"True crime" is a recently coined term used to refer to nonfictional accounts of actual crimes, usually murders. There has been little systematic study of the genre or its readers; critics and publishers offer contradictory theories about true-crime literature. Although the term and the popularity of the genre are relatively new, factual accounts of crimes are not. True-crime accounts date back as far as the 18th century, and such writers as Edmund Pearson, William Roughead, and Jonathan Goodman described the exploits of criminals earlier in the twentieth century. Critics agree that Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) gave birth to the genre. Called a nonfiction novel, the book was a not-strictly-factual account of the murder of a Kansas family in which Capote focused on the killers—not the victims, as was the norm previously—in attempting to explain why the killers acted as they did. Capote's work and Norman Mailer's book The Executioner's Song (1980) are considered classics of the genre.
In the 1980s, the true-crime book market enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. Many critics suggest that the advent of tabloid television, the desensitizing of violence, and the rise in media coverage of crimes led to an increase in demand for factual accounts, particularly of serial killings. Although some critics contend that the popularity of the true-crime genre is a uniquely American phenomenon, other commentators point out that true-crime books are very popular in England, a country with a low homicide rate. Some scholars have suggested that readers are reassured by writers' descriptions of killers as monstrous and inhuman, placing them outside the realm of normal society. However, writers like Capote and Mailer have focused almost sympathetically on how incidents in the criminals' youths transformed them into killers. Most commentators agree that the most popular true-crime books feature victims who are ordinary Americans, not unlike the readers themselves; focus on a crime which is violent and gruesome; end in a conviction of a criminal; and offer commentary on some aspect of contemporary society. Some of the most popular true-crime writers today are Ann Rule, Jack Olsen, and Joe McGinniss.
Representative Works Discussed Below
Baker, Mark: Bad Guys: America's Most Wanted in Their Own Words (nonfiction) 1996
Berkow, Ira: The Man Who Robbed the Pierre: The True Story of Bobby Comfort (nonfiction) 1987
Bolitho, William: Murder for Profit (nonfiction) 1926
Capote, Truman: In Cold Blood (nonfiction) 1966
Davis, Don: The Milwaukee Murders (nonfiction) 1991
Defoe, Daniel: True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the late Jonathan Wild; not made up of Fiction and Fable, but taken from his own Mouth, and Collected from Papers of his own Writing (nonfiction) 1725
Egginton, Joyce: From Cradle to Grave: The Short Lives and Strange Deaths of Marybeth Tinning's Nine Children (nonfiction) 1989
Elkind, Peter: Death Shift: The True Story of Nurse Genene Jones and the Texas Baby Murders (nonfiction) 1989
Englade, Ken: Beyond Reason: A True Story of a Shocking Double Murder, a Brilliant and Beautiful Virginia Socialite and a Deadly Psychotic (nonfiction) 1990
Goldfarb, Ronald: Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes: Robert F. Kennedy's War against Organized Crime (nonfiction) 1996
Graysmith, Robert: The Sleeping Lady: The Trailside Murders Above the Golden Gate (nonfiction) 1990
Hammer, Richard: The CBS Murders: A True Story of Greed and Violence in New York's Diamond District (nonfiction) 1987
Jesse, F. Tennyson: Murder and Its Motives (nonfiction) 1924
Kaminer, Wendy: It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture (nonfiction) 1995
Lewis, Craig A.: Blood Evidence: A Story of True Crime in the South (nonfiction) 1990
Linedecker, Clifford L: Night Stalker (nonfiction) 1991
Mailer, Norman: The Executioner's Song (nonfiction) 1980
McGinniss, Joe: Fatal Vision (nonfiction) 1983; Blind Faith (nonfiction) 1989; Cruel Doubt (nonfiction) 1991
Michaud, Stephen G., and Hugh Aynesworth: The Only Living Witness (nonfiction) 1989
Mones, Paul: Stalking Justice (nonfiction) 1995
Olsen, Jack: Son: A Psychopath and His Victims (nonfiction) 1985; Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell (nonfiction) 1989
Pearson, Edmund: Studies in Murder (nonfiction) 1924
Potter, Jerry Allen, and Fred Bost: Fatal Justice: Reinvestigating the MacDonald Murders (nonfiction) 1995
Roughead, William: Malice Domestic (nonfiction) 1928
Rule, Ann: Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder (nonfiction) 1987
Snimomura, Tsutomu, and John Markoff: Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw—by the Man Who Did It (nonfiction) 1996
Thompson, Tommy: Blood and Money (nonfiction) 1976
Wolfe, Linda: Wasted: The Preppie Murder (nonfiction) 1989
History And Analysis
William Goldhurst (essay date Fall 1989)
SOURCE: "The New Revenge Tragedy: Comparative Treatments of the Beauchamp Case," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 22, Fall, 1989, pp. 117-27.
[In the following essay, Goldhurst remarks on several literary treatments of the Beauchamp-Sharp murder case, which transpired in Kentucky in 1825.]
