Joseph Knox’s True Crime Story (Sourcebooks, Dec.) plays with genres—both as a postmodern crime novel that reads like a case file and as an examination of the fascination with true crime itself. The novel, which was a bestseller in the U.K., centers on the case of Zoe Nolan, a young British woman who walks out of her dorm in Manchester in 2011 and is never seen again. Knox, a former crime fiction buyer at the British bookstore chain Waterstones, tells the story through oral histories, emails, and other assorted documents—and even appears himself, as a character who’s drawn into the mystery by friend. PW talked with Knox about the popularity of true crime and how book buying plays into book writing.
What sparked the idea for this book?
The oral history idea had been bubbling away at the back of my mind. In the intervening years, true crime had risen up as this incredible force, and the two things began to cohere. I was listening to a lot of true crime podcasts that used the oral history format—intercutting interviews to allow people to argue and rebut these matters of life and death. I also knew that circling events around the disappearance of a young woman would allow me to ask questions about the ways in which male writers approach that kind of violence, and to hold myself accountable for it in some sense.
What does the book say about our fixation on true crime, especially the “dead girl” narrative?
While the book is critical about media exploitation of dead or missing girls—girls being essential to the narrative; women rarely making the cut in the same way, and this is before we take race into account—and while it casts a glance at young men writing about butchered women to sell books, ultimately and awfully, I think this kind of violence is a fact of life rather than just a fact of true crime. I don’t think a writer working in these genres is really doing their job if they just pretend it’s not there. That’s no excuse for sloppy or salacious work, though. For me, everything in books is about approach—style, atmosphere, and tone.
What do you think is behind the booming interest in true crime?
I think it’s no coincidence that the real boom in true crime came from podcasts and documentaries. The voices, the transient community we briefly become a part of, create a weird kind of togetherness where we can safely look at our greatest fears.
You’re familiar with crime writing not only as an author but a former book buyer. Did that experience influence the writing of True Crime Story?
Only in so far as I read more crime novels than is probably common—or sensible—and knew which clichés to avoid and which to steal. I never bought true crime for the company, just crime fiction. Perhaps that was useful, though. In writing, the great trick is to stop thinking and just fully inhabit whatever world you’re trying to create.