Women comprise a large percentage of true crime fans. The most common theory behind this popularity seems to be that women read and watch true crime to face their fears.
As with many facets of real life, this phenomenon made its way into fiction. For the last few years, books documenting women solving cold cases and family mysteries have appeared. In fact, a subgenre—let’s call it podcast fiction—emerged a few years ago to explore the explosive popularity of true crime in that particular medium.
Why do I like true crime and podcast fiction? I love the investigative details. Also, podcast excerpts provide a very interesting form of exposition, foreshadowing, and point of view (POV). Take a look at seven books that explore the connection between women and true crime. From thrillers to YA mysteries to nonfiction, women are solving crimes and sharing their stories.
Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little
In Pretty as a Picture, Elizabeth Little relates the story of film editor Marissa Dahl. At the start of the story, Dahl takes a mysterious job with a prestigious director, hoping to gain some space from personal problems. Instead, she ends up on an island making a movie about a local murder while surrounded by all the people connected to it. She faces some of her greatest fears in befriending strangers and investigating potential murderers.
I sympathized deeply with Marissa’s struggles with autism-type symptoms, especially as they affect her interactions with others. Despite these struggles, Marissa displays a level of acceptance of herself and expertise at handling her problems that help the reader identify with her.
Podcast Element: small snippets of a podcast about Marissa investigating the murder, mainly provides foreshadowing
Sadie by Courtney Summers
Sadie Hunter wants to hit back after a lifetime of neglect and abuse and make someone pay. The worst someone. She sets out to find the man who killed her little sister. Podcaster West McCray chases her. But he’s always a step too late. I loved this book and Sadie as a character. She is unflinchingly honest with herself and clear-eyed about life. She’s also incredibly brave and tough.
Podcast Element: one of the two main storylines
The Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson
Stevie Bell is the star of one of my favorite series, the Truly Devious books. Stevie receives an invitation to Ellingham Academy, a boarding school for quirky geniuses. She finally fits in there, finding friends and truly feeling challenged and excited by her schoolwork. But when your main project is investigating the decades-old (We’re talking 1930s) murder/disappearance of the school founder’s wife and daughter, it’s not surprising to end up with modern murder and mayhem on your hands. The secluded boarding school setting is one of my favorite parts of this wonderful series. Another is Stevie herself, fighting panic attacks while persevering and learning to trust herself and others. Another difficulty to which I can relate.
Podcast Element: Small. Stevie listens to true crime podcasts.
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James owes a debt to The Shining by Stephen King. It is fully paid through this gorgeously written contribution to the haunted hotel genre. (Homage is also paid through Carly’s reading of King novels.) This book scared the life out of me a couple of times.
Carly and her aunt Viv escape their hometown thirty-five years apart only to end up in the same small town working the same job as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel. The difference is that Viv disappeared in 1982 and hasn’t been seen since. Carly wants to know why.
Podcast Element: None
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
McNamara’s account of her search for the Golden State Killer and the origins of her fascination with true crime is probably the most famous book on this list. Originating with McNamara’s website “True Crime Diary” and now an HBO documentary series of the same name, the book achieved an extra level of notoriety in between with McNamara’s shocking death at age 46 (before she had a chance to finish the book) and the subsequent capture of the Golden State Killer after a decades-long search.
This is the first true crime serial killer book I ever read. I’m addicted to the podcasts, but have always shied away from the books. This one did freak me out at first and I had to take a break from it, but I came back. Partly because of my OCD, but mostly because McNamara’s writing is that damn good. Her passion to find the killer and compassion for the victims fills every page.
Podcast Element: Companion podcast to the HBO series
A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
A YA mystery (another favorite subgenre for me), this book centers around Pippa (Pip) Fitz-Amobi, a high school student who decides to solve an infamous local murder for her capstone project. (She and Stevie Bell might have been friends.) Pippa is kind and a serious student, but saved from the trap of perfection by being almost too driven and a bit oblivious to danger.
The relationships that are formed and tested throughout this story give it emotional heft and make it truly matter to the reader. Solving mysteries with Pip is a pleasure. She is a good yet flawed human trying to do the right thing.
Podcast Element: Pip listens to true crime podcasts. I’ve heard she has one of her own in the sequel coming out next year.
Conviction by Denise Mina
Anna McDonald is a mostly content wife and mother with an addiction to true crime podcasts. One day, her world is blown apart, first by finding out an old friend is the victim in the podcast she just started binging. Then her doorbell rings and life as she’s known it is over. But it’s not her first time to start over. And that first life is about to catch up with her.
This book is my idea of a perfect mystery. Past and present mystery, lots of intrigue and deception, and layered, damaged characters finding their way. This is a deep book with a lot of detail, but it practically reads itself. The prose and the plot hook you and refuse to let go.
Podcast Element: Podcast that triggers Anna’s investigation into her friend’s death. Anna and her friend also start their own podcast chronicling their investigation.
These strong characters all eventually faced their fears and took control of their narratives. They found themselves and told their stories. I think that’s why I’ve come to embrace a genre I feared in my youth. The fascination of investigating and the strength of survival make a far better story to me than gory violence.
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.