Poe's strategy of setting an American literary situation in a remote and exotic environment has a special and complex application in the verse drama Politian, written in 1835. Set in Rome during the Renaissance, the play is a retelling of the Beauchamp-Sharp murder case, which took place in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1825 and is known to historians as the Kentucky Tragedy. The story has attracted the notice of numerous authors from Poe's day to our own, including Thomas Holley Chivers, William Gilmore Simms, Charles Fenno Hoffman and Robert Penn Warren.
The lurid aspects of the sordid affair needed little blowing up to please sensation seekers of the period. Sex and violence are the foundation, while seduction, pregnancy, desertion, slander and revenge all play vivid roles in the elaboration. There is no single climax: but a bloody murder and then a trial ending in a guilty verdict, a suicide pact, and a public hanging are high points of intensity near the conclusion.
Two components of this story line are perhaps more compelling than the others: the idea that the seducer must die, and the character of Ann Cooke, who offered herself to Beauchamp on the condition that he kill for her. Of course young Beauchamp made her quarrel his own, and swore that he was acting on moral principle, as if Sharp had wronged not only a provincial maiden, but all decent men and women. Most likely Beauchamp eventually came to believe his own internal propaganda; but it was Ann Cooke who breathed life into his anger and kindled his blood lust.
According to Beauchamp's Confession, Cooke told him her heart would cease to ache only when Colonel Sharp was killed and not by a stranger to her tragedy, but by her agent acting under her direction. She was willing to kiss the hand of the person who avenged her, Ann was; and furthermore would remain forever in his debt. Later Beauchamp taught her how to shoot his pistol and she contemplated killing Sharp herself. But this plan was soon scrapped and the agent idea reinstated. When Beauchamp inquired if he should kill Sharp's brother, too, Cooke said no—not because she cared to spare the innocent, but knowing how the brother worshipped the colonel, she thought he would suffer more if left alive.
Eventually the plan was put into effect, Sharp was tricked into opening his front door and stabbed in his own vestibule, and a triumphant Beauchamp returned to an ecstatic Ann Cooke, who fell to her knees, kissed Beauchamp's hand, and begged to hear all the details of "the glorious deed."
At the end, Cooke visited Beauchamp in prison, bringing laudanum. The does did not "take," and upon recovering they agreed to use a knife, which Cooke had smuggled into the cell. "I can refuse her nothing she prays of me to do," writes Beauchamp as his execution hour approaches. He raises the dagger and plunges it into his side, but Cooke deflects the blow, grabs the blade and directs the thrust into her own abdomen. Cooke dies of her wound; Beauchamp goes bleeding to the gallows.
The Letters of Ann Cooke provides an interesting glimpse (if they can be believed) into Cooke's feelings as she went from innocent maid to mistress to avenger. On the fatal night of her seduction, Sharp invited her to a ball, where she was "carried away" with the lights, the music, the dancing, and the wine her escort forced upon her. Acting under the influence of all these powerful and unaccustomed stimuli, Cooke says her "reason was subdued by the power of a resistless passion," etc. Before the year was out, she heard that Sharp intended to marry someone else. When she learned from Sharp himself that this was true, she sank to the floor in a faint and spent the next several weeks in her bed with a raging fever. Some months later, her baby died and Ann Cooke began to lapse into "a settled melancholy."
Eventually she emerged from her depression sufficiently to entertain Beauchamp's proposals. Yet she told him she felt she could never again experience happiness in this life, so deep was the trauma Sharp had inflicted. She believed Beauchamp thought her "degraded and unworthy" because she had been another man's fool.
Still, she was beginning to enjoy life again until she learned of Sharp's latest treachery: he was circulating a story that her baby was fathered by a negro and had even had a forged birth certificate drawn up as proof of her indiscretion. According to the Letters, it was at this point that Cooke invoked the Erinyes. "We took a solemn oath," she says, "that nothing but the heart's blood of the slanderer and betrayer should atone for the deep and horrible injury he had inflicted." As Beauchamp evolved from visitor to suitor to fiancé he and Cooke shared her gradually mounting anger over the mjustices done her by Sharp. In calmer moments, she reminded Beauchamp that the world regarded her as "guilty and polluted." He responded by insisting that she was the innocent victim of a scoundrel's treachery.
They marry. The plan to avenge her wrongs is set in motion. Sharp is killed. Beauchamp is tried and convicted. Cooke commits suicide in his presence and he is soon afterward hanged as a felon.
Ann Cooke represents the dark side of the naive American Frauendienst—the habit of dehumanizing women of the time by investing them with an unrealistic purity, spirituality and vulnerability. Individual women who swallowed the mythology whole and then exaggerated its effects could easily assume a becoming narcissism with attendant feelings of self-pity over life's injustices and a brutal attitude toward the men who had wronged them.
The real Ann Cooke is difficult to identify. Certainly she did not resemble the portrait circulated by Sharp's defenders, where she is pictured as a "waning flirt of 35" who had lost her front teeth and had no chin, etc. Most likely she was average in appearance, if not beautiful, and Sharp did seduce her and then left her to marry another woman. Perhaps a healthy attitude at that point might have been a sense of shared irresponsibility. But the very definition of seduction, with its implication that the man took advantage, pressured the woman to succumb, etc. involves the idea of misconduct on the part of the male acting out a power charade against the passive female. From this assumption to: the seducer must pay! is only a short logical step.
