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How victims became the heart of true crime

From Hallie Rubenhold to Rosamund Lupton, books are starting to uncover the narratives podcasts and TV often leave behind: those belonging not the perpetrator, but the people whose lives they ruin.

“A young, beautiful girl, floating in a bath, being caressed by her murderer, is absolutely everything that a victim shouldn’t be portrayed as,” says Rosamund Lupton, author of the novel Three Hours. “It’s a whole trope: beautiful in death.”

It’s an all-too familiar image, and one which has filled crimes stories, ficitonal or otherwise, for decades: overwhelmingly female victims and a male perpetrator, whom we often know far more about than the person he has attacked.

But some books are starting to change this. Lupton’s is among them. Three Hours, released in January 2020, explores, minute-by-minute, the events of a school terrorist attack. Her characters are a well-crafted collection of ordinary people – a deputy headmaster with depression; a Syrian teenager, his girlfriend and his brother; a frantically worried mother and a forensic psychologist who happens to be pregnant. None of them are the ones holding the school hostage.

'I was really struck by the quiet courage that people showed. I find that more interesting than some thug with a gun, frankly.'

“I think there’s something really interesting in looking at how people will behave in a certain situation,” Lupton tells me. “Fear, if you like, can give rise into insight into courage, into strength of community, into love, into all sorts of things, rather than simply how terrifying it must be to be in that situation.”

Lupton’s research was extensive and, she admits, harrowing at times. She read about school shootings and terrorist attacks, including that of London Bridge, in 2019, when Darryn Frost, who works in the Ministry of Justice, took a narwhal tusk off the wall of Fisherman’s Hall in self-defence. “I was really struck by the quiet courage that people showed; the janitor who took the lightbulbs out at Columbine so the shooters couldn’t see their way along the corridor. I find that more interesting than some thug with a gun, frankly.”

Becky Cooper spent a decade trying to uncover what happened to Jane Britton, a 23-year-old who was found bludgeoned to death in her apartment while studying archaeology at Harvard in 1969. Fifty years later, Cooper was an undergrad at the Ivy League university herself when she heard the legend that surrounded her death – that it was at the hands of a tenured professor who was still teaching in the department.

'The simple question of what happened to her that night and who did it is the less interesting of all the questions you could be asking'

The results of Cooper’s meticulous research – uncovering Britton’s old friends, roommates and tranche of personal letters – is We Keep the Dead Close, a 400-page book that combines reflections on Cooper’s own fascination with the story with a broader examination of the institutional power-play sealed behind Harvard’s heavy doors. Rather than obsess over the killing of Britton, Cooper’s book brings her to life. “I was interested in trying to get justice for her, trying to work out who killed her,  but over the course of it I also fell in love with her and felt a responsibility to her community and a desire to paint that portrait of grief when unanswered questions are left for 50 years,” Cooper says, over Zoom from New York. “So I think for me the simple question of what happened to her that night and who did it is the less interesting of all the [other] questions you could be asking.”

Serial, the 2013 podcast that re-evaluated the murder of Hae Min Lee, a schoolgirl who was killed in 1999, gets a mention fairly early on in We Keep The Dead Close, and Cooper is aware of how the genre of true crime exploded in popularity during the years that she was researching her book. While she admits that “the whodunnit part of the narrative” was key for her bringing readers into her exploration of other, less titillating subjects, Cooper is nevertheless sceptical of the genre. “I have this visceral reaction against it,” she says. “So much of [true crime] is entertainment and, I think, written without being self-critical of the hurt at play and the hurt you could cause. I just can’t be this passive consumer.”

In 2019, Hallie Rubenhold won The Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction with The Five, a book that offered the untold stories of the five women murdered by the man known as Jack the Ripper. In the process, she had to “strip away nearly 130 years of speculation, rumour, prejudice and conspiracy theory,” she told the prize. “So much of what comprises the ‘Ripper legend’ has been built off the back of wholly unreliable evidence.” The book became a bestseller and won acclaim, with the Guardian calling it “a powerful and a shaming book, but most shameful of all is that it took 130 years to write.”

'We Keep the Dead Close begins as an attempt to solve a murder, Cooper brings to light something far more present and insidious'

Rubenhold challenged common misbeliefs that had become part of the Ripper story: that the women were sex workers and drunks. Instead, in telling their stories she showed how these women were subjected to persistent societal challenges – difficulties of housing, of inequality, of poverty and of violence; they become, as she said, “real people with real lives”. In the process, The Five exposed the ills at the heart of Victorian life, many of which persist to this day, and how myths like that of Ripper distract us from examining them.

In a similar way, much as We Keep the Dead Close begins as an attempt to solve a murder, Cooper brings to light something far more present and insidious: that of institutional misogyny at Harvard. “I didn’t start working on Jane’s story because I had some prescient sense that it would take me to the frontier of writing a larger story about gender discrimination in academia,” she tells me. “But the story is also not just the silencing of women in academia, but also the power of the historian over the person they’re writing the biography about, or the power of Harvard as an institution over the stories that are allowed to be told.”

Because that is also what these three authors have done: challenge the conventional way of telling stories – especially ones involving violent crime. I think that putting people into a shoebox of 'victim', because the focus is on the perpetrator, diminishes the person who is the victim,” says Lupton, who also points to novels such as Emma Donaghue’s Room and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver which challenged the conventional goodie-baddie understanding of victims and perpetrators.

'Where does this leave true crime, and the fiction inspired by it?'

Cooper takes the reader on her journey, from the first time she hears about the Britton myth, through a handful of suspects. By the time the murderer is revealed, it is done so among a far messier and unnerving web of wider problems at Harvard. She tells me she wanted to “describe the dangers of the stories that we build on insufficient evidence,” saying that the book was constructed to “take readers through the cycle of guilt and shame that I fell into.” In doing so, we are forced to reckon with our own assumptions about who can kill, and who can be killed, only to realise how limiting those are.

Where does this leave true crime, and the fiction inspired by it? A more empathetic place, it seems – and a more truthful one. “I think there are cousins to my book,” says Cooper. “I’m hopeful that there will be more self-interrogation in true crime and expansion of the idea of who is the victim and who is the perpetrator.”  

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Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

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