Who is interested in true crime? “One imagines a furtive audience of sad saps and sadists, trench-coated lurkers and wan shut-ins.” So wrote Lorna Scott Fox a decade ago in an article for The Nation, which is quoted in Covering Darkness, Neil Root’s just-published exploration of the genre. They were both writing about authors of true crime books but the same could be asked of audiences for a new wave of television and film documentaries dealing with some of our grimmest cases.
The question is prompted by the launch of Netflix’s eight-part series, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann. It was preceded in the public eye by the Oscar-nominated short documentary, Detainment, about the two boys convicted of the murder of James Bulger, and it will shortly be followed by a three-part BBC Four series on the Yorkshire Ripper.
Are they important contributions to our understanding of major crimes or prurient titivations, careless of the feelings of the victims’ relatives? The British fascination – or obsession – with crime has been a subject of curiosity for everyone from Dickens to Orwell but are we now saturated with it at the expense of the victims?
Madeleine McCann’s parents are not involved in the new series about their daughter, who disappeared in Portugal in 2007, and their former spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, told the Guardian this week: “Kate and Gerry didn’t ask for it and don’t see how it will help the search for Maddie on a practical level, so they chose not to engage.”
Why was it even made unless it was going to come up with some new information? Has there not been enough uninformed speculation?
James Bulger’s family had no involvement in – or knowledge of – Detainment, which is not an exploitative film but undeniably provoked anguish for the family. “It certainly wasn’t a career move,” its director, Vincent Lambe, told the Guardian. “I was told by everyone this subject wouldn’t make my career – it would break it.” Did he have regrets? “Only about not speaking to the Bulgers.”
The Bulger film coincided with judicial requests to have the identities of the two, now adult, culprits revealed. Last week the judge, Sir Andrew McFarlane, turned down the request relating to Jon Venables on the grounds that there was “a strong possibility … that if his identity were known he would be pursued resulting in grave and possibly fatal consequences”. He was right. We now live in a climate in Britain in which lynch mobs would not be short of volunteers happy to appear in a true crime documentary in the role of violent avengers.
The makers of the three-part series on Peter Sutcliffe, on the other hand, are adamant that “the Ripper’s victims are at the heart of the series”. The programmes will be examining whether attitudes towards women at the time, particularly within the police, hindered the investigation, an issue explored by Joan Smith in her 1989 book, Misogynies. By chance, the series arrives on our screens close to the publication of Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five, which is about the victims of the original Ripper 130 years ago, who were also often forgotten in the obsession with identifying the killer.
It may be impossible to make documentaries or write about horrific crimes without causing someone distress. Should that stay the hand of film-makers? No – but surely a basic rule should be to seek the understanding and cooperation of those affected. There are countless examples of true crime documentaries that are both riveting and thought-provoking, from the 1996 American film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills to the work in Britain of TV series Rough Justice and Trial and Error. There is no shortage of unsolved crimes or miscarriages of justice where the relatives of victims would welcome the expertise and investigation of a film crew, but there must always be some aim beyond vicarious thrills lest we find ourselves in that world of sad saps and lurkers.