Why We Love True Crime : Consider This from NPR If you think about Jack the Ripper or In Cold Blood, true crime stories have always fascinated us. But the groundbreaking success of the 2014 podcast Serial sparked a new interest in these sordid stories. Hundreds of true crime podcasts followed in Serial's footsteps, telling tales of the murdered and the missing and the unresolved.

Today true crime podcasts dominate weekly podcast charts. But what makes them so popular? And is that popularity problematic?

We hear from Ashley Flowers, host of the award-winning podcast Crime Junkie, who has a new work of crime fiction out, called All Good People Here, and Jane Coaston, host of the New York Times opinion podcast The Argument.

Why Do We Love True Crime?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It was an unimaginable crime.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There was blood all over the house.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It would become the largest criminal investigation in Ohio's history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: In 1977, Sandy was found shot to death in her car.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I was like, there's no way. There's just no way that this could be.

PAYNE LINDSEY: This is Payne Lindsey, host of "Up And Vanished." If you followed my journey of "Up And Vanished," Season 1, then you know the tragic story of Tara Grinstead's 2005 disappearance.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Grisly murders, mysterious disappearances, violent spouses, serial killers - sound grim? Apparently not for millions of podcast listeners for whom these subjects make up one of the medium's most popular genres, true crime. And if you are a true fan - you love listening on your morning commute, while cleaning the house, walking the dog, or before you go to bed - then you're probably familiar with this podcast.

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SARAH KOENIG: From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's "Serial," one story told week by week. I'm Sarah Koenig.

MARTIN: "Serial" was one of the O.G. podcasts that helped launch the true crime craze back in 2014 when Sarah Koenig, a former producer for the hit radio show and podcast This American Life, decided to take a fresh look at the 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee and the trial conviction and life sentence of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, that followed. Syed had always maintained his innocence, and almost from the beginning, there had been questions about the fairness of the prosecution and the competence of the defense, including evidence pointing to Syed's innocence that prosecutors should have shared with the defense but didn't. Koenig told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she started the project with really no expectations.

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KOENIG: The way that I dealt with it, with Adnan and with his family and his advocates - you know, being as upfront with them as I could from the very start of saying, I don't know where I'm going to end it. Like, just so you all were all clear, like, I'm not here to exonerate Adnan. I'm here to report this story, and I don't know what I'm going to find.

MARTIN: What Koenig found, though, was almost immediate success. The 12-episode series had millions of downloads and won a Peabody Award. And while Koenig may not have set out to clear Syed, the podcast is credited with bringing new attention to the case, and in September, a judge overturned the conviction, and Syed was released. Here's his attorney, Erica Suter, speaking to NPR shortly after Syed walked free.

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ERICA SUTER: There are so many people who are still incarcerated, who still need people to fight for them. These cases often die in the dark, and Adnan has - is incredibly grateful for the platform that he's been given.

MARTIN: Since "Serial's" success, hundreds of true crime podcasts have followed, investigating, discussing and retelling stories about murder, mayhem, injustice and redemption. And it seems like audiences cannot get enough. CONSIDER THIS - our love affair with true crime has been around at least since the 19th century's Jack the Ripper, but what does this explosion of podcasts examining the gory details of so many crimes say about the times we live in? And does the focus on the killers and the alleged killers and other accused wrongdoers cause us to lose sight of the victims and their loved ones?

JANE COASTON: I do think that there is this idea that there is people that crimes happen to and people crimes should happen to. And occasionally true crime, I think, can do more harm than good when it buys into that fallacy.

MARTIN: That's coming up.

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MARTIN: From NPR, I'm Michel Martin. It's Saturday, December 10.

COASTON: Many people like to be scared. That's why people like horror movies or scary movies in general. But you also want justice. You want a puzzle to be resolved. You want resolution.

MARTIN: Jane Coaston is the host of "The Argument," a New York Times podcast where she moderates debates about big ideas and strong opinions, and she will admit that she is also obsessed with true crime podcasts. She says she was listening to one right before our conversation. And as much as she likes it, though, she's done a lot of thinking about the rise of the genre, and she's come to the conclusion that being a fan can be problematic.

