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22 October 2018

Whether it’s a trashy true-crime mag or a smart murder box-set, the morbid impulse is the same

By Kate Mossman

Knickers were twisted this month when a “new true crime mag” (those are the words on the cover) was launched by the team who make Heat. Its beaming cover stars were Milly Dowler (“new agony”) and murdered child beauty pageant star JonBenét Ramsey: “Is a 23-year-old cold case about to be solved?” (No, it isn’t). Amid the historical cases, the promise of a 16-page “crime TV guide” explained a lot. Crime Monthly came about, its makers admit, to take advantage of the boom in box-set murder TV, which began with Making A Murderer (whose makers are interviewed on page 48) – the kind of shows where a sizeable investment of personal time and a smart script elevate a base human impulse (watching horrible things happen to other people) to an intellectual pursuit.

The problem is that Crime Monthly is not a box-set style investment of time (I read it cover to cover just now) and it is not an intellectual pursuit either. This is why people are annoyed about it. On page 16, in a feature called “Anatomy Of A Crime Scene”, a grainy picture of the living room in which two sons, Erik and Lyle Menéndez, shot their parents in 1989, is blown up large and pixelated, with 70 words of explanatory text (“splatters indicate point-blank range”). The prestigious back-page slot is given to a feature called “Famous Last Words”, where Aileen Wuornos, the tragic female serial killer executed in 2002, giggles behind her hand.

 Magazines like this have been around since I was a kid, when periodicals were in rude health. They’d be ordered in ones or twos by your village newsagent and stored next to Horse Sense or Supercook: they were dark, slightly grubby affairs with just one or two names on the masthead – send off and you got a free binder.

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To be honest, I’m not sure that Crime Monthly is any worse than the artful shows it claims to be a companion to. There are a few words (and a large pic, naturally) on Detainment, the controversial film about the James Bulger case. Having been 12 at the time of that crime, and remembering half my class crying about it, I kind of feel that a sensationalist cover line would sum up the story just as well as a hundred think-pieces on how the boy killers ought to be humanised.

Until 2017, I was a sucker for a US show called Solved from the American murder channel Investigation Discovery, received by 73.9 per cent of American households. Investigation Discovery is the second most popular cable network among women aged 25-54: Crime Monthly is sold with the women’s mags on news-stands. In bite-size chunks, Solved would reactivate cold cases and nail villains who got away. Most episodes began with something like, “Colleagues were worried when Stacey didn’t show up for work…” I skipped the boring ones in which guys were killed, over drugs or money. The reporting was swift, with little time given to motive and none to sentimentality.

Then suddenly, a couple of winters ago, after years of being into this stuff, I just went off it all. I don’t know what happened. I guess it no longer felt thrilling to watch the kind of crime that could happen to you, happen to someone else instead – and I don’t mean that moralistically. The overt link between crime and the entertainment industry is the one thing that marks Crime Monthly out from the Marshall Cavendish-published equivalents of yore. And whether for the sake of advertising, or sheer want of content, the connection has been taken to extremes, with a section called “History vs Hollywood”, in which photos of cons are placed next to the actors who played them in The People Vs OJ and Mindhunter.

Slipped among the old cases and new shows is the story of the Slender Man stabbing in Wisconsin, 2014. This character, a piece of digital folklore – a faceless, long-limbed, pipe cleaner-thin internet meme who preys on children – got his own movie in 2018 with a 7 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. By that time, two 12-year-old girls obsessed with the story had tried to offer up their best friend to him, as a sacrifice (she miraculously survived). In that case, crime followed entertainment, not the other way round. 

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This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty