Pupul Dutta Prasad, A Review of Diana Rickard’s The New True Crime: How the Rise of Serialized Storytelling Is Transforming Innocence @PupulDPrasad @NYUpress @ProfRickard
The New True Crime: How the Rise of Serialized Storytelling Is Transforming Innocence
A Review by Pupul Dutta Prasad
Crime stories focusing on unravelling the suspense and mystery surrounding criminal acts and their perpetrators have long been an extremely popular source of entertainment. At the same time, this genre, comprising an eclectic range of products across various media and multiple formats, is also serious business. It serves as the leading means for the public to access news and information on criminal justice issues. As such, it shapes public perceptions about crime problems and possible solutions as much as it may reflect or reinforce societal attitudes and views of crime. However, scholars and critics have found that crime storytelling often lacks depth, distorts a complex reality, and conforms to a formula that appeals to the public’s appetite for sex, violence, retribution and sensationalism.
Diana Rickard’s new book, The New True Crime: How the Rise of Serialized Storytelling Is Transforming Innocence, shows that this maligned, garden variety depiction has been transcended in consequential ways over the last decade or so by certain narratives adopting a far more critically informed approach. She identifies them as ‘a subgenre of true-crime documentary series’ and calls them the ‘New True’—the catchy diminutive conveying a sense of their contemporary trendiness. (I should perhaps mention in passing that since ‘true crime’ is itself a subgenre of the crime genre, one might consider the New True to be a sub-sub-genre from this point view.) True-crime documentaries purport to deal with real-life cases from an objective perspective. However, Rickard rightly notes that reality and fiction frequently mix in the world of media representations of crime, not to mention that crime and criminality are themselves social and political constructs. Then, at the core of what is said to distinguish ‘the new true crime’ from the traditional true crime is a momentous shift in attention from the offender and their alleged monstrosity to the state and its possibly unjust treatment of the defendant.
To explore this phenomenon, Rickard trains her sociological/criminological gaze on documentary films and podcasts about possible wrongful convictions. She carefully selects six cases presented in eight series, including probably the most impactful Serial and Making a Murderer, as a representative sample of the new true-crime series. She also provides synopses of those docuseries as a necessary backdrop to their close examination. The heart of the book is her analysis of the New True’s unique characteristics, contributions, potentials, and limits. A key strength of the work is that its insights are grounded within the larger sociocultural and political contexts that influence the operations of the criminal justice system.
While the New True docuseries are part of the binge-listening/watching culture brought about by new entertainment technologies, quite remarkably they swim against the current of popular punitiveness that manifests in true crime. Based on detailed and painstaking investigations, these multi-episode programmes present evidence to question guilty verdicts in prominent murder cases. In the process, as the book demonstrates, they achieve several specific and broader purposes that might not otherwise have been possible. Importantly, the New True educates audiences about legal concepts, procedures and cases, not only animating sophisticated engagement among them on social media fora, but also inspiring activism on behalf of those believed to have been wronged by the state. Equally crucially, this subgenre/sub-sub-genre raises public awareness of systemic issues that contribute to the problem of wrongful convictions.
Rickard goes on to suggest that the New True has the potential to provide ‘a framework that could advance a critical criminology’. I am not so convinced though, for no other reason than my reading of the limits of the series discussed in the book. Notwithstanding their overall positive effects, the series continue to stick to some of the well-established conventions of crime storytelling, including the exclusive focus on newsmaking murder cases and the use of ‘good versus evil’, ‘guilt versus innocence’ as the narrative framing device. As a result, the question of the disproportionate, routine criminalisation of the poor and the marginalised is not addressed. Neither does the problem of harsh and excessive nature of punishment come up for scrutiny.
That said, I do not think that it is fair to pin too many hopes of radical change on the New True. As it is, it is no mean a feat for this new line of creation to emerge from within the ecosystem of crime entertainment and yet challenge some of the institutional narratives from the perspective of the accused. Rickard’s impeccably researched and thought-provoking work does full justice to it.
Pupul Dutta Prasad holds a PhD in Social Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently working as a senior police officer in India.
[N.B.: Dr. Prasad received a free copy of Rickard, The New True Crime: How the Rise of Serialized Storytelling Is Transforming Innpcence from the publisher, New York University Press, in exchange for his honest review.–Ed.]
 Diana Rickard, The New True Crime: How the Rise of Serialized Storytelling Is Transforming Innocence (New York: NYU Press, 2023), 41.
 Ibid., 7.
 For example, misconduct by government actors as a factor is dealt with prominently in the series The Innocent Man and Making a Murderer.
 Rickard op. cit., 241.