Guest Post- True Crime Writer Kevin Flynn


kevin-flynnJessie: Today it is my pleasure to welcome True Crime writer and fellow Granite State resident, Kevin Flynn to the blog. Kevin is an award-winning journalist and also appears frequently on television and radio programs. Take it away, Kevin!

Who killed true crime publishing?

If you’ve flipped through your cable lineup, streamed a Netflix series, or downloaded a podcast, you couldn’t have missed the popular resurgence of true crime. No longer satisfied with seeing “ripped from the headlines” stories reimagined in prime time, audiences cannot get enough of journalists retelling the details of real life whodunnits. Meantime, the publishers who kept the nonfiction genre alive for years are abandoning it right at its golden moment.

The true crime resurgence hit its pinnacle in 2014 with the podcast “Serial.” Nearly overnight, people went from not knowing what the podcast app on their iPhones was to discussing the most minute detail of this 12-part weekly audio series. Journalist Sarah Koenig (formerly of the Concord Monitor) presented a deeper look at the 1999 conviction of Baltimore teenager Adnan Syed, accused of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The story raised questions about the reliability of the state’s star witness and whether a long-ignored alibi witness could reverse his conviction. To date, “Serial” has been downloaded 500 million times. So consumed was the audience that people flooded a Maryland Best Buy looking for evidence of a missing payphone that may or may not have been there the day of the murder.

“Serial’s” success spawned a slew of podcasts investigating cold cases and bad convictions. They include “Undisclosed,” “Breakdown,” “Someone Knows Something,” “Sword and Scale,” and “Bowraville.” In June, Syed’s conviction was vacated thanks to new evidence turned up by “Undisclosed.”

Within this same window, two miniseries captivated TV audiences. HBO’s “The Jinx” looked at the unsolved murders surrounding real estate heir Robert Durst. America held its breath when in the last moment of the show Durst, forgetting he was still mic’ed up, seemed to confess to the killings while alone in the bathroom. He was arrested the same week. Fans then binge-watched Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” a ten-part look at the Steven Avery case. Avery spent 18 years in jail for a rape he didn’t commit, only to be released and arrested for a murder by the same cops who railroaded him the first time. Viewers were outraged at what they could easily see was a coerced confession by Avery’s alleged accomplice, his intellectually-challenged nephew Brendan Dassey. (This August, Dassey’s conviction was vacated by a federal magistrate.)

Murders most foul are not a new fad on television. Several cable networks, most notably Investigation Discovery, have been running recaps and reenactments of scandalous homicides 24 hours a day. Shows include “Unusual Suspects,” “Nightmare Next Door,” “How (Not) to Kill Your Husband,” and “Wives with Knives.”

This dynasty has been built on the backs of true crime authors who for five decades have stoked public interest with their narrative retellings of famous or salacious crimes. What began as high brow (In Cold Blood, The Executioner’s Song) became best-sellers (Helter Skelter, Fatal Vision) then an expanded mass-market of paperback selections (including my own selections like Wicked Intentions, Our Little Secret, and Dark Heart). In fact, instead of doing their own research, most Investigation Discovery producers rely heavily on books and author interviews to create their episodes.

Just when the public demand for true crime is at its highest, the major publishing houses are winding down their true crime imprints. The mystery is why are they missing the boat? Here are some of the clues to ponder:

  1. While there are loyal followers of the podcasts, the cable TV shows, and the books, these audiences don’t necessarily overlap. A book, of course, is a longer commitment than a half-hour show or a podcast you can listen to while jogging. All three mediums have grown parallel to one another, not as branches from the same tree. There’s little or no synergy among them.
  2. The pendulum has swung on the kind of crime stories the public craves. They are much more interested in stories in which an innocent man may have been convicted than in stories in which the bad guy got his comeuppance. This is a problem for lawsuit-averse publishers who, with some exception, won’t buy a book unless the criminal is safely convicted and out of appeals. Otherwise they risk having to pull books from shelves if their murderer wins a new trial.
  3. The real-time nature of the investigation hooks audiences. For “Serial,” the notoriety motivated old witness to call Koenig with their own information. Listeners and viewers become invested in the open-ended narrative. Armies of fans mobilize online to raise money for defense funds and raise hell on Twitter and Reddit. A paperback written, edited, vetted, re-edited, typeset, and printed months before its sale date is comparatively stale.
  4. The business model for publishing is changing. Thanks to mega-mergers and other market forces, publishing houses are doing away with duplicative true crime imprints (as they are with other genres). Why sell $9.99 books when you can sell $29.99 books? True crime will not completely disappear however. You can count on one hand the number of mass market imprints left. The other houses will try to make a splash on the occasional celebrity crime or nationally-captivating murder: hard covers that will sit in the front of the store, not relegated to the back shelf with the paperbacks.

