True Crime & Tangents

I’m reading some true crime for reviewing at the moment, and… there are issues. Nothing so soul destroying that I threw the books away or anything like that- I’ve even got post it flags and notes throughout. But still, there are elements that make them far harder reads than they should be.

So here are some things I’ve learned about true crime writing while reading:

There’s a difference between factual and boring.
You don’t have to ramp up the cheese factor, or anything like that. But readers should have an emotional connection to the story being told. These are not fictional characters. They are real people who lived, and loved, and whose lives were cut short. The person who killed them lived in our communities with us. They passed as utterly ordinary. We, or someone we love, could have passed that person on the street, or come into their sights somehow, without ever even realising it. That is a scary, scary thought.

Don’t turn an emotional event into a dry retelling from a history book. You can be truthful and factual without losing the emotion behind the event.

Vague doesn’t suit you.
I’m not saying be so graphic you’ll give everyone nightmares or make readers puke. True crime does have to balance the family’s feelings, the victim’s modesty, and the right to privacy of the perpetrator against the information being relayed.

But let’s be honest: vague descriptions are worthless. If you’re ‘showing readers around’ a crime scene, do it in such a way that they can picture it, at least a little. ‘Forest’ is meaningless. Are we talking dark, cool, lots of trees close together? Or rocky bushland style forest where there’s lots of light and heat and at least a bit of space between large trees? You don’t have to explain the injuries in graphic, morbid detail, or the stench of decay, or be graphic about the crime itself. But the place is important, so we should be able to know, at least a little, what it looked like.

You’re writing about something you clearly think readers can and should care about. Give them the chance to care about it by adding details where possible.

People matter. 
If you’re talking about a person, especially a victim, make sure readers can picture them. Give them life, and make them memorable. Being vague ups the chances that even your most dedicated reader is going to get confused, especially if there’s more than one victim being discussed. Let’s say your perp targets young blonde women. As a reader, I need to be able to tell them apart, need to remember who is who and where they fit in the timeline. Maybe one woman always wore a certain colour. Maybe another wore a particular necklace everywhere. There are always differences. Perhaps their killer considered them interchangeable, but that’s not an idea the reader should ever, ever hold.

Honour the victims by letting them be unique, memorable people beyond the notoriety that comes from being a part of a crime.

They didn’t have agency in their final moments- someone else exerted control over their futures- but gorram it, each and every ‘victim’ is far more than that. That was a brief span of time in years of life- don’t diminish them by making them nothing more than a victim. Every single person had hopes, dreams, and plans for the future. They weren’t arbitrarily wandering around, awaiting their fate. They existed and had meaning before they came into contact with the perpetrator. They were, and are, more than an act of violence committed upon them.

Let me put this in real terms: whenever there’s a mass shooting in the US, we all hear about the killer, right? And the victims don’t rate a mention in the mainstream narrative beyond how many there were. Even when they’re little kids, or teachers using their bodies to shield little kids, everyone is so hyped up about omg MONSTER that they forget that there’s other people involved. It’s like suddenly, these innocent people become statistics or props rather than human beings. Their lives become a tiny footnote in the story of the killer, which, to be honest, is BS. Inadvertently, the media/true crime writer is falling into the exact same mentality that the murderer had: that the killer matters more. That those people don’t matter beyond their role as victims. That they have been made lesser than and meaningless beyond their role in the perpetrator’s life.

Just… don’t.

If the story is self-focused, make that clear.
If the story is looking at how a crime impacted you personally, then don’t frame it as if it’s a procedural focus. There’s a difference between, say, a detective’s account of a case they’ve worked on, and a detective’s account of how a particular case impacted their life. One is true crime, the other is memoir with a true crime element.

Memoir focused work is about you. The story of how a case was solved is not just about you. Both are totally valid options in telling the story- it’s only a problem when you call it something it actually isn’t.

When a procedural focused work starts spotlighting one hero in a team (especially if that hero just so happens to be the writer), it casts serious doubt on what’s being said. The story is bigger than a single person, and when it looks like the story is being driven by ego, readers start wondering how much is true, and how much is edited to make you look good.

Tangents are the Devil’s work.
Maybe there’s this thing that’s e’er so slightly connected. It’s one of those if you squint just so and the stars align right, you can make out the teensiest hint of connection there type deals. Don’t go there. Don’t run off on tangents, especially ones where the only real connection is yourself.

