Saturday, January 7, 2012

Is True Crime History?

This spring I’m adding true crime to the genres I write in.  My book Secret Witness which comes out in April, is my first foray into this class of books.  I have written business, science fiction and military history thus far in my writing career.  I have always enjoyed reading true crime books so this was not a stretch for me. 

It was also easy because for the last few years of writing military history, there was almost no difference in writing true crime.  Almost…

From a purely researching and writing perspective – true crime books are no different than writing history books.  You need to get to primary sources, you organize your findings accordingly, and the writing is not different at all.  I have encountered a few people, mostly mainstream historians, who see true crime as something less than historical books.  I don’t agree with them.  In my head, these are history books – they are simply the history of specific events which lead to death or some other crime.

The structure of true crime books is different than most historical or biography works.  True crimes usually start with the horrific event – with just enough graphic tantalizing detail to draw the reader in.  There is the pursuit of the murderer, the capture, and the resolution (trial).  History books tend to do a lot more of a build up to a traditional climax.  True crimes tend to start with the climax in many regards.  Capote’s In Cold Blood, one of the first of the modern true crime books, didn’t do this – but that tends to be the exception to the rule.   

Just like with a history book, as a writer, I have to lay the context of the event out for the reader.  Secret Witness is set in Marshall Michigan in 1967.  I had to take the reader back to that time.  There were race riots in Detroit that summer – and a real fear that racial tensions would reach small towns like Marshall.  I had to delve into small-town culture as well.  If you have ever lived in a small town in America you realize they are very different places to live. 

The research is exactly the same process for both genres in terms of gathering information and organizing it.  I have to admit, I enjoy reading the typed police reports a great deal.  You really get a feel not just for the investigators themselves, but their thinking processes during the investigation.  Since I tend to write a lot of WWI books, I don’t get to interview people who were actual witnesses to events when I write military history.  When I do true crime, there are people still around who can offer me their perspectives and views. 

A significant difference in writing true crime vs. history books is the willingness of participants to have the story told.  When I was working on a book about Medal of Honor winner Frank Luke Jr. (Terror of the Autumn Skies) everyone was willing to talk to me and looked forward to the story to be told.  Not true with Secret Witness.  Out of professional courtesy I contacted members of both the victim’s and murderer’s families to: 1.  Let them know the book was being written so they wouldn’t be surprised; and 2.  Allow them a chance to offer their perspectives.  With true crime books, people prefer to let the event remain buried – they don’t necessarily want the story to be retold.  There was “resistance” – some of which I included in the book (sorry, you’ll have to read about it.)  It is perfectly understandable.  As a writer, however, I cannot let govern whether I write the book or not. 

I’m working on a new true crime book set in Battle Creek Michigan in 1963, tentatively titled A Special Kind of Evil.  This involves the unsolved brutal stabbing murder of Daisy Zick in Wattles Park.  Now this book will have to break more an a few true crime rules.  First off, there was no capture and trial of the guilty party.  Having crawled through the police files on the case and doing several interviews with people connected to the crime, I know the police had narrowed their suspects down to one or two people.  Getting the evidence to prove that is something they are still pursuing – even now, almost 50 years after the crime.  As a writer this is going to make me break with the traditional true crime genre format – which is proving both challenging and fun.

So, what do you think?  Is true crime really just a variation of history book?   


  1. Hey, I'd be very interested in doing an interview with you and talk more about true crime, why is it written and for who, what is the average reader getting out of it? is it just another trial by public or a sincere attempt to present the facts and (in some cases) let the reader make up her mind? Here's my site: Have a look let me know what you think? All the best with your research.

  2. Lae,
    I would love to do an interview with you on this topic a little closer to the time my book comes out.


  3. In 1963 I was 13yo, My parents and I lived two houses from the place where Daisy Zick was murdered, I rember many facts about the crime.