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The crimes most commonly include murder, with tales of serial killers dominating the genre (about 40% in a 2002 survey), but true crime works have also focused on other subjects, for instance policemen memoirs, and more recently reality police TV shows. Depending on the writer, true crime can adhere strictly to well-established facts in journalistic fashion, or can be highly speculative. Some true crime works are "instant books" produced quickly to capitalize on popular demand; these have been described as "more than formulaic" and hyper-conventional. Others may reflect years of thoughtful research and inquiry and may have considerable literary merit. Still others revisit historic crimes (or alleged crimes) and propose solutions, such as books examining political assassinations, well-known unsolved murders, or the deaths of celebrities.
According to Joyce Carol Oates:
Accounts of true crime have always been enormously popular among readers. The subgenre would seem to appeal to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally. The most famous chronicler of true crime trials in English history is the amateur criminologist William Roughead, a Scots lawyer who between 1889 and 1949 attended every murder trial of significance held in the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, and wrote of them in essays published first in such journals as The Juridical Review and subsequently collected in best-selling books with such titles as Malice Domestic, The Evil That Men Do, What Is Your Verdict?, In Queer Street, Rogues Walk Here, Knave's Looking Glass, Mainly Murder, Murder and More Murder, Nothing But Murder, and many more…. Roughead's influence was enormous, and since his time "true crime" has become a crowded, flourishing field, though few writers of distinction have been drawn to it.
An American pioneer of the genre was Edmund Pearson, who was influenced in his style of writing about crime by Thomas De Quincey. Pearson published a series of books of this type starting with Studies in Murder in 1924 and concluding with More Studies in Murder in 1936. Before being collected in his books, Pearson's true crime stories typically appeared in "high-class magazines such as Liberty, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair"; this aspect distinguished Pearson's crime narratives from those found in the penny press.
The works of author Yseult Bridges about British cases; Inspector Dew's I Caught Crippen (1938); and the Notable British Trials series were all works that can be regarded as true crime. Jack Webb's 1958 The Badge (republished with an introduction by James Ellroy) embodies elements of the modern true crime story. Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood (1965) is usually credited with establishing the modern novelistic style of the genre and the one that rocketed it to enormous profitability.
Many works in this genre recount high-profile, sensational crimes such as the JonBenét Ramsey killing, the O. J. Simpson murder case, and the Pamela Smart murder, while others are devoted to more obscure slayings. Prominent true crime accounts include Helter Skelter by lead Manson family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry; Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me, about Ted Bundy; Harry N. MacLean's In Broad Daylight about the killing of Ken Rex McElroy; Cathy Scott's The Killing of Tupac Shakur; and Joe McGinniss' Fatal Vision.
The modern genre, which often focuses on murders, is frequently marked by biographical treatment of the criminals and victims, attempts to explain criminal psychology, and descriptions of police investigations and trial procedures. An example of a modern true crime book is Mark Coakley's Tip and Trade: How Two Lawyers Made Millions from Insider Trading.
Although true crime books often center on sensational, shocking, or strange events, a secondary part of their appeal is social realism, which describes events too mundane, risqué, or deviant for other non-fiction media, including descriptions of the lifestyles of working-class or socially marginal people.[original research?]
After the success of the movie, The Silence of the Lambs, a subgenre of true crime has focused on methods of profiling unidentified criminals, especially serial killers.
The consensus was that no title on Jack the Ripper ever gathers much dust … the hottest backlist titles now, in the true crime genre, deal with serial killers – the more gruesome and grotesque the better.
In the early 1990s, a boom of true crime films began in Hong Kong. These films ranged from graphic Category III-rated films such as The Untold Story and Dr. Lamb (based on serial killers Wong Chi Hang and Lam Kor-wan respectively) to more general audience fare such as the film Crime Story (based on the kidnapping of businessman Teddy Wang Tei-huei) which featured action star Jackie Chan.
According to Associated Content (2006), "True Crime writing is the fastest growing genre since the turn of the century." Much of this is due to the ease of recycling materials and the publication of numerous volumes by the same authors differing only by minor updates.
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Christiana Gregoriou analyzing several books of the genre concluded that tabloidization and fictionalization are pervasive in the works of some of the authors of true crime literature. Even books by the same author disagree on specifics about the same killer or events. Some facts reported in Capote's In Cold Blood have also been challenged in 2013. Capote's second attempt at a true crime book, Handcarved Coffins (1979), despite being subtitled "Nonfiction Account of an American Crime" was already noted for containing significant fictional elements.
- Ray Surette (2010). Media, Crime and Criminal Justice: Images, Realities, and Policies. Cengage Learning. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-495-80914-2.
- David Levinson (2002). Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. SAGE Publications. pp. 1019–1021. ISBN 978-0-7619-2258-2.
- Christiana Gregoriou (2011). Language, Ideology and Identity in Serial Killer Narratives. Taylor & Francis. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-203-83265-3.
- Oates, Joyce Carol (1999), "The Mystery of JonBenét Ramsey", The New York Review of Books, Vol. 46, No. 11, 24 June 1999.
- David Schmid (2010). "True Crime". In Charles J. Rzepka; Lee Horsley. A Companion to Crime Fiction. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-4443-1792-3.
- Penny, Damien. "Insider Trading Can Be So Easy". Canadian Lawyer. Retrieved 1 August 2011.
- Ralph F. Voss (2011). Truman Capote and the Legacy of 'In Cold Blood'. University of Alabama Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-8173-1756-0.
- Christiana Gregoriou (2011). Language, Ideology and Identity in Serial Killer Narratives. Taylor & Francis. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-203-83265-3.
- Christiana Gregoriou (2011). Language, Ideology and Identity in Serial Killer Narratives. Taylor & Francis. pp. 63–65. ISBN 978-0-203-83265-3.
- Helliker, Kevin. "In Depth: Long-Lost Files Cast Doubt on 'In Cold Blood'." Wall Street Journal Europe. 19 Feb 2013: 14+.
- Ralph F. Voss (2011). Truman Capote and the Legacy of "In Cold Blood". University of Alabama Press. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-8173-1756-0.
Radio and podcasts
- "On the Media coverage of true crime". On The Media.