If you’re talking about unsolved crimes that are possibly the work of the person you’re writing about, fine. That’s entirely relevant. But if other cases have nothing real to do with the story you’re telling, leave them out. If they don’t fit the MO, and are known to be the work of someone else, why are they being mentioned? What do they add to the story?

This is also a point where memoir need to be signposted. If you’re talking about other things you’ve done in your career, it’s got no business in a book about how a team solved a particular case unless it’s explicitly connected to that particular case.

Answer the big (relevant) questions.
When you’re talking about an actual crime that actually happened, questions arise. Some are fairly important- why did someone do something in a particular way? Why did the methodology change, but only once? Was the killer acting alone? What triggered the event?

Maybe you can’t answer all of them, but at least try.

If there’s doubt about those answers, give the information to the reader and let them decide.

Conversely, though:

Evidence me, mofos.
There are little bits and bobs that add detail and flavour, sure, but when it comes to the big ticket ideas, like oh, say, a person’s guilt? I want, and need evidence. ‘He accidentally confessed to me in a private, unrecorded conversation, even though he’s denied it forever’ isn’t evidence, because it’s got nothing to back it up. You can’t prove it in any meaningful way, because both sides have bias and the motivation to exaggerate or withhold the truth.

It seems a little too convenient, truth be told. He lied to you in the investigation, and the trial, and in interviews after he was jailed, and yet somehow, he just happens to blurt out a random confession-ish declaration? He was a fiercely controlling sort, but he just so happened to goof while you were right there in front of him? Convenient.

It’s also especially problematic when the admission isn’t clear cut, but can be taken as a ‘yes, I know you think it was me’ rather than ‘it was me! *evil maniacal laugh*

Hakuna your tatas with that ‘good and evil’ shtick.
Someone’s life has been taken, or destroyed. The story is sensationalist enough without adding the good and evil melodrama to the mix.

I don’t need to see a writer calling the perpetrator evil, or a monster, or any of those other overused buzzwords that distance the perpetrator from humanity so that we can all go to bed thinking that he’s not like us. We’re safe.

No. Screw that. The devil is not in that perpetrator, and when you’re writing true crime with that mentality, you’re missing the point. The devil didn’t do it. A human being did.  It’s not about angels and devils and darkened souls, it’s about the good and bad inherent in all humanity. It’s about how one person can do horrible things to other people, often without anyone really noticing. It’s about how society deals with that, and heals from it. And learns from it.

As soon as the ‘monster’ card gets played, we stop learning. When we pretend that perpetrators aren’t human, it’s easier to assume that there’s nothing we can do about it. They’re just these things that show up from time to time with no warning and no chance of stopping them. Psychology says that’s not true. So let’s leave that boogegy boogedy crap out of true crime writing, shall we?


The Human Element of Crime

As a society, we’re utterly turned on by the notion of psychopaths. Give us someone other, a boogey man to fear, and we’re equal parts scared and titillated.

It’s why, when you look at documentaries and journalistic articles about serial and rampage killers, you wind up with the boogey man mystique and don’t really get a chance to understand the why-fors of it all.

Part of that is because we don’t know enough to clearly define the equation of what creates a rampage or serial killer: there’s no cookie cutter formula to say that the same math won’t give you a dozen different answers.

But there’s something else at play, something that’s quite relevant to writers: we’d prefer the sense of otherness to the sense of regret. If there’s something wrong with the kid, then there’s nothing society could have done to change the situation or minimise the damage.

I was watching a documentary today about rampage killers (hence the blog post), and what struck me was the way we tend to veer madly away from the idea that it’s not all biological. We focus on those good kids who suddenly go bad because we can point and say that clearly, there was something wrong inside them. They’re not being abused by their family, they’re not bullies, they’re not the stereotypical ‘bad’ kid. There was a misfiring something that suddenly broke down, and boom, chaos.

It was interesting to watch the show touch on issues that seem like they would have similar levels of importance to the mental health and biological ones, and then rush back to focus on the mental. But while they got a glancing mention, there wasn’t really a discussion on the social elements that impact the mental issues.

Pro tip for those without mental health issues: those social elements play a huge part in the severity of certain problems. Stress ramps up issues so, so much. People’s comments about us impact depression. What others do has a direct and meaningful impact, whether we like it or not.

As a writer, the one-sided conversation annoys me, because the best villains in fiction aren’t just a product of biology. They’re a product of a series of tiny, insignificant or all important events that pile up to create an unwinnable situation. In the Marvel universe, Loki’s actions are directly caused by the realisation that his life was a lie, and his true heritage was one feared by those around him. In the Blacklist, Red’s career trajectory was entirely positive until that unknown something pushed him towards cruelty. Frank Burns in M*A*S*H was loved by his mother, but otherwise almost universally disliked from a very young age.

