I’ve talked to Denise Horvath-Allan more than my own mother this year. Denise’s son Charles went missing while backpacking in Canada. I see his face — never aging, entombed within his early 20s — every day on Facebook. Denise’s posts are more desperate each time I see them.
Charles disappeared in 1989, on the eve of his 21st birthday. Denise and I believe he was murdered not long afterwards. But the case, like so many others, remains unsolved.
As a journalist, I’ve been writing about true crime for years. True crime is a non-fiction genre that examines a crime and the people involved. It has never been more popular: just look at the success of Serial and Making a Murderer. But while I’m as gripped as anyone by these shows, I feel they do a poor job of capturing the impact of crime on those left behind.
Yes, there’s a lot of blood, guts and nastiness in true crime, but that’s not the part that stays with you. Reading about the evil some people are capable of does make you angry, but the deeper you get into those cases what really stands out is the kindness and tenderness of the people left behind. That’s what keeps you up at night.
I’m thinking of people like Kevin Gosden, whom I met last year when writing about his 14-year-old son Andrew. Andrew went missing in 2007, the same year as Madeleine McCann. The Gosdens last saw him on the morning of 14 September, when he caught the train from Doncaster to King’s Cross. Nobody has heard from him since.
After I met the Gosdens, who live near where I grew up, I couldn’t stop thinking about the case. I couldn’t shake the thought that I probably saw Andrew playing in the street growing up. As a keen rock fan, he even read the alternative music magazine I worked for. Maybe he read my pieces.
It turns out I’m not the only one who thinks about Andrew. On the internet, in particular on Reddit and YouTube, there are communities of ‘citizen detectives’ who try to solve these mysteries. Sometimes I spend hours reading their posts to see if they might have got closer to finding him.
I hear from Andrew’s dad fairly regularly. Last time I was at home we had coffee and he told me there was a new lead suggesting Andrew might be in Lincoln. We both got excited, but nothing came of it. You can’t talk about missing children forever, so sometimes we chat about other things. But these conversations never last long before the guilt kicks in. I didn’t know Kevin before Andrew disappeared but I’ve seen photos. There was something different about him then: he wasn’t carrying the same sadness.
You might have seen Andrew as the face of an advertising campaign by the charity Missing People. It adorns a bus stop near where I live in east London. Chances are there’s one near you, too. For the people who loved Andrew, he seems closer than before, but still so far away.
I recently interviewed a woman called Lauren Bell. Her mother Penny was murdered in 1991, when Lauren was nine, stabbed 50 times as she sat in her car, parked by a leisure centre. They’ve never caught her killer. When Lauren turned 19, her father, Alistair – who was originally questioned by police but later ruled out as a suspect – told her he was incapable of love and asked her to move out. They don’t speak and Lauren had a breakdown. Now she’s married and has a child of her own. Her child is called Penny. That’s the sort of thing that matters to me. Death is boring. Living is not.
I sometimes wonder why I’m drawn to true crime, and Penny’s story helps me understand. My own family is complicated and tragic, too; not to the same degree, but it made me fearful and embarrassed growing up. I’m still working it out.
For all the fuss about Making a Murderer, the show that I consider most faithful to the genre is a British series I remember from my childhood. Cracker was different to what I’d seen before, not just in its realistic northern setting but in the way it portrayed its hero, Dr Edward ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, played by Robbie Coltrane. He didn’t chase bad people down side streets or anything like that. What he did was try to understand people. And to do that, he had to listen to them.
This goes to the heart of how crime stories, both true and fictional, are sold to us. We might find ourselves drawn to the sensational and gory, but too often those who profit from the true-crime boom neglect those who are left behind, the people who must deal with these tragedies for the rest of their lives. Their stories rarely get told. Once you’ve heard them, though, they become impossible to forget.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.