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The True Crime Novel: Another Mystery Subgenre?

The true crime subgenre is presented as a nonfiction account of a real crime. The emphasis is on the facts: the chronology of events  from the investigation through the legal proceedings with details about the people affected. On the other hand, a true crime novel is fiction written in the style of an actual crime.


In the case of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965), promoted as a “true account of a multiple murder and its consequences,” critics charge that the author changed facts to suit the story, added scenes that never took place, and manufactured dialogue. Still, I’d argue that it’s an example of the true crime subgenre because it is an essentially nonfiction account and written with an emphasis on the facts.


Now consider Andrew Klavin’s True Crime: The Novel (2011), the tale of a race to save a convicted killer on death row. I’d argue that although the story is about a crime, it is not based on an apparently real case. Nor is it written in the style of a true crime story. I’d classify it as a thriller instead.


Between them I’d put Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy  (1925). The story is about an ambitious young man who plots to kill his pregnant girlfriend when given the opportunity to court a  socialite. Although not written in the journalistic style of today’s true crime stories, Dreiser’s book was based on the 1906 murder of Grace Brown.


I’d heartily recommend all three books, but I’m not ready to recognize any of them as an example of a true crime novel. I recommend that you read them and decide for yourself. Nevertheless, real crimes often make the basis for a good story. The story I’m working on now, “The Deadliest Handprints,” is based on a murder that took place in Rome during the first century CE.


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