The Non-Fiction Thriller — Redefining True Crime.

Thrillers provide such a rich literary feast. There are all kinds. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, political thriller, religious thriller, high-tech thriller, military thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations constantly being invented. In fact, this openness to expansion is one of the genre's most enduring characteristics. 

James Patterson,

Despite the plethora of true crime television shows and radio broadcasts, "True Crime" as a literary genre is undergoing a transformation.  Also known as "fact crime" (that is the classification by the Mystery Writers of America), true crime books range from rush-to-market exploitation quickies cranked out to cash in on the public's interest in a high profile case, to comprehensive works of investigative research spanning twenty five years or more.  Most, however, are mass market paperbacks exploring cases of homicide and extreme social deviancy that occured in the past five to ten years.  In 2012, as publishers grappled with seizmic changes in the industry, the presentation and marketing of "true crime" books underwent changes as well.

The Non Fiction Thriller — Yes, that is the new name for true crime at Kensington Publishing Group, home of the Pinnacle imprint.  This is the publishing company for whom i have been writting books for over a decade. I love my relationship with Kensington's editorial staff, and everyone there has been a delight.  I like the term "Non Fiction Thriller," but I don't know how thrilled the writers of "fiction thrillers" will be with the term.  Thrillers, as a genre, have certain established characteristics.

"…what gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn't thrill, it's not doing its job."

James Patterson,


Obviously the rules are different for "Non-Fiction Thrillers."  

True crime stories invariably begin with the conclusion — we know whodunit from page one, or even the book jacket. There is no surprise reveal, no shocking twist to the tale,no last minute revelation, no spectacular act by the protagonist that defeats the villain, and saves the country, the world or the universe from destruction. The closest thing to a thriller amongst my true crime books is Murder in the Family, and that's because of the decidely cinematic nail-biting chase and capture of the escaping murderer and child rapist, Kirby D. Anthoney.  

Body Count New CoverBody Count: The True Story of the Spokane Serial Killer spans over a decade of police investigation and dead ends searching for the killer who shoots women behind their left ear with a small caliber weapon, covers the wound with a paper towel, then wraps the head in a plastic bag to keep blood from getting everywhere.  For years police speculated on why he shot the women in the head, at zero range, behind the left ear.  To me, the explanation was immediately obvious — perhaps something I should tell my therapist. The book is about the investigation, the lives of the women prior to their date with death, and the final capture and conviction of this Desert Storm veteran, married father of five, and hard working church goer who had developed an addiction to murder.  It is all true. But is it a "thriller?"  For purposes of marketing, yes it is. 

Now, here is the challenge for me. While i have yet to select the case for my next non-fiction thriller, when I do, and my editor approves it, do it write it as if it were a "thriller." or as if it were a true crime book?  I bet I know the answer I'll get from the wonderful Michaela Hamilton — it will be something along the lines of "Write the book; tell the story."  The process of doing that, I assure you, has all the edge of your seat anxiety, suspense and breathless anticipation of any thriller. 

2 Responses to “The Non-Fiction Thriller — Redefining True Crime.”

  1. A few

    Your article shows you have a passion for writing and knowledge on the topic. I think you have given me many reasons to think. Thanks.

  2. Mary Joe

    I’ve been a true crime reader for 40 years. Although I found Mr. Barer’s book “Body Count” to be meticulously researched, I found the story jumped around so much that, well, in my opinion, the book was not a good read. Too many characters… too much info all jumbled together in the story.


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