Trend: Getting Personal with True Crime
By Dawn Ius
When Claudia Rowe began writing The Spider and the Fly back in the early 2000s, many literary agents told her she was flat out crazy. Part memoir, part true crime, part psychological thriller, the book represented a genre mash-up that wasn’t yet reader-tested.
Fast forward to 2019—and oh, how times have changed. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen momentum for true crime memoirs ramp up with the release of bestselling books such as Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Kerri Rawson’s A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming, and most recently—albeit with a slightly different focus—Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered by the creators of the hit podcast My Favorite Murder, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark.
These hybrid books, it would seem, have become the true crime genre’s latest darlings.
“There’s no escaping the fact that crime stories get inside us. They trigger intense feelings that go way beyond reaction to the prurient details, and it’s natural that writers would want to interrogate those reactions. Only now, there’s cultural permission to do it out loud,” Rowe says. “Obviously people felt the same frustration I did—that traditional true crime narratives left out an important element of connection, of resonance, with something bigger than the cases themselves.”
In The Spider and the Fly, Rowe uses her frank, and sometimes disturbing, conversations with convicted serial killer Kendall Francois to explore and understand the inherent darkness in each of us, including her own personal demons.
Back then, when true crime memoirs were not yet ready for prime time, Rowe had to make up her own genre-bending rules—there weren’t a lot of resources to help figure out the narrative balance. But Rowe knew all about true crime—she’s a formidable journalist whose writing has appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines—and understood the mechanics of memoir writing.
“The rule with memoirs—all memoirs—is that everything you’re telling must be relevant to the overarching point of your story,” she says. “Not every charming or painful anecdote gets in. Same with crime memoirs. You take the fragments of life that somehow connect with the crime story you’re telling.”
That connection is key to a successful true crime memoir, says Helen Pepper, a forensic scientist, CSI, and one half of the writing team known as Ashley Dyer.
“As readers of true crime, we want to be as close to the story as possible,” she says, noting that many true crime books center around a serial killer, a type of criminal that far too often garners “celebrity status” with the public. “We want to understand how a serial killer’s mind works and why they do what they do. And we feel that hearing it from someone who was close to them could enable us to do that.”
For Theresa Bastian, making a connection between the memoir she wants to write and the true crime to which it connects is easy—her sister, Jennifer, was murdered at the age of 13, and now, 32 years later, the killer was caught and sentenced for life thanks to advances in DNA.
The case should be closed. But for Bastian, her grieving process is only just beginning.
“After decades of not knowing what happened to my sister, and after having made some brittle peace with not knowing, having the answers brought out a very complicated set of emotions—the opposite of closure,” she says. “The grief I locked away as a 15-year-old raged to the surface and it was no longer possible to avoid confronting these feelings.”
Those feels were compounded by the fact that Bastian’s daughter was turning 15—the same age Bastian was when her sister was murdered. Bastian realized that inadvertently, she’d been making parenting decisions influenced by not only what her parents had experienced during that traumatic time, but also what she’d gone through as Jennifer’s sister.
“My story is told as the sister, which is a point of view often overlooked in the true crime genre and in the grief/counselling loss arena,” she says. “Because my sister and I were so close growing up, reading the details of her missing child case and ultimate murder unfold through my voice offers a more intense experience for the reader.”
Bastian also hopes her book will provide some insight into the role DNA plays in solving cold case files. Her family has been instrumental in fighting for legislation to fully utilize DNA technology to unlock clues that will ultimately help law enforcement solve and prevent crimes, and hopefully save lives.
Lindsey Wade knows all about the power of DNA—and she also knows a lot about the Jennifer Bastian case. She was just a young girl when Jennifer was kidnapped and murdered, and had biked in the same park where she was taken, had grown up in the same area as the Bastian sisters. Watching this tragedy unfold, coupled with reading Ann Rule’s famous book on Ted Bundy, is what drove Wade to become a police officer.
Three decades later, she was one of the members on the team that identified and arrested Jennifer’s killer, and it’s one of the cold cases that will feature in her true crime memoir about some of the crimes she witnessed—and helped solve—as a homicide detective with the Tacoma Police Department.
Now friends, Wade and Bastian have appeared together on Dateline as well as an upcoming episode of On the Case with Paula Zahn, and the Jennifer Bastian story will certainly feature prominently in Wade’s book. But Wade, now retired, says her memoir will also reference a dozen or so true crime stories from her time as a detective—the cases that still keep her up at night.
“When I starting thinking about writing a book, I sat down and made a list of the cases that impacted me the most during my career,” she says. “The cases on the list turned out to be investigations involving women and children who were victimized by predatory offenders. These cases became personal to me, probably because I identified with the victims and their families.”
In this #MeToo era, the gender of the victims in her case studies are important, but it’s not the only message she hopes resonates with readers. Yes, the crimes are horrific, but as a former police officer, she has the unique opportunity to dole out more than just the facts of these stories.
“I hope to share my unique perspective as a woman of color as I navigated my way through two decades in a male-dominated law enforcement career, using innovative techniques and thinking outside the box while investigating brutal sex crimes and homicides,” she says. “These powerful sights, sounds, smells, and feelings can’t be replicated by reading police reports or interviewing witnesses.”