Award-winning crime novelist, Sarah Hilary, tells us why she was enthralled by The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and why it’s the crime drama of the year so far.
I’d missed the first two episodes of The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story because I really didn’t think it was for me. I went out to lunch with Alison Graham (TV Editor of Radio Times) and she asked me if I had been watching it. I had to confess that I hadn’t but she urged me to see it, and boy was she right. Everyone I’ve spoken to about it has been blown away by it. I haven’t seen any negative comments about it on social media either, which is very unusual – normally you get one or two people who find something to say about it.
I was particularly impressed by it from a writing point of view, and how they unpacked the story. Structurally, they started with the assassination of Versace himself. Then they peeled it back and told Andrew Cunanan’s story, a murder at a time as it were. It was only really in the final episode where they brought it back to the police chase. What I particularly liked about it was that they cast a very good-looking young actor to play Cunanan (Darren Criss), the psychopath. In the back of my head there has always been this question that has been ticking away about all these true crime serial killer projects that are out there at the moment – Zac Efron has done a Ted Bundy film (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile), there’s something about Manson that’s coming out, and there’s WACO, about David Koresh. I did enter into this series of American Crime Story quite warily and wondered whether this was just going to be just another a serial-killer-on-steroids depiction, with some catwalk glamour thrown in.
I was worried about whether it would lose sight of the obscene murders – the disgusting, repellent nature of what actually happened – but also the victims, which often happens in serial killer stories. I thought it might feature a very good-looking, sexy young psychopath taking off his preppy glasses and, like Wonder Woman, is transformed into something evil. Thankfully, it was much, much more than that and took the time to really explore the origin of Cunanan’s psychopathy, as well as treat his victims with respect.
And I became hypnotised by it. It was set in a very Miami Vice sort of world; a hyper-real, iconoclastic world of glamour and fashion, but where real murders took place. And what I didn’t know that Gianni Versace was killed by a serial killer, so suddenly there was an element of surprise and wanting to know the full story.
Those first two episodes were astonishing in their brutality. We not only had Versace’s death – slain on the steps of his opulent mansion – but also the ‘hammer murder’. I did question whether I could carry on because I found them very difficult to watch. But the writing and the structure of the series took you back – we saw the brutal hammering to death of his friend Jeffrey Trail, but we then spent the next two episodes finding out how Cunanan met him. They brought Jeffrey back to life, showed you his own torment and we followed his journey. We got to know him and admire him. If they had done it the other way – shown a young man conflicted about his sexuality, trying to escape the military, experimenting, trying to be brave, failing, trying to be brave, only to meet a terrible, awful, futile death, it wouldn’t have had the same impact if we had not been given this context. Jeffrey Trail had people who loved him. He had a life. He was brave.
It’s the same when Cunanan killed another young man later in the series. They were dancing in a club. They were both very beautiful. It was a spectacle. But by adding the humanity even though you’ve seen him die in the most horrible way, the brutality and callousness of Cunanan’s crime are given extra weight. For the victims you feel real sadness because we felt like we knew them.
When it comes out on DVD, I intend to watch it again but in reverse order, because that’s almost how it was structured. It was masterful. I’m pretty sure the whole pace of it deliberately slowed down as the series unfolded, which is very unusual. The first episode was very fast paced, but by the time we got to the middle of the series, when Cunanan has tip-toed over that edge into a habit he can’t stop and he’s interacting with his victims, those scenes are full of breathing space. Almost like screenwriter Tom Rob Smith’s previous work, London Spy. It’s very poetic. With its drawn-out moments, it really makes you think about Cunanan; about who he was and why he was doing what he was doing.
This nuanced, considered approach to exploring psychopathy made not only Cunanan a fully-rounded character, but also his prey real people, not martyrs or victims. Towards the end, there was a lovely line from a friend of Cunanan’s, a drug addict who more or less lived on Miami Beach, who said to the FBI when they questioned him: “You thought he was disgusting, long before he became disgusting.” Serial killers are often fetishised on television or in film, and to hear this line – an acknowledgement that serial killers are disgusting – is very rare.
Many serial killer series or films really focus on the chase and the cat-and-mouse element. With The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story the camera drew back and invested instead in the things we, as viewers, really value in a crime story: the compassion and the humanity, and the pity and the pathos. These things were layered delicately and slowly, and in a structural sense, it was a delight to watch. As a writer, I’m constantly fascinated at how screenwriters structure their stories, and Versace was an incredible example in peeling the layers back.
And unlike its predecessor (The People v. OJ Simpson), which often felt like a documentary, this really was a fully-formed drama and an original piece of work. It was so compelling and I can’t remember the last TV show I wanted to watch live as much as this, as opposed to catch-up. Tom Rob Smith has woven such an incredible story from such a sordid truth, one that has a mythic arc that includes all the themes I love to explore in my books: the legacy of childhood and the shadow it casts, and other people’s expectations. It’s going to take some serious beating.
Sarah Hilary is an award-winning crime author, whose fifth Marnie Rome book – Come And Find Me – is out to buy now, which The Observer said: “Hilary belts out a corker of a story, all wrapped up in her vivid, effortless prose. If you’re not reading this series of London-set police procedurals then you need to start right away.”