While I’ve avidly followed true crime narrative since the 1960s, I decided to write about it much later, in 2007. That was the year I met Charlie Wells. At the time he had just retired as sheriff of Manatee County, a position he had held for 23 years, since 1984, and he was teaching a course, “The Famous Murders of Manatee County,” at the University of South Florida’s lifelong learning program. I signed up.
During the first session, Sheriff Wells introduced himself and the three cases he planned to cover during the semester. For each class he brought in the detectives who had been primarily responsible for the investigation, and each presented the evidence used to obtain a conviction. He also asked the students to introduce themselves and tell a little about why they were taking his class. I said I was an English major and wanted to write about crime.
“An English major,” he wrinkled his nose. “We’ve already got one of those in this class,” he joked. After class we talked and he explained that several times he had begun to write about the Brannon triple homicide, a case that would not leave him almost ten years after it had been solved. “Every time I do, it ends up sounding like a crime report,” he said. “Can you write?” I could. I had. And we soon agreed to collaborate on writing about the case and, if that was successful, two other books would follow.
My interest in homicide is solely about true crimes without obvious motives. I want to understand how a human being can inflict such cruelty on a stranger. Murder “feels” chaotic and unfinished, and I want to bring order to that chaos and closure to the victims and their families, in my own mind at least, through understanding. Processing what comes after the crime–the investigative and judicial processes and the psychological and sociological effects crime have on survivors and the community–are of great interest to me as well.
Where my mind tends to go down every rabbit hole, Charlie Wells’ motives are much more straightforward. He is a passionate advocate for justice and is outraged by the harm done to innocent victims, particularly children, many of whom he has spent time with at the crime scene. He has seen first-hand the carnage humans can produce and he wants perpetrators to pay for their crimes.
Not only is he an advocate for the process of justice, he is a champion for those people who live for justice,– the detectives, forensics experts, photographers, patrol personnel, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and the many lay employees of the sheriff’s office whose work is essential to solving crime. Wells thinks they aren’t sufficiently recognized for the difficult work they do, and he hopes writing about it will help to honor their courage and dedication.
So that’s why Charlie and I write about crime. …And there is a market for it. According to the November 16, 2018 issue of Publisher’s Weekly, 1.6 million print copies of true crime books were sold in 2018. Compared with the 976,000 sold two years earlier, that represents an increase of 624,000 true crime book sales. What motivates those readers?
Author Bill James wrote in his book Popular Crime (Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2012) that when we read true crime narrative “that meets an ethical bar for compassion, justice, and humanity,” it can give us psychological insight into the motives for the crimes, help develop survival skills to prevent our own victimization, and, last, even help to solve cold cases.
Two writers come immediately to mind thinking about solving cold cases. In 2016 journalist Michelle McNamara was finishing her true crime book about the Golden State Killer, I’ll Be Gone In the Dark (2018, Harper Collins), when she died unexpectedly. Through the efforts of her researcher Paul Haynes, her husband Patton Oswalt, retired cold case detective Paul Holes, and investigative reporter Billy Jensen, the book was finished and published in 2018. Book publicity reacquainted the public with a 1970s and ’80s California cold case that included a dozen murders, 50 sexual assaults, and more than a hundred burglaries, and eventually led to the arrest of former police office Joseph James DeAngelo whom police were able to connect to some of the murders using DNA evidence.
Billy Jenkens, also well-known co-host with Paul Holes of the podcast The Murder Squad, just published Chase Darkness with Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders (Sourcebooks, 2019). There he describes 10 cold case murders he solved or helped solve using methods that depend on contemporary forensic tools such as DNA matching between anonymous perpetrators and their family members whose identities are known, and the use of Facebook and geo-mapping to assist law enforcement in publicizing unidentified suspects and victims. Jenkens promotes the creation of a cadre of citizens whose knowledge of their communities and use of a simple set of practical rules will help detectives solve cold cases.
An article in the Toronto Globe and Mail published in March 15, 2019 poses an interesting questions: True Crime is Popular. But is it Ethical? Author Jana G. Pruden says we write and read about it because we care and because the stories matter. She says:
We are all sharing stories about what it means to be human. …The true cost of crime and violence cannot be fully understood without knowing about the lives it touches. My answer to how to honor the victims is to tell a responsible story.”
That is what Charlie and I are trying our best to do. Behind all my talk of chaos and closure and justice served, it is simply that.– To understand the lives crime touches. To share a responsible story.