As recently as the 1970s, fact crime magazines were a significant, if not reputable, segment of the publishing industry. No liquor store magazine rack was complete without the lurid covers of True Detective warning of a “Sex Freak on the Prowl” or promising to reveal the scoop “Behind California’s Latest Mass Murder Case.”
A fully stocked newsstand could feature perhaps as many as two dozen different titles every month. Yet this apparently healthy showing on the news racks was only masking the death throes of one of the great genres of exploitation magazines. Within a decade, they had vanished from the national consciousness. When the grand dame of the genre, True Detective, finally suspended publication in 1996, most people though it had died years ago. It was a sad but hardly surprising end to one of the great genres of American exploitation magazine publishing
It all began in 1924 with first issue of True Detective (nee True Detective Mysteries), a creation of the reigning eccentric of American publishing, Bernarr Macfadden. A pioneering health nut, Macfadden started Physical Culture magazine in 1899 to spread his gospel of dumbbells and carrot sticks. Although successful, it wasn’t enough to fund his extravagant ambitions.
The big money came in 1919 with True Story, the first confession magazine. True Detective Mysteries would be his second great brainchild and perhaps even more successful. Although it initially published fictionalized accounts of true crime stories, it soon switched to a winning formula of factual, no-nonsense accounts of police investigating and solving sensational crimes. It became a massive success and spawned hundreds of imitators. Macfadden himself would launch several more, including the long-running Master Detective. During the genre’s pre-World War II heyday, some 200 different titles would hit the stands. At their peak, some six million fact crime magazines were sold every month. True Detective alone had a circulation of two million.
During this golden era, the higher-end fact crime magazines like True Detective were handsomely produced and looked almost respectable. The lushly painted covers of damsels in distress were surprisingly restrained, while cover blurbs like “Who Killed Captain Costello?” promised more in the way of ratiocination than exploitation. The magazine was printed on semi-slick paper, and profusely illustrated with photos of bold lawmen, cringing suspects, used implements, and cleaned-up crime scenes with “Xs” helpfully marking the spot formerly occupied by the corpus delecti.
Murder, of course, was the favored subject, but kidnappings, robberies, and confidence games, with the occasional fawning profile of a famous lawman were mixed in. Sexuality, save for the occasional hysterical screed against “vice” and leering innuendo about lonely-heart club Lotharios, was almost taboo. Even the most vicious rape murder would only mention the “violation” in passing.
True Detective even indulged in social activism; their 1931 serialization of “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” exposed abuses of convict labor in Georgia and led to important reforms. It was a magazine that could be displayed without fear on most coffee tables. No less a personage than the then widely admired J. Edgar Hoover boasted of being a charter subscriber.
Of course, seekers of deathless prose were doomed to disappointment. Although the early fact crime magazines published early work by notable writers like Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson, literary merit was not a sought-after commodity. Most articles were written to a strict formula, a narrative following the police step-by-step through their investigation of the crime, and climaxing with the apprehension of the suspect. Characterization was non-existent; lawmen were invariably hard working, dedicated, and determined, while criminals were simply the Bad Guys. Motivation is strictly left for the sob sisters. In the hands of professional writers, the results are readable. But the enduring appeal of the fact crime magazines lies in the copious black and white photos that illustrated the stories; scenes of neglected urban back streets and seedy small town America, Weegee-esque views of a country that never made the history books.
Through the 1950s, True Detective and its major competitors like Official Detective kept up fairly respectable appearances. Cover paintings gave way to photos posed by models, but the crime scenes thus illustrated kept sensationalism to a minimum; even as the well-dressed gunman prepared to shoot his female victim, she was looking the other way, blissfully unaware of her fate. However, things were heating up inside the books. Murder became the dominant subject. Stories like “Who Bludgeoned the Sleeping Innocents?” and “The Girl Refused to Be His Second Corpse” began to be a little less shy about sexual elements, while photos grew much more graphic. There were plenty of shots of gun-toting cops swinging into action, and photos of the corpse—sometimes without even a sheet covering—were not unusual.
In the 1960s, a new trend appeared. Fact crime magazines had always seemed to be a proud celebration of the success of law enforcement in dealing with aberrant criminals. But as the Great Society dissolved into the Long Hot Summer, a distinct element of paranoia began to creep in. Fact crime cover models weren’t just in imminent danger; they were fully cognizant and terrified. Sex murders were the crime of choice. Consider these three not at all atypical tales of crime detection from a typical issue of True Detective: “I Was Raped,” “I Hit Her with the Bowling Pin,” and “Sex Monster At Large.” Although there still was some editorial restraint—a title like “22 Knives Around the Pretty Girl’s Body” is pretty mild for a story when the body in question is nude, sliced to ribbons and almost decapitated—there was no doubt where the magazines were going.