When you scratch the surface of a lot of fictional villains, it becomes clear that it’s less about biology than it is about circumstances. And when we see them entirely, not just as a mustachioed monologue-user with a love of black clothes and evil cackles, villains are scarier. We can relate to them. We can see that it could have been us, or someone we loved, who made those choices.

We’ve all been made to feel lesser than, and wanted to get revenge. We’ve all been so angry that violence seemed like a perfectly reasonable option. We all have some measure of darkness within us.

Most of us step back from that darkness, though, with varying degrees of success. We’re insulated from the worst of those temptations by a complex web of family morality and social consciousness. But some fall through the cracks.

So, for what it’s worth, here are the three social issues that were mentioned in turning ‘good’ kids ‘bad’:

Gender: oftentimes, the boys involved in violent acts (whether rampage shootings or violent crimes with less media focus) are raised in a society that defines masculinity as overtly domineering and violent. So, the boys that like comic books instead of football are seen as lesser, for example. There’s a very definite idea of what boys/men should be and do. Those who don’t meet that ideal are bullied, and are less likely to ask for help or support because of an idea that they’ve failed as men for being in that position in the first place.

Think of it this way: if you’re raised (whether by family dynamics or society in general) to believe that masculinity= strength, and that strength is about dominating another person, then you’re probably going to assume that being bullied makes you less of a man (for what it’s worth, I’ve always found that the opposite is true). So these guys try and figure out a solution to turn them from bullied to powerful. And because of that skewed idea of masculinity, it can go incredibly badly.

Education: generally, the bullying is happening both inside and outside of school. The wider community chalks it up to ‘boys being boys’ and doesn’t intervene. At times, the school doesn’t respond (whether because they can’t, or because they don’t know about it). What this means is that the bullied kid’s education suffers, because hyper-vigilance around potential threats doesn’t make for a great focus on learning. Grades suffer, which reaffirms the idea that there’s something wrong with the bullied child, and can even add a level of frustration from the teachers and parents, on top of the issues with other students. All this reaffirms the idea that there’s nothing beyond what’s happening: there’s no escape, no chance at success or leaving that feeling of helplessness behind. So you’ve now got a kid who feels like he’s not enough, and never can be. See how that’s playing on any mental health or cognitive issues?

Finally, you’ve got the community issue. If you’re new to a close knit community, it can take time to become an included part of it. So what happens if you’re the sort of kid who doesn’t fit in, and you’re living in a place where fitting in means everything?

Think about it: if you’ve got your parents and teachers on your case for your failing grades, you’re getting bullied, and you feel like nobody cares, it would be easy to feel as though everyone was against you. And it would be easy to start thinking of them as less human because you’re thinking they’re acting like monsters. If you’re the hero in your life story, then surely that means that these are the villains.

And those tiny little moments become an incredibly tragic situation.


First Blood

There’s a show in Australia called ‘Sunday Night’. Mostly, it’s sensationalist longer form journalism. In honesty, I tend to avoid it because of that sensationalism, but I do try to watch their crime stories.

I love crime writing, and I tend to consider longer form articles about crimes and the events behind them a form of research. Even on sensationalist shows, you can learn a lot. You can learn about family dynamics, and about the way killers think, act, and speak. You can learn about the impact of cases on the police investigating them. You can learn about the way society thinks about and reacts to violent crimes by studying the way news organisations explore the topic, and you can learn a hell of a lot about positioning audiences to think or feel a certain way.

Beyond that, though, it’s fascinating to look at the way events that shape the collective unconscious of an entire society boil down to small decisions and actions.

This week, they were looking at the alleged first violent crime of serial killer Ivan Milat.

Ivan Milat is one of Australia’s most notorious murderers, a serial killer who picked up at least 7 hitchhikers, before driving them into nearby Belangalo State Forest, torturing and murdering them. His crimes were so sadistic and horrific that they saw a fundamental shift in social norms. Before his crimes and methodology were discovered, hitchhiking was considered safe. Once they were discovered, hitchhiking became rarer, as people realised they couldn’t trust in the goodness of strangers.