To be sure, the early American seduction novels placed some of the blame upon the female victim, implying or stating explicitly that she was guilty of romantic fantasizing or frivolity. Still, the notion of exploitation of the female persisted, with many of Poe's contemporaries sharing the view that seducers deserved to die for offending against morality and violating the integrity of the social structure.
George Lippard certainly endorsed this view. His The Monks of Monk Hall concludes with the murder (or as Lippard would have us believe, the execution) of the seducer Gus Lorrimer by Byrnewood Arlington, brother of Lorrimer's victim, Mary Arlington. Byrnewood gloats over the corpse of the seducer with typical Lippard verbosity: "Ha, ha! Here is blood warm, warm, aye, warm and gushing—that gushing of the Wronger's blood!" And so on.
Earlier, Mary's seduction is accomplished with all the imagined sentiments of the stereotyped sexual villain. "Force—violence" muses the handsome Lorrimer, who says he has deeper means than force. "My victim is the instrument of her own ruin—without one rude grasp from my hand, without one threatening word, she swims willingly to my arms!"
Not only did Lippard celebrate the murder of Lorrimer in his novel, but his inflamed rhetoric resulted in a wave of public opinion (according to Leslie Fiedler's Introduction to Monks) that led to passage of an anti-seduction law in New York state in 1849. Death to the seducer became an ingrained formula in the urban consciousness at least, often invoked to explain the sudden or mysterious death of popular controversial figures. An irate husband or brother beat him to death: so people whispered about Poe following his collapse in Baltimore. Years later the same rumor would be circulated about Louis Gottschalk, who in fact suffered peritonitis from months of overwork.
"The seduction of a poor and innocent girl is a deed altogether as criminal as deliberate murder. It is worse than the murder of the body, for it is the assassination of the soul. If the murderer deserves death by the gallows, then the assassin of chastity and maidenhood is worthy of death by the hands of any man, and in any place," says the Monks author.
Lippard's revenge melodrama has much in common with the Kentucky Tragedy: the author might have had Sharp and Beauchamp and Cooke in mind when fashioning Lorrimer, Byrnewood and Mary. One conspicuous difference, however, is in his portrayal of the ruined maid. Mary Arlington, while suffering from severe depression after her "fall," assumes that her pollution and worthlessness are irredeemable; but unlike Cooke she tries to prevent any moves toward retaliation. "The wrong has been done," says Mary to her brother, "but do not, I beseech you, visit his (that is, Lorrimer's) head with a curse—." In Lippard's scheme of things, most women are pure, long-suffering, uncomplicated, and forgiving. The concept of a vindictive woman he found not unthinkable, but offensive.
Other authors of Poe's time discovered similar difficulties in attempting to portray Ann Cooke in drama or fiction. After all, weren't women, according to the popular stereotype, flawless, as well as spiritual, sentimental, loving, caring, uplifting, weak, helpless, ill, refined and self-sacrificing? How, then, with this idealized image in the popular mind, depict a vengeful, vindictive, obsessed, insane, bloodthirsty female without surrendering reader sympathy in the portrayal? It would seem that Poe and his contemporaries in this extremely revealing instance had three alternatives: 1) paint her black, make her the villain; 2) change her character, as Lippard did, omitting whatever ugly motives and emotions readers might find objectionable; or 3) complicate her character; make her vindictive, but with mitigating traits—confusion, distraction or insanity, Most authors, as we shall see, chose this third alternative.
In his verse drama Conrad and Eudora; or The Death of Alonzo, (1834), Thomas Holley Chivers believes along with Lippard that the crime of seduction is grievous and deserves to be punished by death. Early in the play Conrad (Beauchamp) is talking to a friend who says Alonzo (Sharp) is guilty of murder, treason, rape because he seduced Eudora and thereby "ruined the sweetest thing on earth." Conrad has a moral scale upon which he measures the degree of a seducer's guilt: "If she loved him well, and he deceived her / The crime falls heavier on his heart / Than on them both, did both love equally." Later another friend tells Conrad that "a woman's virtue robbed, like loss of sight. / Can never be restored." When Conrad says he will try to cheer Eudora up, the friend says "You can not mend a broken egg." Still later, the Innkeeper hears that Conrad might be the man who murdered Alonzo and suggests that the fault might be Eudora's; he flatly asserts that no man should be killed over a woman. But when he is told that Alonzo promised to marry Eudora and then ruined her, he says: "Then damn him—let him die." All Chivers's characters are in accord on the severity of Alonzo's crime.
The character of Ann Cooke as portrayed by Chivers is predominantly vengeful and vindictive, as she appears in Beauchamp's Confession. In fact she seems more bloodthirsty in Conrad and Eudora than she was in real life. After Conrad confronts Alonzo for the first time, issuing a death threat but relenting and letting Alonzo go, Eudora says:
Had I been with thee, he had died so sweet
Where he within this proud arm's reach—this stroke
Should be effected and bring his lowness low.
I'd tramp me in his blood, and smile with joy.
