Media Circus: True-Crime mags' corpse found stuffed under television set!

Bludgeoned by TV, books and their own voyeurism, the once-mighty true-crime magazines are bleeding to death in a cheap hotel room.

By James Surowiecki

Published August 5, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

there's a newsstand in Grand Central Station that seems to have every magazine in the world on display. You can buy six different Italian fashion magazines there, and eight or nine different martial arts magazines. You can buy copies of the Sun, an elegant little literary journal published in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the Manchester Guardian Weekly. The newsstand's racks contain three different kinds of military-strategy magazines -- the kind with cover lines like: "Was Stonewall Jackson a bad leader?" -- and an infinite array of house beautiful journals. There's a wonderfully diverse selection of pornography too.

About the only thing you won't be able find, in fact, is a true-crime magazine. No True Detective, no Headquarters Detective, no True Police Cases. Nothing. If you live in New York and want to read about the "Lust of the Goliath Rapist" or the "Oriental Coed Who Was Killed -- Twice," you're out of luck. And it isn't just this newsstand, either. As far as I can tell, there's nowhere in Manhattan where you can buy a copy of what you might call "pulp fact." Considering that this is a city with a seemingly bottomless appetite for both crime and kitsch, the void is rather eerie.

Fifty years ago, the story would have been very different. In the years immediately after World War II, as many as 250 true-crime magazines were being published. Bearing titles like Police Gazette, Master Detective and Police Story, these magazines offered up tales of murder and mayhem that pitted dogged cops against hard-nosed and brutal killers. While the more polished and stylized narratives of magazines like Black Mask featured private detectives stuck in the noirish world of shadowy motives and ambiguous morality, true-crime narratives avoided interiority, favoring instead violent action and nuts-and-bolts crime-solving narratives. (The same distinction can be made between noir films, like "Out of the Past" and "The Big Sleep," and crime films like "The Naked City" or "Detective Story.") True-crime prose was purple, to be sure, but at its best it was also lean and fierce.

The heyday of the true-crime magazine lasted but a short while. By the 1950s, most of these magazines had begun to disappear, pushed aside by the mainstreaming of the glossies, the growth of suburbia and, presumably, by the impact of television. Still, a sizable number of them did survive, and at the beginning of this decade one would have been able to find three or four titles on sale in New York City. Only in the last few years has true-crime disappeared from the urban landscape.

As it happens, though, true-crime magazines haven't disappeared everywhere. The genre isn't exactly thriving but Globe Communications still publishes six titles: Detective Files, Detective Dragnet, True Police Cases ("the magazine lawmen read"), Startling Detective, Headquarters Detective and Detective Cases. As I learned from a curious conversation with an assistant in Globe's distribution department -- during which she tried to convince me that any number of different New York towns were on the outskirts of Manhattan -- these magazines tend to be sold in small cities and rural suburbs and towns. Many Wal-Marts carry them.

In that respect, today's audience for true-crime magazines is but an exaggerated version of that of the 1930s and 1940s. While True Detective and the like once had a large urban readership, their core audience was always in the small towns and rural communities, where so many of the stories in these magazines take place. "There was always a real gap between the Black Mask-style magazines and the true-crimes," says Marc Gerald, who abandoned graduate school in order to edit True Detective during the mid-1980s. "Black Mask had a more sophisticated, urban audience, but the true-crime magazines appealed from the start to rural readers. They were always more countrified." City readers may want to read about crime -- just look at any daily tabloid -- but apparently not about true crime.

Still, it's not just urban readers who have abandoned these magazines. At the time Gerald took over True Detective, there were 11 different true-crime titles in print. Six were published by Globe and five by RJH Publications, which had been a pulp publisher since the 1930s. Even then, the combined circulation of RJH's magazines was under a half million. And last year Globe bought RJH's five titles and closed them down, leaving its magazines a captive but shrinking market.

What's odd about all this is that the public fascination with psychopathic violence -- preferably sexualized -- seems as powerful as ever. Bookstores have fully stocked true-crime sections. Hollywood continues to produce films about serial killers and mass murderers with startling regularity. And true-crime television shows are not only a genre in their own right, but have effected important changes in the nature of television news, both in terms of the use of "dramatic re-enactments" and in terms of the topics covered. What was the O.J. trial, after all, but a true-crime story brought to life? And why, given a culture enamored of violence -- or at least of representations of violence -- are true-crime magazines struggling to stay afloat?

