There’s no doubt that the true crime genre is booming: just look to the popularity of Netflix’s Making a Murderer or the podcast Serial. In books, too, the category is on the rise: since the beginning of 2018, true crime titles sold 1.6 million print copies, per NPD BookScan; in the same period in 2016, titles in the category sold 976,000 print copies.
Kent State University Press has an entire line devoted to the genre, intended for scholarly and general readerships. The True Crime History series comprises 23 titles to date, and spring will see the releases of The Belle of Bedford Avenue by Virginia A. McConnell (Mar. 2019) and Six Capsules by George R. Dekle Sr. (May 2019). The former examines the 1902 murder of a young man, widely thought to have been at the hand of his teenage girlfriend; the latter delves into the life of Carlyle Harris, a handsome, charismatic medical student in the 19th century who poisoned Helen Potts, an upper class woman he coerced into a secret marriage.
“At its most basic, true crime appeals to people’s desire for a vicarious thrill,” says Kent State acquiring editor Will Underwood. “People have always been fascinated with stories of others who behaved badly and tried to get away with it.”
In April, Diversion Books will publish Dead in the Water, in which journalist Penny Farmer investigates a murder that went unprosecuted for decades. Keith Wallman, editor-in-chief at Diversion Books, says that “true crime puts us right in the middle of good vs. evil, and gives us the thrill of doing detective work and bringing the bad guys to justice.” When acquiring new projects in the genre, Wallman uses a rubric he calls the backyard test: can the book “powerfully convey” whether a crime could occur in the reader’s comfort zone?
“I’m not talking only about geography, but also other kinds of spaces we all share,” Wallman says. “Interests, work lives, family lives. That sense of place, community, or shared humanity allows a reader to empathize with the story’s characters. That’s the element the best true crime contains. Without it, the reader’s just a bystander. With it, the reader’s involved.”
As true crime strengthens its hold on the public imagination, we look at forthcoming books that help fans of the genre dive in further.
For Ali Fisher, editor at Tor/Forge Books, good true crime illuminates how the “broken” parts of society affect real people. “Hearing the full story of a crime from a trusted voice is nothing like sterile news coverage or overwhelming statistics,” she says. “It helps me process a world where violence is a reality.”
Fisher describes herself as a Murderino, the moniker for the many fans of Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff’s two-year-old true crime podcast, My Favorite Murder (see “Book ’Em.”). On the show, the comedians recount crimes and near-crimes, often for live audiences during their sold-out tours.
Fisher contacted the pair about writing a book and helped them mold the proposal, which originally consisted of the duo’s cheeky commentary, into a book that also incorporates narratives on mental health advocacy and victim advocacy, both of which are components of the podcast. The book, Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered—the title is taken from the pair’s usual sign-off—pubs in May.
“There are a lot of us out there with a morbid curiosity and an interest in horrible things,” Fisher says. “It’s a relief to hear a frank conversation about murder, failure, and mental health spoken at full volume.”
Other publishers, too, are enthusiastic about books by popular podcasters. “Interest in true crime is at an all-time high,” says DK’s Alastair Dougall, who edited Unsolved Murders (Feb. 2019) by Amber Hunt, host of the true crime podcast Accused, and Emily G. Thompson, founder of the Morbidology website.
The book spotlights crimes including the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the Zodiac killings, and the Black Dahlia murder, in a highly visual style meant to draw the new wave of true crime fans, Dougall says. “We wanted to design something that would appeal to the many millennials who devour true crime podcasts on their commutes.”
Of the myriad crimes humans commit, few evoke horror on par with that of the killing of a child, particularly when the accused is the child’s mother. In May 2009, Amanda Stott-Smith, a middle-class mother of two living in Portland, Ore., drove to the Sellwood Bridge and dropped her two children into the Willamette River. Her seven-year-old daughter survived the fall, but her four-year-old son did not. Stott-Smith was arrested and is serving out her 35-year prison sentence.
Journalist Nancy Rommelmann watched the public outcry in the weeks following the boy’s death and felt compelled to explore what leads someone to commit such an act, and the fear such a crime stokes in everyone else. “The knee-jerk responses—that she was crazy, that she was evil—did not, for me, answer any sort of question as to why,” Rommelmann says. “What these reactions did tell is how terrified we are by the idea of a mother killing her child, how we have to make her ‘other’ and slam the door. I was not afraid of looking into why. In fact, I had to.”
