From Sherlock Holmes to Ian Rankin’s seemingly never-ending output of cookie-cutter detective novels, it feels like the popularity of crime fiction never went away. But it's true crime that has enjoyed a real resurgence in recent years. After the world was gripped by Adnan Syed’s potentially false conviction via the podcast Serial, along came a spate of Netflix documentaries combing over evidence in old murder cases (the Amanda Knox doc and The Life and Death of Marsha P Johnson are two worth watching). While some dramas focus on murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer, who targeted gay men, others highlight the serial killer trope of women getting murdered simply for being women, like David Fincher's Mindhunter, a veritable psychosexual headfuck.
Emma Hardy and Grace Harrison noticed this trend of podcasts and TV series after they first met while working for a magazine publisher in London. There, they began to discuss the lack of a good true crime magazine – one that didn’t fetishise serial killers' inherent misogyny and obsession with murdering women. They quickly came up with Foul Play, a respectful take on the true crime genre offering both reviews and features on all the true crime TV shows, podcasts and films currently flooding the market, as well as their own shot at serialised true crime content, including a regular column by a relative of one of serial killer Harold Shipman's many victims – a clever look at how much of an effect one evil person can have on a town and a community.
The first issue of Foul Play came out in January and will now come out quarterly. Ahead of issue two, we talked to Emma and Grace about what to expect from the magazine and what it means to be women who are utterly obsessed with true crime.
VICE: Hi guys. So, to start with, where do your individual interests in true crime come from?
Emma: I was obsessed with ghost stories as a kid, and watched a lot of thrillers and horror films as a teenager. When I started reading about true crime it felt similar, except you knew they had actually happened. I’m a big worrier and I like to try to mentally prepare for every eventuality, so reading about these experiences other people had fascinated me, because I would try and think about how I would have handled that situation. As I’ve gotten older it’s less about that, though, and more about feeling like the relationship our society has with crime and criminals needs some work; we’re going about trying to reduce it all wrong. There are a lot of reasons for that, and that's something I’m really keen for us to explore in the magazine.
Grace: It’s something I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with. It always seemed like a marginal, morbid and seedy thing to be into, but now it feels there must’ve always been a lot of people who share the same fascination [as] it’s finally becoming a bit more mainstream and acceptable. I’ve always particularly loved true crime literature. I remember reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote as a teenager, and Happy Like Murderers [by Gordon Burn]. I’ve always found crime fiction does it less for me, for some reason. The truth is normally far scarier.
How did the idea for the magazine come about, and how did you set to making it a reality?
Emma: We’d been sharing true crime podcast, book and film recommendations with each other every week when I came into work, and then one day, at an after-work drink thing, I realised there weren’t any true crime magazines that weren’t super gross and sensationalist. I blurted out to Grace that we should make a magazine about true crime and she just ran with it. She came up with the name almost immediately and we got super excited. Once we realised we were both being 100 percent serious about wanting to start it, we met up – sober, this time – and got things going.
Grace: We roped in help from a really experienced and talented magazine editor called Morgan, who acted as an advisor and helped us create flat-plans and production grids. We also decided early on to try and fund the print-run for issue one through pre-orders rather than crowd-funding. I think this was probably still the best route for us, but it involved hounding everyone I’ve ever met and making them buy copies in good faith.
Talk me through the design.
Emma: From a design perspective, we wanted something that was clean and concise, the polar opposite of the splashy, assaulting tabloid-style treatment of true crime, which meant no serial-killer pictures, a limited colour palette, straightforward typography. Some of the subjects we touch upon, and the non-sensational approach we take, can make imagery a challenge: we didn't want to illustrate a piece about Harold Shipman with the same picture of him that's been used by media the world over, or any picture of him, really. So we often take a more conceptual or tangential approach with imagery, and we spent a lot of time sourcing strong visuals. We unearthed amazing shots from a prison-break in Sweden in the 1970s, and have two fascinating visual-led stories – a photography tour of Jack the Ripper murder locations and a series of envelopes decorated by a prisoner in exchange for commissary.
Why did you decide to dedicate a section to podcasts?
Grace: It felt like a natural thing to do, especially as this is how we first discovered our mutual love of the subject – and podcasts are quite a big part to thank for why there has been a shift to the mainstream. Some of the true crime podcasts, like Making a Murderer, Serial and S-Town, have given the genre some real credibility, so it felt wrong not to include them.
As two women, do you think you're always catered for in the world of true crime?
Emma: Our audience is definitely more female than male, but having an interest in true crime is something lots of women still won’t admit to, as it’s not a particularly stereotypically feminine interest, and I think some women worry they’ll be judged negatively for wanting to read about murderers. I think it’s also unusual for a magazine to be started and led by two women, so I feel like we’re breaking through a few walls here.
Grace: I agree. I think, traditionally, there have probably always been as many – if not more – women into this kind of thing as men. However, I do think that a lot of the content hasn’t been geared towards women as much. True crime magazines have historically featured a bound, gagged, busty woman on the front, somehow managing to look both scared and also suggestive. I know I wouldn’t want to buy that. I think it has also never felt like a particularly feminist pursuit, but that’s definitely changing, and the new wave of podcasts – particularly by female creators – has really helped with this shift. One of my favourite podcasts, AllKillaNoFilla, is a great example; it toes the right side of true crime, remaining non-sensational, focusing on the victims, and also features a female friendship at its heart, as well as being hilarious.
The Ann Tornkvist story, about her experience as a reporter writing a book about the Mafia, is great. How did you hear about her story and get her to write for you?
Grace: This was one of my favourite stories from issue one. Ann Törnkvist is a Swedish crime journalist who had just finished writing her debut book about Swedish gang crime, Folj Fucking Order (Follow Fucking Orders), when she started to receive threats from the gangster the book was about. She had to go into hiding, which obviously massively affected her work and life. To make the story more complicated, her publisher then dropped the book. It became a tabloid story in Sweden about the pressure journalists face and how they should be supported when under threat.
The story we ran is a personal account of the fear and paranoia she felt during her time on the run. Ann got in touch with me through our website after feeling like her values in terms of crime reporting matched what we were trying to do. It’s also a really interesting subject for Foul Play, as gang crime in Sweden isn’t something you’d usually think about, especially for us in the UK. As an interesting update to the story, Ann is actually about to start her book tour in Sweden, and is going to have to do it under armed security while in certain locations.
Finally, does the magazine pose ethical questions?
Grace: Yes, I think it definitely does. We’re trying to make the first 100 percent non-sensational true crime publication – to prove that you can have an interest in the subject while also being respectful. There’s definitely a weird side to the true crime community that we aren’t comfortable with. People who wear serial killer T-shirts and share Ted Bundy memes. That’s definitely not us.
Emma: Definitely not. Right from the outset we’ve made it our priority to question everything that goes in. We don’t want it to be sensational, we don’t want there to be victim blaming, we don’t want people to be revelling in the gory details of someone’s demise. Instead, we want to prompt people to think about crime in our society in a thoughtful way, and create a new dialogue that doesn’t necessarily agree with this very firm "victim" and "bad guy" narrative that our society is currently going with. That doesn’t mean we’re not sometimes up for a bit of humour, though; we stuck in the "Anti-crimax" page – where we take funny crime-related news headlines we’ve seen – at the end, to bring some light-hearted relief to what can be a fairly heavy topic.