My investigation of True Detective magazine

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

Every writer has a trick that helps him imagine an audience – while sitting alone in a room at the keyboard – so that the words flow more easily. Writing is a form of communication, so we must envision someone we are communicating with, even if the piece ultimately will be published in a form of mass media and read by many. Most picture writing for a person they know; say a parent, a spouse or an old friend.

I sometimes do that. But oftentimes, when I’m writing something more serious, I’ll have a more elaborate fantasy audience. … Say, somehow, the world were destroyed. Obliterated. Everyone’s gone. Years, decades, centuries go by. … Then an alien ship finds Earth. And the only evidence of advanced civilization they find – that somehow survived a fiery millennium – is a crumpled up piece of paper amongst some ruins. And on that paper – the story you are writing right now. They translate it.

Did what the aliens find really leave a legacy for humankind? Did they find your Magnum Opus? Your Great American Novel? Or did they find your spec script for “Family Guy?”Image

Which brings me to my latest find, a 1987 True Detective magazine.

And, based upon my confession above – the “aliens will find my manuscript” fantasy – I myself often look for long-forgotten diamonds in the rough from other authors. I much prefer a used bookstore or the book shelf in a thrift store to some clean and shiny Borders. I find some old and yellowed pulp book and realize I’m the only person in the world about to read it. And by reading it, perhaps I give some cosmic good karma to some long-forgotten author.

This past summer, I decided to slum it a bit and read detective fiction. I was done with one academic job and waiting for a new academic job to begin, it was ungodly hot, and I found the structure of that genre comforting. And I recalled that my late mother, a deputy sheriff, would read boxes upon boxes of this stuff. I didn’t really understand it when she was alive, but, while I’m not converted, this past summer did give me an appreciation for the craft.

And I’d totally forgotten that her favorite magazine, True Detective, had existed until it turned up in an unrelated search I’d done on Ebay. Surprisingly, many of these issues are worth a lot of money. Especially the ones with bondage on the cover (not that that’s what I was searching for!).

My curiosity was piqued. Under my parents’ bed growing up were lots of adult magazines. As a kid, I’d go for the Playboys, and had totally ignored these. Until now – and I am the age my parents were then.

I first went on Amazon to see if True Detective or anything like it were still being published today. No, not in the USA. Wikipedia said that True Detective folded in 1995. Then its parent company was sold and sold again, and that company is now in bankruptcy.

ImageI ordered one of the cheaper, non-bondage issues of True Detective from Ebay – $5 with shipping (the cover price was $1.95, though). It’s the one you see in the photo at the top of this page, from October 1987 (it was a monthly). The cover pic is just of a normal-looking female officer with a flashlight. The headlines, though, were dramatic – “Incredible Police Work in Arkansas Ended the 10-STATE CRIME SPREE of the PEG-LEG KILLER”; “Puzzler for British Sherlocks: WHO BURIED NUDE WOMEN IN SHALLOW GRAVES?”; “Probers Heard the Strangest Motive of All in the Case of the GIRLS WHO LAUGHED BEFORE DYING!”; and “California Sleuths Piled Clue Upon Clue to Nab THE KNIFE-WIELDING SEX MONSTER WHO CLAIMED TWO!”

How could a magazine like this not have a market today? It’s so sensational. But, I guess, cheaply-put-together publications aimed at average Joes mostly started to fade away as the 21st century approached. The last of which was the wacky Weekly World News, perhaps, which had dropped from a circulation of 1.2M in the 1980s to just 83,000 at its demise in 2007.

Elvis finally was dead. And maybe people have lost their sense of humor?

Or maybe – as had happened to radio plays when TV came along, or happened to black and white TV shows when color TV came around – there were translation issues. What the Weekly World News and American detective magazines had in common were their being printed on older, black and white presses. With dwindling readerships already, perhaps they couldn’t afford to go to color presses. Maybe they thought they were being kitschy and retro. It didn’t work. There’s a reason why there are no new black and white TV shows, let alone radio plays, of note today. People aren’t comfortable with these formats anymore. Times change.