COASTON: You are listening to the worst thing that has ever happened to someone while you're, like, making dinner or going to the store.

MARTIN: And, Coaston says, the medium can also reinforce all the old stereotypes.

COASTON: It's complicated because I think that I am always thinking about, like, what are the stories that we aren't getting told? True crime often wants to illustrate the most insane and shocking stories, when so often crime, particularly crime that impacts minorities or the people who are most impacted by a crime, isn't shocking. It's an abusive husband. It is someone who has accelerated their crimes and not been pursued because police were disinterested, in that old mix of overpolicing and underpolicing. You know, it's not sexy or interesting. It's just depressing and sad. I've seen some changes - for instance, the work that has been done in the true crime space to focus on Indigenous victims of murder like the Highway of Tears in Canada. I think that that's been worthwhile, but it's also kind of remarkable that you can have 18 different pieces of content about the Black Dahlia murder, and a lot of people have no idea that dozens of Indigenous women have been murdered in the Vancouver Highway of Tears area over the last 30 years. There is an idea that there are people crimes should happen to and people crime should not happen to. Crimes should not happen to young white women. Crime should happen to young Black women or young Black people. But I think that the genre is changing and reflecting both the injustices of the criminal justice system, but also the victims who aren't often heard.

MARTIN: Coaston says a good true crime podcast has a responsibility to survivors and victims. It doesn't sensationalize the crime or the criminal.

COASTON: And I think that the ways in which we can stand up to evil is to stand alongside its victims and not just stare at the people who commit evil.

MARTIN: When we come back...

ASHLEY FLOWERS: I've always said that the true crime community is like any other relationship. I can't just take and take these stories and not give back.

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FLOWERS: I started all of this in my spare room - just me in my living room trying to make a dream come true.

MARTIN: Ashley Flowers is the host of the podcast "Crime Junkie." This year, "Crime Junkie" was named the most popular podcast on Apple Podcasts. It's had 500 million downloads since its debut in 2017. Flowers says her interest in crime started early.

FLOWERS: Well, I fell in love with it or got interested in it because I always say my mom and her mother before her - they were my O.G. crime junkies. And I grew up reading mystery novels - Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie. And at some point in my life, I realized that these mysteries weren't all fiction and that these things were really happening. And there was just something in me that was drawn to the unsolved cases specifically, something about a puzzle that needed to be solved and not having resolution.

MARTIN: But Flowers' newest venture into crime is actually a novel, "All Good People Here," which is out now. The plot follows a journalist returning to her Indiana hometown, where she encounters a mystery that's, well, straight out of a "Crime Junkie" episode.

FLOWERS: While she is in town, a young girl goes missing. And it's kind of reminiscent of an unsolved case from back when she was young, when her neighbor was abducted and eventually murdered.

MARTIN: So I asked her about making the move from talking about true crime to writing crime fiction. And although it might seem obvious, why a novel about crime?

FLOWERS: I didn't really want to write a fictional podcast about a crime because I didn't want to take away from the real crimes I was talking about. So as I just tried to figure out what this was or how I could bring this to life, it kind of naturally became a book. Again, when I started my journey into being a crime junkie, it started with fiction. And so while it's a departure or feels like a departure for people from what they know me for, I feel like it's me going back to kind of where it all started.

MARTIN: You know, I was thinking about how to describe it, and I want to say that the plot is insane, but it's not because part of the appeal of it is that it's logical, right? Once you get into the logic of the story, it is - these are things that you could envision happening.

FLOWERS: Absolutely. And I think when I went into writing it, I knew that what my listeners were going to expect from me, if they were going to read a book, is that it needed to feel like it could be real. It had to be grounded in reality. And I mean, the truth is, truth is more wild than fiction. And the cases that I have come across, I think, sometimes would put my book to shame when you talk about twists and turns. And so even when it feels fantastical, it is grounded in reality.

MARTIN: The other thing about the book that struck me is, you know, the whole nothing is as it seems is a classic kind of trope. But just looping back to the title, "All Good People Here," like, what - I feel like you were trying to say something about it. And tell me a little bit more about the title and what it meant to you. I can tell you what I thought it meant.

