True-crime has exploded in the last decade, with millions of us devouring every podcast, documentary, and ‘tell-all’ book. Seemingly innocuous legal cases now command world-wide attention. Australia, too, is obsessed with digging up our own dark pasts and unsolved cases. When writing my debut thriller Greenlight, in which a true-crime TV producer springs a convicted killer from jail and kicks off a new string of murders, I became fascinated in just what true-crime is, and why we’re so obsessed with it.
On the surface, the answer to our obsession is easy. True crime is the addictive solution to our natural human curiosity. Each episode of a podcast or miniseries ending on a cliff-hanger simply demands that we must revisit for the next answer. But that’s standard thriller fare, and would be prominent in fiction or true-crime, but it’s more powerful here because of the latter’s interaction with the real world. These episodes are often happening in real time.
In Serial and Making A Murderer the accused are both convicted and behind bars. So as each program sheds light on new elements of the cases, we are gripped as we become part of the story. Our natural curiosity is present in fiction – where authors manipulate suspense to make us read towards the answer – but in the real world, when there is no answer, this ticks our suspense into overdrive. Communities of armchair-detectives rally, obsessives become fanatics, and suddenly we’re all pulled into the world of the story in which even the creators don’t necessarily know the answer. Advances in technology allow a microscopic examination of every facet of evidence. We’re all a part of it. And that’s what makes it so addictive.
But I think it goes deeper than that. I think with our new forms of communication we are finding stories from formerly voiceless people. A podcast needs nothing more than an iPhone and a voice, the internet needs no more to share your words than hitting an upload button. It’s important, then, that subjects of true-crime are in cases that are seen as unresolved. An innocent person in jail, a guilty person free. So the stories that come out are victim stories. In The Jinx or OJ Simpson, the subject is protected by wealth or influence or the justice system, their victims don’t get a voice, and in Making A Murderer or Serial the subject is a victim of the system itself. This means to tell their stories – on TV, on radio, or in the newspapers – they must concede to the very systems that are intent on covering up in the first place. With our new methods of communication it is easier for victims to share their stories, and injustices brought to light. We’re hooked on that.