Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Friday, August 20, 2021

Friday, August 20, 2021: Maximum Shelf: True Crime Story

Sourcebooks Landmark: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox

Sourcebooks Landmark: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox

Sourcebooks Landmark: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox

Sourcebooks Landmark: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox

True Crime Story

by Joseph Knox

In the aptly titled True Crime Story, crime novelist Joseph Knox plays a teasing, clever game of story-within-a-story. The book is not quite autofiction, not quite noir and certainly not documentary, yet it draws heavily from each subgenre as it assembles a mystery plausible enough to unsettle. Knox presents his latest--his first stand-alone novel after wrapping up the Aidan Watts trilogy--as if it were a genuine true-crime manuscript, inserting himself as a character amid a heap of interview transcripts, e-mails and mysterious documents. Never is the reader meant to entirely trust the author: the first line of an introductory "publisher's note" reads: "This amended second edition of True Crime Story includes wider context on the previously undisclosed role of Joseph Knox in the narrative, as well as his response to various allegations raised in the press."

Immediately, readers are wary of this Knox fellow, which is perhaps the greatest fun of True Crime Story. The audience is as irritated with this unreliable character as they are charmed by the actual author, whom they know is gleefully pulling the wool over their eyes. None of it's real. Perhaps some of it is real. Welcome to the Matrix of crime fiction, mayhap?

In True Crime Story, the central mystery is (purposefully) one familiar to readers: a young, pretty white girl goes missing. In December 2011, 19-year-old Zoe Nolan, a Manchester University student, walks out of a party and is never seen again. Seven years later, she still has not been found--dead or alive--and though many remember her face from the news, the case is on a block of ice. The friends who knew her then--her suspicious sister, Kimberly; a coursemate, Fintan Murphy; another friend, Jai Mahmood; her flatmate, Liu Wai; and her toxic boyfriend, Andrew Flowers--sit for interviews with Evelyn Mitchell, a floundering writer looking for a new idea. Enveloped in Zoe's story and convinced she's found something remarkable within the pages and pages of material, Evelyn is sucked deeper into the mystery until she finds herself an unwitting part of it. As she investigates, she e-mails Knox, whom she had met at an author event, asking for his opinion.

Inconsistencies arise constantly within the alibis and anecdotes surrounding Zoe's case, which Evelyn finds troubling enough. But then a real danger arises, threatening Evelyn's safety and coaxing Knox himself further into the tale. Readers won't finish the book liking the fictional Knox much, but that's part of the real-life Knox's game.

In some senses, True Crime Story is exactly that: a strategy, a cheeky experiment, a toy the author is using to test his own wits. It is a notable book largely because it is a conceptual one. Yet it is also, at its best, a full-throated critique of the ways in which the true-crime fad treats victims, in particular young women, and the dangers the world fails to acknowledge when these crimes happen. The conceit is a dissection of the definition of truth; the jab is in the title itself. Who decides what is true? And who has the power to label what is a crime and what goes ignored? Who do we forgive most easily? And, perhaps most titillating: Why do we care so little and so much at the same time? True crime has become one of entertainment media's most lucrative operations. Yet there's no denying it is a profit powered by tragedy, and often preventable ones at that.

True Crime Story relies heavily on dialogue from Evelyn's interviewees. Knox does a masterful job interspersing their snips of conversation to reveal troubled dynamics and to shift the reader's ire from one subject to the next. The oral history form is an ideal fit for a crime novel, as it reveals just how easily inconsistencies arise to throw a case into confusion. Facts never feel finalized. The least suspect characters can quickly become the prime ones with a single errant word. Such possibilities mean readers will tear through True Crime Story, never sure of what they think they know. If the book were any less of a page-turner, that unreliability would be exhausting. But Knox makes it fun.

The final reveal is a climax that appropriately shocks but might frustrate readers who deem themselves detectives. This denouement is part of Knox's strategy. At no point is the reader allowed to feel as if they're standing on solid ground; shiftiness is how Knox proves his point.

True Crime Story is a refreshing, unexpected entry in a perhaps tired genre of cops and robbers, missing girls and their terrible fathers and boyfriends. It takes a loupe to storytellers' own role in the creation of a true-crime phenomenon, then zooms out to examine the wide-ranging aftershocks. Joseph Knox shows us there are no winners and losers in true crime, even when the case is cracked. There is only the tragedy, and the terrible, confusing pleasure we get from picking it apart. --Lauren Puckett

Sourcebooks Landmark, $16.99, trade paper, 400p., 9781728245867, December 7, 2021

Sourcebooks Landmark: True Crime Story by Joseph Knox

Joseph Knox: A Study in Self-Illusion

(photo: Jay Brooks)

Joseph Knox was born and raised in and around Stoke and Manchester, England, where he worked in bars and bookshops before moving to London. He runs, writes and reads compulsively. His debut novel, Sirens, was a bestseller and has been translated into 18 languages. The Smiling Man and The Sleepwalker are the second and third books in that series. His stand-alone novel True Crime Story will be published by Sourcebooks Landmark on December 7, 2021.

This is your first-ever stand-alone novel, a major departure from what you've done before. What led you in this direction?

I actually had the idea for True Crime Story--a novel presented in the interview style of an oral history book--before I wrote my debut, Sirens. I was reading an oral history of Warren Zevon years and years ago and loved the style, one where you might get a statement from his wife in one paragraph and a statement from his mistress in the next. I immediately saw the potential for a novel in that, and especially a mystery, because it invited differing opinions and versions of events. It invited varied voices, different senses of humor, conflicting values, etc., in a way that might allow the book to become a kind of a social novel as well as a crime one.

