There is something unsettling about reading true crime books. Among the most unsettling parts of such books–and I say this as someone who reads the genre relatively frequently–is that the books are seldom as true as they set out to be. Among the founding works in the true crime genre of writing is the “nonfiction” novel In Cold Blood, written by flamboyant writer Truman Capote, and that particular book, despite its claims of being completely true by its author, has long had various controversies relating to the book, including the question of whether failures on the part of Kansas law enforcement allowed for an additional four murders to take place by the two drifting killers. That is to say nothing about the imaginative way that the author creates conversations out of thin air that he could not have verified happen, including a conversation between two of the victims of the Kansas murders in question on their last day of life, a conversation to which there were, alas, no living witnesses to convey. And this is not even considering the dodgy relationship between the memory and testimony of people in a matter where there is considerable temptation to shade the truth and the actual truth that the writer is seeking to convey. These are, after all, questions that dog any writing that seeks to convey truth and which relies on testimony, which is to say every historical or journalistic endeavor whatsoever.
Leaving aside that minefield for the moment, I wish to comment about what I consider to be the element of true crime books that I have read, especially recently, which others me the most, and that is the continual tendency of writers to comment on journalists of some kind to be legends within their own mind. It is a longstanding problem for writers in general (and I do not claim to be immune from this tendency) to inflate their importance in what they are recording. It is natural if sometimes lamentable that we must all account for and sometimes feel it necessary to mention, often at considerable length, the reasons why we are interested in various phenomena. To the extent that we have a stake in what we are reporting or testifying to, it is often necessary to state that stake and that agenda outright, as our testimony will be discounted and rejected to the extent that we are thought to have any sort of hidden agenda that undermines our perspective and opinion and judgment. Some of us, alas, cannot keep our agendas hidden even when it is in our own best interests to do so, but let us judge not lest we be judged in such matters.
Over and over again, though, in reading about the account of crimes, the people recording the “truth” of such crimes cannot help but insert themselves as heroes in the story. At times this is done somewhat unobtrusively, which is highly praiseworthy, but very often it is not subtle or restrained at all. For example, I recently read a book that sought to convey the truth of a murder that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans and the writer inserted himself and his own quixotic quest for understanding as a main element of the story, as if the reader ought to care about what a New Orleans transplant felt bout the spiritual oppression and victim culture that the author surrounded himself with and which greatly hindered his insight into the case that he sought to discuss by blaming the victim, blaming PTSD, blaming early childhood issues, blaming political failures relating to the military as well as Katrina and New Orleans in general, and even seeming to blame demons of some kind, albeit somewhat delicately. Indeed, the author did everything but blame the person responsible for the murder himself. Thankfully, not all cases of self-insertion are this blatant and this troubling, but it is a common enough problem for a writer to make their own struggles to uncover a story a large part of the story that they are telling, forgetting that the reader often does not care one whit about the author, but only about what they are hopefully recording to the best of their often modest and extremely biased abilities.
Even in occasions when an author manages to avoid inserting themselves too much into a story, it is hard to avoid a writer making journos legends in their eyes, as journalists past and present have all too often been legends in their own eyes, and writers of true crime are often greatly dependent on journalists as a source of information. Not only have journalists always had an unhealthy appetite for troubling matters of crime and punishment, but it is often the record of newspapers of the past that serve as the raw materials from which contemporary writers and researchers must draw. Law enforcement and courts often fail to preserve key testimony and evidence for closed cases for the length of time that newspapers are preserved for, and witnesses and defendants and certainly victims fail for one reason or another to leave a lot of the testimony that would be of interest in presenting certain perspectives that a writer can consider. All too often a historical account of a given crime ends up being a lit review of what journos at the time and frequently biased and agenda-ridden researchers have said about the case in question.
All of this greatly limits the abilities of writers to come to an understanding of what is truth. It would be better for all of us if we had a high degree of humility about our own abilities to come to an understanding of truth based on our own biases and perspectives and narrative filters and the frequently biased and partial nature of the evidence that we possess that would help us to come to conclusions. It is a shame that journalists past and present lack the presence of someone to tell that they are not heroes and that they are not nearly as insightful as they often believe themselves to be, and that all too often they let their own desires for glory and credit get in the way of the service that they could provide to society as a whole if they were more committed to the truth than to their own glory and prestige. Alas, journalists are only people like the rest of us, and the failings we see in those whose writing attracts public attention ought to remind those of us who toil in obscurity that if the roles were reversed, it would be hard to see much of any difference in the self-aggrandizement department. And for that, we should lament.