In the summer of 1841, police found the body of Mary Cecelia Rogers floating in the Hudson River. The authorities had their theories: Rogers might have been the victim of a well-known local abortionist, a gang, or an accident. But all they knew for sure was that she was around 20 years old, had worked in a New York City tobacco shop and had been gorgeous. Hence the nickname the media gave her: “The Beautiful Cigar Girl.” Her case remains officially unsolved, but at the time it drew national attention and inspired the writer Edgar Allan Poe to do some investigating of his own. He later claimed he had untangled the riddle of her death and wrote a story called The Mystery of Marie Roget, which gave the real case a thin Parisian sheen (Marie Roget’s body was found in the Seine, etc.). A true crime prototype, Marie Roget featured many of the hallmarks the genre retains to this day: the thrill of amateur sleuthing, the female victim, the gruesome and vivid descriptions.
Since that time, true crime has mostly been dismissed as tabloid fodder, with a few exceptions—most notably, Truman Capote’s 1966 In Cold Blood, which showed that the genre could be a real literary form. Recently, though, true crime has taken on new visibility. First came Serial, the 2014 This American Life spinoff, which revisited the investigation of the 1999 killing of the Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee, and the conviction of her boyfriend, Adnan Syed. That series spawned the legal-analysis podcast Undisclosed, focusing on the same case, which debuted in mid-April as iTunes’s most-downloaded podcast and has since settled into the #14 spot. In film, Bennett Miller’s Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher explored the life of the philanthropist and murderer John du Pont. On television, HBO aired the six-part docuseries The Jinx earlier this year, focusing on the suspected murderer Robert Durst. The Weinstein Company recently bought the rights to turn In Cold Blood into a miniseries. And American Crime Story, an upcoming FX series, will tackle the O.J. Simpson trial when it debuts in 2016.
Although true crime has found new ways to appeal to mainstream audiences in the 21st century, in many ways, the genre hasn’t changed much since the days of Poe or Capote, as evidenced by the surface similarities between Marie Roget and Serial. But in other, deeper ways, it has. New forces—improved technology, new media, and less trust in institutions—have helped shape true crime into a truly modern form. Social media helped turn The Jinx and Serial into participatory experiences, while also contributing to their widespread exposure. The average American today has greater familiarity with the legal process, thanks in part to procedurals dramas and the round-the-clock media coverage of splashy crimes that began with the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s. And people are more aware than ever of flaws in the criminal-justice system, including police brutality and wrongful convictions. The result is a genre that’s still indebted to decades-old conventions, but also one that has found renewed relevance and won a new generation of fans by going beyond the usual grisly sensationalism.
Twitter isn’t lighting up anymore with speculations of “Did Jay do it?” or declarations for “#TeamAdnan.” But Serial, which concluded in December 2014, sparked a series of events, most recently last month’s news that Syed might be able to offer new evidence in his appeal for a shorter sentence. The series didn’t offer the kind of triumphant, seemingly straightforward conclusion The Jinx did (an apparent hot-mic confession by Durst and a timely real-life arrest), but it’s unlikely Syed’s case would have progressed in such a meaningful way without Koenig’s podcast and the influence it generated. And in filing a motion June 4 to suppress evidence obtained during Durst’s arrest, defense lawyers claimed that as millions of viewers prepared for The Jinx’s finale, “[Police] were hurriedly planning to arrest Durst before the final episode” to capitalize on the hype, and “were crafting a dramatic moment of their own.”
Social media supports the quick ascendance of particular stories, allowing a grassroots energy to buoy otherwise niche cases to the top of the trending list. Ironically, in this environment, lesser-known stories can often have a longer shelf life than headline news reports. “It’s for this same reason that lesser-known stories and cold cases [without] an online or verifiable footprint really resonate with people,” said Michael Arntfield, a former police officer and professor of criminology at Western University in Ontario.
When a story is being covered on every media outlet (including Twitter), it becomes part of the accelerated news cycle, which pulls stories down as quickly as it props them up. But when the only source of information is a credible report by a captivating storyteller like Koenig, a case tends to hold people’s attention much longer. Platforms like Twitter and Reddit have also made it easier for people to publicly fact check stories and call out inaccuracies. This added level of engagement can be frustrating for storytellers, but it can also translate into a greater investment in the story—and its outcome.
