Fictionalised true crime is an odd sub-genre containing either very bad or absolutely fantastic books. They go beyond the non-fiction recitation of known facts to imagine the subjective experience of the actors, they fill in the unknown or re-order known events so that they make narrative sense. This can add an intense layer of meaning to already well-known stories, alongside the added frisson of being broadly based on fact.
Crime fiction and fictionalised true crime are intimately related: Edgar Allan Poe, often lauded as the godfather of crime fiction, wrote his second crime fiction story, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842) as a retelling of the real case of Mary Cecilia Rogers.
Every generation seems to discover true crime novels anew and is astonished by how moving and profound they can be. True crime is still regarded as a low art form and, op een of ander manier, a shameful area of interest. I like low art. I like comics and zines and street art precisely because they’re so poorly curated. Often writers who produce works of this kind move on to more respectable forms and these earlier forays are played down as aberrations or experiments.
This is a very male list but the recent explosion in true crime podcasts and documentaries and the predominantly female communities that have formed around them will, I suspect, lead to more women choosing to write these books.
My new book Rizzio is the true story of a brutal murder in 1566, in the court of Mary, Queen of Scots. The case is documented in detailed statements made by several of the major protagonists in the case. The meat of the story was all there already. All I had to do was make it up.
1. A Universal History of Inniquity by Jorge Luis Borges
This is a collection of short stories published in the Critica newspaper between 1933 en 1934. Borges covered stories such as John Murrell, a horse thief and preacher who led a slave insurrection in 1835, as well as Ching Shih, the Pirate Queen, and Billy The Kid, whom Borges renames Bill Harrigan. The stories are all fractured and told in imagined scenes with lumps of exposition. In a later edition, Borges wrote an introduction: “These are the irresponsible game of a shy young man who dared not write stories and so amused himself by falsifying and distorting (without any aesthetic justifications whatever) the tales of others.” Despite what he says the book is captivating.
2. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje
A retelling of Billy’s journey through New Mexico, looking back over his criminal history, at the myth-making and stories forming around him. He uses a strange, scumbled sort of voice in parts of it that feel like the outlaw’s thoughts as he narrates the events that led to his fated, short and violent life. I have bought this book almost five times and keep giving it away.
3. Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn
Burn’s book about Fred and Rosemary West’s lives and murders affected me in a way that perhaps all true crime should: it left me feeling saddened and soiled. He vividly portrays the actual life of serial killers, the shallow affect, the casual brutality and suburban brutalising around the explosive events we hear about when the bodies are found. He talks a lot about the way Fred West’s language was a signal and uses phrases over and over in reprises that are operatic. I know he found the book harder to write than Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, his study of Peter Sutcliffe, and the depth of his immersion shows. It is profoundly moving in a way that true crime very rarely is.
4. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
This centres on the brutal murder in 1860 of a three-year-old boy in the middle of the night. The case was written about by Dickens, Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins. Its appeal is obvious: it happened in an elegant and slightly isolated Wiltshire house with a small group of people and forms exactly the sort of perfect, closed-house mystery so beloved of cosy crime novels. Summerscale uses fictional points of view to present all the facts and it’s an amazing experience to read it.
5. The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère
This retelling of Jean-Claude Romand’s family annihilation in 1993 unpicks a lifetime of minor deceptions and builds to a climax that still shocks even though you know from the beginning what has happened. It’s cold, dispassionate and very frightening.
6. Nationality Wog: The Hounding of David Oluwale by Kester Aspen
David Oluwale was a black man who died in 1969 after a sustained campaign of harassment by police in Leeds. This book shows what fictionalised true crime can do that nothing else can. I’m afraid I’m quoted on the back. I read it when it came out in 2007 and was so blown away by it I persuaded Kester to meet me to talk about it. This is the sort of story that can only be told in this form because so much of Oluwale’s subjective experience could only be represented by fictionalisation. It’s an insight into the times and the lives of people living in a culture that persecutes them.
7. Occupied City by David Peace
This is the second book in the Tokyo Trilogy. It’s fiction but also weaves in the true story of a mass poisoning in 1948 known as the Teigin Incident. A man wearing medical uniform walked into a bank in downtown Toyko saying he was there to warn the workers about an outbreak of dysentery. He ordered the staff to take the medication issued. They did, but it was poison. Twelve of the people who drank it died and the bank was robbed. The book offers a glimpse into a world with a population so passive that they would take the poison, yet where the police and judiciary were so untrustworthy that the perpetrator is still in dispute over half a century later.
8. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Really, the most famous on this list. Capote is a god and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. He claimed to have invented the genre of the non-fiction novel but, vir my, that discounts all autobiography. He immersed himself in the case, extensively interviewing the murderers of a family slaughtered at a small Kansas farm. The conflicting loyalty almost broke him. It’s one of those books that shouldn’t work but, once started, cannot be abandoned.
9. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
A fat book by an important man who hated women. I resented and enjoyed this Pulitzer prize-winning book about Gary Gilmore, published 13 years after In Cold Blood. It is very readable and set the conventions of the genre for a long time. It begins with a history of the geography and culture of the area, Gilmore’s family background, his early life and then moves onto his crimes and the consequences. If you like fat books by important men, you’ll love this.
10. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
It’s a stretch to include this glorious book because it pushes the parameters beyond a tale of individual criminality to fictionalise the crimes of nation states, governments and the CIA, but it covers the crack wars of the 1980s and the attempted murder of Bob Marley, attempting to make sense of the incomprehensible, which is surely what this form is all about.