Rommelmann compiled seven years of research and interviews into 2018’s To the Bridge, which PW’s review praised for its “compassion and emotional honesty”; Little A will reissue the book in paperback in January, and Rommelmann has plans to speak at AWP 2019 in March.
When asked about the difficulty of researching and writing about crimes against children, Rommelmann said that a story so seemingly unfathomable needs to be told. “It’s only impossible to comprehend if we decide we cannot look at it,” she says. “There are, no doubt, nicer neighborhoods to hang out in than the one where mothers kill their children, but if we stand here for a moment, place the pieces on the ground and look at them, we can make sense of it, we can put it together.”
Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Edward Humes investigates another case of a mother convicted in the deaths of her children in Burned (Dutton, Jan. 2019; see “CSLie?”). In early 2017, while spending time observing the work at the California Innocence Project, Humes was drawn to the case of Jo Ann Parks, a woman imprisoned for life for killing her four-year-old son and her one- and two-year-old daughters by burning down their home in 1989. According to Humes, fire science has changed dramatically in the 30 years since, and in the book, he contends that there was no crime in the first place—the fire was accidental.
From a storytelling perspective, the author says, the case is rich with ambiguity and suspense. “This is not a DNA case, which generally leaves no room for doubt about guilt or innocence,” Humes says. “It offered all the elements to build a compelling narrative and an important journalistic investigation”—complex characters, a “rush to judgement” by authorities, and Parks’s horror at losing her children and being branded a murderer.
“The possibility that someone could spend the rest of her life in prison for a crime that may never have occurred, and that the justice system might be incapable of correcting the errors that could permit such an atrocity, struck me as a story that had to be told,” Humes says.
Connecting the Dots
Sometimes an author’s personal link to a case makes its pursuit feel all the more necessary, regardless of how much time has passed since the crime was committed.
In July 1978, Penny Farmer’s 25-year-old brother, Chris, and his girlfriend, Peta, were discovered floating in the Caribbean off the coast of Guatemala. The pair, traveling together on a Central American adventure, had been beaten and tortured. Despite one likely suspect, an American man named Silas Boston, no arrests were made, and the case went cold for decades.
Farmer, 17 at the time of the murders, grew up, had a family of her own, and became a freelance journalist. In October 2015, after what she describes as an epiphany, she sat down at her computer, opened up Facebook, and set out to track down Boston.
“By the end of the weekend, I had a pretty clear picture of Boston’s family,” says Farmer, who lives in the U.K. “I was amazed by how easy it was to glean information, which in turn made me cross with myself that I had not done it sooner. British and American law enforcement agencies and Interpol were sure that Boston was the perpetrator of the crime back in 1979; I was totally perplexed to discover he was a free man, living a seemingly normal life on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Farmer details the crime and her quest to bring Boston to justice in Dead in the Water (Diversion, Apr. 2019). The book was, first and foremost, a way for Farmer to commemorate Chris and Peta’s memory. But she also, as a journalist and a grieving sister, felt ownership over the story and how it would be told.
“It seemed natural to write what is, by anyone’s standards, a most incredible true crime story that has had such a life-changing, devastating impact on my family,” Farmer says. “This is my family’s story to tell.”
Cold cases, such as the long-unprosecuted killing that haunted Farmer’s family, have proven especially alluring to true crime aficionados. One of the biggest true crime titles of 2018, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, who died unexpectedly in 2016, has sold 164,000 print copies since it hit shelves in February. Published by Harper, the book documents McNamara’s obsessive pursuit of a serial killer and rapist who terrorized California in the 1970s and ’80s. In April 2018, two years after McNamara’s death and two months after the book’s publication, 72-year-old Joseph DeAngelo was arrested after police say DNA evidence linked him to the crimes.
“The idea of a murderer living freely in society is appalling,” says Matthew McGough, author of The Lazarus Files (Holt, Apr. 2019), of the perennial allure of cold cases. “Every unsolved homicide is its own tragic story with no resolution. Readers, like detectives, want to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together and help bring closure to victims’ loved ones. True stories about the long-delayed delivery of justice are innately powerful.”
In The Lazarus Files, McGough probes the 1986 murder of 29-year-old newlywed Sherri Rasmussen. The case remained unsolved until 2009, when a swab from a bite mark on Rasmussen’s arm was scrutinized with new DNA technology, leading to the arrest of Stephanie Lazarus, an LAPD detective and former girlfriend of Rasmussen’s husband.
