True Crime A To Z: I

Welcome to Best Evidence’s crime-alphabet project! Not sure what the hell we’re doing here? Start at the beginning, and add your own nominees!

Today we’re speaking from the I. What’s the first true-crime I property that comes to YOUR head? …Right, so the panel’s heaviest overlap yet probably won’t come as a shock.

Susan Howard: Investigation Discovery. The ubiquitous source of original true-crime programming; has any other entity has been more responsible for the mainstreaming of true crime over the last 20 years? (Honorable mentions: The Imposter; In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.)

Margaret Howie: Clifford Irving. Irving was the very model of efficiency when it came to a subject: he wrote the book on notorious art forger Elmer de Hory in 1969, was in Orson Welles’ brilliant experimental quasi-documentary F for Fake in 1973, and managed to sell the collected diaries of reclusive millionaire weirdo Howard Hughes without getting Hughes involved at all. Busted for the hoax, he became a media sensation and after getting out of jail wrote another book based on the experience. 1981’s The Hoax would become the defining work of Irving’s life, though he would later complain that the 2006 movie version was inaccurate. (Honorable mention: The Imposter.)

Kevin Smokler: In Broad Daylight. The first book written about the true-crime-hall-of-fame case of Ken McElroy, a hated Missouri town bully whose murder in 1981 was witnessed by 46 residents, none of whom testified or even called an ambulance after the shooting. Author Harry N. MacLean was a lawyer, not a journalist when he wrote this debut effort and won an Edgar award for it.  

SDB: In Cold Blood. I haven’t read it in years, so it may not hold up, but it absolutely must be my pick, and here’s why: when I started The Blotter as a blog nearly a decade ago, we as a culture were still very much in a place where true crime as an interest was a source of sheepishness at best. The stereotypical grubby black paperback with shiny red letters wasn’t one I was eager to take on the subway; the genre was seen as de facto exploitative and voyeuristic, the writing invariably sweaty and poor. But In Cold Blood didn’t just imagine/create true crime — it proved that it was more than inky detective mags, that at its best it contained dark poetry, that it interrogated our ideas of truth and responsibility. The Blotter’s reason for existing was similar to Television Without Pity’s, specifically that if the genre isn’t taken and reviewed seriously, how can we expect any better from it than breathless accounts of pooling blood and traumatized families…but at the same time, we know we can expect better from it, because its very grandparents (In Cold Blood, The Thin Blue Line) were genre-busting classics.

And this isn’t even mentioning the toll In Cold Blood took on Capote personally. Plimpton and Stein’s oral histories really give you a flavor of their times, and I’d recommend all of them, but especially the one on Capote, which I’ve reread a dozen times — and every time, as In Cold Blood is coming out in The New Yorker and Capote is changing the way crime is reported and performatively birthing “non-fiction novels,” the turn we can see coming and he can’t breaks my heart a little more. (Honorable mention, to the surprise of no one: The Imposter, and literally no other property besides ICB could have relegated it hereto.)

True Crime A To Z is available to all subscribers…and we’d love your input! Comment on our picks, and tell an interested friend!

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