Gregg Olsen: True Crime vs Fiction

American crime writer Gregg Olsen on writing about fact, fantasy, and being Facebook friends with real-life killers

For some readers, I might have a split personality. I’ve written a number of true-crime books as well as fiction, but the big question coming at me these days is “What do you prefer to write?”

Fiction, by far. Why? Simple. In a novel, loose ends can be tied up with the click of a mouse and the tap of a key. Plot points can be fixed. The novelist is God. The nonfiction crime writer is merely the conduit for the telling of someone else’s story.

In true crime, real people are involved. Real people lead messy lives. And no matter how hard you try, you never really know for sure if you’re reporting a fact or fantasy. People tell you want they want you to hear. Prosecutors say the killer is a creep; family members who love him say prosecutors are liars. You just don’t know what’s truly real, but you go with it.

Not long ago when interviewing an inmate who was in prison for murdering his wife, I felt that flutter that I’ve often experienced when listening to the other side of the story. This guy is convincing. Part of me always wants to believe because, let’s face it, killing someone is so very ugly.

A novelist can pile on all of the garbage of human nature (Hannibal Lector does this or that) and we read it with disgust and delight. But Hannibal is a creation and we never think twice about his mother or father. There isn’t anyone to think about. He’s fake (although most know, like many fictional creations, he’s based on a real-life killer). He lives only on pages.  But those featured in a true crime book – killers, families, neighbors, high school pals – live in the real world.

Over the years I’ve written about a woman who poisoned her husband and a stranger for money; a mother who suffocated her children for attention; and an Amish man who killed his wife and son to get out of being Amish.

When I visited Diane Downs (made famous in Ann Rule’s Small Sacrificies and played by Farrah Fawcett in the television miniseries) she told me that a woman like Ann could never “get her”— that she knew how to do things sexually that “normal women” couldn’t even comprehend. Eventually, the kids would understand that she had been railroaded – a victim of her own attractiveness, feminine wiles, and a system that seeks to tear down a woman possessing such attributes.

The end of Diane’s story hasn’t been yet told. Since she is a real person, there’s the distinct possibility that we’ll hear from her again. The novelist could kill her off. The true crime writer, like the legendary Ann Rule in this case, lives knowing that someday even Diane will be out there lurking somewhere.

In my fiction, there’s no wondering if I got it wrong and missed a piece of evidence that would say she wasn’t so bad, after all. I don’t have to think of her when I go to sleep, wondering if she’s out there. She’s alive only in my imagination—and hopefully in the imagination of readers who are flipping the pages late at night.

Here’s the kicker, two of the murderers I’ve written about have been paroled. One of those killed himself and one of them “friended” me on Facebook. Trust me, no fictional killer will ever “friend” you. And that’s another reason why I love writing fiction.


Victim Six by Gregg Olsen is out on 3 November, published by Constable & Robinson.