When I was a kid, I used to love to peruse magazine racks at grocery stores while my mom shopped for groceries. In addition to the latest issues of Mad and Cracked, my eyes were always inevitably drawn to the somewhat trashy, exploitative true crime detective magazines that still filled newsstands in the mid-to-late 1980s. I was allowed to buy one occasionally, but even if I didn’t take one home, I’d quickly flip through the pages filled with lurid stories of kidnapping, armed robbery, dismemberment, and murder.
These magazines played a pivotal part in my nascent obsession with true crime that continues to this day. Little did I know as a youngster that the magazines filled with these tales were part of a grand tradition of crime publication that stretched all the way back to the 1920s, peaked mid-century, and, ultimately, would disappear completely by the mid-1990s.
The most well-known magazine of the genre, True Detective, started in 1924 (as True Detective Mysteries). The original issues featured a combination of true crime and crime fiction stories, but by the 1930s the magazine was fully dedicated to only non-fiction. True Detective‘s publisher Bernarr Macfadden was a pioneer in the field, and by World War II the hard-boiled true detective magazine genre was at its apex, with roughly 200 different titles on newsstands across the country. The covers of these rags were brilliantly illustrated in the noir style that collectors clamor for and artists try to replicate today.
At its peak, True Detective had a circulation of two million readers every month. The stories found in these magazines exposed the seedy underbelly of our nation’s culture, especially in the post-World War II years when most Americans desired a lily-white, suburban existence after years of financial depression and war. Writers who went on to be big names like Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, and Ann Rule all cut their teeth writing crime stories for detective magazines.
True Detective was not simply an exploitative publication, however. Sometimes the articles they ran led to important social reforms, as was the case after the magazine serialized the article “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” in 1931. The series showed the harsh, abusive reality of life as a convict in Georgia and politicians took notice.
As American society changed, so did the contents of True Detective and similar magazines. Issues from the 1920s up through the 1960s told crime stories, but they were often focused on the heroism and success of law enforcement. The late 1960s saw social upheaval in the U.S., and True Detective‘s stories accordingly started to focus on the sickos, weirdos, perverts, and drug addicts that many people thought were responsible for the seismic shift in American norms.
Despite the change in content, sales plummeted for years. Readers lost interest in the magazines and turned their attention to paperbacks and, in the 1980s and 1990s, cable TV shows and specials that covered the same sensational stories. In 1996, True Detective was shut down for good, the final nail in the coffin for the true crime magazine industry.
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