McGough had met Lazarus the year before her arrest, during an interview about international art theft—Lazarus’s division at the LAPD. “Did the respected police detective I met with really commit murder and carry that secret her entire career?” McGough asked. “I was intensely curious and started digging into the story that very day.”
The nine-year project threw McGough, author of the coming-of-age memoir Bat Boy, into the world of investigative journalism. “Through trial and error, I learned how to develop sources within the LAPD and beyond,” he says. In his reporting, he talked with retired LAPD homicide detectives, crime lab analysts, prosecutors, and multiple friends and former colleagues of Detective Lazarus.
Like McGough, Mark Bowden also returned to a subject he had written about before. When he was a 23-year-old cub reporter at a small Maryland newspaper, he covered the disappearance of Katherine and Sheila Lyon, ages 10 and 12, from the parking lot of a suburban D.C. mall in 1975. Three years ago, he spotted a story in the Washington Post reporting that Montgomery County, Md., police had made a break in the case. “This was a particularly haunting story—one that I never stopped wondering about,” Bowden says. “I immediately called and arranged to drive down from my home in Pennsylvania and talk to the detectives.”
A cold case detective had reopened the case and noticed that a 1975 sketch of a suspicious man at the mall, Lloyd Welch, looked similar to a man who had reported seeing the sisters get into a car. The lead re-energized the case, and an investigation began in earnest—the inquiry, and what Bowden calls “remarkable” detective work, is the primary focus of The Last Stone (Atlantic Monthly, Apr. 2019).
Welch pleaded to two counts of first-degree felony murder in 2017. The girls’ bodies were never recovered, and alleged coconspirators were either dead or for other reasons could not be prosecuted.
For Bowden, returning to the start of his career, and seeing some justice served, provided a sense of closure. “I wondered about what happened to those girls, and who took them, for my entire adult life,” he says. “I now feel that I know, even if I don’t have all the particulars. The big questions were answered, and that enabled me to understand to some extent why.”
A Moral Quandary
In An Unexplained Death (Holt, Nov.), Mikita Brottman looks into the 2006 death of Rey O. Rivera, whose body was found in Brottman’s Baltimore apartment complex. The death was ruled a suicide, but Brottman’s investigation of the case leads her to wonder whether it was, in fact, a homicide. PW’s starred review called the book “a page-turning look at the darker impulses of the human psyche.”
In addition to her examination of Rivera’s case, Brottman, a psychoanalyst and author of several previous nonfiction titles, also turns the exploration inward, asking questions of her own fixation on death. “I don’t think there’s anything ethically wrong with being interested in death,” she says. “We should be interested. We’re all going to die, after all. In the past, people were a lot more comfortable with death, because they witnessed it more frequently. We feel uncomfortable today when someone thinks and talks about death ‘too much.’ ”
As true crime has hit the pop culture mainstream, with it has come some debate about the ethical dilemmas of voyeurism, and using crime and violence as entertainment or art.
“I’ve struggled with it a little,” says Serena Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt. “One time the ex-wife of a subject of one of my books called me to complain about my author contacting her. It’s tough, but I usually borrow the line that journalists use, about the story being out there already so the best thing is for it to be told in the right way. And really, most of the time, victims’ families want the facts out there, as long as it’s done in a sensitive way. Telling these stories in book form can be a way of immortalizing someone, and that seems superethical.”
Stephen Morrow, executive editor at Dutton and editor on Humes’s Burned, says the question, “Why tell this tale?” is of utmost importance. “Is this story doing nothing more than satisfying some sort of bloodlust? Some appetite that we ought to be ashamed of?” he asks. “If you don’t have an understanding of why a story is making a valuable contribution, then walk away.”
To the Bridge author Rommelmann agrees, adding that true crime narratives can enhance an understanding of human nature. “The popularity of the genre, at its best, can do a real service,” she says. “Instead of that knee-jerk crazy-or-evil, we enter the story, spend some time, and come to richer, more humane conclusions.”
Below, more on the subject of true crime books.
Making Sense of the Past: PW Talks with Patrick Radden Keefe.
In 'Say Nothing,’ the New Yorker staff writer uses a long-unsolved murder as a window onto the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.
Book ‘Em: True Crime 2018–2019
Listen up: these popular podcasts are linked to forthcoming true crime titles.
CORRECTION: This article has been amended with Serena Jones's correct title at Henry Holt.