Of course, earlier Eudora tells her mother, "I would not harm the simplest thing on earth!" But she follows this statement with a lengthy speech about how deeply she has been wounded by Sharp, for whom she feels "endless hate"; and she closes with a promise to pursue him to the ends of the earth to make him pay with his life. Her mother replies: "Oh! my child! my child! thou art run mad!" Eudora denies that she is mad, but reminds her mother that "Revenge in woman hath no limitations!"
But a moment later Eudora breaks down and asks her mother to teach her how not to hate. Eudora's mother says: "Thou art distracted—oh! that I were dead!" By such means as these the playwright can have it both ways. The heroine is possibly estranged from her true nature (passive and loving) by reason of insanity. At the same time she is sane but driven by extreme emotions to act our her homicidal plan, which makes for good melodrama.
The key to this solution was provided by Cooke herself (or by the anonymous author of The Letters) when Ann says that Beauchamp spoke to her about the cruel treatment she had received from Sharp. "That was a chord that was never struck without producing agony and madness." The single sentence inspired more than one author of the time who was struggling with the problem of making Cooke palatable.
Greyslaer: A Romance of the Mohawk, by Charles Fenno Hoffman, originally published in 1840, is so long and diffuse that one can truthfully say the Kentucky Tragedy is buried in the narrative. Hoffman's novel is devoted more to the theme of America's emerging independence from Great Britain, with an emphasis upon Indian ways and outlaw life along the New York frontier, than it is to the affair of a wronged woman. Nonetheless some of the familiar ingredients are immediately apparent. The seduction of the heroine, Alida de Roos, leaves her scarred, psychologically speaking, for years. After her "fall," her eyes have a "bright and glassy stare," as if to indicate that she lives in a state of shock. She confesses to the hero, Greyslaer, that she is practicing with a pistol in order to avenge herself on someone; at which point Greyslaer says he loves her and would willingly become the agent of her revenge. In this version of the story, as in Monks of Monk Hall, the seduction of Cooke-Alida is accomplished by means of a faked marriage ceremony; and the villain undergoes character-splitting, emerging as the German immigrant Voltmeyer and the rejected suitor Bradshawe. When Alida and Greyslaer fall in love, the sentiment has a softening influence: she yields up all thoughts of retribution, and his hunger for revenge grows fainter as he enlarges his circle of acquaintances and meets more sophisticated men and women.
However, when Bradshawe hears that Alida and Greyslaer are contemplating marriage, he circulates the story that Alida has borne a child to an Indian. The slander "unhinges" Greyslaer and he begins to think of nothing but revenge. Eventually he confronts Bradshawe, but they are interrupted by Voltmeyer, whom Greyslaer kills. Arrested for this crime, Greyslaer receives a visit in prison from Alida. She expresses regret that she ever planted the idea of revenge in his mind. He says it was all an "hallucination" of her earlier years. She begs him to give up all thought of harming Bradshawe. (Later Bradshawe is shot and killed in battle.)
Hoffman's intention in Greyslaer was clearly to humanize the main characters of the Kentucky Tragedy. Alida's passion for blood is lukewarm most of the time; she is basically the sweet and loving woman of the sentimental tradition. Greyslaer's obsession with vengeance is short-lived and the result of temporary insanity. The author has an obvious affection for both characters; and at the end he has them fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. Like Chivers, Hoffman wants his heroine both ways—sweet and vicious. But instead of accommodating this concept by making Alida insane when she concentrates on murder, he transfers the madness to the hero and has his heroine achieve true feminity through the love of a good man. Still, for all the thought that went into Hoffman's portrayal, Alida remains a flat character, undeveloped and relatively uninteresting. In this work, at least, the author is better at portraying action than character.
The most interesting, fleshed-out depiction of Ann Cooke appears in William Gilmore Simms's novel, Beauchamp or The Kentucky Tragedy, published the same year as Greyslaer. Beauchamp is introduced as a young attorney who under extreme circumstances is capable of wild behavior. Cooke is sensitive, melancholy and capable of subtle feeling: at first she resists falling in love with Beauchamp because she fears she will use him to fulfill her "dark purpose." As other authors of the period attempted by various means to present a two-sided or ambiguous Ann Cooke—by having her basically loving, with her revenge obsession emerging out of temporary insanity, so Simms makes his heroine a combination of paradoxical traits—strength and weakness. After telling Beauchamp her story and making murder a condition of intimacy, she faints. She was "wonderfully strong," says Simms, but she was "yet a woman"—a diagnosis that explains her "sinking to the sward unconscious."
Later, her vengeful impulse becomes softened, as with Hoffman's heroine, under the influence of love; but Simms gives his heroine additional motives that help to round her out. She wants Beauchamp to avoid Sharp because she fears the consequences of their actions. In all the treatments of these characters from that period, including the real life models, none express this sort of very likely apprehension about the community's reaction to the murder of a high state official. The usual presentation shows Cooke and Beauchamp relishing the idea of homicide with only faint thoughts, or none at all, about consequences. The way Simm's Cooke is drawn, she qualifies as the most intelligent and the most human of all the portrayals. She is also long suffering and tolerant, far beyond what one would expect from a knowledge of the original. Simms's Cooke releases Beauchamp from his blood oath and begs him to remain with her in the country, obscure and happy, rather than highly visible in town, where he is bound to confront Sharp.
