Barcelona, city of crime. Why are we so fascinated by true crime?

True crime fever has caught on in Catalonia in recent years through such unorthodox products as Carles Porta’s Crims programme, Clàudia Pujol’s books and the Psycholand podcast created by Kiko Amat and Benja Villegas. Making the most of the fact that the BCNegra festival is about to celebrate its eighteenth edition, nine figures with close ties to Catalan true crime culture explain why it is so popular with audiences.

The rise of true crime is one of the most sophisticated yet controversial phenomena in contemporary storytelling. Its conventions oscillate between the exploration of criminal psychology, the chronicle of events and, from time to time, a certain morbid desire that puts the viewer’s sensibility to the test. It has established precedents such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, although the beginnings of its current golden age coincide with the success of the investigative journalism podcast Serial, hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig, which, since the launch of the first season in 2014, has broken download records all over the world. It is at a time when Netflix is gaining ground as the major entertainment provider of our times that true crime is consolidating its influence through series that have already become classics, such as Making a Murderer and Mindhunter, followed by more recent ones such as The Most Hated Man on the Internet, which premiered last summer.

The potential impact borne by all these products on new streaming audiences has given rise to exhaustive studies such as the one carried out by criminology professor Vicente Garrido in the book True crime. La fascinación del mal [True Crime. The Fascination with Evil] (Ariel), a 600+ page book that analyses the interest generated by gruesome murder stories based on real events. In the book, among other things, Garrido discusses the relationship the viewer develops with the experience of danger. If, as the author says, human beings are inherently wired to anticipate anything that might threaten their survival, whether it is a snake’s venomous bite or a scorpion’s lethal sting, it should come as no surprise that they also want to get a close look at the modus operandi of a serial killer who could be their upstairs neighbour. From a sociological point of view, this is one of the main reasons behind the fascination with true crime.

Indeed, in Catalonia, true crime has a deep-rooted tradition of its own, with evident influences from American pop culture, although it is very much a part of the local context. It experienced its first boom around 2005, with the publication of Tor, tretze cases i tres morts [Tor: Thirteen Houses and Three Deaths] (La Campana) by journalist Carles Porta, currently running the programme Crims. In 2018, the programme had its radio première on Catalunya Ràdio and, for the last three seasons, its television version has been at the top of the ratings on TV3. For some time now, this genre has been the subject of analysis, study and debate at BCNegra, the great festival for crime literature curated by writer Carlos Zanón. Porta and Zanón are, precisely, two of the nine people whose opinion we sought out.

Jordi Canal
Librarian and scholar of the noir and crime genre

The crime novel in Barcelona is enjoying a sweet moment: BCNegra is a consolidated festival; there is a significant publishing sector that publishes this type of novel (maybe even too much); there is a generational replacement of authors, some of whom have opened up new markets beyond our borders… The only thing missing is readers. We have low readership rates and, in the case of crime novels, readers are progressively getting older and the new generations don’t seem to be keeping up.

True crime, which has always been called noir fiction or crime fiction, has a hint of morbidity, and, given that we live in a society of the spectacle, it is nothing less than the updating of the weekly El Caso in the age of reality shows. The media coverage of a real crime invariably causes a certain degree of repulsion because of the violation of privacy: a drama that affects the criminal and the victim’s entourage, turned into a spectacle. There is, of course, good crime journalism, but I would place it within journalism, not literature.

Fiction has always been a reworking of reality, but I believe that distance and perspective are needed. What, from a journalistic point of view, Pedro Costa did on TVE in La huella del crimen: “The history of a country is also the history of its crimes. Of those crimes that left their mark”. Some current fiction authors address the past in search of the roots of contemporary issues, and bring literature and memory together based on a criminal event. An interesting approach.

Carles Porta
Journalist and writer. Director of Crims

True crime has always existed. It used to be called crime reporting and it was better than what is done now. Read Amor y sangre en la oficina [Love and Blood in the Office] by Josep Martí Gómez and you’ll agree with me. Martí recounted crimes in a literary style; he told the unfinished stories of real lives. That model, that narrative style, is what I have done in my Crims series. Martí was the main point of reference. He didn’t just recount the facts, he tried to portray the background that gave us an insight into the criminals, those who arrested and tried them, their jailers and their victims.

What is done now on most television and radio is not true crime, but events with no background, dramatic effects, blood and gore and morbidity. They don’t tell stories and, when they try, they are devoid of style. Our strength, the reason behind the success of Crims, has been our commitment to style and storytelling, which has made people appreciate us. And the way we broach the events’ main characters. We try to understand that, behind a crime, lies a huge collective failure, the broken life of a person whose family, school, work… society has failed.

