We’re a nation obsessed with true-crime books, TV shows, podcasts and even live events. So is amateur sleuthing a harmless pastime, asks Hattie Crisell – or have we gone too far?
When writer Beth Cleavy moved from Nottingham to Manchester a few years ago, she was keen to make new friends and meet like-minded people. ‘I wanted to get involved in something that I was interested in,’ says Beth, 29, ‘and find somewhere I could talk about serial killers.’
You might think this is an unusual interest, but Beth thought otherwise, so she started the Manchester Murder Club, where people could meet for a glass of wine in the function room of a café or pub, peruse crime-scene photos and chat about unsolved murders.
‘It started with maybe five people in a room, then it went to ten, then 15,’ she says. ‘Eventually, I’d do 30-person events with the pictures and facts on a big screen, and I’d split everyone into groups to figure out whodunnit.’ There are now 1,160 people who follow updates from Beth’s club on meetup.com, and though in-person events had to be paused during the pandemic, they’re set to return early next year.
Look around and you’ll find this gruesome passion is not peculiar to residents of Manchester. We’re all true-crime obsessed. Last week, Sky launched the drama Landscapers, based on the story of the 1998 murders of Nottingham residents William and Patricia. The couple were killed by their daughter Susan (played by Olivia Colman) and her husband, then buried in their garden, in a crime that was undiscovered for over a decade.
And the whodunnit is Hollywood fodder too: next year Saoirse Ronan is set to star in See How They Run, solving murders on a movie set. In fact, it was a flurry of American podcasts that seemed to kickstart our obsession. In 2014, the first season of Serial – which examined the murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee – became a sensation (with more than 300 million downloads to date). It was followed by more hits, including the acclaimed investigative series In the Dark – which succeeded in getting a murder suspect’s conviction overturned – and Dirty John, a domestic-abuse mystery that inspired a Netflix drama of the same name.
Our obsession with true crime has itself become the subject of fiction. Just look at TV presenter-turned-novelist Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series, about a group of pensioners who keep busy in retirement by investigating killings. The first book sold over a million copies within a year of publication; his second, The Man Who Died Twice, is one of the fastest-selling novels since records began.
On Disney+, you can watch the mystery-comedy Only Murders in the Building, in which three neighbours investigate a death in their apartment block. And this autumn Channel 4 took it one step further with Murder Island, where real people competed to see who could solve a fictional killing (the plot of which was written by crime novelist Ian Rankin).
If that’s not enough, there are live events, too. In London, you can do The Impossible Murder Mystery escape room, for example, in which you’re trapped in the ‘lair of a psycho killer’ until you figure out their identity.
Most of this is presented as lighthearted, creepy fun – but to some, true crime is a serious interest. Websleuths.com is a forum for amateur detectives from all over the world to share theories about cold cases. Its founder, Tricia Griffith, has claimed that law-enforcement professionals check the forum for tip-offs. Meanwhile, since 2011, a group called the Case Breakers, including retired FBI agents, has been investigating unsolved crimes. It claims to have identified a new suspect in the case of the Zodiac killer, who murdered at least five people in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 60s.
Emma Hughes, 35, is a journalist and author who has been drawn into another, more secretive kind of group. ‘I’ve always been very interested in mysteries – as a child I read a lot of detective stories,’ she says. In recent years, she’s found herself lurking on true-crime online message boards, which she found compelling but also unsettling. ‘A lot of the discussion is voyeuristic and sensationalist, and what gets lost sometimes is the fact that you’re talking about real people, who have been through the worst things imaginable.’ A few months ago she found a small forum that focuses on cases currently in the news, often involving missing people. ‘We share local knowledge, hypothesising about journeys or logistics of how far somebody could have got in a particular time frame, and where they might have been. It’s based on factual things like traffic cameras and bus timetables.’ So what’s the appeal? ‘I’ve asked myself that a lot,’ she says. ‘The ultimate truth of these disappearances and murders is that they can be random. I think there’s an element of wanting to know how things have happened so that you can have a sense of control over them – which, of course, is a complete illusion.’
Beth Cleavy, who spent her childhood watching Murder, She Wrote, Miss Marple and Poirot, is less troubled by her hobby – but echoes this feeling of wanting to understand the unfathomable. ‘I like the psychology of it,’ she says. ‘With the serial-killer cases, I like to find out what drove them to do it in the first place. What we normally do at our events is go from the very start, so if it’s Ted Bundy, we’ll go from his childhood to his first job, to the first person he murdered, to how he got caught. Then we pick out the early warning signs.’
Kerry Daynes, a forensic psychologist and author of What Lies Buried, puts our interest in these matters down to self-preservation. ‘We’re hard-wired to pay attention to other members of our social group who might be a threat to us,’ she says. ‘I think people feel that not only are they following something entertaining, they’re also gaining skills that might save their life at some point.’
The Manchester Murder Club has brought together some unlikely friends. ‘We have forensic students from Manchester University and a guy in his 20s who is interested in rituals and beliefs that the killers had,’ says Beth. ‘And we have pensioners, including a fascinating woman who was in America when Ted Bundy escaped and Zodiac killed a taxi driver, and in Yorkshire when the Yorkshire Ripper was there. She’s become good friends with the 20-something guy – they walk each other to the tram after events.’
There’s a lot of laughter, she admits. ‘We do find humour in it, and I don’t know whether that’s a bit messed up. It’s always at the killer’s expense, never at the victim’s – like, “They managed to get caught how? That’s so stupid.”’ She does enforce rules, including not speaking disrespectfully about the victim, but she feels the jokes are part of the catharsis of the event. ‘Because it is such an inhuman thing, it does make you feel more comfortable if you can talk about it lightheartedly.’
Thanks to the true-crime boom, many of us feel like experts in solving murders; of course, the reality is a different matter. Parm Sandhu, a former chief superintendent in the Metropolitan Police, is one of the experts on Murder Island. ‘When the members of the public turned up to look at the crime scene, it was like rabbits in headlights,’ she recalls. ‘Two teams actually walked through the blood. How horrendous is that? They applied to the show because they thought they could do it, but they made some very, very basic mistakes.’
One common error, she adds, is getting too carried away with one theory: ‘Rookie detectives often try to identify a suspect first, then pin lots of evidence against that suspect. That’s how you end up with the wrong person in prison.’ Anyone tempted to turn amateur sleuth should be careful about this, too; what you read on the internet may be inaccurate. You could also be held in contempt of court if you post comments online that could prejudice a trial.
A misplaced eagerness to identify a killer can easily spiral. When Christopher Jefferies was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010, he was hounded by journalists and vilified by the public – yet he was released without charge (another man, Vincent Tabak, was later convicted).
Jumping to conclusions highlights another problem with true-crime podcasts and shows. ‘They tend to focus on young, attractive, middle-class white women who are murdered by strangers or serial killers,’ says Kerry Daynes. ‘People think they’re going to be able to spot a criminal because they’ll look a certain way. The real-world consequences are that sometimes juries don’t feel that somebody in front of them could have committed an offence, because they don’t look “the type”.’
Puzzling away at a murder mystery is a pastime that should be handled with care, she adds: ‘If you watch crime documentaries 24/7, it doesn’t make you an expert in crime analysis. People can be well-meaning, but sometimes they’re just getting in the way.’