True Crime Obsessed: The Literary Figures Who Contributed to the Craze and the Stories That Feed It

With the current plethora of media – documentaries, podcasts, books, and biopics of serial killers – it’s no wonder true crime is so popular. But it isn’t just today’s societies that have this obsession.

The love for true crime stories can be traced back to the 19th century, and further back, with many from the middle and upper classes finding fascination in crime cases that were happening around them and because they had the down time to witness them.

Some of this true crime craze has been influenced by a Victorian Era author whose character has contributed to true crime popularity even more than a hundred years after his first story came out – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His popular character Sherlock Holmes was one of the first literary figures who worked alongside detectives and used forensic data and logical reasoning to crack open cases. Due to Doyle’s contributions, the world was able to recognize and memorialize this character as a popular culture figure with actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch portraying him in adaptations that have taken place in the last twenty years.

Some of Doyle’s work can be found in the Toppan Rare Books Library, such as the 1892 copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This copy features stories such as “The Adventure of the Boscombe Valley Mystery” that displays Holmes’ logical reasoning and forensic skills with sections such as:

‘These are young McCarthy’s feet. Twice he was walking, and once he ran swiftly so that the soles are deeply marked, and the heels hardly visible. That bears out his story. He ran when he saw his father on the ground. Then here are the father’s feet as he paced up and down. What is this, then? It is the butt end of the gun as the son stood listening. And this? Ha, ha! What have we here? Tip-toes! tip-toes! Square, too, quite unusual boots!’ (97)

This section is one of many that highlights the skill of the character Sherlock Holmes and how he helped solve crimes in a logical, but also approachable way for mainstream audiences. These books were instrumental in creating a widespread audience for criminal crimes and contributed to the number of people who would show up for the real court cases in their areas. Not only were the books used for entertainment, but the real cases became a form of entertainment, especially for those in the middle and upper classes who had time for leisure activities.

Illustration of Sherlock Holmes avid search for clues in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
British illustrator Sidney Paget famously illustrated Sherlock Holmes stories that appeared in The Strand Magazine. Between 1891 and 1904, he did 594 illustrations for Doyle’s works. This illustration is also from “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”

Doyle’s “Bascombe Valley Mystery” is just one of many stories that delve into the fantastical, but realistic nature of crime during the 19th century and helped the true crime genre gain such a strong standing in popular culture. This story and many others can be accessed at the Toppan Rare Books Library by crime lovers of all kinds.

There are, of course, a variety of other contributions that came before Sherlock Holmes, such as Lionel Benson’s The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters, which features many different cases of murder and robbery. There is even an absurd case about the “suspected murder of a ghost”:

Francis Smith… doubtless incensed at the unknown person who was in the habit of assuming this supernatural character, and thus frightening the superstitious inhabitants of the village, rashly determined on watching for, and shooting the ghost; when unfortunately he shot a poor man, named Thomas Milwood, a bricklayer, who was in a white dress, the usual habiliment of his occupation (293).

Illustration titled “Shooting a Ghost” from The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters. Illustrator: Hablot Knight Browne.

Although far from what we think of as the supernatural, these kinds of cases were frequent throughout the 17th to 19th centuries and contributed to the fascination with crime and our understanding of humans and their motivations.

Illustration titled “The Man with the Carpet Bag” from The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters.

For more recent cases, there is also The Encyclopedia of Murder written in 1962 and housed within the Toppan Library collection. This book contains an intriguing history of criminal cases and offers brief glimpses into the lives of murderers through the centuries. The cases include the “Rattlesnake Murderer” Robert James, the “thirty-nine-year-old barber, charged with the murder of his wife in 1935” (306), which was a disturbing case about a man trying to kill his wife with rattlesnake venom due to his own obsession with it, but how in the end drowned her because it didn’t work. Other cases include The Lonely Hearts Killers – Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck – who pretended to be brother and sister and who lured women through lonely heart columns in newspapers to trust them and then con and murder the women. In the aftermath of the trial, many believed that the duo’s killing of these women was due to Martha’s hatred for other women because of being declared an unfit mother for her children as Raymond did not start murdering women until after he met Martha.

Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Public domain image.

There are many theories as to why we are so fascinated with serial killers, including our need to understand human nature and those who display the worst of their natures, or simply just wanting to become aware of what is out there. But even without a full understanding of why we choose to learn about these killers, there is a plethora of material in which to satiate our needs and many of these works, including cases closer to home, can be found in the Toppan Library.

Post contributed by Toppan Library Intern Bailey Bonner.



Benson, Lionel, The Book of Remarkable Trials and Notorious Characters : from “Half-hanged Smith,” 1700 to Oxford who shot at the Queen, 1840. (Publisher, J. C. Hotten, 1874). (McCormick Collection, Toppan Library, uncatalogued)

Wilson, Colin and Patricia Pitman, Encyclopedia of Murder. (New York: Putnams, 1962). (Toppan, catalogued)

Doyle, Arthur Conan, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (London: George Newnes, Ltd., 1892) (Toppan, PR4622.A3 1892)

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