The Historian Writing Contemporary True Crime

By Greg Marquis

The true crime section of the local bookstore or library is a popular place. In addition, specialty television channels have a heavy rotation of true crime documentaries, series such as “48 Hours” and “Forensic Files” and docudramas based on celebrated crimes and criminals such as serial killers, gangsters and outlaw bikers.  Then there are popular podcasts such as “Serial” based on the trial and conviction of Baltimore teenager Adnan Syed for the murder of his girlfriend.

52-canterbury-street-saint-john-court-exhibit-r-v-denis-oland-2015

52 Canterbury Street, Saint John Court Exhibit R. V. Denis Oland

According to Anita Biressi, a true crime book or magazine article, “unlike news or a documentary, is promoted primarily and explicitly as a leisure pursuit.”[1] By this criteria alone, the academic historian contemplating working on contemporary crime should probably quit at the outset- we are not trained or conditioned at graduate school or via grant writing, conference participation, peer-review publishing, or (hopefully) through teaching, to ‘entertain.’  Yet the public and trade (non-academic) publishers and reviewers expect accounts of well-known crimes that entertain. And public interest in a specific crime tends to be in direct proportion to the amount of media coverage accorded an investigation and trial. Thus the 2016 trial and acquittal of CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, reporting for which helped start a national conversation on consensual sexual relationships, produced a book by Ken Donovan, published several months after Ghomeshi’s acquittal on sexual assault charges. In contrast, none of the thirty-seven homicides that took place in the Atlantic provinces in 2015 has been the subject of a book.[2]

The emergence of crime reporting and ‘instant’ books and pamphlets on sensational murders and other offences in the 19th century helped create the modern mass circulation daily newspaper. In competitive markets such as New York City, major newspapers usually had more than one edition a day, and crime news, along with sports features and stories on celebrities, was a staple.  The yellow journalism of William Randolph Heart’s New York Morning Journal, according to both contemporary and later critics, peddled crime as entertainment as opposed to information. More nuanced interpretations conclude that the scandal and violence-focused daily newspapers of the late 19th century enjoyed mass appeal because they both titillated and enlightened and carried out a type of investigative journalism.[3]

The true crime field in Canada reflects the larger American sector that is dominated by journalists, freelance writers, lawyers, amateur historians, retired police officers and even the relatives of criminals and their victims. One group in Canada that is not permitted to disclose their legal perspectives in writing (or in person) are jurors. Legal and other types of historians have produced accounts of individual crimes from Canada’s past, such as The Case of Valentine Shortis: A True Story of Crime and Politics in Canada, a study of Irish immigrant convicted of murder in late 19th century Quebec.[4]  But most well-known case studies have been produced by journalists[5], non-academic historians[6] and academics from other fields, such as forensic anthropologist Debra Komar, author of three studies of 19th century Maritime murders.[7]

So why have Canadian academic historians ignored contemporary crime as an area of research?

Reason 1:  It is not (yet) history. Academic historians tend to avoid recent or current events.  Our mission is to employ historical awareness and analyze primary sources in order to understand a specific time and place in history. To rephrase the famous opening of the novel The Go-Between, for historians, the present “is a foreign country.” There are also methodological hurdles: historians often require years to develop an appreciation of the relevant secondary sources, theoretical perspectives, research methods and primary sources on a given topic or theme.

Reason 2: It does not count. Contemporary true crime books, for reasons explained below, tend not to be academic in approach, peer-reviewed or published by scholarly presses. Such a book may not contribute much towards promotion and tenure, improve your department’s research ranking or help you acquire an external research grant (and in the age of the neo-liberal university, grant money is the ultimate measure of ‘research’).

Reason 3: It is not intellectually challenging. When writing a true crime monograph for the general reader, the academic, although not altogether ignoring her or his training, must abandon or at least water down the historiographical or theoretical themes and questions and methodologies that have fascinated them since graduate school. No Michel Foucault, E.P. Thompson or Natalie Zemon Davis here.

Reason 4: The format is alien. The editors of trade books are not interested in historiography and they may not even want footnotes or a bibliography.  For academic historians this is working without a net. They may also expect a book that is organized more like a novel or screen play (with a ‘story arc’) than an academic monograph. And editors, as opposed to authoritative scholarly explanations, tend to want entertaining, descriptive passages and ‘human interest’ anecdotes that evoke emotion and curiosity.      This is a market dominated by journalists.

Reason 5: The timeline is crazy. An academic monograph (if fortunate enough to survive the peer review process), takes years to produce, usually starting with a tentative conference paper presentation, then progressing to a journal article and so on. If your true crime story is topical (meaning receiving media attention) then you will have months, not years, to both research and write your book.  Why? To head off possible competitors for whom this hectic pace is normal plus make sure that your book hits the market when public interest is still there.  The compressed timeframe presents major challenges even for acquiring basic evidence but in the case of a criminal trial it may be possible to purchase transcripts, audio-video recordings and copies of documents entered as exhibits.

Reason 6: You may need a literary agent.  Regional publishers can be more approachable, but even if you have published a dozen academic monographs over your career, you may not make it past the receptionist of a national publishing company.

Despite these challenges, if the chance presents itself, tackling a true crime project can be a rewarding experience. You will work at an intense pace but still employ your academic training and intellectual curiosity, just in other ways. Examining contemporary true crime may also influence your teaching and other research and provide new insights into methodological questions (for example, analyzing a trial based on documents alone versus also experiencing court in person in real time, comparing media reports to your own experiences of proceedings). And depending on the case, the timing of the book’s release and the degree of public interest, the ‘dissemination of knowledge’ results, especially to non-academic audiences and media, may far exceed that of any of your previous research projects.  On a final note, books on true crime or other contemporary events and issues may help the historical profession stay relevant with the public and re-establish our almost vanished role as public intellectuals.


Greg Marquis, Department of History and Politics, University of New Brunswick Saint John, is author of Truth and Honour: The Death of Richard Oland and the Trial of Dennis Oland (Halifax: Nimbus, 2016). A revised paperback edition of this book will be published in 2017.


Sources

[1] Anita Biressi, Crime, Fear and the Law in True Crime Stories (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 1.

[2] Kenneth Donovan, Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2016).

[3] W. Joseph Campbell, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms (Routledge, 2013), 17.

[4] (Toronto: Osgoode Society/University of Toronto Press, 1986). Friedland was a professor of law.

[5] Robert J. Hoshowsky, The Last to Die: Ronald Turpin, Arthur Lucas and the End of Capital Punishment in Canada (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2007).

[6] John Melady, Double Trap: The Last Public Hanging in Canada (Toronto: Dundurn, 2005); Charlotte Grey, The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master And The Trial That Shocked a Nation   (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2013).

[7] Debra Komar, The Ballad of Jacob Peck (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2013); The Lynching of Peter Wheeler (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2014); Black River Road: An Unthinkable Crime, an Unlikely Suspect, and the Question of Character (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2016).

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About cslumkos

Corey Slumkoski is an associate professor of history at Mount Saint Vincent University.
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