Ultimately, that's why I didn't even attempt it at the time. I knew I wasn't a strong enough writer to deliver on that level of ambition, and maybe I'm still not, but after spending eight years writing my debut, then delivering a second and a third novel, I felt like it was time. I thought: 'Let's take a chance, let's break out of the noir sub-genre, and let's try to do something a little bit fresh in crime fiction.' I drank an awful lot, and I wrote like hell.

True crime is everywhere, and yet your book stands out because it is, in fact, fiction masquerading as true crime. There's a hint of parody in that. What were you trying to experiment with, or perhaps to prove about the genre?

First and foremost, I'm a crime writer, and my main ambition was to try and present a satisfying, entertaining mystery that felt fresh and stood out in a crowded market.

But I guess I'm also asking questions about who gets to shape the narrative when a young woman goes missing. What is our fascination with missing teenage girls? Why do we as a society seem to favor white and pretty ones? And these questions are just as applicable to crime fiction as to true crime. It's a common criticism of the genre that male writers are very quick to kill off young women on the page for profit and thrills. I guess I wanted to hold myself to account for that kind of writing to some extent. I've always tried hard not to write salaciously--but as I said above, I'm also trying to entertain, and I've definitely crossed some lines before.

Another factor I'm interested in is the concept of "true" crime itself. Is anything ever really empirically true once it's been remembered by one person, recorded by another, written down by yet another, edited by a fourth, read and interpreted by a fifth, etc., etc.

Along with many others, I consider Capote's In Cold Blood to be a seminal and stunning work of true crime. But many of the people interviewed for the book said he stretched the truth where it suited him and made things up where he had to. So, was it ever really true crime? Or was it just an experimental novel with some masterstroke publicity?

Was this harder to write than an actual true crime story? 

Interesting question! I'd say this has been the easiest book I've written--but only because the three novels preceding it were much more personal. The first took eight years to write; I started hallucinating when I wrote the second; and the third made me seriously consider not writing again. Afterwards, I declined to renew my publishing deal and left England for southeast Asia, trying to get as far away from everything as possible. I had a headache for three months and didn't write for a year.

True Crime Story was challenging but somehow in a fun way. I think I was dying to write some different voices. I also think that the cut-up style--different interviews, e-mails and documents--meant that I could work on different parts when any one of them got too difficult. I also can't discount the fact that I had the idea so many years ago. I'd been turning it over, both consciously and subconsciously, for a decade. Who knows how many micro-problems were solved in that time?

How did you keep everything organized? Did you need several bulletin boards just to keep all your notes straight.

Every time I write a book, I swear up and down that I'm going to plan it and start some kind of spreadsheet to hold all the information in, but then I open Excel, struggle with it for a few minutes and [give up]. I tend to just make notes all over the place as they occur to me. That might sound lightweight, but I make up for it by truly living in the world of the novel as much as possible. When I'm writing, I work for 16-18 hours per day and I don't do anything else for months on end. I eat, sleep and breathe it, and I'll re-read it hundreds of times. When you go at it like that, it becomes like your life, and you remember the details like you would the things that have actually happened to you.

What true-crime stories did you use as inspiration for Zoe's tale? Is her character an amalgamation of real-life women, and if so, which cases did you draw upon the most?

I don't think I used any one young woman as inspiration--if only because I was more interested in the milieu of a murder/missing person. The press--good and bad--the grieving families and friends, and the ones who clearly see it as the start of their 15 minutes. There's a lot of opportunity attached to tragedy--a grotesque kind of fame--and I think that's what I was more interested in than anything.

What I always loved about Ross MacDonald mysteries--and what I've always tried to emulate in my own writing--is that they become an excuse to look at family tragedies with all interpersonal frailties and weaknesses exposed. I think if people are honest with themselves, that's what they love about so many of the true crime podcasts. It's a kind of gossip and hearsay, and even better, it's life or death! So I'm trying to tap into that while also raising a bit of an eyebrow at it as well.

I try to resist the deification [of missing girls], though. If I vanished tomorrow, the last thing I'd want anyone to think of me as is a saint or a victim. It's insulting and dehumanizing, in my opinion; people deserve better than that.

What was it like writing yourself AS a character? Your fictional self will obviously be different from your true self, so how did you choose which real-life elements to incorporate and which to tweak?

The book seemed to naturally demand it, so in I went. I knew that to keep things convincing, the Joseph Knox of the book would have to be a bit of a sh*t bag. Luckily, that wasn't a stretch. That said, I've had several people finish the book believing that everything is real and taking issue with me for the terrible things "I" have done. I guess I have to take that as a compliment, though?

As you were writing, did you know your ending all along? Or did you come to the conclusion the way your fictionalized self did?

I had a sense of the ending but not really an idea of how I was going to arrive at it. There's quite a lot of autobiography in the book, and the person who appears to be the most likely culprit at its close is based on someone I knew. They weren't quite as bad as the person in the book, but had the same kind of schism, in that they presented themselves to the world as one thing, but turned out to be manipulative, vindictive, abusive and even violent when it suited them. I have no idea what became of this person, so hopefully they don't recognize themselves in the book and find my house. Maybe that's the sequel? --Lauren Puckett

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