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Our true crime fetish has nothing to do with the search for justice | Fiona Sturges

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In A Very Fatal Murder, the New York journalist David Pascall investigated the killing of Hayley Price, a 17-year-old prom queen from small-town Nebraska with “big dreams and clear skin”. The unsolved case was the fruit of a lengthy search by Pascall and his production team for the ideal killing. They wanted, he said, “a murder that [was] engrossing and mysterious, a murder that perfectly reflects our nation’s current economic and social conditions … a murder in which a really hot white girl dies.”

A Very Fatal Murder was the creation of the satirical organ the Onion, a magnificent sendup of the tropes of the true-crime podcast, from the tinkling soundtrack and the questing, Pulitzer-hungry host, to the big-city production crew crashing through provincial communities where “no one has HBO”. It should have killed the genre stone dead, but no such luck. For producers looking to score a Serial-sized hit, there is little more irresistible than the discovery of dust-smothered case files yielding tales of corrupt cops, compromised witnesses and lashings of lady corpses.

We are in the midst of a podcast boom, one that has been built primarily on the abuse and murder of women. Of course, there are scores of brilliant podcasts that cover everything from science and politics to a mortified man reading out his dad’s amateur erotica. But for commissioners and listeners, these rarely hold a candle to a real-life crime. Among the biggest hitters have been Dirty John, about the coercion and abuse of Debra Newell by a charming conman; Up and Vanished, chronicling the disappearance of the American beauty queen Tara Grinstead; Dr Death, about the surgeon whose botched operations left patients paralysed or dead; and, the daddy of them all, Serial, about the murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Five years on from Serial – the first two series of which were downloaded 340m times – our true-crime addiction shows no signs of abating. This year’s major audio releases – Wondery’s Over My Dead Body, Tenderfoot TV’s To Live and Die in LA, the BBC’s The Hurricane Tapes – all deal in the minutiae of murder.

Eyeballing true-crime’s effect on podcasting, television has got in on the game too. The Yorkshire Ripper Files recently on the BBC at least highlighted the misogyny of the original investigation; recent Netflix offerings Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann scarcely added to what is already known about their respective cases. Observing the latter’s deficiencies, this paper’s critic called it “morally and creatively bankrupt”. But negative write-ups won’t make any difference to TV and audio networks cashing in on our thirst for murder. The publisher Bauer Media has launched a new magazine, Crime Monthly, with Milly Dowler as their cover star (in my local newsagent, it sits on the top shelf where the porn used to be). Meanwhile, in America, thousands gather at CrimeCon, an annual event in which punters mingle with stars of the true-crime genre. We have come to look at these stories like we would a stylish Hollywood thriller or a literary whodunit; we revel in playing detective. That they are based on real lives gives them an extra frisson, tapping into our darkest fears and inviting us to dwell on man’s most grotesque impulses.

Julie Lowry in The Yorkshire Ripper Files

‘The Yorkshire Ripper Files recently on the BBC at least highlighted the misogyny of the original investigation.’ Photograph: Screengrab/BBC/Wall to Wall

While there have been instances where the victims and their families have contributed to these shows – the testimony of Newall and her family was uppermost in Dirty John – more often they, and their communities, are conspicuous in their silence. Sometimes, though, they make their distress clear. Ralph Bulger and Denise Fergus, parents of the murdered two-year-old Jamie Bulger, were distraught at the Oscar-nominated film Detainment, which documented their son’s death and told the story of his killers.

Defenders of the genre will cite the fact that, prompted by Serial, Adnan Syed, convicted for killing Hae Min Lee, was granted a retrial (it was later denied by the Maryland court of appeals), or that the investigation in the Australian’s Bowraville podcast has led to the case coming before the high court. But let’s not kid ourselves that it was a quest for justice that got these projects off the ground. Look at the bigger picture and you see presenters and producers restyling themselves as noble sleuths and exploiting trauma under the guise of truth-seeking, while the rest of us strain our necks to peer at the carnage. It’s also dispiriting to witness this narrowing of vision across TV and audio networks, which are already locked in copycat mode. The schedules are now clogged with documentaries desperate to tell us the “real” story, though their main objective is to replicate earlier hits. Enough of this fetishising of maniacs and murderers – it’s time to move on. True crime has been done to death.

Fiona Sturges is an arts writer

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