Two Genres: True Crime versus the Murder Mystery

Two Genres: True Crime versus the Murder Mystery

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Murder mystery authors harbor a secret they don’t want you to know. I won’t exactly tell you the secret (it would spoil mystery books for you forever after), but I can tell you a bit about the theory behind it.

Green gargoyleAt a writers’ conference for murder mystery authors near Seattle in the early 1990s, I learned a bit of the craft. Classic whodunits follow a proscribed convention. The culprit appears in the opening chapter(s), where the author identifies him or her by using a trick based on Jungian psychology. According to theory, your subconscious mind picks up on that trick and knows instantly who the murderer is. And that is what makes the mystery emotionally satisfying: you know the right guy has been caught. At the end, your conscious knowledge of the wrongdoer’s identity catches up with your subconscious awareness.

Friedrich Schiller
Friedrich Schiller

Identifying the perpetrator is what lies at the heart of the murder mystery. It also underscores the difference between true crime and the murder mystery. In most cases, we already know the identity of the killer before we pick up a true crime book. As one critic put it, “It is not the identification of the killer that provides the [enjoyment] in the true crime tale (as it does in detective fiction), but the ascription of an intelligible motive for the crime.”* Germany’s renowned poet, Friedrich Schiller, would agree. In his first true crime story, he wrote that dissection of the criminal’s motive is the driving force of the true crime genre.

What do you think prompts most people to read true crime today? Motive? Entertaintment? Curiosity about police investigations? 

Literature on point:

*Sara L. Knox. Murder: A Tale of Modern American Life (Durham, N.C.: Duke Universtiy Press 1998) pp. 110-11.

Friedrich Schiller, Criminal from Lost Honor.


(c) 2014 Ann Marie Ackermann

Written by
Ann Marie
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  • Have you seen a true crime novel that’s also part-mystery? I think it’s possible, the reveal of the killer’s identity might come at the halfway point instead of the last chapter, but you still get some time to try to figure it out.

    • Yes, in a novel I’ve seen it, but not in a true crime book. I think the reason why is that true crime stories are often based on notorious crimes, so that we’ve already read about them in the papers. Do you know of any true crime book that holds off on revealing the suspect? I could imagine that a true crime author might ask us to suspend our knowledge. But the focus comes back to the big question of “why,” i.e. motive.

  • Very interesting. I have wondered why crime and murder mysteries are so popular with so many law abiding people. Studying the character of the criminal is fascinating. What causes the person especially when they are intelligent and could achieve success honestly to cheat etc.

    • Margaret, I think you hit the nail on the head. Schiller himself wrote, “In the entire history of mankind, no chapter is more educational for the heart and soul than the history of human aberrations.” That’s the opening line of his debut true crime story.

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