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Murder made public

29 October 2007

Why is there a compulsive need to write about dreadful real-life murders? And why are their perpetrators sometimes so keen to unveil their crimes?

In the case of O J Simpson, the infamous American ex-footballer, the reason may be money, even though it is the families of his alleged victims who will benefit. New charges made last week against O J Simpson and three co-defendants in the alleged armed robbery of two sports memorabilia dealers have brought him back into the news. The case suggests that he is short of money.

O J Simpson's book, originally called If I did it (News Review 27 November 2006) was cancelled last year after the announcement of its publication by HarperCollins US led to a wave of revulsion against it in the American book trade and many bookstores refusing to stock it. Embarrassingly and very late in the game, HarperCollins had to pull out and withdraw the book. According to a Newsweek story, all 400,000 printed copies were recalled for destruction, except for one, locked away in a vault at News Corporation (HarperCollins' parent company). One copy did show up on eBay in January, with a starting bid of $1500 (£731), and sold for over $65,000 (£31,665).

The current success in the American charts of Simpson's reworked book, now called Confessions of a Killer and published by Beaufort, points to an ongoing public obsession with this story. Rod Liddle in the The Times damned it as: 'A book that is simultaneously morally disgusting and excruciatingly dull. A filthy little project that, although extremely brief (there's a lot of padding in those 208 pages), succeeds in both boring the reader beyond endurance and making him gag.'

Meanwhile in September in a famous case in Poland the successful writer Krystian Bala was convicted of the grisly murder of his ex-wife's suspected lover, Dariusz Janiszewski, in 2000 and sentenced to 25 years' detention. Bala claimed that his book, the bestselling Amok, was fiction, but there were many similarities to the unsolved murder. Police received an anonymous tip-off about the connection and were able to establish that Bala had sold the victim's phone a few days after his death. It was though the very similar details of the murder which gave the author away. In this case it looks as if Bala could not stop himself from wanting to show the world how clever he had been.

Both books have an element of the confessional about them. Perhaps the more interesting question is why the public is so obsessed with these grisly murder stories, and why the 'true crime' element adds so much to the public fascination with these famous crimes.