In the mid-90s, around the time magazines like True Detective (and its sister magazines, Master Detective and Official Detective) folded, I was working at a newspaper based in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., called The American that was a good-looking tabloid and well edited, I must say, but had a business model that was doomed to fail.

The problem? The Internet.

Its goal was to be the USA Today of Europe. It actually looked better than that paper. It had millionaire backers. We sent a relatively new technology – PDFs – to printing plants in Berlin and London. The paper was distributed to dozens of countries abroad.

The paper had no serious ads and no plans to attract them. The cover price was high; the publisher, a former news correspondent for a major magazine, felt somehow a cover price would be enough to pay the bills. Typical editorial person’s perspective. I used to think that way in the days when I was writing and editing papers and had ambitions to start my own publications. (It wasn’t until I’d learned that courting the right advertisers should be a part of the planning process when starting a periodical did I start to create successful ventures.)Image

And The American was a colossal failure. It only lasted a few years, but is now totally forgotten. There’s no mention of the paper on the Internet. It’s as if it never existed. While it tried to be USA Today, USA Today isn’t exactly known for having much personality. (But USA Today maintains a large circulation – boosted mostly by free distribution at business hotels – and thus attracts some high-end advertisers to pay the bills.)

Readers need something to latch on to to pick up a publication. Give them a laugh. Give them hope. Give them practical info. Give them SOMETHING. But The American was all about trimming 2000 word stories into 400 word stories and that was that. I was too young and too low on the totem pole to know better or change anything and went with the flow.

The target audience was expatriates and others in Europe, mainly interested in American sports and entertainment. We’d stay up to 3 a.m. before we ftp’d the pdfs to get these readers the latest scores. Then the Internet hit, and who would need to spend $4 on some newspaper when was free? ( also killed its own paper publication, largely, which now is just a bi-weekly shadow of its former self.)

I can only assume that True Detective had a similar fate. Sensational stories like those in the magazine were all over the Internet by the ’90s. From my analysis of True Detective, they made the mistake of raising its cover price too high over the years as ad revenue fell. It was $2.25 in 1990; a good deal for pulp.

The publishers probably felt that they had to do that because advertising was dropping. The types of ads the magazine attracted were no longer viable in print by the age of the Internet – mail order brides, mail order porn, fake badges, sex boosters, weight gain/loss, correspondence schools, witchcraft, photos of medical oddities and get-rich-quick schemes. The Internet provided all of this stuff better and cheaper.

Judging by the ads, the typical reader was a male sociopath who lived in his mother’s basement, had minimal education, had money Imageissues, was a wimp and rarely scored with women.

Meanwhile, because of the presence of such ads, reputable advertisers stayed away from True Detective. There weren’t even ads for cigarette or gun companies. At the same time, as the cover price increased, circulation must have fallen to the point where getting national advertisers of note was less and less likely.

Also, their editor in chief, pulp king Art Crockett – known for his ability to type up endless copy, with lots of adjectives, on an old manual typewriter while smoking two packs a day — died of a heart-attack in 1990. Sometimes just one person can be the soul of a company. I’m sure the magazine lost its intangible allure after his death.

True Detective was in a hopeless downward spiral. Curiously, such detective magazines are still popular in the United Kingdom. It would be interesting to investigate why such lurid crime magazines survive there, while in the USA they are dead. For one thing, the U.K. mags do not put staged photos of half-naked, fearful-looking women on the cover. Instead, they mostly use perp head- and mugshots and actual crime photos, however grainy.

Part of it also may be because American TV is so much more ample than English TV – especially back in the 1990s when England was still limited to just a few channels to our hundreds. Someone who is under-educated and lives in mom’s basement here can watch one of a number of shows to get his crime fix.

The most famous of which is “America’s Most Wanted,” which began in 1988 and still is popular today.