In a sense, though, the question provides its own answer. If you can find true-crime everywhere you look, it's not clear why you would look to these magazines first. The competition offered by television alone would seem to be deadly, since TV specializes in precisely those qualities that distinguished true-crime narratives from their noir cousins: action, titillation and the illusion of reality. (The tag line on a recent issue of Detective Files -- "The Naked Truth: No TV Censors" -- testifies to the pressure the magazines are feeling.) At the same time, true-crime books are able to offer even more lovingly detailed crime-scene descriptions and more satisfyingly cathartic narratives, while newspapers have -- of course -- the overwhelming virtue of timeliness. When Andrew Cunanan is on every front page in America for three or four days running, tales of murder from 1993 start to lose some of their pizzazz.

All of that is undoubtedly true. But I'm convinced that true-crime magazines would be flourishing if not for one thing: They're not interesting to read.

Though my search of Manhattan newsstands turned up empty, a very helpful publicist at Globe Communications sent me copies of each of the six titles Globe currently publishes. I found myself deluged with stories of rape and murder, sex in exchange for murder, murder in the pursuit of sex and so on, almost all of which featured criminals who seemed to do their best to make it easy for the police to find them. The stories have sleepy leads like, "It was just past midnight on Saturday, September 5, 1992 ..." Words like "mistress" and "lawmen" and sentences like, "In his experience, no woman leaves her purse without good cause" make the prose feel comfortingly anachronistic, but the occasional intrusion of psychosexual jargon keeps one from sinking fully into the illusion that these magazines are providing a 1930s take on 1990s events. In a sense, it feels as if the magazines don't know what era they or their readers are in.

There are other, more obvious problems. The insistent focus on sexual violence grates quickly, especially given the often too-loving depictions of the crimes. At the same time, the fact that so many of the murders are sexualized means that the criminals all end up inhabiting a psychological terrain so far outside the mainstream that our fascination with them feels purely voyeuristic. And the fact that the narratives of these pointedly extreme cases invariably end with more general invocations of the need for tough measures against criminals of all sorts is all a bit too reminiscent of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. I don't expect true-crime magazines to spend more time examining the social roots of violent crime. But their use of the murderer-rapist as a synecdoche for criminals as a whole is both troubling and unconvincing. After a few days with these magazines, I long for tales of Willie Sutton or John Dillinger. I long for "Reservoir Dogs" or "Heat."

In this sense, of course, the true-crime magazines are part of a broader cultural construction of criminals as fundamentally alien beings, as individuals who are, in their essence, different. The problem is that while this approach may make for an interesting movie, it can do so only because film lends itself to suspense in a way that the true-crime magazine story does not. And since, to judge by the cases in these magazines, most psychotic killers are not particularly good at covering their tracks, the paragraphs detailing the actual detective work end up reading more like descriptions of household chores than anything else. True-crime would be a more vibrant genre if there were more professional criminals and fewer Boston Strangler wannabes in the pages of these magazines.

At the same time, some of the most interesting products of American culture of the last 30 years -- "In Cold Blood," "The Executioner's Song," "Badlands" -- have been about fundamentally unmotivated murders. What's interesting about these works, though, is that in them it's the crimes -- not the criminals -- that seem alien, the crimes that represent the point at which interpretation breaks down, the point at which you find yourself doing something for no good reason at all. These works suggest not that we're all killers inside, but that even killers are not killers. Until suddenly they are.

Oddly, then, true-crime magazines end up explaining not enough and yet too much, especially since sexual "perversion" ends up being the cause of most of the violence. They permit us to cordon off the criminals even while we luxuriate in their exploits. And, unfortunately, they do so with narratives that lag and prose that does not bite. And it's this, I suppose, that's the most grievous of all their sins. There are no Hitchcocks and there are no Jim Thompsons writing for the true-crime magazines, or if there are I haven't found them. Perhaps they're all working for "America's Most Wanted."

James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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