Skip to content
Congratulations to 2021 Ottaway Award winner Naveen Kishore! Learn more.
from the December 2019 issue

Forced Confessions: On True Crime Writing

I confess: my guilty pleasure is true crime. It started, appropriately, with In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” about the murder of a Kansas family, which I discovered at the formative age of ten. I read it sitting up in a bed that felt progressively less secure, in my parents’ creaking, groaning old house, just one state over from the gruesome events. I was terrified. I don’t think I ever slept through the night in that house again. I was hooked.

There were many, many other true crime tales, gaudy mass-market paperback bricks (journalist Janet Malcolm observes, tartly, that “the books in this genre need fulfill only one requirement—that they be interminably long”), foil titles splashed with stylized blood. As I grew older and more refined in my reading tastes, I became furtive about my habit. Aside from their lurid wrappings, why was I embarrassed by these books? People surely have less defensible habits, and many of these books are stylishly written and intensively researched. Did my shame stem from true crime’s unavoidable overlap with the tabloids and their low-rent reputation? Or do my misgivings have their origin in a different sort of discomfort, the uneasy feeling that as readers we’re guilty of voyeurism, of finding pleasure, or at least recreation, in the misfortune of others?

Perhaps it’s more complicated, as with Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss’s damning portrait of accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. Like many murders, this one prompted multiple books; unlike most of these volumes, however, the subsequent titles were occasioned not so much by the case itself as by McGinniss’s involvement in it. Written, infamously, under the false pretense of sympathy with the accused, Fatal Vision led to books not only debunking McGinniss’s conclusions (including documentarian Errol Morris’s exhaustive Wilderness of Error, rebutted in turn by McGinniss’s own Final Vision), but also to Malcolm’s eviscerating Journalist and the Murderer, with its iconic opening line, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” The true crime here, many seemed to feel, was McGinniss’s offense against MacDonald.

As the McGinniss-MacDonald saga suggests, tensions inhere in every true crime project. Beyond the usual tension between writer and subject lies the implicit promise of nonfiction: this is what happened, and why. The true crime reader herself may end up grilling the writer: is this the truth of the case? And if not, how can I tell?

That distance between the apparent and the actual, between first impressions and ultimate truths, runs throughout the pieces in this issue, the first Words Without Borders has devoted to this internationally popular genre. In some, the initial assumptions of guilt and responsibility prove inaccurate; in others, the facts of the case turn out to be far more complex than first realized. While the pieces here share these elements, they are from seven countries, translated from as many languages, and represent different stages in crime reporting, offering an international survey of the genre. The variety of weapons deployed, from poisoned drink to the proverbial blunt object, is matched in the range of tropes and topics: the reporter turned sleuth, the errant spouse, the trapped group picked off one by one. From the discovery of the crime to the interrogation and confession to the reporting of it, the pieces here map the translation of event into prose—the creation of true crime writing.

Czech graphic novelists Marek Šindelka, Vojtěch Mašek, and Marek Pokorný depict a reporter on the trail of a shadowy figure. When a captive child is discovered bound and bruised in her adoptive mother’s basement, the authorities assume they have an open-and-shut case. But when the supposed preteen vanishes from a children’s home and later is exposed as an adult woman and member of a mysterious cult, the story becomes even more complex. One newspaper reporter has already lost his job, if not his mind, over his obsession with the case. Can his dedicated successor crack the case without cracking up? The authors won the Muriel, the top award for Czech graphic novels, for their painstaking recreation of this intriguing tale.

A second graphic novelist, Jake Raynal, takes a markedly more cynical approach to the role of the press, skewering reporters and their disregard for facts in the interest of sensation. The three main concerns, he says, are protecting the innocent, respecting the accused—and working the audience into a frenzy for more. As evidence he produces accounts of a number of famous French crimes, citing the inaccuracies and exaggerations throughout—but “Who cares? It’s still an explosive story.” Between them, Raynal and Šindelka, Mašek, and Pokorný represent the extremes in portraits of journalistic practice, from the dogged pursuit of truth to the overt manipulation thereof. Raynal has been publishing serial graphic narratives in both the magazine Fluide Glacial and book form since 1994; his contribution here is from his series Les Nouveaux Mystères.

João Paulo Cuenca constructs an autofiction out of his victimization in an extreme case of identity theft. Hauled down to the police station after a neighborhood scuffle, he learns, to his understandable surprise, that he’s officially dead. Who has stolen his identity, and why has it been put to this disconcerting purpose? Blocked, unable to begin his planned next project, Cuenca decides to bring both himself and his writing back to life by teasing out the truth behind the crime. Cuenca, a Brazilian writer and filmmaker, won the 2017 Machado de Assis Prize for the resulting novel, I Found Out I Was Dead.

In another tale predicated on a personal connection, Miguel Ángel Hernández considers a baffling crime in his Spanish hometown. “Twenty years ago, on Christmas Eve, my best friend killed his sister and threw himself off a cliff,” he begins. The reasons behind the murder-suicide remain opaque, and Hernández has relegated the event to an anecdote from his youth. When a series of coincidences spur him to return to the scene of the crime, he finds himself, like Cuenca, drawn into an unexpected, and very personal, project.  Hernández, an art historian, essayist, and short story writer, makes his crime writing debut here.

From China, where the literary reportage genre has exploded over the past several years, comes the account of one of the few survivors of a mutiny turned massacre. In December 2010 a squid boat left China to fish on the coasts of Chile and Peru with a crew of thirty-three. When it was towed into port eight months later, only eleven remained. All were tried, convicted, and imprisoned. Reporting for the Chinese edition of Esquire, the accomplished nonfiction writer Du Qiang interviewed the first crew member to be released from prison, telling him, “I want to know about the people.” The answers, in the pseudonymous sailor’s matter-of-fact recollections, are horrifying. Du’s story went viral (one source claims thirty million readers); film rights have been sold, and an audio version was broadcast in 2018.

Shoko Egawa also addresses a mass murder as she reconstructs a banquet turned bloodbath. At a village gathering, the toasts are followed by screams, as one woman after another collapses. At the end, five women lie dead, felled by poisoned wine. Suspicion falls on the unfaithful husband of one of the victims, and he’s called in for questioning. Will the detectives’ first assumption turn out to be correct? Egawa deftly builds the tension as the detectives circle their prey. Here as in the Du Qiang interview, the writer recreates both crime and confession, providing both an eyewitness account of a crime and the presumed criminal’s account of it. Veteran Japanese journalist Egawa won the prestigious Kabuki Kan Prize in 1995 for her coverage of the Aum Shinrikyō cult.

Cezary Łazarewicz reimagines a crime scene, this one in the deceptively safe environs of the victim’s own bedroom. When Henryk Zaremba awakens to his young son’s screams, he races through the house to find seventeen-year-old Lusia, his daughter from his first marriage, bludgeoned to death. He sends his lover, Rita, to fetch the doctor next door; the diagnosis is succinct, and crushing. An accomplished nonfiction writer specializing in crime, Łazarewicz won Poland's 2017 Nike Award for his account of a fatal police beating and its coverup, So There Will Be No Traces.

Compelling in their interrogations of crime and its depiction, these accounts provide, well, arresting reading. And surely there’s no shame in that.

© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

Read more from the December 2019 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.