Toward the conclusion, by a complex twist of the plot, Sharp winds up a houseguest in the Beauchamp home, his crime against Ann concealed from her husband. Sharp renews his attempts at seduction of Ann; he promises to make her husband's fortune, then threatens to tell Beauchamp the truth if Cooke does not yield. Carried away by physical desire, ironically Sharp does not stop to consider what will happen to him if he reveals his part in Ann's ruin. Simms is the only author of the period to display the feelings involved in the Kentucky Tragedy in an ironic light.
Simms also portrays Sharp more realistically than the others. In Beauchamp's Confession, in the Letters, and in fictional or dramatic portrayals, Sharp is an abject coward. In Simm's novel, he is gutsy, sneaky and opportunistic.
The actual homicide is committed by a "maddened" Beauchamp; Cooke has begged him to leave her and avoid risking his life for her. After Beauchamp departs on his mission of murder, Cooke delivers a soliloquy showing her confusion. What good will come of this crime? she asks. But then, thinking of the way Sharp intruded into her home, even at this late stage of their history, she wonders if she will ever be free of his evil presence. Cooke concludes the speech with the idea that it might be best to kill Sharp, after all; and Simms concludes the passage by saying: "the world will not willingly account this madness. It matters not greatly by what name you call a passion which has broken bounds and disdains the right angles of convention." Unmistakably one senses that the highly civilized Simms wishes he could alter the story a la Charles Fenno Hoffman, and spare his heroine the guilt of complicity and the gruesome fate of the real Ann Cooke. Not that Simms creates profound characters in Beauchamp, but his Sharp and Cooke are deeper and more lifelike than other depictions of the period.
Poe's Ann Cooke, called Lelage in the verse drama Politian, bears little resemblance to her real-life counterpart in the Kentucky Tragedy. Instead of the depressed, melancholy, vindictive and obsessed heroine of the Letters and the Confession, Lalage is much simpler, less visible, and more pathetic than Cooke or any of her fictional incarnations.
We first hear of her from one of the servants in the home of the Duke di Broglio, Lalage's custodian:
I saw her yester eve thro' the lattice-work
Of her chamber-window sobbing upon her knees
And ever and anon amid her sobs
She murmured forth Castiglioni's name
Rupert, she loves him still!
Later, as if to emphasize her sense of what today we call low self-esteem, her servant-girl abuses her, leaving Lalage to bemoan her altered physical appearance and imminent death as a "ruined maid." Today's readers might identify all of these character traits as obvious neuroses, but the nineteenth century audience found the pathetic heroine appealing. Or was Poe playing psychologist here, consciously endowing Lalage with sick attitudes because he believed Ann Cooke to be unappetizing? We know Poe was not satisfied with Politian, that he left if unfinished, and years later in a review of Simm's Beauchamp he observed: "Historical truth has somewhat hampered the artist." Poe might have experienced the same difficulty himself, attempting to create a sympathetic heroine from a model he could not admire.
As for Lalage's vengeful feelings and craving for the blood of her seducer—elements that form the foundation of the living story—Poe has a scene where a friendly monk enters Lalage's apartment and asks her to think of her soul and pray. Lalage says she can only think of her present misery. When the holy man offers her a crucifix, she draws a dagger and holds it high by the blade. "Behold the cross wherewith a vow like mine / Is written in Heaven!" she cries, adding that the deed, the vow, and the symbol of the deed should tally. Thus Poe preserves the essential character element of vengeful feeling, but reduces it to an oblique reference and a metaphorical gesture. Still later, in Scene VII, after Politian has declared his love for Lalage and she has revealed to him the cause of her anguish, he begs her to come away with him to America. Lalage replies: "A deed is to be done—Castigioni lives!" To which Politian says "And he shall die!" Then he exits in a rage.
The speech that follows is extremely revealing of Poe's attitude toward his heroine. Although Lalage displays none of the fury of Ann Cooke, she has stipulated that Politian avenge the wrong she has suffered by killing Castiglioni. The fact that the promise is exacted offstage is itself significant, for it spares the audience a view of the vicious original while adhering to the basic story line. Furthermore, as soon as Politian exits on his homicidal mission, Lalage immediately regrets their compact. She calls out,
Thou art gone—thou art not gone, Politian!
I feel thou art not gone—yet dare not look,
Lest I behold thee not; thou couldst not go
With those words upon thy lips….
Next, after showing Lalage as a tender and regretful, non-violent version of Cooke, Poe has her conclude the speech with something of Cooke's resolution:
Gone—gone [referring to Politian]
Where am I? 'tis well—'tis very well!
So that the blade be keen—the blow be sure—
'Tis well, 'tis very well—alas! alas!
The final exclamations reverse the image of the heroine yet again, so that the audience might conclude that Lalage is a) in a distracted, deeply confused state of mind or b) at the mercy of forces she can not control, even though she is an active participant in and inspirer of the events that now overwhelm her.
