My Addiction: True Crime Prime Time

There’s a lot of true crime documentaries out there on Jack the Ripper and we love all of them!
There’s a lot of true crime documentaries out there on Jack the Ripper and we love all of them!
The interest in watching true crime shows has grown so much there is now a cable station that shows nothing else. Investigation Discovery, or ID, fills its schedule with documentaries, news shows that focus on murder/mystery, and reality shows centered on crime. Those who are addicted to this genre can now watch it 24 hours a day.

Though I do watch some of these shows as part of my research for a book or short stories, I’m somewhat of an addict. When I wrote my story about a vampire chasing Jack the Ripper (also a vampire) through the centuries, I watched everything I could find on good ol’ Jack. Among the most interesting shows were the ones featuring today’s forensic detectives and archeologists looking back at the evidence and time lines of those famous murders. I love watching them use today’s detecting methods on these very old crimes.

That’s one of the beauties of these crime shows. Not only can you see the details behind major crimes that are in the news today, you can get all the details on the famous crimes you’ve heard about through history like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby; the mysterious death of actress Virginia Rappe, which ruined Fatty Arbuckle’s Hollywood career even though he was acquitted; and what really happened with Lizzie Borden and that infamous axe.

Television and movies have come a long way in presenting the truth about killing and dying. Where we used to watch Roy Rogers shoot the bad guys with nary a drop of blood, we now see in full detail what happens when the bullet from a 9mm Glock enters the human body and worse, what happens when it comes out of the other side. But there’s another dimension to the story when you know the photos you’re seeing are real dead bodies and the blood splattered on the walls came from someone’s body.

I watch a lot of the crime fiction on television too. I know the professionals complain about the CSI shows, but I love the actors and the shows are just good entertainment. When I want to know the facts, I watch Dr. G. Medical Examiner on Discovery Health or Forensic Files on truTV. While you don’t see the body or the actual work Dr. G. is doing, she is in her lab, and she talks throughout the autopsy to explain what she’s seeing and the end results of the autopsy. There’s no guesswork here, it’s science in its highest form—the discovery of why a human being is no longer alive.

No clues? No problem!
No clues? No problem!
One of my favorite true crime shows is Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice on truTV. There’s not only the puzzle of the murder in the story, there’s seeing the dark side of the rich and powerful. They don’t live like normal people do, and when a crime is committed, they’re not as desperate as normal people because they have the money to pay for the best representation and sometimes to sway public opinion.

I’ll admit these shows have an addictive quality. Once you have seen one, you can easily get caught up in them, even if you come in on the middle of a story. Bill Kurtis does a superb job of presenting crime and I really think of him as the father of this type of television programming. After a successful career as a television journalist (I remember his reports from Vietnam), he started his own production company and launched Investigative Reports, American Justice, and one of my favorites, Cold Case Files (all on A&E).

Bill’s natural reporting style and the fascinating subjects he turned up made these shows very popular.

The reality shows took over television and you can basically watch a show about anything. Shows like The History Channel’s Swamp People and A&E’s Monster In-Laws are more frightening to me than watching shows about murder. I’ve always said I prefer fiction. If I want a dose of reality, I just call my mother and talk to her for an hour.

Truthfully, though, these shows are not only entertaining, they’re interesting and feature the full scope of human emotion. It’s amazing to watch a suspect go from being confident he or she will get away with everything to admitting his or her part in the crime after a calculated and aggressive chase by police.

True crime stories are also a high form of entertainment because the truth is humans are capable of some horrible atrocities, and these shows help you see what led a supposedly “normal” person down the path to murder.


Leigh Neely is a former newspaper and magazine editor. She currently does freelance work, blogs at, and recently wrote the short story, “A Vampire in Brooklyn,” which is in the anthology,  Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She is currently working on paranormal novels with a partner under the pseudonym of Neely Powell.

Read all Leigh Neely’s posts for Criminal Element.

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