Small wonder that people have a strange perception of true crime authors…
Last week I was honored to attend/present at the Historical Society of Michigan’s: Michigan in Perspective: The Local History Conference in Sterling Heights Michigan. I was on a panel with fellow New York Times Bestselling Author Mardi Link and award winning author and documentary producer David Schock.
I got the idea for the event a few years ago for the panel because of a rejection letter. I had written an article about an unsolved murder in a community from the 1960’s and had submitted it to an unnamed state history magazine. I was told that true crime, especially unsolved crimes, was not considered historical. Ouch – that hurt.
That response resonated with me. In my mind I had not written about a murder as much as I had also provided a lot of historical context for the community where the crime took place. It hit me then that many mainstream historians probably don’t hold true crime writers in the same category of historians that they themselves are in.
In my presentation I hoped to raise awareness around the role that true crime authors play in documenting history. Historically true crime writers got associated with the seedy-side of authoring. When you look at the covers of old issues of True Detective magazine you could get the wrong impression of us – that we are into female dominance and bondage. There is also an element of true crime writing that doesn’t go after current high-profile crimes. These books are often bestsellers but don’t provide a lot of history and their sensational nature tends to paint true crime authors as a modern form of ambulance chaser.
The work that David and Mardi and I do however is not contemporary crimes but those from the past. We document the local history as context for the crimes we are writing about. We have to. Local history provides the social framework where these murders took place.
We have to document local history so that the reader understands the people, their motivations, and their place in the drama. Without including a lot of local history, the victims can become faceless and voiceless to the reader. Many true crime authors are stewards of local history. We are often some of local history’s prime champions.
Major crimes play a role in a community. They are often defining events etched into the memories of the people that are there, even if they had not role in the crime itself. People remember significant crimes. They become part of the local culture, part of a shared memory of a key event. Consider this: People remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was killed or when the World Trade Centers were taken down. These were crimes, albeit large scale criminal acts, that are burned into our memories. Smaller murders have the same effect on a smaller, more community-wide scale.
In one of my books, The Murder of Maggie Hume, I (along with my co-author Victoria Hester) wrote about the urban development of Battle Creek Michigan in the 1970’s. If I had written a traditional non-fiction history book on the subject – it would have sold roughly three-to-five copies. By weaving that history into the book about the crime, it has been read by a significantly larger audience. True crime, as a genre, is much more broadly read than traditional history books.
Most people don’t realize that the research we do on books and films is almost identical to the techniques used by non-fiction writing historians. I feel safe in saying that because I write non-fiction history books (mostly military). Some historians may cringe at the thought of us being the same, but trust me, we are historians through-and-through.
Finally, as David likes to point out, our works are often calls to action. The three of us primarily work in a niche in true crime that deals with unsolved cases. When we write a book, we are looking for new answers. We generate tips and leads. We ensure that the crime does not slip into the darkness unremembered or unsolved.
The turnout for our presentation was pretty large and we got a lot of positive questions and comments. People always bring up crimes we should be looking at. I have to admit, I knew only a little about the Oakland County Child Killings (OCCK) but now I am doing a little bit of digging into that subject. It seems this is one of those unsolved cases that is screaming for the right attention – a historical true crime perspective. More on this later, depending on what my digging unearths.
I encourage you to go and read Mardi’s and David’s books and view David’s stunning documentaries. As I told Mardi, I read her book, When Evil Came to Goodhart, at least once a year. You should too. Overall, I had a blast – I met some neat people, and got to spend an hour or so with some top-notch talent in my field, which was a great treat.