S J Watson: the best true crime documentaries
Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and in the world of crime fiction that’s definitely true. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a true story and thought, ‘If I were to put that in a book I’d never get away with it.’ That’s one of the reasons the protagonist in my new book, Final Cut, is a documentary film-maker, and though she doesn’t set out to make a crime documentary, she soon realises that’s essentially what she’s doing.
That’s still fiction, though. We’re lucky that there are also people bringing true crime to life. The tales told here are by turns terrifying, outlandish, crazy and disturbing, and all the more so because they’re true. So settle in for my top five true crime documentaries. Just don’t forget to lock the door, first.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
Robert Durst, described as a loner by high school classmates, is an American real estate heir. In 1982 his wife disappeared, and in 2000 a friend, Susan Berman, died in an execution-style killing. He denied any involvement in either case, but in 2001 admitted to killing a neighbour, though he claimed self-defence and was acquitted. Durst contacted film-maker Andrew Jarecki, who had directed the feature film All Good Things based on his life, and said he wished to be interviewed. The resulting footage is incorporated into The Jinx, a complex and fascinating six-part series examining the life of the accused murderer that uses a mixture of interviews and dramatic reenactments to tell Durst’s story and examine the film-maker’s complex relationship with him. It’s made all the more fascinating by the fact that Durst was arrested and charged with Berman’s murder the day before the final episode originally aired. His trial is currently adjourned due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
I’m cheating a little with this one, as I haven’t actually seen it, but friends who have tell me it’s great and it’s due to air here in the UK from the end of August. It’s based on the true crime blogger Michelle McNamara’s book – which was released after her untimely death and finished by her partner Patton Oswalt – and tells the story of her obsessive investigation into the notorious Golden State Killer, thought to be responsible for dozens of burglaries, over 50 rapes and at least 13 murders in the 70s and 80s. In the trailer McNamara reveals her nightly routine. ‘After my husband and daughter fell asleep,’ she says, ‘I hunted the killer with my laptop.’ She unearthed information about the crimes that no one had seen before, and just two years after her death Joseph James deAngelo was arrested, having been identified through a genealogy website. He’s currently awaiting sentencing. It sounds absolutely fascinating, and if like me you can’t wait to watch it you can always catch up on the case with the documentaries Golden State Killer: It’s Not Over and Unmasking a Killer.
‘Cropsey’ was the name of a bogey man, stories of which were used to frighten children into good behaviour in New York State. He was said to have lived in the woods, venturing out only to abduct children. This film begins as an examination of the legend, but then moves on to the story of Cropsey’s real-life embodiment, Andre Rand, who in the 80s was convicted for the kidnapping and murder of two young girls and suspected in the disappearance of three more. It’s a flawed but fascinating look at the storytelling tradition of urban legends, as well as the case itself, and until he withdrew from the project at the very last moment, was originally going to feature interviews with Rand himself.
Unsolved Mysteries – Episode 3, ‘House of Terror’
In April 2011 the bodies of Agnès Dupont de Ligonnès and her four children were found buried in their garden. Agnès’s husband, the children’s father, was Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, and the main suspect in the murders. He has never been found, staying two steps ahead of the police at every turn. Now, he seems to have disappeared completely, despite several rumoured sightings. Is he dead? Did he kill himself after killing his family? Or has he got away with murder? This episode of Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries reboot uses interviews with the police, as well as friends and associates of the family, to examine the story, and includes previously unseen evidence, including, for example, the fact that Xavier had apparently told his wife he wanted a “mass suicide”. It also raises the possibility that he was framed, however. Absolutely gripping, and deeply affecting.
Making a Murderer
If you haven’t seen this, then rectify that immediately (series one at least, the second series is stretched a little too thin). It tells the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was wrongfully convicted for sexual assault and attempted murder, serving 18 years in prison. Just two years after his exoneration and release – and in the middle of a civil case against those responsible for his wrongful incarceration – he was charged with the murder of Teresa Halback, a photographer who vanished after a job at Avery’s salvage yard. Despite forensic evidence, Avery maintains that he was framed, with the ultimate aim of discrediting his civil case. The series examines the tale from all angles, and though it leaves us to make our own minds up it’s not hard to conclude it’s the story of David and Goliath, an innocent man pitted against the law in all its power. Absolutely fascinating.