Another factor is, I think the “average” American is less literate than in generations past. As lurid as True Detective was, the stories were long and required an attention span. (The average story was pieced together from old court reports with lots of details, but not always easy to follow.) It’s probably also safe to assume that the average Englishman has a better mastery of the language than the average American, and thus why “long-story” detective magazines live on abroad.Image

One story I read in the May 1987 True Detective was written by Marilyn Keelin and titled, “KC cops wrap up the unique investigation in the CASE OF THE MISSING GAY AND THE DEADLY STRIPPER! PART TWO.” I’m not sure what “PART ONE” was about, but this story seemed to not really need a set up, anyway. (Also, we never see “gay” written as a noun anymore!)

The writer seemed to do no original reporting. She mostly just relied on court transcripts to pound out a story that read easily enough. Though there were many grammatical errors the editors failed to catch.

The gist of the story: A good-looking guy, who sometimes was a male stripper, killed a chubby, but good-hearted, well-liked guy for his Camaro by luring him to a secluded area. The evidence was overwhelming against the stripper, so the attraction of the story for an interested reader would not be in pretending to be Sherlock Holmes and solving some mystery. More so, a person would read such a story to be offended – by peeking into the mind of a sadistic killer.

My mother used to often tell me crime stories from her own experiences in that world. The point wasn’t that the criminals were smart, nor the investigators. No. The stories were about human depravity. How low people can sink to satisfy base desires.

I guess the lesson is, most people are not far from being cavemen. So stay on guard.

But True Detective – the American version, not the U.K. version – with its scantily clad, timid, often bound and gagged women on the covers, seemed marketed at the cavemen within us. There’s a reason why, today, the old magazines with such covers are collectible – sold on Ebay for $20 and up with keywords like “bondage” and “rape.” Perhaps the average reader was on the borderline of being a criminal himself. Judging by the ads, especially.

So maybe it’s a good thing that such a magazine didn’t survive into the 21st century.

ImageThough, interestingly, Timothy Pride – the “black, extremely muscular, six-foot-three” janitor who killed two women office workers in “Sex Monster Claimed Two!” and ended up on a California Death Row – was killed in 1994, according to a google search. New DNA evidence was about to, perhaps, clear Pride, and corrections staff accidentally, they said, shot and killed him before his case could be reheard. Though the evidence was pretty overwhelming against Pride, DNA or not.

Times – and detective methods – change, along with the media. Though part of me is considering creating a paper detective magazine. Maybe class up what was True Detective a bit. I have some ideas to make it work, this time.

This story appeared in issue 3-1 of Campus News.


“[Her brassiere] was knotted around her neck. So tightly that it was completely invisible between two ridges of swollen flesh. Her open eyes were glazed over. Her tongue protruded, black and swollen, from her mouth. And there was a yellow stain on the sheet between her legs, indicating that she had lost control of her bladder as she died.”
– From “The Girls Who Laughed Before Dying” by John Dunning.

“A trail of blood led him to the women’s restroom. … There, he found a large quantity of blood on the floor near the wash basins and blood splatters on the walls and floor. … Moving closer he saw the partially nude body of a young woman on the floor. … The woman, a stranger to him, was obviously dead. … [S]he had probably been raped.”
– From “Sex Monster Claimed Two!” by Walt Hecox.

“[Essie] Black’s blouse had been ripped open, buttons scattered around the bedroom. She still wore her bra and pants. It seemed that the kind and gentle lady now so brutally murdered had at least been spared the final indignity of rape. … [S]he had been stabbed Imagethree times in the back, six times in the chest and her throat had been slashed, probably after she was dead. … Investigators agreed it was one of the most vicious cases of ‘overkill’ they had ever seen. … The killer added [a] bizarre touch. He carved an ‘X’ on the victim’s right cheek.”
– From “The 10-State Crime Spree of the Peg-Leg Killer!” by Tara Lewis.

“Her clothing had been removed from the waist down and even with a quick glance Sergeant Machen could see she had been stabbed repeatedly. Her color indicated she was dead and had been for some time.”
– From “Sex Monster Claimed Two!” by Walt Hecox.

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