In the past few years, true-crime dramas have been all the rage. Netflix’s Making a Murderer and the Serial podcast became national obsessions, and it seems every week there’s a new docu-series or podcast to feed our insatiable appetite for true crime. As one fascinating paper on the history of true crime notes, recent high-quality shows have elevated the genre’s status, and true crime is no longer “relegated to the bin of ‘trash’ culture.” Some might question that assessment given the likes of Tiger King, but Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin certainly provided me some much needed escapism while on lockdown during the pandemic.
Since art often imitates life, it should be no surprise that there seems to be an increase in true crime making its way into popular fiction. Among this year’s most anticipated novels are stories that intersect with podcasts and documentaries, including Eliza Jane Brazier’s If I Disappear, Katie Lowe’s Possession, and Camilla Sten’s The Lost Village.
Though more popular than ever, true crime has faced its share of criticism, something I explore in my novel, Every Last Fear. It’s the story of a family broken by the conviction of their oldest son for murder whose case is later the subject of a viral true-crime documentary. The tale begins two years after the docu-series aired, when nearly the entire family are found dead of an apparent gas leak at a vacation rental. With one surviving son in prison, the only other surviving family member—college student Matt Pine—is forced to uncover whether the documentary and his brother’s case are related to the death of his family.
Though my books aim solely to entertain, the story necessarily touches on some of the pros and cons of the country’s true-crime obsession. On one hand, these documentaries can raise awareness of serious problems with our criminal justice system. For instance, many illustrate the very real problem of wrongful convictions. Once thought to be a rarity in our system, advancements in DNA have proven that there are a shocking number of innocents incarcerated. In my novel, the father is obsessed with proving his son’s innocence, and likes to quote statistics from the National Registry of Exonerations, which reports more than 2,700 exonerations since 1989, where innocent men and women collectively were imprisoned for 24,000 years.
These documentaries can bring to life the reality that people really do confess to crimes they didn’t commit, and indeed common interrogation techniques have led to a disproportionate number of false confessions. The programs can show how eyewitness testimony is unexpectedly unreliable. And the shows have actually helped solve mysteries, catch criminals, and free the innocent.
On the other hand, the programs can cause real heartache to the families of the victims, using their private tragedy for public entertainment. Further, some have argued that these programs can leave out details or slant the presentation for the purpose of enhancing the “story,” or provide an overly sympathetic or even glorified portrayal of the perpetrators. I play on that a bit in Every Last Fear, where the entire country has rallied around Danny Pine as innocent, but his brother Matt believes he saw something the night of the murder that suggests his brother is guilty of the crime.
Some have also highlighted that these documentaries can result in collateral damage. Local law enforcement or possible alternative suspects can be tarred and feathered by the public without due process. In Every Last Fear, an entire town is ostracized in the aftermath of the documentary.
My takeaway is that I’ll continue to binge true crime, and it certainly isn’t going anywhere. But I’m more mindful that the subjects, victims, and their loved ones are real people, not characters. And I’m keenly aware that—amid the violin and cello-laden soundtracks and dramatic cinematography—there may be more to the story. When it comes to crime, there usually is.
After a late night of partying, NYU student Matt Pine returns to his dorm room to devastating news: nearly his entire family–his mom, his dad, his little brother and sister–have been found dead from an apparent gas leak while vacationing in Mexico. The local police claim it was an accident, but the FBI and State Department seem far less certain–and they won’t tell Matt why.
The tragedy makes headlines everywhere because this isn’t the first time the Pine family has been thrust into the media spotlight. Matt’s older brother, Danny–currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his teenage girlfriend Charlotte–was the subject of a viral true crime documentary suggesting that Danny was wrongfully convicted. Though the country has rallied behind Danny, Matt holds a secret about his brother that he’s never told anyone: the night Charlotte was killed Matt saw something that makes him believe his brother is guilty of the crime.
When Matt returns to his small hometown to bury his parents and siblings, he’s faced with a hostile community that was villainized by the documentary, a frenzied media, and memories he’d hoped to leave behind forever. Now, as the deaths in Mexico appear increasingly suspicious and connected to Danny’s case, Matt must unearth the truth behind the crime that sent his brother to prison–putting his own life in peril–and forcing him to confront his every last fear.
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