True Crime and Truth Claims

portrait drawing of Grace Marks and James McDermott


By Sarah Griswold

I recently finished watching the Netflix Original series Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s book by the same name. I haven’t yet read the book (I do plan to), but would I have understood or enjoyed the series differently if I had?

The series is marketed as an historical fiction. It would seem that this term is self-contradictory. If fiction is by definition a falsehood, why pair it with “historical” which elicits ideas of fact and truth? The very ideas of these terms contradict one another. But I would propose a more complex reframing. What if it is not truth, but rather truth claims? Whenever a history is told, it’s always in the form of some type of narrative — be it literary like in the form of a book or in physical sites like the well at Cawnpore or other memorials. Narratives necessarily exclude some information and embellish in certain areas for the sake of comprehension. The term “historical” doesn’t necessarily imply complete truth, but rather truth to the person telling the history. So perhaps the term “historical fiction” makes perfect sense.  And this is precisely what we’re given with Alias Grace, a historical fiction that at once claims truth and falsehood. But why has it been classified as historical fiction and not true crime? And what difference does that classification make?

When I first came across the series, I was hardly familiar. I watched the first episode knowing only that it was set in Canada during the 19th century. And I was hooked. The story itself feels novel and yet familiar. As a casual fan of true crime, I’m familiar with how the story is structured. Something bad happened. We don’t really know what, but we do know who has been blamed. We’re then taken through a serialized journey to discover what happened and who did it. Or maybe we’re left hanging, having to come to our own conclusions. In each episode one major twist and several minor clues are revealed — breadcrumbs on the proverbial path. In Alias Grace episodes two and three seem to divert from the path until connections are made later on that lead to the peak of the narrative hill.

It was around these episodes that I started to google and learn more about the series. This was when I learned the book on which it was based was written by Margaret Atwood. Personally (and I know this is controversial), I’m not that into Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale, set it aside, and didn’t particularly care to return. This is not to say that I don’t recognize its value and contribution to popular culture. I just doubt I would’ve watched Alias Grace if I had known going in about its connection to Atwood. Our own preconceived notions of what a thing is determine how we consume or interact with it. Starting this series with fewer preconceived notions allowed me to give it a fair shake. Later, once I had done more reading, I learned Atwood based her novel on real events, keeping as close to the historical record as possible. This becomes much more complicated in analyzing Atwood’s own understanding of the events. What were her preconceived notions? Why did she interpret the court records in certain ways? These are all important questions to explore.

But this all leads me to wonder, why has Alias Grace been classified as historical fiction rather than true crime? Are true crime narratives somehow not historical fiction? Atwood seemingly adhered tightly to what might be considered the “facts” of the case. Perhaps it has to do with when the murders and trial took place. Perhaps it had to do with (spoiler alert) Mary Whitney’s apparent possession of Grace Marks. Perhaps it even has to do with Atwood’s identification as a fiction writer rather than a reporter or historian. Or perhaps all of these and other factors I haven’t even thought of play a role in this classification. But at the end of the day does the classification of Alias Grace as historical fiction rather than true crime effect how we interact with it? For me (and probably you), the answer is a hard and resounding yes.


Photo credit: Special Collections Toronto Public Library via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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