Time for something a little different. Today, instead of talking about contemporary fiction, follow me as I delve into the world of contemporary non-fiction. No doubt non-fiction is a vast and immense place, but my particular strand of concern is the genre of “true crime”. Clearly this is a subject at the forefront of the public’s mind. This is evident from the popularity of the first season of the podcast Serial (which spawned many podcast off-spring, like Undisclosed and Truth and Justice) and furore over the more recent Making a Murderer documentary on Netflix. Undeniably, one of the reason this genre is enthralling but also quite murky is due to the fact that it blurs the fiction/non-fiction literary binary. We think of “crime” as a genre of fiction, the addition of the prefix “true” is there the promptly remind the reader that this case is real. The story that is being detailed in the pages or on-screen happened in the real world, and with that comes real-world ramifications, no masterly the narrative is crafted.
Indeed, the narrative structure often aids this blurring between fact and fiction. I am not suggesting that the author/filmmaker is trying to trick the audience into believing falsehoods, but rather the audience instinctively embraces these well-crafted narratives as if they were fiction. The way we, as an audience, consume stories is traditionally through a neat structure of beginning, middle and end. Thus, the true crime subject is often presented as if it fits neatly into this arc; the point of origin is the crime itself, or perhaps the tortured childhood of a serial-killer-to-be, the middle is the court-room drama, or the grisly details of the terrible fates of a killer’s victims, and the end is the capture and sentencing. But, of course, this is not an accurate reflection of reality. There is no self-contained narrative and the ends do not neatly tie together. Rather, they are are straggling and frayed, left to weave through the very real lives of all those who have, to varying degrees, been touched by these crimes.
The true crime genre is nothing new, and a fascination with grisly murders have always fascinated the public (it was often a hobby of Victorian ladies to keep newspaper cuttings of the latest murder case in scrap-books to show to visitors). But perhaps what is new is the galvanisation of vast swaths of the population who become absorbed in one particular case. Let’s take Netflix’s new hit series Making a Murderer as a case-study. Making a Murderer was shot over a ten-year period and tells the story of Steven Avery, a man released from prison in 2003 after serving 18 years for a violent rape he did not commit. In 2005, however, Avery found himself accused of murder, leading the widespread condemnation of Avery but also serious speculation that police planted evidence against the accused. Even writing a brief synopsis of the series, I inevitably delve into the emotive language of story-telling; the tired trope of “a man wrongfully accused” rears its head – but these are the tools we have of story construction, and it is nearly impossible to avoid this language that is so ingrained.
I want to be clear, I do not underestimate the intelligence of the public. I will be the first to admit that I have become completely engrossed in the Steven Avery case. But in my research I have come across a few articles that seem to imply that the audience easily forgets that Making a Murderer has a horrific true crime at its centre. However, I think most people realise this fact – Theresa Hallbach is a real victim, who suffered a horrific fate – and the details of her murder are truly awful. Indeed, it is the “trueness” of this crime that has the public thoroughly engaged. Although I attests that a lot of the language used to describe the documentary and its fallout can be quite problematic at times. For example, I have readily come across sentences like – “spoilers for Making a Murderer” and “new fan-theory about the Avery case”. This language makes me uneasy, not least because these are the same terms we use to discuss an episode of Sherlock or to speculate about a character in Mad Men, but also because I realise I am a part of it. Honestly though, can someone really be a “fan” of a real-life murder trial? It is easy to rush to judgement, but then again, these articles, blog posts and posts on Reddit are simply utilising the language-equipment at their disposal.
Importantly, I think Making a Murder calls into question many important issues we must deal with in contemporary society. When the camera spans the Avery auto-yard and when we first hear the Avery family speak, our minds might quickly jump to dismissive stereotypes about people who are poor and uneducated. But this documentary challenges us – it questions our prejudicial attitudes toward the poor, and it looks at how uneducated people get taken advantage of, and thus a lack of opportunities are afforded to them.
Furthermore, the public has been galvanised by what many see as the systemic corruption which runs through the justice system (in this case, it is American, but the sense of injustice crosses borders and enables reflection and criticism globally). This response to feelings of injustice is evident in the two men who have, interestingly, emerged as the “heroes” of Making a Murder – Avery’s defence lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting.
I recently read an article arguing that there hero-worship of these men misses the point of the documentary. But the fact that the undying dedication of Strang and Buting, and their tireless efforts to aid their client under severe pressure, has encouraged sceptical members of the public to believe in the integrity of lawyers is inspiring. Even if this admiration often comes in the form of internet memes, Tumblr crushes, and the appreciation of Strang’s normcore chic. Once again, I argue that these are simply the tools at the internet’s disposal – photos and funny captions are fun, quick, and easy to digest, but that is not an indication that the people behind these memes is any less sincere.
One of the most powerful uses of the internet is as an instrument for social change. I maintain that these articles and images, which appear to be shallow (or dubbed “fanart”), are significant to the much-needed conversation about proper judicial conduction and justice for all; that is, for both the victim as well as the (possibly wrongfully) accused. This documentary has opened up a dialogue – true, it is not always intelligent or well-thought-out, but even base-level memes add to this integral discussion that we must have in the public domain.
Unlike in fiction, we can’t just skip ahead 20 years. We can only keep on talking, keep the discussion going, and continue waiting – and it will indeed be a long wait. If Strange and Buting are the heroes of this tale, let us see if their perseverance for justice will inevitably win-out.
And, let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want this tote bag?