislike the hybrid true-crime memoir. If I’m immersed in a compelling story of murder, I don’t want to see the storyteller run the camera on themselves and tell us all about their relationship problems or their ailing grandparents or their struggles to get into grad school unless they have a direct and compelling connection to the people, places and events of the murder story.  (And “she was my second cousin, two twins over, we hung out a couple times at summer camp” doesn’t cut it.) It is cognitively dissonant in the extreme; it is the bait-and-switch technique of a literary used-car salesman. “Murder, grief, loss, community impact ... but let’s talk about my ex-boyfriend for the next fifteen pages and then weave in the fact that I lived in the murder town for a few months.” Who decided there was an audience for that?

The comfort food of a literary non-snob
Now let me be clear: I have things I love to read that would likely make you laugh out loud. I am not above diving in to pure escapism strictly for escapism's sake. I am many things: but a literary snob is not one of them. And I'm not slagging people who like to read this stuff, or enjoy these podcasts. I just don't, and I figured if I was going to broadcast this opinion, I really ought to deeply examine why. 

When I was in college I took a philosophy class in which the professor had us read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, and Hannah Arendt's stunning Eichmann in Jerusalem wherein she explored the seeming ordinariness of fugitive Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, an architect of Hitler's "Final Solution" (extermination of the Jews), had fled Nazi Germany shortly after the end of World War II, and successfully evaded capture in South America for nearly two decades until Israeli intelligence agents tracked him down and captured him outside Buenos Aires, Argentina in May, 1960. Then they smuggled him out of Argentina, to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government put him on trial for war crimes. For her portrait of Eichmann, who was soft-spoken, slightly built, balding, near-sighted, and possessed of the demeanor of a clerk, Arendt coined the phrase, "The banality of evil."

Which takes me full circle: Coe, Manson, Bundy.  A hundred naked meth addicts running from the police in a variety of episodes of "COPS." Banal, bland, uninteresting monsters, not worth giving a second glance or a moment's attention.

Why should their willingness to visit untold misery and pain on innocent people profit them in the slightest? What is it about their innate viciousness that renders them worth my time and attention? Again, if you find this sort of thing compelling, you want to know what makes serial killers tick, I can understand and respect that. It's just not my thing.

But that's only half of the reason why I don't read or write True Crime.

The other half I'll expand upon in my next post in a couple of weeks, when I talk about my day gig, and how it's brought me into close contact with a variety of criminals and their victims.

See you in two weeks.


  1. I'm with you on looking askance at the motives of those who lionize serial killers and other psychopaths, tacitly (or not) withholding empathy (if they have any) from the dead and others who suffer as the result of crimes. I think it's an aspect of our culture's cult of celebrity, which has led to a society that has difficulty distinguishing between government and reality tv.

    1. You really put your finger on it, Elizabeth. This surfeit of empathy for the suffering of innocents continues to baffle me. There is a ton of empathy out there in this society. I see it every day. I benefit from it every day. I just don't get the conflating of "celebrity" with "fame resulting from accomplishment." The two are not the same thing.

  2. I'm with you - if a serial killer / rapist / child murderer is the hero, I'm out of there. And like you I've have noticed, as the "true crime" genre has increased, that empathy for the victims has decreased dramatically, while victim blaming has increased. I don't like it at all.

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    2. Great point, Eve. And I probably ought to be clear: I have no problem with historical treatments of actual crime. The first such treatment I ever read was an appendix to Jeff Rice's THE NIGHT STALKER (the "vampire-in-modern-day-Las-Vegas" novel featuring investigative-really "tabloid"-reporter Carl Kolchak, and on which Darren McGavin's movie/TV series of the same name were based). Rice did a fair amount of research into Jack the Ripper and wrote up an appendix examining his Whitechapel crime spree, but it was hardly "True Crime" in that it was really an exploration of the known facts of the cases, and especially revealing about the poor victims. It really was interesting.

      Tangentially and related again to the notion of the ebbing of society's empathy for the victims of "celebrity killers," there was a TV miniseries a few decades back about the Ripper murders where the great Michael Caine did a star turn as Fred Abberline, the Scotland Yard police inspector in charge of the Ripper investigation, and at one point Caine, displaying exasperation at the Ripper's post-mortem mutilation of one of the victims, delivers the line: "This woman wasn't murdered! She was plundered!"

      Such concern for the victims is not something I've seen a whole lot in the types of True Crime media I've critiqued in this piece. Thanks for pointing that out!

  3. I don't read any true crime. The two true-crime books I've read left me feeling dirty. I love fictional murder. Real murder is way too disturbing.

    1. I think you get right at the heart of it, Barb. Fiction allows us to experience vicariously things we might never expect to feel in real life, and it does so at a remove, while still, if done well, having a powerful impact on us as readers. And it does so at the expense of no one. No one has to ACTUALLY die in order for us to see how Bosch/Millhone/Plum/Marlowe/Kadesh/NameYourProtagonist is going to solve this LATEST mystery...

  4. All of that. And I'm particularly revolted by the variants, like DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, which seem to revel in the grotesque, and take liberties of "supposing" details of death and horror minute by gruesome minute on the page. Blech! Gleeful profit is bad enough without the authorial intrusion of deliberate torture porn dressed as "reconstruction."


    1. I think I get what Larson was trying to do with DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, which, as a piece of historical nonfiction really was a piece "of its time." When Larson wrote it, the notion of "creative nonfiction" was taking the publishing world by storm, resulting in big money sales for authors jumping on that particular train. Seems like this is what Larson was doing with DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, and for my money, succeeded at the "creative" part and less so at the "nonfiction" part.

      For an example of historical crime taking a bird's eye view of a particular incident, contextualizing it and then laying out the impact it had in both the real world and in fictional treatments of the same era, I have to say that Richard Rayner's superb A BRIGHT AND GUILTY PLACE: MURDER, CORRUPTION, AND L.A.'S SCANDALOUS COMING OF AGE really hits the mark. Dealing with such events as the water theft racket that William Goldman used to such devastating effect in his script for CHINATOWN and the murder-suicide of the son of the owner of the oil company from which an increasingly alcoholic Raymond Chandler was about to be fired (and which event he would later use his insider's knowledge of to inform the plot of his first novel, THE BIG SLEEP), and a whole lot more. For a native Los Angeleno such as yourself, books like this are required reading.:)

  5. There is a book I highly recommend called I WITNESS, edited by Brian Garfield. Essays by mystery writers about their experiences with true crime. An absolutely stunning number of them had been near victims of murder or kidnappings when they were children. Seemed to affect them...

    1. I will definitely add that to my TBR list. Thanks Rob! Reminds me of the story I heard Lee Child tell (he's told it a lot) about how, after getting laid off by the BBC after eighteen years of making documentary films for them, he had recently relocated to his wife's hometown of NYC, was walking in Central Park, and someone tried to mug him. He took the guy's gun away from them (Lee's an East End kid from London, born and raised) and made the guy give HIM his wallet. Thanks again for the recommendation!

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  7. For a long time, I considered true crime books as unsavory. As I began writing, I began reading news accounts, articles, reports, and interviews. I don't imagine these are any better than true crime nonfiction, but it helped me understand more about my chosen genre.

    Some was stomach churning and I'd turn away. I, for one, can't bear slasher movies.

    But I began to realize I owed something to victims. I coerced myself to witness a tiny part of what they went through. I can think of little worse than dying by torture… alone. In a way, I like to think my presence, so to speak, leaves them not quite alone. Is this weird of me?

    1. I don't think that's weird of you at all, Leigh. I think it's commendable. And noteworthy. And thought-provoking. Thank you!


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