Why We Love to Read True Crime

Weekly Lizard

What is the appeal of true crime? What exactly do we—the upright, law-abiding readers of the world–find so alluring in real-life tales such as The Mark Inside by Amy Reading and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson? Is it simple rubbernecking, a guilty desire to glimpse what goes on in life’s darkest corners? Or is there something else to be learned from these stories of vice and woe?

Take, for instance, The Mark Inside. This is the story of J. Frank Norfleet, a Texas rancher who, in 1919, had tens of thousands of dollars stolen from him by a team of con men. As Reading tells it, Norfleet was one of many men who had his life’s savings stolen by cons in the early part of the 20th century. But Norfleet was no simple mark. He turned the tables on the five men who victimized him, using their own techniques against them in his quest to see justice done.

Using Norfleet’s self-aggrandizing autobiography as her guide, Reading points out that although the Texan’s stated goal was justice—albeit a justice fueled by revenge—by adopting the techniques of a confidence man, Norfleet himself skated the thin edge between law and lawlessness. The rancher relished the disguises he wore to entrap the men and felt proud of his deceptions. And it is here that the reader might find himself pausing in recognition. It’s hard not to empathize with the pleasure Norfleet took in his plan. Who hasn’t dreamed of outwitting a man who has outsmarted him, of beating someone at his own game? The Mark Inside appeals to the crusader in all of us, the hero who would surely emerge if we were given the right opportunity.

Of course, not everyone profiled in historical crime books is as relatable as J. Frank Norfleet. In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson writes about two very different men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect who oversaw Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1863; and H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who preyed upon the tourists drawn to Chicago by the expo. Readers will protest that they find little to identify with in Larson’s portrait of the terrifyingly unrepentant Holmes. But by contrasting Holmes’s story with that of Burnham—a man whose drive and vision set a course not only for future World’s Fairs but for modern city planning–Larson is able to identify points of intersection that resonate with his readers.

Holmes, after all, was not an un-ambitious man. In order to carry out his crimes, he had a large hotel built to his specifications. He designed the building to be a maze, a labyrinth full of misdirection that he used to trap his victims. Although Burnham’s goals were quite different, he too was a builder, a man who sought to entice visitors with astonishing sights. And while it’s not every man who plots a murder, and it’s not every man who plots a World’s Fair, a reader might find himself identifying with that very human impulse to create something that speaks to him, something that makes his deepest urges manifest.

Broadly, these are books about a uniquely human set of themes: ambition, and the triumphs and failures that accompany that. The crimes in many ways begin to appear incidental to this uniquely human narrative. Reading makes the case that confidence men have been an integral part of the development of the United States, while Larson explores the cultural significance of Burnham and Holmes’s ambitions. This is far from rubbernecking. This is an opportunity to explore our history and to gain insight into ourselves. And therein lies the answer to our riddle: true crime appeals to us not because of its crimes, but because of its truths.