Fiction Based on True Crime: Chizmar, Clark, and Sweren-Becker

The Matchmakers welcome our guest blogger, Michele! Michele writes:

Here’s a fun twist on the true crime genre: true crime fiction! I read Penance, by Eliza Clark, and Kill Show by Daniel Sweren-Becker, shortly after the two were released in 2023. While their publication dates were only three months apart, they have vastly different ways of approaching the fictionalization of true crime, despite both stories revolving around a sixteen-year-old girl. In 2021, Chasing the Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar, treats his fictionalization of true crime in a more personal and occasionally contemplative manner. However, it is not a quiet book.

Eliza Clark’s Penance takes place in a seaside town of England that has outlived its glory days, and its most recent murder is being investigated by a journalist who feels he must save himself from a path of obscurity by writing a book with an explosive tale. The novel explores and takes to task the morbidity and morality of true crime stories, the casually vicious nature of the internet in the hands of adolescents, the precarious status and competitive cruelties of teenage girl friendships, and the right of an author to revise facts in order to reveal a deeper truth of human nature. It also packs a punch that I found to be immensely satisfying.

Kill Show, by Daniel Sweren-Becker, opens with an ambitious producer, Casey, who wants to turn a ten-year old cold case of the disappearance of a teenager in small town Maryland into a reality TV format.  Searching for Sara becomes an immediate sensation, as interviews with townsfolk are of a much more salacious, gossipy, and dramatized nature than those presented in a sober documentary. The sly and ruthless Casey has also seduced the detective of the case upon her first arrival in town, before he discovers who she is. In interviews, she reveals that she possibly may have known his identity upon her arrival, and that she may or may not have foreseen any of the bizarre and disastrous events that would rend this cozy town apart once more. Small matters, indeed, because to her it was all about ratings and career trajectory.

In Chasing the Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar, the reader is once again invited to a small town in Maryland, but here in Edgewood is a serial killer believed to be one of the town’s own residents. The author approaches the story from a budding author’s perspective, who has returned to his hometown to start a writing career. His curiosity about the murders is fed by insider’s knowledge from both a local newspaper writer and, eventually, a detective. The author (Chizmar, not the fledgling about whom he writes) intentionally crosses boundaries to give us metafiction, as the sensational, bloody crimes (all fictionalized) are nested within a man’s contemplation of true experiences in his hometown. Many readers have also praised Chizmar’s recently released sequel, Becoming the Boogeyman, and there’s talk that they may form part of a trilogy.

Common themes treated in these novels are small towns dealing with large and scary issues, neighbor suspicion and blame that turns into widespread fear, and the glut of sensational news coverage for dead-white-girl stories that lie at the heart of the true crime media complex. I don’t know what this says about me when I tell you that I enjoyed all three titles, but if you’ve read this in its entirety then I suspect you’re looking for the same!

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