At the conclusion, when it is clear that Politian is planning to murder Castiglioni while his marriage ceremony is in progress, Lalage cries, "Farewell, Castiglioni, and farewell my hope in heaven."
All these details of presentation—from Lelage's introduction into the drama singing sweet and mournful tunes, to her suffering abuse from her servant, to her eliciting the fateful pledge from Politian offstage, to her swearing an oath the content of which is left unspecified, to her terrible confusion when Politian goes off to avenge her, to her obvious repentance at the conclusion—accumulate to create a much softened, pathetic, vulnerable and humanized Ann Cooke. Poe's attitude toward women as ethereal, as evidenced in such early poems as "Al Aaraaf" and "To Helen," might explain his reluctance to deal with the ugly aspects of the Kentucky Tragedy, while his concern over audience reaction to his work might also have played a part in the Lalage characterization.
Of all the treatments of Cooke considered here, Lippard's is the most innocent and at the same time the most insipid. Chivers's is the most bloodthirsty, but this is mitigated (in Conrad and Eudora) by the possibility that she is mad. Hoffman's portrayal is the most sentimental and nonthreatening; Simm's is the most intelligent, rounded, and interesting, while Poe's is unquestionably the most pathetic.
Elizabeth Mehren (essay date 8 April 1990)
SOURCE: "Making a Killing Off True Crime," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, Vol. 237, April 8, 1990, p. 9.
[In the essay below, Mehren suggests why the true-crime genre is so profitable, noting that there is no shortage of supply or demand.]
Hours after Chuck Stuart splashed into Boston Harbor from the Tobin Bridge last January, the phone at our house began ringing with fierce determination.
Stuart was the hero-turned-villain of Boston's spiciest murder in years: the man who first insisted that he and his seven-months-pregnant wife had been shot by a black assailant who leaped into the back seat of the Stuarts' Toyota Cressida, but who later, it seems, turned out to have done the shooting himself.
Our telephone was ringing so insistently because my husband and I both are journalists. Apparently that fact alone—or that plus our Massachusetts residency—qualifies us to be described as true-crime writers. This is at least what one would infer from the telephone calls that came to us from an extraordinary parade of half-frantic agents, publishers, editors and movie producers:
"Hello, is your husband there?"
"No, I'm sorry, he's not."
"He's not. Well, hmmm, would you like to write a book?"
"No, I'm sorry, I think not. Would you like to speak to the dog?"
The calls would have been at least a boost for the ego were it not for the fact that just about anyone with even tangential involvement with any Boston-area newspaper or magazine, or anyone who is based in this area and does any reporting at all, seems to have faced the same flood of solicitations. One reporter at the Boston Globe told me that he received 11 inquiries about possible books or movies—and that was just in the first week after Stuart's apparent suicide. A reporter at another paper put me on hold while she took another call from still another Hollywood producer.
"It's not a question of 'tasteless' or 'tacky,'" one editor remonstrated when I used those words before referring him to our 73-pound Samoyed. "It's a question of people wanting to read this story. And it's a helluva story."
But of course it is not just this story. More and more, readers and publishers seem to be swimming in the same collective pool of blood and gore. It is hard to say which came first, the supply or the demand. But it is clear that the thirst for real crime—true crime, gory, gross and disgusting crime—appears to be insatiable.
"My theory is that it is somehow connected to the rise of tabloid television," Neil Nyren, editor-in-chief and publisher of G. P. Putnam's Sons, said. Putnam's is the publisher of one of the titans of true-crune writing, Joe McGinnis, of Blind Faith and Fatal Vision notably.
The reason those two books by McGinnis did so well is the same reason so many people were interested in the Stuart story, Nyren suggested. Chuck and Carol Stuart had worked themselves up from blue-collar beginnings to all the comforts of true yuppiedom. They had a house with a swimming pool and a wreath made out of teddy-bears on the front door. Chuck Stuart, a former dishwasher, wore suits from the fanciest men's store in Boston and had his prematurely graying temples touched up at a salon overlooking the Boston Public Garden.
"That's part of the fascination, that this could be the neighbor next door," Nyren said. "You rarely think, 'This could happen to me.' But you do think, 'This could be my neighbor.'"
Harry MacLean, the author of the best-selling In Broad Daylight (Harper & Row, cloth; Dell, paper) about the 1981 murder of the town bully in a small town in northwest Missouri, agrees. MacLean was "just another hack lawyer" practicing in Denver when he decided to switch to true-crime writing, in part because of what he saw as the universal appeal of the genre.
In a recent lecture about true-crime writing at the Tattered Sleeve bookstore in his hometown of Denver, MacLean said he turned the question on his audience of nearly 200 people and asked them why they like to read this stuff. Their answer confirmed his suspicions.
"For one thing, they said a lot of these stories involve ordinary people, the people next door," MacLean said. He noted that he was calling from Foster City, Calif., where he was investigating a case involving "a fireman and a housewife."
