Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What makes a true crime book bad?

 by Laura James
As much as I love to read true crime books, I have to admit that this genre produces some real schlock alongside some brilliant books.

At left is my nominee for worst true crime cover art in the 500-year history of this genre. May this record stand for all time. The first time I saw it, I wished I could send the family of this victim of sexual murder some flowers to make up for this awful image and hurtful title. And put the author under surveillance.

Of course, some books are just poorly written. But poor writing plagues every genre. Alas, some problems are specific to true crime.

Besides a terrible cover, what is it, exactly, that can make a true crime book bad? Here is my list of pet peeves. I'm eager to hear other opinions, too.

1. Fictionalizing. Some authors cheat. They manufacture details. They invent conversations. This drives me nuts. These days, publishers often insist that this technique be disclosed in an author's note at the beginning of a book. When I come across these notes, it colors my reading. I wonder, is this the part that's made up? That's why I think fictionalizing should disqualify an author from receiving a true crime award. It's easy to write a brilliant book when you get to make up the details. Not always so easy when you stick to the rules.

2. Wrong details. It's not so much the level of detail that can be a problem (though some reviewers nitpick authors on this account). When a book goes into tremendous detail about matters not of direct relevance to a case, or to the reader's understanding of a crime, it slows readers and prompts them to skim -- or put down the book. An example: one book I (tried to) read recently contained huge paragraphs detailing the professional background of every police officer involved in an investigation. And there were a lot of them. Tedious. Very tedious.

3. Crossed sub-genres. One popular sub-genre is the police procedural -- books which usually concern cases that required dogged or inventive police work. In such books, the method used to catch a killer is the story. In other cases, however, the police work is straightforward. There is no reason to dwell overlong on the investigation or even on the trial -- but some authors do.

In many spousal murder stories, for example, the guilt of a spouse is evident, the legal work uncomplicated. Readers of these stories want details on the marriage -- not the investigation. We want to know how the happy couple ended up at each other's throats. Too many authors don't get it.

4. "Shocking photos!" When is this tagline going to die? Another pet peeve: photo captions that give it all away. Like many readers, I flip to the middle to check out the pictures as I'm reading. A caption of  "Defendant on Death Row" spoils the read.

5. Disrespect. Though this is fortunately rare, some books contain gratuitous profanity and obnoxious, flippant asides. I recently (tried to) read a book in which the author dropped the f-bomb every few pages -- in the narrative, not in quotes. Yuck.

So what's the worst true crime book you've ever read? Why was it awful? What makes a book bad? And will this genre ever pull these weeds?


women seeking men said...

Thank you for this post, we are a online dating website blog network, which college students read our blog, so thanks and well post this article on our blog. women seeking men

FleaStiff said...

Particularly if it is the author's first book contract he will not have the right of approval for the book title or for the cover art.

As to the contents, that of course is indeed the author's responsibility. Police like to get up before the microphones and say "teamwork solved the case, teamwork solves them all". That doesn't mean the case actually is fit for treatment as a police procedural work. Sometimes authors get it wrong or their editors or publishers do. Why did the hopes of a newlywed eventually lead to homicide? That would be a short book: He met a younger woman and the wife wanted too much alimony.

Leah said...

I hate long, over drawn out trial details. Particularly when the author focuses on how many times a juror yawns, etc.

I didn't realize a TC book could be fictionalized...I'll have to look for that fine print in my books and see if I have read any.

Great post!

California Girl said...

Bad graphic design will not encourage me to purchase a book regardless of the contents. This looks like some attempt at graphics on a 1984 vintage computer.