Review: Joseph Knox's True Crime Story plays with popular podcast genre

Times bestseller author Joseph Knox. Picture: Jay Brooks
Times bestseller author Joseph Knox. Picture: Jay Brooks

This novel has the best title ever for a crime book. It has been described as "ingenious", hailed as "inventive" and has spent time on the Times bestseller e-book list since its June release.

Joseph Knox is the successful author of a previous series of novels involving a police detective from the greater Manchester police service.

True Crime Story is also set in Manchester, where it takes in classic locations like Canal Street, clubs and university residences.

True Crime Story is described as "innovative" because it adopts a style of narrating that mimics a podcast.

We follow a trail of emails and grabs from interviews that conjure the kind of true crime podcast we have followed of the murder of Adnan Syed, for example, in the 2014 Serial. It is a very popular form.

Podcasts are the new frontier of the true crime genre, "allowing listeners to go deep on cases, form their own theories, and occasionally even help out the investigators in real time", as magazine Marie Claire points up.

The format also opens the possibility for uncertainty, which in a crime novel is an essential ingredient.

Because we never see action first hand, events are always portrayed from the point of view of the particular characters, who often disagree with each other and have only partial information at each stage through the story.

Evelyn, an investigative writer, is researching the missing person cold case of Zoe Nolan, a 19-year-old student who vanished without trace one night soon after she had started at Manchester University.

The cast of characters include her jealous twin sister, her father and mother, university friends and boyfriends.

Evelyn is presenting this material to another, more successful writer called Joseph Knox who, in a parallel universe, shares some of the same features as the Joseph Knox of this book's title page but may lack some other qualities.

For a start, he isn't a very nice guy. This opens an opportunity for metafiction that both heightens the uncertainty of the events and which also allows for a plot within a plot to develop around Evelyn herself.

Of course, as the Joseph Knox character observes, "young blonde girls go missing all the time". In his view, there's little public appetite for a story without a body.

Although Evelyn is taken up with the mission of representing this true crime from the point of view of the victim rather than the killer, the book itself isn't really that interested in Zoe.

This reproduces a key element of True Crime - the victim has no voice in all the detail that is captured about the crime.

Interesting that this feature permeates the book overall. It isn't really interested in anyone - and not surprising, since the characters are mostly immature, shallow and repellant.

Some of this arises because of the podcast format. With only their voices in a kind of script layout, the narration forgoes the opportunity to use techniques of action and description which might have given their story more vivacity.

True Crime Story is not really a true crime story, either. It is miming one - the story is fictional and not drawn from life.

Though this premise is superficially clever, I'm not sure that it really pays out.

Because one thing we learn about the True Crime genre through reading it is that the 'true' part of True Crime really matters.

There is something that the connection with real life adds to the piquancy, which differs from the pleasure in fiction.

The end of the story is not one that I think the reader could have worked out from the clues, so in that respect it is not a crime novel, either, or not in the grand tradition of Agatha Christie et al.

There are some missed opportunities in this set up. It could have been more interesting if there had been a more equivocal relation to truth - if in fact some of the story were based on fragments of an identifiable true story.

Another possibility could have been the development of the Zoe character in a way that that did challenge the common view of the true crime victim.

But True Crime Story stays with a conventional set up and doesn't indulge in these side bars.

I love True Crime (and watch almost nothing else on television) but I found this book was strangely uncompelling. Because of the podcast angle, the language is spoken, not written, deliberately ordinary.

This leaves the narration undistinguished, although there is satisfaction in the overlapping perspectives.

But there is little scope for other techniques to vary the pace. I found this a barrier to getting involved, reading it.

A good premise, but True Crime Story doesn't really deliver what it promises.

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This story Uncertainty in a true crime world first appeared on The Canberra Times.