As a result, Arntfield said he believes audiences are more likely to see the same stories—the popular ones—being retold more frequently. The Intercept ran its own multiple-installment interviews with Serial’s elusive character Jay, followed later by the launch of Undisclosed, which explores the case from a different point of view. Even the decades-old Charles Manson case is inspiring fresh takes. Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders has remained the #1 bestselling true-crime book since its publication in 1974. The acclaimed podcast You Must Remember This, which focuses on stories of 20th-century Hollywood, will spend its fourth season focusing on Manson’s “life, crimes, and cultural reverberations.” (The third episode aired Tuesday.) The new NBC show Aquarius, which debuted in late May, features a Manson-centered plot and a shameless tagline: “Murder. Madness. Manson.”
The rapid turnover of crime stories isn’t necessarily unique to the 21st century. In the early 1900s, American tabloids were filled with grisly tales of triple slayings, decapitations, and executions that would be forgotten weeks later. And while the sensationalism surrounding true crime hasn’t diminished today, audiences are better equipped to parse the technical details of different cases. David Schmid, an English professor at the University of Buffalo and an expert on crime in U.S. popular culture, pointed to the Simpson trial as a flashpoint for this change. “The line that was crossed with that case was that it gave the general public a level of familiarity with the legal process they didn’t possess before,” he said.
The reality channel CourtTV, which launched in 1991, found immense popularity during this time with its criminal justice-oriented programming and nonstop coverage of courtroom drama. (The channel covered the infamous trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, convicted of killing their parents in 1994.) Legal and police procedural shows, especially the Law and Order franchise, similarly flooded the public consciousness. Though not exactly true crime, Law and Order became known for its ripped-from-the-headlines episodes that often featured easily recognizable elements from real-life cases (à la Marie Roget).
This greater legal awareness has given storytellers the chance to embark on ever-more sophisticated true-crime stories. “Serial goes into the ins and outs of the legal process to a great degree and is produced for an audience that is fairly knowledgeable about what constitutes legal evidence and trial procedure,” said Schmid. In fact, he added, “Perceived knowledge of the legal process is one of the preconditions for the success of something like Serial.”
Yet another precondition is the feeling shared by many Americans that the legal system is broken. (Schmid described Serial in particular as a “symposium” on whether justice in the U.S. is possible.) As of last June, 76 percent of Americans had some, little, or no confidence in the criminal-justice system, according to a Gallup poll. Pamela Colloff, a veteran crime reporter and executive editor at Texas Monthly, told me, “There’s been an incredible shift in public consciousness about wrongful convictions and the possibility that someone who’s in prison is innocent.” This is in addition to public anger over recent police killings of unarmed African American men. Skepticism and distrust of the current state of law and order can be a selling point for stories that promise to probe the dark, blurry edges of the law.
“It would be interesting to see whether there’s a possibility of some kind of synergy developing between creative writers and producers of shows and [organizations like] the Innocence Project,” Schmid said. It’s an intriguing prospect: a kind of vertical integration between advocacy groups—with their considerable resources and arsenal of information—and editorial teams equipped to turn that raw data into fascinating stories.
But that would of course intensify a question that creators already face: What kinds of cases should producers, podcasters, authors, networks, and journalists ultimately choose to pursue? The coldest cases? The most baffling verdicts? The goriest crime scenes? The most sympathetic victims? The handsomest killers? Or the worthiest causes?
In its purest form, true crime doesn’t shy away from the gratuitousness that’s always been part of the genre. “I’m all for sensationalism—it satisfies a certain kind of primal appetite,” said Harold Schechter, a professor of literature at Queens College-CUNY and a serial-killer expert who’s written more than 30 crime books. While much has been made of the violence depicted in popular culture, Schechter sees it as a good thing, even a sign of social progress. “Not long ago,” he said, “humans demanded to see actual executions and humans being tortured.”
