"The perpetual human curiosity about crime [is] sometimes condemned as low and degrading--if not actually indicating an intention to engage in foul deeds."
--Edmund Lester Pearson
My fiancé was baffled. His fork had stopped inches from his mouth. “Why on earth do you read this stuff?”
What a stumper.
I was probably going on and on about Countess Bathory, Lizzie Borden, Belle Gunness, Katie Bender, or some other incarnation of the classic murderess. Since I wanted this man to be there when I walked down the aisle (and wanted him to wear a smile), I thought I’d better come up with a darn good answer.
Well… it started with Lizzie Borden (the mystery there isn’t whodunit, but why New England wasn’t ready, in 1893, to convict a genteel, middle-aged virgin of a violent crime). It progressed to the Blood Countess… then other serial killers... then Ann Rule and John Douglas, explaining it all… then I learned that the average public library has a massive true crime collection (that circulates heavily), and discovered John King Books in downtown Detroit.
So why does this genre produce tales of real horror that fascinate so many people? I think it's because it appeals to our need to believe in justice and retribution. The more afraid you are of Boogeymen, the more satisfying it is to watch them get caught—to know that no matter how clever they are, they won’t get away with it forever. Knowing the gory details of an awful crime only deepens the sense of satisfaction when the perpetrator is captured and punished, or at least identified long after the fact as a proper object of scorn. And if you understand how they think and behave, maybe you insulate yourself somewhat, or at least lessen your fear of the dark.
Why historicals, though? Why is it that old crimes hold my attention, while current cases aren’t quite so interesting? Perhaps it’s because the lessons of the past reinforce our current theories of who and why and how, because some things—like the tell-tale behavior of murderers—never change. As fellow true crime blogger Steve Huff remarked privately, “I think the sexual killers have followed similar patterns all the way back to Gilles de Rais.” And there’s cold comfort in that, isn’t there, some bit of relief in knowing that seemingly random acts of brutality perhaps aren't so random after all?
An added appeal for historical stories is that most are now so old, they're new again. The modern reader isn’t ever quite sure how it will all come out in the end. When an essay or a book presents a reader with an unknown and fascinating story and the answer to the riddle, all in one neat package—like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, to cite a recent well-known example—well, it doesn’t get any better than that.
That’s why unsolved crimes have never appealed to me. Jack the Ripper was of zero interest until Patricia Cornwell bravely claimed to have solved it. Her theories are quite controversial—considered more fiction than fact in some circles—but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable to read Jack the Ripper: Case Closed. Ditto Steve Hodel’s Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story.
This answer won’t satisfy everyone who asks, “why study true crime?” But it was enough for my fiancé—husband now—to shake his head and smile in relief. And sleep a little better beside me.