Mock True Crime | The Reader’s Shelf

From the earliest days of the novel, works of fiction have attempted to pass themselves off as nonfiction. These fictional works all imitate that most popular form of nonfiction, true crime.

From the earliest days of the novel, works of fiction have attempted to pass themselves off as nonfiction. These fictional works all imitate that most popular form of nonfiction, true crime.

Richard Chizmar’s Chasing the Boogeyman (Gallery. 2022. ISBN 9781982175177. pap. $17.99) begins with a note calling it “a work of fiction,” a necessary clarification given how convincingly he reproduces the look and feel of a true-crime book from the early 1990s. The fictional version of Chizmar supposedly wrote the first edition of this work as fledgling writer covering a series of inexplicable murders in his small hometown. Taking matters into his own hands, he searched for clues and shadowed the official police investigation, even as bodies piled up and fear gripped his community. As a horror writer, Chizmar knows how to build suspense and create a suitably chilling atmosphere, but mostly he suffuses this story with nostalgic affection for the well-meaning young man he once was and the people who shaped him. Can a serial-killer thriller warm the heart? This one does. Read Next: Paul Tremblay adds sly playfulness to another horror novel pretending to be a coming-of-age memoir, The Pallbearers Club.

Joseph Knox shows every sign of enjoying himself in his clever True Crime Story (Sourcebooks Landmark. 2021. ISBN 9781728245867. pap. $16.99). It purports to be Knox’s completion of a nonfiction manuscript produced by his acquaintance, the novice writer Evelyn Mitchell. Before her untimely death, Mitchell had been investigating the unsolved disappearance of Zoe Nolan, a first-year student at the University of Manchester, primarily by interviewing those who knew her. These people prove to be a slippery lot, determined to withhold information and redirect blame. First Mitchell and then Knox find themselves lost in mazes following one dodgy lead after another. Despite its nonfiction trappings, Knox’s novel is at heart a pleasingly retro whodunit, complete with numerous red herrings and cases of mistaken identity. While it may owe more to Agatha Christie than to Ann Rule, it gains in verve what it loses in realism. Read Next: In Kate Reed Petty’s formally inventive True Story, a woman uses her fiction to expose what really happened to her on the night she was victimized.

The two authors writing as L.R. Dorn mimic a true-crime podcast in their debut, The Anatomy of Desire (Morrow. 2022. ISBN 9780063041936. pap. $16.99). Their mock docuseries focuses on the arrest and trial of Cleo Ray, a rising social-media star who is suspected of murdering her needy female lover to make way for a public relationship with her much more successful influencer boyfriend. Each episode of the series is told in the voices of Cleo and the figures caught in her wake. These well-rounded episodes, many of which end on cliffhangers, ensure that the book’s narrative never flags as revelation follows revelation, each adding new dimensions to all three participants in the fatal love triangle. What could have been a simple morality tale of villains and victims becomes instead a sympathetic portrayal of struggling human beings. Read Next: Though Dorn’s novel could hardly feel more contemporary, it is actually based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 classic An American Tragedy.

Daniel Kraus spares no effort to imitate nonfiction in his darkly disturbing The Ghost That Ate Us (Raw Dog Screaming. 2022. ISBN 9781947879423. pap. $18.95), from the novel’s subtitle (“The Tragic True Story of the Burger City Poltergeist”) to the back-cover copy. As part of the nonfiction pretense, Kraus assumes that his readers are already aware of a ghastly massacre that occurred in an Iowa chain restaurant. His aim is to interview the dazed survivors and provide a complete account of the seemingly paranormal events that preceded it. Throughout, Kraus plays the skeptic, determined to explain away the increasing evidence of a malign supernatural force at work both before and after the massacre. This sets the stage for a mighty showdown between the imperatives of horror fiction and true crime, and in the end, one genre emerges triumphant. Kraus’s depiction of the massacre itself proves to be worth the build-up, but neither the novel nor the evil is quite finished yet. Read Next: A gonzo journalist learns the dangers of laughing at the devil in Jason Arnopp’s snarky and scary mock memoir The Last Days of Jack Sparks.

In her complex, multilayered The Aosawa Murders (Bitter Lemon. 2020. tr. from Japanese by Alison Watts. ISBN 9781912242245. pap. $14.95), Riku Onda does not so much imitate true crime as deconstruct it. At its most basic level, it follows writer Makiko Saiga as she revisits the scenes and suspects of her true-crime book The Forgotten Festival years after she wrote it. That work examined a horrific tragedy that marked Saiga’s childhood, the poisoning deaths of 17 people who attended a birthday party that left only a young blind girl as a survivor. Excerpts from Saiga’s book appear in the novel, along with interviews, testimonies, and even scraps of poetry. All these texts produce more doubt than illumination, as events are obscured through partial viewpoints, stubborn silences, and the ravages of time and death. This haunting novel will reward readers who enjoy the pleasures of uncertainty. Read Next: Andrea Maria Schenkel’s award-winning The Murder Farm uses multiple testimonies of bystanders to explore another massacre of an entire family.

This column was contributed by Steven Jablonski, Collection Development Librarian, Skokie Public Library, Illinois.

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