Podcasting is ascending as the home for real life crime stories. Like self-publishing, their quality varies but some DIY projects have become lucrative hits. All mass market genres are fighting for their lives in the new publishing paradigm. What’s ironic is that after years of living with a low-rent reputation, true crime publishing is dying just as its ship is coming in. Just like Adnan Syed and Steven Avery, we’ll see whether the genre is tragically put away or whether it will win a dramatic reprieve.

Readers, do you read true crime or watch it on television? Writers, have you ever used a real crime to inspire a mystery novel?

kevinflynn2Kevin Flynn is the author of five true crime books, four co-written with his wife, Rebecca Lavoie. Their true crime podcast, “Crime Writers On,” has over four-million downloads.


13 Thoughts

  1. You forgot to mention my favorite and only ID show. Lt. Joe Kenda – Homicide Hunter. I spend more time with books than with TV. I just went to my library website and added two of your NH based books to my list.

  2. This is fascinating! Thanks so much for joining us, Kevin. I don’t read very much true crime and it’s usually one this is recommended. I did base part of The Longest Yard Sale on a true crime.

  3. Welcome, Kevin! What a great analysis of the field. I confess to never having read or watched any true crime. But our readers should know that on September 24 in Hudson, New Hampshire you and your wife, Rebecca Lavoie, are presenting a SIsters in Crime New England workship on writing true cime (for which unfortunately I am going to be out of town for). Get details and sign up here:

  4. Welcome, Kevin, and thanks for some very interesting insights into representations of true crime and how the different media (electronic or print) handle it. One question: why are readers/viewers fascinated, and does that depend on whether the alleged killer is proven innocent or safely locked away for a long time? Are people interested in justice, or maybe the question is, which kind of justice–vindication or a lengthy prison sentence? (BTW, for the first time I’ve taken on a fictionalized version of a true crime–one that happened in Ireland 20 years ago and that remains an open case.)

  5. Welcome, Kevin. I have read true crime books, but never had much interest in the shows on TV. However, both the first season of Serial and The Jinx captured me completely. I do find the issue of “stories” moving from one medium to another to be very interesting. It’s all in the best way to tell the tale, I think.

  6. I must admit, I’m not a fan of True Crime. I like my crime to be fictional. But thanks for an interesting look at the state of that genre in all media. I enjoyed it.

  7. Typically, I don’t read true crime books but this year I read A Good Month for Murder- which chronicled a month in the life of a homicide department in Prince George’s county Maryland. It was pretty interesting and followed multiple investigators. One of the things that frustrated me about the book was there were some loose ends- just like real life! 🙂 I also read Devil in the White City and I really enjoyed that one- although it was more the historical detail that I really remember and liked.

    I do like to read long-form journalism about crime.

    I just read a review of Katherine Ramsland’s new book about BTK and that turned me off. I do not want to get inside his head!

    Good read- thanks!

  8. Hey Kevin! Welcome, and thanks for visiting us today! This was a great post. I was a huge Serial fan and would totally listen to others like it. As much as I love fictional crime, I think true crime is so fascinating – because you just can’t make some of this stuff up.

  9. Excellent post!! In the 90’s I ONLY read true crime books, mainly by author Ann Rule. Many of the books I read were later featured on T.V., like the Betty Broderick story. The book was amazing!! I still have many of those books and others that I haven’t read yet. As I aged and life became more anxiety-ridden, I decided I needed to read lighter material, but I think it’s time to get back to one of my favorite genres once again. I used to binge-watch Investigation Discovery, but since my husband doesn’t care for “the killins,” as he calls them, I don’t watch as much. I saw the entire Making A Murderer with my husband, and he was thoroughly intrigued by it. Thanks for the analysis. It was so very interesting.

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