This trend peaked in the 1970s. Sickos, perverts, and twisted perps of all stripes were seemingly rampaging unchecked, if not through the streets of America, at least in the pages of the fact crime magazines. The covers reached peaks of exploitation not seen since the “shudder pulps” of the 1930s. They pictured screaming, scantily clad models frequently bound, often gagged and invariably about to be brutally beaten, stabbed, strangled, and/or raped, shocking tableaus that had no connection whatsoever with any of the stories inside.
The blurbs screamed “California’s Latest Mass Killer Got His Sex Kicks Cutting off Women’s Heads With a Power Saw,” “The Kinky Case of the Mutilated Beauties,” and “Atlanta’s Bloody War of the Homos.” Most of the stories were still written competently, if not well. Alumnae of the era included true crime writers like Ann Rule and Gary King and mystery writer Joseph Koenig. Subject matter was heavily skewed towards sex and savagery. And there was no shortage of increasingly tasteless black and white photos of blood splattered crime scenes. Fact crime magazines had become grimy documents about a nation seemingly being overrun by barbarians.
Yet the silent majority was losing interest. The day of the fact crime magazines was passing. Circulation was declining and titles dying. Major publishers abandoned the field, killing their magazines outright or selling the survivors to bottom-feeding outfits. By the early 1980s, the once mighty fact crime category had been whittled down two publishers and 11 titles. Reese Publications had True Detective and its sister Master Detective, along with their former rivals Official Detective, Front Page Detective, and Inside Detective, while tabloid publisher Globe Communications had Startling Detective and five other lesser-known titles.
It was a grim era. Although it’s difficult to imagine anyone either noticing or caring, the magazines gave in to outside pressure and toned down the covers. By the mid 1980s, tackily posed photos of bound and screaming female victims gave way to tackily posed photos of empowered female victims brandishing guns, a move that killed much of their contemporary newsstand appeal and future resale value in an irony-obsessed collectables market. Although the blurbs maintained their high level of perverse enthusiasm (“All Their Heads Were Bloody Pulps!”, “Startling Drug and Sex Spree of the Screwball Rapists”), the contents were going increasingly downhill. The quantity and quality of the interior photos was declining fast. Grim crime scene photos disappeared, leaving only the inevitable headshots of the cops and the mug shot of the perp. When a story like “The Charred Corpse in the Flaming Car” doesn’t even have a single photo of the gutted automobile, the end had to be near.
Actually reading the magazines became painful; the stories read like police reports, dull, plodding, and lackluster. Considering that Reese was only paying $250 for a 5,000 word story in 1990—almost exactly what True Detective had paid in 1945!—this should come as no surprise. At those rates, they could only hope to attract writers were either old to change or too young to care. Editing appeared to be almost non-existent, as guidelines carefully instructed writers to leave margins wide enough so manuscripts could fit the typesetter’s copy holder. And, as star alum Ann Rule wistfully noted, “There are, tragically, still horrific and psychologically interesting murders, but True Detective just didn’t seem to cover them any longer.”
Interest in true crime was never greater than during the 1980s and 1990s. But tabloid television and red-on-black covered paperbacks were the medium of choice for the exploding audience. The fact crime magazines, with their long lead times, poor quality, and outdated editorial policies, didn’t have a chance. Their remaining readers seemed to be picking them up almost out of habit. As former True Detective managing editor Marc Gerald sadly recalled, “...our readership of blue hairs, shut-ins, Greyhound bus riders, cops and ax murderers was old and dying fast.” And bottom-line oriented management saw no real reason to change. Even towards the end, when the combined circulation of True Detective and its four sister magazines had shrunk to 500,000 copies a month, they continued to be profitable.
In 1996, when Globe bought out Reese and immediately suspended publication of True Detective and its four venerable sister magazines, no one noticed. When Globe finally shut down their fact crime magazines several years later, no one cared. It was a sad end to one of the most colorful and unrestrained genre of exploitation magazines, but one that not even their staunchest fans could mourn.
John Marr is the former editor of the zine Murder Can Be Fun.
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This article originally appeared in Other Magazine and has been republished with permission.