By showing the dark side of life, we do something that is very hard to achieve: we tug on people’s emotions; we make them feel outrage, anger or joy… But success, the audience, can be achieved in a gruesome fashion (I’m thinking of the Alcàsser case), with morbidity and bloodshed. Or by giving precedence to curiosity over morbidity, to the story over the isolated event, to narrative style over silly nonsense.

Clàudia Pujol
Director of the magazine Sàpiens and crime fiction writer

True crime is an imported trend that has recently been gaining ground on television, radio and in the publishing world. It has won many followers here because crime novels have had a huge readership for decades; it has found fertile terrain.

This model, besides holding a great fascination because it makes us experience the feeling of danger without danger, allows us to tell stories in a much more realistic way. And stories based on real events and, above all, real crimes are two of the trends in the international audiovisual market today. In Catalonia, Carles Porta’s series Crims has contributed to this growing interest and has led to the emergence of what we could call “armchair detectives”, viewers and listeners who hope to be able to help solve unsolved cases.

In the 1960s, Manuel de Pedrolo’s promotion of the crime series collection “La Cua de Palla” helped the crime novel to establish a presence, to attract readers and to spark the interest of Catalan writers to venture into this field.

When I wrote Diari d’un forense [Diary of a Forensic Scientist] and En l’escena del crim [At the Scene of the Crime], my main concern was not to further traumatise the victims and their families. Not to reopen old wounds. To broach the events without any unnecessary morbid details. I am interested in the psychological side of true crime – trying to understand how an apparently normal person can commit a barbaric act –, the detective side – discovering how the crimes are solved and how the pieces of the puzzle fit together – and the social side – crime reporting is a good record of the spirit of the times.

Carlos Zanón
Writer and curator of the BCNegra festival

I’m not a big fan of true crime. As a reader, I’m more interested in fiction and not so much in being told about the crimes; I’m more interested in knowing why they were committed, the motives. What appeals to me is to be told the truth through lies, which is what literature is somehow about. But I understand that there are readers who are tired of fiction and crave the interest generated by talking about real, home-grown cases and characters.

The same thing is happening with true crime that happened with the fiction genre. It seemed that only novels set in New York or London held interest, but local events began to catch on. People have become interested in what is going on here. And now people are interested in crime and local events, the ones that are close to home.

But they pique interest because quality work is being done. There is journalistic work in which the literary element takes precedence and where there is an attempt to go further and delve into the psychology of the characters, to see what has led to an outcome; and good true crime books extend beyond journalistic work, although, unlike fiction, they cannot omit evidence.

It is also true that there is a shift towards better quality to try to outdo the audiovisual sector. Between reading pure journalistic true crime and watching it on television, people prefer the latter. What’s more, it is now booming because there are some very good programmes being made, such as Crims by Carles Porta.

Ángel Sala
Director of the Sitges International Film Festival

Catalonia has always had a penchant for mystery, for the unknown and the strange. In the 1990s, series such as The X-Files and Twin Peaks topped the audience ratings, well above those in the rest of Spain. It is not surprising, then, that the documented mystery of true crime has found the biggest audience niche here.

Moreover, Barcelona has had an extremely fertile tradition of crime novels and a school of crime cinema in the 1950s and 60s with directors such as Coll and Rovira Beleta… and, later, with Jordà and Balagué.

True crime stems from a type of thriller that is very painstaking in the narrative and descriptive process of the methods of investigation that began to emerge from fiction bordering on the horror genre, such as The Silence of the Lambs, and which later adopted a more realistic and even chronicle-like tone, as in Zodiac. In recent years, true crime has developed as a television sub-genre with a strong influence from reality television, although with the move to platforms it has gained in terms of rigour and formal conception. It has been labelled as a hybrid fiction of modern streaming.

Curiosity about morbid things, about criminals and the lives of others is part of universal pop culture, a kind of gossip show with a dark side; knowledge of the other, even if they are monstrous. In short, the eternal sympathy for the devil and the unflagging curiosity that makes us stop on the street to gawp at an accident.

Teresa Solana
Crime writer

True crime has always been a very popular genre that readers have followed through the newspaper chronicles. Real killers fascinate us; just think of Jack the Ripper and all the literature he has generated… The recent success of this genre in bookshops and on television screens is owing to two factors: the first is that the market is possibly flooded with novels about fictional crimes, and the second is that true crime tells stories about real people who are capable of doing what we are convinced we would never do. There is an element of morbid curiosity that is related to reality shows, but there is also an element of curiosity that is entirely legitimate, precisely because we are not talking about fiction.