The article, First Blood, wasn’t about the backpacker murders, but about a young taxi driver being shot in the spine and crippled. If true, it may be Ivan Milat’s first crime using physical violence, rather than the threat of it. The man making the accusation is Ivan’s older brother, Boris, who claims that Ivan confessed the crime to him the day after he’d committed it. It’s taken 50 odd years for the admission, and another man was jailed for the crime. According to the man convicted, Allan Dillon, he’d gotten the impression that his own baby brother was going to be charged if he didn’t confess. He went to jail believing he was taking the fall for his brother.

Two men, both damning themselves to protect their baby brothers.

It’s interesting to wonder whether Ivan Milat’s victims would be alive if his brother had told the police what he knew. How many lives would be vastly different if only Boris Milat had come forward at the time? So many lives brutally impacted by one simple act of love and loyalty.

And that’s where the story is, in a sense. You can spend chapters talking about the crimes, and the sadism, and you can scare the hell out of people in the name of describing the crime. But in a way, one of the biggest legal stories in Australian history still boils down to two men who had never met, and wouldn’t meet for half a century, both hiding a secret in the name of misplaced family loyalty.

At first, it’s easy to be disgusted. How could anyone let an innocent man go to jail for a crime they knew he didn’t commit? We distance ourselves by saying we’d never, ever do that. We’d let our loved ones be accountable. But would we? If you’ve ever let your kid not do an assignment, and gotten them out of trouble for it, you’ve already stepped into that moral grey area. Ever lied to a parent for a sibling? If you’ve ever felt responsible for the well-being of someone else, if you’ve ever had a parent put a younger sibling under your care, you’ve probably found yourself in that moral grey area. A thousand innocent moments on their own, tiny slips into the moral grey that are all understandable, all justifiable. But a decade or more of protecting someone you love, and those innocent moments can add up. Each step into the grey areas makes it easier to go back there.

And isn’t that a scary thought?

For me at least, that’s the interesting part of crime novels. It’s not so much the horror and otherness of the crimes. It’s how easily people can be corrupted in service of protecting the people they love. It’s about the way love can be made into its own kind of a weapon. It’s not the otherness, it’s the similarities. It’s being able to step away from that instinctive sense of disgust, and figure out how a good person could get themselves into such a horrible situation, or could become something so terrible.

How could a man let an innocent man go to prison when he knew who the real perpetrator was?

Even though I’d put Ivan Milat firmly in the ‘psychopath’ column, most criminals aren’t psychopaths. Most killers aren’t born to it, they’re made. Assuming all murderers are psychopaths or sociopaths is lazy thinking, and if you’re a crime writer, it’s lazy writing. In fiction, psychopaths are overdone, because it’s easier to pretend there’s some terrifying ‘other’ out there than it is to acknowledge that all of us have the capacity for cruelty and violence within us, and for the vast majority, it’s a choice.

I don’t have the stats, but I have the sneaking suspicion that family dynamics and shitty choices are the birthplace of far more killers than psychopathy.

What was fascinating to me was that Boris Milat talked about knowing his brother would be a murderer back when Ivan was ten. So, knowing he ‘wasn’t right’, knowing that was the path his brother was headed down, why give him that chance at redemption? It’s a question the interviewer didn’t really ask, but it bothers me. There’s a story there. It’s one thing to give someone a chance when you believe they’re fundamentally a good person in a bad situation. It’s entirely different to be aware of that darkness and sadism, and give them a chance anyway. When asked about Ivan as a child, there are some disturbing snapshots from Boris. Ivan was “always playing cat and mouse in some way”. Boris knew “he [Ivan] was on a one way trip”. He talks about Ivan boasting of torturing and killing animals. So what makes you give someone like that a second chance?

Fear or love.

Moral high-ground isn’t the ideal environment for a crime writer, I don’t think. How can you explore the darkness that’s a fundamental part of all people while pretending it doesn’t exist within yourself? How do you explore something and thumb your nose at it at the same time? It doesn’t work.

I’d like to think I wouldn’t be able to let someone be jailed when I knew they were innocent. I like to think I’m a good enough, brave enough, person to stand up for truth even at the cost of family. But I’ve never been in that position. All the hopes in the world go out the window the second hypothetical situations become reality.

The question shouldn’t be ‘how could he?’ so much as ‘what would I do to protect someone I loved, and felt responsible for?’ if you knew that someone you loved had shot a man in the spine, what would stop you going to the police? What would they have to do to convince you not to tell? Would they have to do anything at all, or would love be enough?

And doesn’t that make for an interesting story?

For the time being, you can see the video here, though I’m not sure how long it’ll stay online.