FLOWERS: Well, I think for me, it's this idea that so often - I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and I watched so many people spend more time on making sure they had the image of being a good person rather than being a good person. And even the people who were good, for some reason we had felt this need to put on a facade that everything was perfect, even when behind closed doors, we're all dealing with the same ugly truths, whether - again, and even good people deal with that. But it's this idea that things aren't always as glossy and pretty and shiny on the outside as they are on the inside.

MARTIN: The thing that the book talks about is that, you know, crime isn't just one thing that happens one time or perhaps several times, but it's also what leads up to the act and what follows from it and how it affects all the people that it touches. It's not just something that happens to one person or perhaps even one family, but that's sort of the concentric rings around it. And I thought that captured that.

FLOWERS: Thank you. I mean, that was a big driving force for me when I was creating this, because that is something that I have seen in working with families in real cases who have lost someone. And I was just talking about this with a family member who lost someone yesterday, the ripple effect that happens with violent crime and that it takes away not just the person but the family around it. And it will change the way sisters and brothers go on to be parents themselves. The way that a parent will parent will be different. And really, what I wanted to get across to you in the book is so much judgment is placed on the family of a violent crime - they should have done this; they're not acting the right way - that in a time when someone is already traumatized and grieving, we tend to inflict more trauma by making judgments from the outside when, again, we don't know what's happening behind closed doors.

MARTIN: The one thing, though - the book isolates the variables in the sense that everybody in this story is from the same small town, at least so far as we know. Everybody is white. So often, other factors infuse people's judgments about crime, like, particularly race. And I just - I'm just curious, like, your thoughts about that. Like, I mean, I see your point. One of the things I appreciated about the book is that it says over and over again, appearances mean nothing, you know? Just because you think that about or some person is socially located as this person in the community - that means nothing. I don't know. I'm just curious if you've just ever had, you know, thoughts about that. Was that sort of intentional to locate it in this particular place, in this particular small town so that these other factors don't necessarily apply, or that's just kind of - you know, I was just wondering about your thoughts about it.

FLOWERS: No, I think that's just kind of how it turned out. The only intention I had of where I placed it was that is somewhere where I grew up. Well, I grew up right next door to Wakarusa, Ind., which is a real place. And my best friend, who I actually co-host the podcast with, lived in Wakarusa. So I know that place like the back of my hand. And in writing the book, again, I wanted the journalist role to feel real. I wanted every detective to feel real, the language to feel real. And for me, in my first novel, I felt like the only way I could make a place feel really real is if I wrote about a place that I knew very intimately.

MARTIN: Well, I mean, I come from a family of cops, and I am a journalist, and I did do local news, and I did do local crime reporting. So it does feel very real to me. But I wonder if it ever gets to you. I mean, does it ever change the way you view people? And I ask because a lot of people in my family have been in law enforcement over the years. I just wonder if spending so much time thinking about the worst that people can do to each other - do you think that it changes you or changes how you see the world?

FLOWERS: It gets really heavy some days. And what I'll say is, I couldn't live in this if I wasn't trying to do something to change it, 'cause everyone always ask me what my outlet is. How do I decompress from all of this? And I truly believe there's - you know, there's some people who - like your family - there's some people who are meant to do this kind of work and to live in these kind of stories, who can handle it in a different way than potentially other people. But I have always based my career around giving back. I've always said that the true crime community - it's like any other relationship. I can't just take and take these stories and not give back.

And so from the beginning, our mission with our true crime content has been to support families, to support causes, nonprofits and help solve cases. And so even the days where it feels really heavy and I feel like we're living in a world full of evil people, I think the thing that gets me to the better days is knowing that if I wasn't doing it, if I wasn't talking about these cases, diving into these cases, that I think the world would be a worse place because of all of the time and energy money we've been able to donate - I started a nonprofit called Season of Justice that funds testing for cold cases. And we've gone on to solve three homicides. So that is what keeps me in it. And even when the days are hard, that's what makes it feel not as hard.

MARTIN: That was Ashley Flowers, host of the podcast "Crime Junkie" and author of the book "All Good People Here." It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Michel Martin.

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