The noir genre is art, it is fiction, and readers know it, and that is why they enter into the game of a parallel world in which the tragedy of a crime becomes aesthetic enjoyment. Good literature should not compete with reality, but rewrite it. In this respect, a good crime novel is much more than a mere account of a crime and an investigation; it allows us to reflect on the human condition and on the world from the imposed distance of fiction.

Writing crime fiction isn’t the same as writing true crime. Crime novels are full of quirky policemen and detectives who use methods that do not conform to how a crime is really investigated. Authors tend to dispense with the most bureaucratic and tedious part of the investigation. As crime writers, we invent a world that is somewhat similar to the real world, but which does not really exist. Besides that, crime fiction often serves as an excuse for a critical portrayal of the society in which we live, whereas true crime focuses almost exclusively on exploring the psychological profiles of the killer and the victim.

© César Núñez

Kiko Amat
Writer, scriptwriter and producer of the Psycholand and Pop y Muerte podcasts

I read true crime because I’m interested in violence, death and crime. I come from an oral culture where it is common to talk about violent, dramatic or gory stories in a comical or scathing way at the bar. And this is what I do with Benja Villegas in Psycholand and in Pop y Muerte. If there is violence, it piques people’s interest.

We combine 50% of raw erudition on these subjects, because I have studied everything related to true crime in a non-academic manner and it is part and parcel of my hobbies, and the other 50% is the wit and fun that goes with this information. The combination of the two is what makes it unusual and appealing to certain people. We talk about serial killers, homicides, disasters or deaths in the world of rock, with a touch of banter. If you like it, you experience it as pure entertainment.

Besides, true crime has always been a huge hit. The bestsellers in the 1950s and 1960s were true crime stories; the tabloids that existed in the 1970s were true crime stories, albeit exaggerated or dramatised to the point of being utterly unrealistic. True crime has always held the public’s interest: people want to hear about real violence, real deaths, real murders.

And true-crime books, whether homicides, disasters or other bizarre cases, are great stories without the novel version; though some come close to narrative, they are the truthful, eyewitness version of what happened.

Mireia Lite
Editor at Rosa dels Vents, La Campana and La Magrana

The true crime boom has landed here thanks to digital platforms and traditional television channels. There is more space for “incidents” in the press and a much greater presence of true crime on the new releases shelves in bookshops.

In Spain and Catalonia, this type of content has been around for a long time. In 1952, the weekly El Caso was born, which in 1959 sold more than 400,000 copies in one year. With a sensationalist tone, it was devoted to incidents, more specifically, crime. Along the same lines was Interviú, which, beneath its erotic covers, concealed investigative reports signed by renowned journalists such as Cela, Umbral, Vázquez Montalbán and Millás.

One of the first publishing successes of the genre took place in Catalonia, in the small village that takes the leading role in Tor, tretze cases i tres morts (2005, La Campana), by journalist Carles Porta. Porta is one of the reference points of Catalan true crime because of his “foresight”, as well as his capacity to experiment with new formats; he is now one of the reference points in outlets that include the radio, television, platforms and books.

True crime should not be any kind of competition for fiction, be it crime novels or crime thrillers. Those who tackle true crime often do so out of nostalgia for a notorious event that in some way shook society, a “wanting to find out more” about an event that, with more harm than good, has left a scar on society, to look for answers or to understand a past event that has upset people’s coexistence.

Like all fashions, the true crime fad we are witnessing will wane, but under no circumstances will it peter out, because it has always been here.

Montse Clavé
Bookshop expert in crime and crime novels

I’m not a big fan of true crime books; I prefer other sub-genres, but I remember having read, apart from In Cold Blood or The Black Dahlia, Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary and Robert K. Ressler’s I Have Lived in the Monster. And, by Spanish authors, several versions of the case of Enriqueta Martí, the alleged murderer of El Raval, and Tor, tretze cases i tres morts, by the famous Carles Porta.

I can’t deny that through various platforms I have watched some true crime series, such as Mindhunter and El caso Alcàsser. What I’m after is to be entertained or disgusted, depending on how you look at it, following the lives of others from the safety of the sofa at home. The characters could even be my neighbours. In some cases, watching this genre is curiosity and morbidity; in other cases, it is watching an excellent account of a real event.

I don’t think what is happening now is a passing trend. The more or less morbid pursuit of crime has been entrenched in society for centuries. In the 19th century, bloody picture cards were sold; later, booklets or pages with gruesome crimes. In the 1950s, Spain published El Caso, crónica de sucesos [The Case, Chronicle of Events]. Now documentaries are made for platforms and radio programmes. As for books, true crime is a sub-genre within the crime novel.

There are true crime books with blood and guts, and others that resemble a journalistic chronicle. For example, Operation Massacre by Rodolfo Walsh, or the excellent Guillem by Núria Cadenes.

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