In 17th century New England, large groups of people would gather to hear preachers give an execution sermon before a criminal was put to death. In more recent history, lynchings of blacks in the American South often drew celebratory crowds. But now, most people are content to witness violence in virtual form, via TV and movies. And despite their voyeuristic elements, crime stories haven’t always been first and foremost about titillating audiences. Poe’s story about Mary Rogers functioned as a critique of law enforcement’s ineffective investigation of her death.
In order to craft a compelling narrative, most true-crime authors rely on certain conventions. Some of these are obvious and grotesque, such as opening a story with a graphic description of a violent crime. Other are subtler, like framing a case so certain facts are left out, or omitted until later.
A sense of balance is key. Telling a story about a miscarriage of justice sometimes requires devices that might be seen as pulpy. “But the line is, you don’t want to go into lurid,” said Colloff, whose whose wrongful conviction stories have been nominated five times for National Magazine Awards (her two-part feature The Innocent Man won the award for Feature Writing in 2013). “There are gradations of what kinds of storytelling is done in true crime. Some of it is tasteful and some of it isn’t. I think there were times in Serial when Koenig walked right up to the line.” Koenig has been criticized for not focusing enough on the victim, Lee, and for dangling the possibility that Adnan’s friend, Jay, might have been more involved than he let on. (My colleague Adrienne LaFrance delved deeper into the ethical questions surrounding being “hooked” on the podcast.)
The public’s appetites also help determine which cases journalists, filmmakers, and writers choose to explore in the first place. “I’m very deliberately picking the one that has the most compelling narrative arcs, the most compelling people, as vehicles for telling the larger story of problems in the criminal-justice system,” Colloff said. The story archetypes that intrigue readers most are unsolved mysteries, serial-killer cases, or Jack the Ripper–style tales involving beautiful female victims (especially when their bodies are found in bleak places). Despite the public outrage about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Jordan Davis, when was the last time the victim in a true-crime story was a young, unarmed black man?
“Serial and other narratives aren’t doing enough to challenge what ‘mediagenic’ means,” said Schmid. The result is story after story “replicating that same set of assumptions about what it takes to constitute an interesting crime narrative.” Even stories looking to make broader social statements often end up borrowing from this narrow set of tropes. For example, the HBO’s documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper takes an unsettling look at the complex intersection of race and crime but focuses on an alleged serial killer in South Central Los Angeles whose victims were almost all female.
One project that appears to deviate from this formula a bit is the podcast Criminal, which launched in January 2014 and tells short yet nuanced stories of people involved in some way with crime. For another counterexample, Schmid pointed to The Los Angeles Times’ Homicide Report, which challenges the popular notions of what kinds of crimes matter by assiduously documenting every single homicide in the city. The project’s tagline? “A Story for Every Victim.”
And most of them aren’t beautiful young women.
These long-percolating cultural shifts hint at what true crime’s future could look like: less straight entertainment and more advocacy journalism, if not in style, then at least in consequence. Months after the final episode of Serial ended, Syed’s case continues to see new developments, and Durst continues to sit in jail, waiting for a trial that could end with him facing the death penalty for the murder of his friend. True crime may, in the coming decades, further challenge which kinds of victims deserve sympathy and which kinds of crimes should provoke outrage and disgust.
In the past, Schecter said his readers would come up to him after his book events, and tell them how abashed they felt about being fans of true crime. Compare that to the unabashed attention surrounding the likes of Foxcatcher, The Jinx, Serial, and Undisclosed (maybe not so much Lifetime’s recently wrapped, campy series Chronicles of Lizzi Borden starring Cristina Ricci).
None of the experts I spoke with thought this increased attention would fundamentally change the basic elements of true-crime stories. But most agreed that current media forms have given the genre distinctly modern characteristics. Imagine if Twitter had existed at the time the Clutter family had been killed—or conversely, if Facebook hadn’t existed when the story of Hae Min Lee’s murder ended up on Koenig’s desk. Or think of a subreddit obsessively poring over details of Mary Rogers’ death the way Poe did in the 19th century, desperate to find the one clue that would explain everything.