I am a fan of both kinds.
Perhaps I should say that I am a fan of writing about both kinds. Better known as true crime and mysteries, the two types of writing have made up a large percentage of my reading for many years – as well as science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction that deals with science, nature, adventure travel, and more. (Think Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and you’re in the right area.)
I first got hooked on mysteries when we were visiting my grandmother and I dipped into her collection of Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts. I can’t remember when I first latched onto true crime books, but it may have been around the time of Jeffrey McDonald’s Fatal Vision.
Nevertheless, the two are decidedly not the same and no one should – or could – confuse the two.
Let’s get the really fictional crime fiction out of the way first: cozy mysteries and animal mysteries. Cozy mysteries are the sort with no blood and guts and no actual detective (except perhaps as a minor character to be out-thought by the intrepid librarian, gallery owner, or suburban mom). There is no way to confuse these novels with real life. Sorry, but bed and breakfast owners, golfers, and caterers do not solve crimes (though they certainly can be the victims of them), and the CIA doesn’t recruit grandmothers (though I like Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series because they contain little travelogues and are soothing when you’re in bed with a cold). In real life, talking animals do not solve crimes either, though dogs may occasionally dig up a bone and thus start an investigation.
The crime fiction that comes the closest to real life is the subgenre called “police procedurals.” They don’t seem to be as popular lately as the police-or-private-detective-identifies-serial-killer-murderer-and-gets-to-be-a-target-as-well ones. But there are definite gems. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, is perhaps the best and the epitome of police procedurals. The main characters are police officers and the plots bear at least a slight resemblance to, well, police procedure.
In true crime, however, there is no tidy plot, nor a single detective (with or without civilian sidekick). Most real crime investigations involve dozens, if not hundreds of officers – unless they’re “cold cases,” when they might feature at least a handful. In crime fiction, the crime is solved neatly, with no or few loose ends unless a series of books is planned with a continuing arc for the criminal.
What happens in real life is nothing like that. There are crimes that are never solved. There are questions that will never be answered. There are “plot twists” that no editor would approve. In one true crime book I read, the serial killer was caught because he was stopped by a low-ranking police officer for a traffic infraction and was caught with a dead body in the back of his pick-up truck. That would be a crappy ending for a novel, but worked just fine in real life.
Of course, there are other crime-type books that are of interest. There are true-crime works like The Green River Killer (Jeff Jensen) that follow a complex investigation from beginning to end and Ann Rule’s books which read almost, but not quite, like fiction. And there are forensics-based fictionals like those by Kathy Reichs (which are nothing like the Bones TV show supposedly based on them), as well as forensics-based fact books like Teasing Secrets From the Dead by Emily Craig. Legal thrillers like the John Grisham novels also have wide appeal. Again, there are real-life legal cases that are comparable and have the added advantage of being true – Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi being the most famous.
I don’t watch much TV, but there are comparable forms of crime fact and fiction available there as well. Squeezing the cases into a scant hour may be preferable for people with short attention spans, but I always figure that they could, if they chose, read a book for an hour at a time and stretch out the fascination.
On the other hand, if you prefer cookbooks to “plucky baker solves crime” books, there’s plenty out there for you as well.