For One Writer, Crime Is a Window Into Society

From a Times Insider column by Katherine J. Igoe headlined “For One Writer, Crime Is a ‘Window’ Into Society”:

A murder in a Northern California coastal town. The unsolved case of a girl who disappeared near Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1956. A spray-painted message near a body, warning: “MIND YOUR BUSINESS.”

It’s these cases that Sarah Weinman covers for The New York Times. They are fictional, we should add. As the crime and mystery columnist for the Book Review, Ms. Weinman investigates not mysteries themselves but the merit of mystery novels, offering readers four book suggestions — puzzling whodunits; twisty thrillers — every month.

“Crime fiction is my first and best love,” she said.

Though she covers crime fiction in her column, she’s a bit of a true crime pundit in real life, she said. She has written two true crime books; Her first examined the 1948 kidnapping of Sally Horner that may have inspired “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. She has also edited four anthologies, the most recent of which explores what true crime reveals about our society. In April, she wrote an essay for the Opinion section about true crime’s “credibility crisis”: its constant struggle to balance facts with storytelling, “thanks to the pressures of a voracious market for documentaries, docuseries, podcasts and movies purporting to be based on real events.”

Since starting her Times column in 2021, Ms. Weinman has tried to showcase the work of new and unexplored authors, re-examine favorite texts and challenge assumptions about good crime and detective writing. It’s a niche she never tires of.

“If crime is a window on society, we can understand the best and the worst of it through these stories,” she said.

In a recent conversation, Ms. Weinman talked about how she became a crime aficionado, the “true crime moment” that we’re living through and the complexities of covering grisly, but important, stories.

How did you get onto the crime and mystery beat?

I moved to New York from Canada in August 2001 to attend graduate school in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice forensic science program. Sept. 11th happened the following month. I spent a summer doing an internship at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, in the investigations unit. I have indelible memories of that summer and seeing people process the enormity of what had happened. That was, in part, what helped shape where I am now.

I was also working one day a week at the long gone, much missed mystery bookshop Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village. I knew people through various news groups, message boards and newsletters; I went to my first-ever annual mystery convention that year. I still feel like I’m very rooted in the mystery community. It’s given me a lot, and I’m still trying to give back to it.

You write that crime fiction and true crime, while ostensibly different, are more similar than expected. How do you square that?

For a really long time, people thought that crime fiction and true crime had very different readerships that didn’t necessarily overlap. That isn’t true; many crime fiction writers are obsessed with true crime. But I think they have become a lot closer in the last decade. There was a boom that started with the first season of “Serial” in 2014, which exposed a lot of people who wouldn’t have thought of themselves as true crime consumers. But with the advent of prestige also comes a lot of backlash and reactionary, weird manifestations, which become even more exploitative.

I’ve noticed that a lot of writers are including true crime elements in their work, with varying degrees of success.

How do you approach the difference, in terms of covering true crime and writing about fictional crime books?

They complement each other, but they feel like different parts of my compartmentalized brain.

For the column, I’m reading constantly. The aim is to produce a column once a month, usually of four books that I have something to say about, or that cover different aspects of the mystery field. They’re not just four noir novels or four cozy mysteries. There’s a breadth and depth that I try to convey. It’s me figuring out what I think about an author, or an installment in a series, or a whole body of work. If it’s a debut author, what are they bringing to the table that hasn’t been seen before? What’s their voice like? There are different questions that I’m trying to ask with the reviews that I write.

To me, true crime is rooted in investigation. That has informed the books I’ve written, but also my long-form journalism. That’s how my first book got started — a long-form piece where I was asking the question, “Why don’t we know more about Sally Horner, the 11-year-old girl whose kidnapping is directly referenced in ‘Lolita?’”

True crime can be exploitative. When does it reach unhealthy proportions?

We’re nine years into this true crime moment, and I’m still amazed it’s lasted this long. The one big difference is this participatory element: You read, watch, listen and then get on the internet. It’s thinking, I know better than law enforcement and authority figures, and I can maybe solve this.

But these are real people. This is actual trauma and pain; it’s not a game. You’re contending with the worst thing that has happened to people. As a journalist, I feel like I have to be even more mindful of this.

What compels you to do this work?

I think compulsion is the right way to look at it. With each project I choose, I’m asking different questions. Crime is my way into understanding people, society, topics that other people might choose to explore in less extreme circumstances. This is just how I’m able to view the world.

What else do you want readers to know?

I keep asking myself, “Why is it that I keep coming back to this wonderful genre?” I think it’s because there’s that opportunity to discover wonderful new writers, reconnect with old favorites and maybe challenge myself to read someone who I might have written off or misjudged. Reading crime fiction is a way to reconnect with all aspects of myself.

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