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Our Obsession with True Crime

Why Do We Love It So?

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • October 16, 2019

From podcasts to documentaries to tell-all books, true crime is dominating public attention these days. Even if it means we have to sleep with the lights on, we can't stop ourselves from exploring the dark underbelly of human nature. It's like driving past a car crash; you just have to look. We figured there must be some good reasons for our fascination with grisly murders and twisted secrets, and maybe even some positive outcomes. Here's what we came up with.

Evil Is Fascinating

People have been fixated on the conflict between good and evil since the beginning of time. According to experts, it can be healthy. These stories of extreme violence are shocking and upsetting, but they are also psychologically fascinating. We can't help but wonder what causes this kind of perverse behavior in humankind. For noir mystery author James Ellroy, this interest was deeply personal. In My Dark Places, he tells the story of his mother's murder when he was 10 years old, the way it has informed his life's work, and his ultimate quest to solve the case decades later.

For a more general examination of the psychology of murderers, Sons of Cain by Peter Vronsky reviews the history and evolution of serial killers through time. His research is aimed at finding an answer to the daunting question: what makes a psychopath tick?

Solving Mysteries Is Good for Our Brains

A murder mystery is like a puzzle. It's a captivating exercise to lay out the pieces and try to figure out how they fit together. In The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich beautifully describes her experience working as a legal aid to a man accused of murder. Staunchly opposed to the death penalty, she is horrified to find herself wishing him dead. As she digs into the details of his case, she begins recognizing aspects of his story and tracing it to her own history.

Penny Farmer also shares her own experience in Dead in the Water: My Forty-Year Search for My Brother's Killer. When her brother Chris and his girlfriend were found murdered in 1978, Farmer and her family embarked on a four-decade search to solve the mystery. Her experience is gripping, and the story she uncovers, deeply compelling.

It Makes Us Feel Safer?

Sometimes these horrifying stories leave us kind of, well, relieved. By reading them, we feel oddly prepared, like we've figured out how to avoid the situation. Or perhaps the victim of violence was engaging in some sort of risky behavior that we aren't likely to engage in. As long as we can avoid that, we'll be safe, right? Evidence of Love by John Bloom tells the tale of Candy Montgomery and Betty Gore, two suburban Dallas housewives who got caught up in a tawdry tangle, resulting in murderous rage.

In Shot in the Heart, writer Mikal Gilmore shares the inside story of his family, which includes his older brother, infamous murderer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore's account provides the details about their wildly dysfunctional family and exposes a dark vein of American life that most of us don't see.

We Like to See Justice Done

Everybody loves redemption right? Many of these stories end with the bad guy getting caught and that makes us feel all warm and tingly inside.

The Red Parts by poet and author Maggie Nelson is yet another memoir, this one dealing with the murder of Nelson's aunt Jane. Three decades after the case went cold, new DNA evidence emerged. With unflinching clarity, Nelson explores the depths of this haunting story and its indelible impact on her own life.

In American Predator, reporter Maureen Callahan delves into the exhaustive pursuit of little-known serial killer Israel Keyes. Callahan takes us inside the mind of this relentless murderer and uncovers the true story of how he eluded detection and how the FBI finally cracked the case.

Fear Gives Us an Adrenaline Rush!

Even if you know the outcome, true crime tales can have you on the edge of your seat with excitement. The wide-eyed terror caused by these shocking stories is bound to give you a rush. You'll definitely register a few thrills reading Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. The journalist spent a year shadowing a homicide unit as he researched this true crime classic that inspired two hit TV shows, The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Crime journalist, Michelle McNamara died tragically in 2016 before completing her immersive search to track down the identity of the Golden State Killer, believed to be responsible for a series of horrific rapes and murders in the 1970s and 80s. As she intensively researched the existing evidence, she wrote most of the masterful I'll Be Gone in the Dark, which was posthumously completed by her lead researcher. Shortly after the book's 2018 publication, a suspect was arrested. The book is now being adapted into a documentary for HBO.

There is seriously no shortage of excellent true crime literature out there, so we're sure we've missed a few gems. Let us know your favorites and why you like reading them! And be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for daily book recommendations, book news, and more.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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Mystery | Crime
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