True Crime: How our fascination with crime is stalking the curriculum at Western
Michael Arntfield is seen in this undated photo. (Source: michaelarntfield.com)
LONDON, ONT. -- A first of its kind in Canada, Western University will be offering a course in true crime writing this fall.
Michael Arntfield is an associate professor in the English Faculty at Western and already teaches a creative writing course focused on crime fiction.
He says the best crime writing tends to come from people who know what they are talking about.
“The best police procedural writers tend to be crime reporters, cops, or even former criminals, like James Ellroy, who have first-hand experience,” he says.
And Arntfield definitely knows what he is talking about. The former police detective has been on the front lines himself. One of his books, "Murder in Plain English," is used as a textbook in his class and examines the ways in which crime fiction and actual crime intersect - and sometimes inspire each other.
And CTV’s W5 is running a special on another of Arntfield’s books, the true crime "Murder City," on Saturday, Jan. 18 at 7 p.m. ET.
That book argues London, Ont. was the serial killer capital of the world for a two-decade period from about 1965 to 1985.
“In general, realism and resolution are what readers want and are the hallmarks of a compelling and usually commercially successful work,” Arntfield says.
And that demand is driving him to offer the new course at Western: a course on a new sub-genre he calls 'true crime.'
He defines other recognized sub-genres of crime writing as the amateur sleuth, the cozy whodunit, the hard-boiled mystery and the police procedural.
True crime differs in that it involves a factual but dramatized retelling of violent criminal events. It uses the dramatic techniques of fiction to tell true stories.
“Much of what is said to constitute ‘true crime' is actually less factual than overtly fictionalized accounts,” argues Arntfield.
His research has detected four peaks in true crime popularity in the past century-and-a-half, each of them coming during times of peace and prosperity.
“Without exception, wars and recessions have been the two largest intervening forces in ushering out true crime fads in the past,” he says. If he is right, it means our current fascination with the dark side of humanity is telling us we live in a relatively tranquil time.
But not all writers handling criminal story lines are prepared to deal with true crime.
Desmond Ryan writes a crime series centred on his Mike O’Shea character. The retired Toronto cop says he could have approached true crime, but “I don’t really want to re-victimize the people who were originally impacted by the true crime by bringing it back into focus. Crime fiction is a lot more fun.”
What fiction offers, says Ryan, is authenticity that resolves the crime with closure.
Closure is much less likely in the dramatized reality of true crime writing, as a class of Western students will soon discover.