Echoing that motif, Pocket Books Hardcover has been promoting one title as an example of "ordinary people, extraordinary crimes." The book, Without Mercy: Obsession and Murder Under the Influence, by Gary Provost, deals with a waitress at a pancake restaurant who joins her homosexual supervisor in plotting two brutal murders. Carlton Stowers' Innocence Lost, also from Pocket Books Hardcover, recounts the murder of an undercover policeman posing as a high school student in a small Texas town.
The reading public's appetite for this kind of book truly does seem insatiable. Day after day, press releases come in announcing new books about "shocking deaths," murders in a pediatric intensive-care unit, matricide, fratricide, patricide, psychopathic killers and crimes of vengeance, jealousy, avarice or old-fashioned passion.
But the flip side of the phenomenon is that not only does the public expect this kind of delicious fodder, so do the subjects. It's as if anyone with the slightest involvement in a potentially marketable crime of any kind figures that he or she can, pardon the expression, make a killing off it.
MacLean said that one reason he chose to back away from the Charles Stuart case, for example, was that "I heard that the assistant DAs were faxing their stories out to Hollywood." It was "too bizarre," he said. It seemed that "the process was going to taint the story."
Lawyers and crime victims—even friends and relatives of crime victims—now flock to literary agents and true-crime writers on their own. It may be that they actually enjoy the attention, that this is their personal and proverbial 15 minutes of fame. But as MacLean observed, "It feels kind of sick, in a way."
Conversely, many print journalists, not notoriously among the most overpaid of professionals, have come to see the perfect true-crime story as the vehicle that will vault them out of penury and into the ranks of true-crime giants—writers, they say in wistful tones, such as Truman Capote or Norman Mailer. Words like miniseries or feature film invariably accompany discussions of books about true crimes. The implication is that even the most starving of starving journalists will be able to junk that old Toyota and cruise around in the Mercedes he or she secretly covets.
Covering a story they think might be lucrative, journalists come to feel possessive about the cast of characters. It becomes "my murder" or "my book." Certainly this has been true in a number of recent well-publicized crimes, such as the Steinberg murder-and-child-and-wife-abuse case in New York City; the preppie murder in New York City; Boston's Stuart case; the Yom Kippur murders in Los Angeles.
Not every true-crime book is a guaranteed ticket to financial heaven, however. Books that come out as little more than a string of newspaper articles seldom make big waves. As greedy as readers may be for these stories, they do demand writing skills from the authors.
What most captures the public fancy is a book that transcends the facts of a single case and deals with bigger themes. Ideally, the story also should serve as a mirror of some segment of American life as well.
The "sudden burst" in true-crime stories "caught us by surprise," Neil Nyren said, so much so that "there's no way to tell where it's going."
But as long as there is tabloid television, and as long as there are savory stories to tell, the pace seems unlikely to slow.
In the meantime, my dog would like it known that he is a very good writer and that he is thinking of hiring an agent.
Rosemary Herbert (essay date 1 June 1990)
SOURCE: "Publishers Agree: True Crime Does Pay," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, June 1, 1990, pp. 33-6.
[In the following essay, Herbert discusses the characteristics of the true-crime genre, focusing her analysis on who reads it and why.]
What's black and white and read all over? The answer is true crime. According to many top executives, editors and publicists, the success of this category is so phenomenal, it's almost criminal! As PW made the rounds of publishing houses and crime writers, the same word was used repeatedly to diagnose the current health of the genre: "hot." And feverish activity in the field seems to be contagious, with at least 30 trade imprints seeking to satisfy the true crime cravings of readers from all segments of the American population.
Both frontlist and backlist are booming, and mass market titles seem to do equally well in bookstores and ID markets. Hardcover and paperback publishers agree, however, that the real explosion within the genre is happening at the paperback end of the business. Putnam v-p and publisher Neil Nyren says, "In hardcover it's pretty much the same as it's always been. There are certain titles that become very strong, but the majority sell at moderate levels. It's in paperback that true crime has really blossomed during the past two years." Barry Lippman, president and publisher, Macmillan adult trade, adds that "the unusual thing about the genre is that there are both good hardcover and paperback audiences."
Even recently established houses are getting in on the act. The newly founded Knightsbridge, for example, has taken a hefty gamble this spring in releasing a first printing of 200,000 hardcover copies of Daniel J. Blackburn's Human Harvest: The Sacramento Murder Story. Human Harvest is typical true crime fare, in which an elderly lady is alleged to have murdered other residents of her retirement home and buried them in her garden.
But the veterans aren't exactly resting on their laurels. Dell just released Jack Olsen's latest paperback, Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell—about a local gynecologist's systematic rape of a large portion of the women in a Mormon community—in a print run of 950,000, a decision made before it won an Edgar in late April as the best nonfiction book of 1989. And St. Martin's, another stalwart, printed an initial 275,000 copies and has gone back to press for another 25,000 of its May release, Murder in Boston by Ken Englade, which bills itself as an "interim report" on the as-yet-unresolved Stuart case.
Dell's president and publisher, Carole Baron, says, "We've been doing true crime paperback originals and reprints all along, for at least eight or nine years. Typically, when we published Jack Olsen's Son: A Psychopath and His Victims back in 1985, we did it neither as a 'lead lead' nor as a 'mid-midlist' title. Then we found that it was really backlisting, unlike many mass market books. So it's been around since 1985 in many, many printings."
