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Watching and listening to true crime: Disturbing-yet-captivating

  |   Books

Watching and listening to True Crime is our guilty pleasure – there is a reason why it is one of the most popular genres on OTT as well as on podcasts. Rather predictably, true-crime drama routinely features in the top 10 most-watched shows on OTT platforms, while a quarter of the top-ranked podcasts feature true crime. So, what about books on true crime?

Published in 1966, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood details a brutal quadruple murder in small town Kansas. An instant success, the book launched the true crime genre that today comprises thousands of titles, television shows, films, and podcasts. Disturbing as the subject matter may be, true crime books (and the like) are a fascinating look into how the human mind, especially the criminal mind, works. When Capote was asked in an interview why murder was so irresistible, he’d replied, “Because it is not a theme likely to darken and yellow with time.”

My favourite in this genre is Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Serial Crime Unit by FBI special agent John E Douglas and novelist Mark Olshaker. This groundbreaking book details the pioneering work of John Douglas in understanding the psychological profiles of serial killers. From the depths of their twisted thoughts to the strategies used to catch them, Mindhunter offers an unparalleled perspective into the minds of the most depraved individuals, leaving readers in awe of the investigator’s tenacity and empathy.

In India, the true crime that gripped the nation was the murder of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar and the family’s domestic worker. From the controversial police investigation to the media frenzy surrounding the Talwars and the protracted legal battle, every layer of the Talwar case has mystery and metaphor. Avirook Sen has followed the court case, examined all the police documents, and interviewed key players among investigators, lawyers, family, and Aarushi’s friends. In Aarushi he draws a superb portrait of the young woman, the aftermath of her death, and tries to answer the biggest question of all. Acute, gripping and brilliantly written Aarushi is a book that will take you into the heart of the murder that had gripped the nation.

The most recent book that captured my attention was Seventy Times Seven by Alex Mar. On a spring afternoon in 1985 in Gary, Indiana, a city with a history of racial tensions, 15-year-old Paula Cooper kills an elderly woman in a violent home invasion. Paula is Black, and her victim, Ruth Pelke, is White and a beloved Bible teacher. This book is a compassionate account of mercy for Paula Cooper who is on death row. This book demonstrates the impact that great true crime can have, giving a full account not just of the details of the crimes but of the lives of those affected by violence, exploring whether the legal system can truly provide justice.

And finally the graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer, a 2012 memoir by artist John “Derf” Backderf about his teenage friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer, who later became a serial killer. The graphic novel inspired the critically acclaimed, bone-chilling film starring Ross Lynch as Jeffrey Dahmer. Most recently, Rex Heuermann, a 59-year-old New York architect, was arrested and charged with murder in the killings of three of the “Gilgo Four,” a group of four women whose remains were found along a short stretch of Long Island’s Gilgo Beach in 2010. I wouldn’t be surprised if another book/documentary is made on this story.

This genre of books opens our eyes to the darkest corners of our society while challenging our perception of good and evil. It reminds us that beneath the veneer of civilization, the human heart remains a profound enigma. And as Ian Rankin says, “There is a vicarious frisson for the fan… the reader stands at the shoulder of monsters without being endangered.”

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