True Crime Writing: Practice-led Research

Dr Rachel Spencer

What are the ethical challenges for the lawyer-writer when using law as a framework for a true crime narrative? My research is an innovative cross-disciplinary study positioned at the nexus of legal theory and creative writing. It is a work of creative research into an important South Australian criminal case from 1981. Drawing on the experience of writing an artefact that is styled as a true crime narrative, using familiar fictional techniques and generic conventions, I have reflected on the creative process and considered the specific ethical issues that have arisen. Using the creative methodology of practice-led research, my research excavates the intersecting seams of disciplinary knowledge within law and true crime, deliberately and explicitly negotiating the methods and ethics of life writing. I draw conclusions about the specific ethical issues and narrative challenges that also define my unique circumstances: a practising lawyer writing for a popular audience about a complex criminal case. I conclude that the product of the lawyer- writer is not art for art’s sake, but as an alternative expression of the disciplinary literacy of law.

My research is positioned at the highly original interdisciplinary nexus of legal theory and creative writing, piloting new knowledge in relation to ethics in true crime writing. Using the creative methodology of practice-led research, my research makes a highly original contribution to scholarly understanding and professional practice. This is because it uses law as a framework for a true crime story rather than journalism, providing a new point of view. There is a gap in the current literature as regards telling true crime stories from the perspective of the lawyer. The lawyer-writer has a unique perspective in crafting a first-person true crime narrative.

My research has been successfully submitted as a PhD thesis (conferred in 2021). I am currently developing the creative portion as a commercial true crime narrative. Also in development are two articles from the thesis about 1) true crime as a literary genre and 2) the ethical complexity of speculating about criminal trials as well as the ethical sensitivities required in using archival material as a primary source of data.


Spencer, R. (2018). Troubling narratives of true crime: Helen Garner’s This House of Grief and Megan Norris’s On Father’s Day. TEXT 22(50).

Spencer, R. (2017). Dignifying the poisoned chalice: the ethical challenges of using archival material in a narrative about death and arsenic. TEXT, 21(45).

Spencer, R. (2014). Do members of the public have a ‘right to know’ about similar fact evidence? The Emily Perry story and the ‘right to know’ in the context of a fair re-trial. Oñati Socio-legal Series, 4(4), 740-760.

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