If you’re settling in for a good social distancing crime binge this weekend, you’re not alone.
Just when you thought the world had probably had enough of true crime documentaries, Netflix has released a seven-part series about a tiger owner named Joe Exotic and an animal activist named Carole Baskin.
It’s a captivating story, and it has everything — murder, mystery, hit men, lies, seduction. Despite only being online for a week, it has already been binge-watched around the globe, with many describing it as the perfect antidote to quarantine.
You would be forgiven for thinking that, in a news cycle that has been getting increasingly darker, people would turn to light entertainment to find refuge and comfort.
But crime continues to be one of the most widely-consumed genres for men and women alike — thanks in part to the many mediums we can now consume it on.
Between podcasts, streaming services, YouTube channels and good old-fashioned paperback books, crime has embraced every entertainment platform and, as such, the genre is showing no signs of going anywhere.
“People are controlling the kind of media they are consuming now, and crime is more accessible than ever,” Emily Webb from the Australian True Crime podcast said.
“You control what you stream, what you read.
“Crime is also much broader than murder. It’s also about fraud, grifters, the social side of things.
“Crime is human experience and drama at its most intense. I find it fascinating.”
Indeed, Webb is not alone in her fascination.
Her podcast, co-hosted by Meshel Laurie, has just hit its 150th episode and attracts well over one million listeners each month.
Such was the interest in crime at Apple Podcasts that they created a separate True Crime category last year. The ABC’s Unravel true crime podcast, Snowball, topped charts and garnered critical acclaim upon its release in mid-2019.
“Podcasting is just really accessible,” Webb said.
“Quite a few truck drivers message us. We had two ladies come to a show once who had opened a cleaning business, and they said they listen to podcasts all the time while working.
“I probably listen more to podcasts than television streaming, because I don’t really have time to sit down in front of the television.”
Even though podcasts might be a more accessible way to consume crime, their popularity has also had a significant influence on what we watch on television.
Podcasts are regularly turned into television series — Dirty John was a podcast before it was a Netflix hit; to that end, so was the aforementioned Tiger King.
And speaking of Netflix, the streaming giant has already released 10 true-crime series so far this year — despite us being only three months in — and later in 2020 will release Into the Deep, a documentary about the murder of journalist Kim Wall, made by Australian filmmaker Emma Sullivan.
Over in the land of free-to-air television, Law and Order: SVU became the longest-running US live action series last year, after it entered its 21st season. And who could forget countless Sunday nights spend watching Midsomer Murders — which is still on-air — with your grandparents?
Why people keep consuming crime
So what is it about this genre that strikes a chord with so many people?
It’s all part of human nature, according to Rachel Franks, Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle’s School of Humanities and Social Science.
“In a sense, crime is timeless. It’s something that we think can impact everybody, and now that it’s so easy to consume and distribute, it validates these conversations and interests,” she said.
“There’s also the reassurance that, even in crime, there are good people out there, like law enforcement, doing everything they can to make society better.
“Those kinds of things are innate to human nature.”
Dr Franks — an expert in crime fiction, true crime and pop culture — also said that people crave “some sort of resolution” which can be found within the crime genre.
“They like looking for an answer, about who did this, why they did this — even if sometimes that can be beyond anyone’s comprehension,” she said.
“Whereas hundreds of years ago everyone was looking to God to make them safer or to punish those who did the wrong thing, today it’s quite a different system of who is going to look after us.
“People are looking for more secular-based answers, or answers from each other. And when we read crime novels or true crime cases, we feed this desire. We find people who are working hard to make society better; someone else to put their faith in.”
These factors are what makes crime fiction so appealing, too.
“True crime, even in the best examples, is messy,” Dr Franks said.
“In reading true crime we’re learning about crime in society, and what we would do if we were in that situation.
“In crime fiction readers like the idea of a puzzle, like the characters that emerge, but they don’t really want their victims to be real. There’s a comfortable distance.
“There’s something almost restful about reading something like Agatha Christie — the characters are predictable, there’s a formula, there is a trust that there will be a resolution. There’s a neat ending.”
Indeed, Agatha Christie is still one of the best-selling authors of all time, despite her first book being published in 1920.
Looking to contemporary charts, at its February debut J.D. Robb’s Golden In Death topped the New York Times’ Best Sellers list — remarkable, not because J.D Robb is a pseudonym for Nora Roberts, but because the book is the 50th in her series about Detective Eve Dallas.
And, the current top download on both the free and the paid charts in the Kindle store are both crime fiction books.
Rose is a 22 year old student, and an avid consumer of crime across several platforms.
“My favourite thing would be podcasts, often ones in real-time about ongoing cases, particularly missing persons, cases — they intrigue me the most,” Rose said.
“With any other genre, you’re enjoying it but you’re still removed. With true crime, you know it’s happened. It’s a whole other level.
“I listen when I’m running. I use it as a treat or as a motivation to make the next 5km.”
Alongside podcasts, Rose also watches “random documentaries on YouTube about cases that are still open or being solved,” and reads a lot of crime fiction.
“There’s just a lot of it out there,” she said, citing Robert Galbraith — a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling — and Australian author Christian White as favourites.
“I love detective stories, things with twists — I’m not into the gory side of it at all.
“With crime fiction, you get to be put into the shoes of the person investigating. You can go beyond the red tape, get to solve the problem without the trauma of being in it yourself.”
Reducing the ‘stigma’ of crime stories
A 2017 study by Macquarie University found that crime fiction still “dominates people’s preferences” when it comes to buying books, and figures place female consumers between 60 to 80 per cent.
“Women for a very long time have liked crime stories,” Dr Franks agreed.
“Then in the earlier 20th century lots of women actually became crime writers.
“As formats change and become more easily available and easier to consume, the stigmas around reading true crime or crime fiction have been reduced.”
Spotify’s data shows female listeners of true-crime podcasts increased by 16 per cent in 2019. Of the top 5 podcasts hosted by women so far in 2020, four are about crime.
While Webb and Laurie’s Australian True Crime podcast has only a slightly higher female skew, their Facebook page is dominated by females, at 85 per cent.
“My perspective is that, for one thing, women and girls grow up conditioned to be a bit fearful about their safety. I certainly feel like I was brought up having to have an awareness of personal safety,” Webb said.
“So I think women are drawn to these things to try and work out how to be safe.
“We can all relate to things within the crime genre — relationships, family, drama, the social impact of crime, especially when we’re talking about people who have been personally affected.
“People can seem normal but do really horrible things. With our podcast we can give people a platform to talk about their experiences. That’s very powerful.”