There is nothing new about our fascination with murder. As long as popular culture has existed, it has been flooded with tales of people killing one another. Whatever it is about it that captivates the public like no other subject, fictional murder has always been a popular concept, regardless of the medium it is conveyed through. What is somewhat more novel is the ascension of true-crime dramas on both TV and radio, examples of which have reached unprecedented levels of public engrossment in the last two years.
As far back as records of fiction go, fictional murder accounts have been depicted. Greek tragedy regularly featured murder, medieval tales revolved around treachery, and Shakespearean tragic plots would be imp without the murderous intent of central characters. Victorian fiction embraces this tradition, with the murder of Nancy in Dickens’s Oliver Twist being one of the most famous scenes in the entirety of his works. The 1800s also gave birth to a new genre of murder fiction: the murder mystery.
Initiated by Edgar Allen Poe, this form paved the way for some of Britain’s most loved fiction and, upon its advent, television. Sherlock Holmes arrived on the scene in 1887, with Holmes’s unique approach to solving the crimes attracting the masses. This was followed by what is referred to as the Golden Age of mystery fiction, with its lynchpin, Agatha Christie. The popularity of her two series was maintained and later translated into screen adaptations. Ever since the invention of television, murder mystery has been a consistently high-grossing genre.
For something so unpleasant, and often incomprehensible, it might seem surprising that it was and continues to be such a popular subject. So, why do we love it? In the case of murder mysteries, there is a puzzle to be solved, a game to be played alongside the characters we see on screen. It is nigh-on impossible to watch an episode of Midsummer Murders without attempting to solve the case before the detective does.
Second, the presence of murderers provides the perfect subject for amateur psychological character analysis. The struggle to understand why and how a person can take away the life of another is something that is perplexing to the majority of viewers.
But, it is also something that people love to explore, whether it is explained in the programme or left for the audience to guess. The TV adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None combines the two perfectly: the backstories of the characters allowing the viewers to play the ‘whodunit’ guessing game using their analysis of the characters.
Finally, with traditional televised murders there is an evident distance between the fiction that we are watching and our own personal reality: the murderer is not a real person, so we can enjoy the mystery without worrying about being murdered ourselves.
This is what makes that relatively new entity – true crime dramas – so intriguing. The programme currently taking the world by storm, Making a Murderer, does not stand alone. The genre of ‘true crime’ was preceded by the ‘nonfiction novel’, a term first coined by Truman Capote when describing In Cold Blood (his novel that was based on a real life murder). More recently, the podcast series Serial has captivated the public’s attention and arguably helped rejuvenate the waning popularity of the medium.
What these three programmes have in common is their emphasis on the evidence. All three are examples of somebody not employed in the world of justice reopening the evidence in controversial cases in order to re-examine it. And this is exactly what the audience is encouraged to do: examine the evidence for themselves. Everybody who reads, watches or listens to this type of drama is encouraged to be an amateur detective in a real-life trial.
True crime sells because it is true; it matters to real people in real life. And this is what lies at the heart of the human fascination with televised murder, it invites us to involve ourselves in something that really matters, something that is literally life-or-death.
Image: Alan Cleaver