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On Culture: ‘True crime’ popular but not always accurate

From left, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson and Joseph Buttler as Polygraph Examiner in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
From left, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson and Joseph Buttler as Polygraph Examiner in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.” FX

True-crime stories are everywhere, aren’t they?

It appears that people can’t get enough of fascinating, factual stories, often filled with jaw-dropping twists and turns, about notorious figures who have been accused of unbelievable, usually murderous crimes. These past couple of years have been catnip for true-crime junkies: eccentric real estate heir and accused murderer Robert Durst seemingly confessing in the HBO docuseries “The Jinx” last year; novelist Walter Kirn recalling the time he unknowingly hung out with an imposter wanted for murder in his acclaimed 2014 book “Blood Will Out”; dulcet-toned radio journalist Sarah Koenig taking the story of Adnan Syed, incarcerated for the murder of his 18-year-old girlfriend, and turning it into heavily downloaded, podcast gold on the first season of “Serial.”

And, of course, there’s always the cable channel Investigation Discovery, fully stocked with lurid, true-crime programming 24/7.

Think pieces have already been sprouting up and attempting to explain this obsession. New York Magazine’s Brian Feldman says the boom is “thanks in part to an obsessive Web culture essentially built to consume, discuss, debate, theorize and riff on serialized narratives.” Meanwhile, criminology professor Drew Bonn believes the reasons are much darker.

“Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks or natural disasters,” Boon wrote in Time. “The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity.”

It’s getting to the point where some of the most headline-grabbing, true-crime stories of the 20th century are being revisited and dramatized for your entertainment. I’m sure people who remember the scandal-filled ’90s will tune in to FX’s new show, “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” starting next month, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as the former football star-turned-celebrity murder suspect and John Travolta as his lawyer/dream team leader Robert Shapiro.

The true-crime tale that’s currently the talk of the town is Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.” Like probably so many of you, I binge-watched this 10-part docuseries about Steven Avery, a Wisconsin junkyard operator who, after spending 18 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, is released only to later be tried and convicted for the murder of another woman. The woman’s SUV and bones were found on his property.

“Murderer” seems to have both riveted and shocked audiences. Just as “Serial” built the argument that perhaps Syed might not be guilty, “Murderer” hammers the message that Avery was framed by a corrupt, grudge-holding police department. According to the show, not only did these cops plant and tamper with evidence, they arrested his dim-witted, teenage nephew for being an accessory.

While “Murderer” filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos might have made a compelling argument, they also left out several things. Most notably, they left out Avery’s history of physical and sexual violence, along with DNA evidence – sweat on the hood of the victim’s car – that suggests that Avery did tamper with the vehicle.

Engrossing as “Murderer” is, leaving out these crucial bits and pieces unfortunately makes the show feel disingenuous, not to mention sorely lacking in verisimilitude.

Just a couple of weeks ago in The New Yorker, writer Kathryn Schulz slammed “Murderer” for not having a well-rounded narrative. “In the end, despite 10 hours of running time, the story at the heart of ‘Making a Murderer’ remains a muddle,” wrote Schulz. “Granted, real life is often a muddle, too, especially where crime is involved – but good reporters delineate the facts rather than contribute to the confusion.”

Ricciardi and Demos have said they ultimately wanted to give an effective example of how the criminal justice system can infuriatingly not work in a (supposedly) innocent man’s favor. If that’s the case, they definitely succeeded. But the fast-and-loose fact-checking of “Murderer” only reminds me that most of these true-crime tales exist more to entertain than challenge.

It almost seems too rich that this year also marks the 50th anniversary of Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel/game-changer “In Cold Blood,” which detailed the 1959 murders committed by two men in Kansas. That book proved that a real-life murder case can be as sordid, chilling and addictive as any pulp-fiction yarn, especially if you tell it in a captivating way.

“Murderer” and other true-crime tales like it appear to follow Capote’s lead, chronicling a murder and its aftermath and crafting a sensational, predetermined narrative, all at the same time.

So remember – if you’re a big fan of true crime, make sure the story you’re consuming concentrates more on the “true” than the “crime.”

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