If the bestseller lists are any indication, it appears that a wide range of true crime publishers have their fingers on the pulse of many Americans' taste in nonfiction. And Berkley Books' v-p and editor-in-chief Leslie Gelbman says, "There's no question that the surge of true crime bestsellers over the past few years has given publishers and booksellers an opportunity to expand the category. There are now special sections in bookstores, and publishing programs devoted to true crime; and the books don't have to be top of the list to sell or to be profitable."
In Cold Blood
Among our interlocutors, there was strong general agreement about which books are classics of the true crime genre and which authors have been particularly exciting in recent years. Again and again Truman Capote's 1966 novel In Cold Blood is cited as the genre's real progenitor, although it was a "fictionalized" account of a brutal murder. According to Neil Nyren, "There may already have been some true crime books, but Capote's marked a watershed. It was the first one to make the genre really respectable. In Cold Blood, Blood and Money by Tommy Thompson [Doubleday 1976 and Dell, third printing 1989] and Fatal Vision by Joe McGinnis [Putnam 1983 and Signet 1984, with 2.3 million copies in the Signet edition] are the three giants of true crime and there will be others to come. I think the first hint of the trend might have been when Ann Rule's books started selling very well in paperback, including books that had been published years and years before. It was as if all of a sudden a whole library was there to sell." Rule was first published in NAL's True Crime Annals in 1983, under the pseudonym Andy Stack; presently several of her titles, including Possession and The Stranger Beside Me, are with the Signet imprint. Many agree that Rule's success set the stage for those who followed.
Who Reads True Crime—And Why
Just what lures so many readers into literature concerning aberrant and extreme behavior, matricide, patricide and even infanticide? Why the healthy appetite for blood and gore? Priscilla Ridgway, executive secretary of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), reckons that "media coverage about some pretty dreadful crimes has inured the public to their horror and tweaked interest." Neil Nyren agrees that "the rise of tabloid television—basing program content on true crime—has had a symbiotic relationship with the rise of the books in paperback."
Irwyn Applebaum, president and publisher of Pocket Books, is pleased to see that readers' appetites are not yet "sated by some of the other media," including daily news reporting and television programs such as 911, Cops and "some of the other cinema vérité or pseudo-cinéma vérité." In fact, an interesting example of the television/publishing connection was the Harper Paperback April release America's Most Wanted by Jack Breslin, which describes the making of the popular television program of the same name.
Avon president and publisher Carolyn Reidy speaks for many when saying, "I don't know if more crimes are actually being perpetrated or whether more are being detected and reported, but something is making them greatly impinge on our consciousness, which in turn is fueling the desire to know how and why all of this is happening. Therefore, it's almost self-protective to wish to understand how it happens."
Nyren, for his part, believes successful titles must have an immediacy "that gives readers the feeling this is something that could be happening in their neighborhood." Charles Spicer, senior editor at St. Martin's, adds, "Frankly, there's an element of voyeurism, the appeal of gossip and a 'there but for the grace of God go I' frisson." All agree that the hallmark of successful true crime is nonfiction that packs all the traditional appeal of the novel.
Just who are the readers of true crime? Maryann Palumbo, v-p for advertising, promotion and publicity at NAL, says the genre appeals "very much to a middle America kind of audience." Bantam v-p and mass market publisher Lou Aronica believes the books are reaching "a broad section of the market. There are very literate, studied pieces like Joe McGinnis's work and then there are the far more lurid, National Enquirer kind of projects. They sell equally well—but I cannot believe that the same readers [turn to both]." All agree that the crossover of readers of mystery fiction into the true crime area is insignificant, since, as Applebaum put it, "Readers who like their details filtered through fiction are often after a more genteel depiction of crime."
The Serial Phenomenon
How often does the discussion at a publishing conference center not on the bottom line but rather on metaphysical questions of good and evil? At the recent MWA/John Jay College Symposium on true crime, that was certainly the case. According to Richard Hammer, author of The CBS Murders: A True Story of Greed and Violence in New York's Diamond District (Morrow 1987 and NAL 1988), and Ira Berkow, author of The Man Who Robbed the Pierre: The True Story of Bobby Comfort (Atheneum, 1987), the personalities of the murderers, rapists and other criminals depicted within the books vary wildly. Some have surprising senses of humor, others are extremely intelligent and still others are just plain nasty, seeming to lack any sort of human conscience. In a society where many taboos have broken down, true crime stories seem to satisfy a hunger for clearly defined bad guys and good guys or, as it were, forces of good and evil in our lives.
Patricia Daniels Cornwell, whose novel Postmortem (Scribners, January 1990) draws on her experiences as a crime reporter and computer analyst in the Virginia medical examiner's office, subscribes to the latter theory, nothing that an informal subgenre seems to have sprung up around the ultimate in really bad guys, the serial killer.
Some of the more notable books focusing on serial murders are the recently released From Cradle to Grave: The Short Lives and Strange Deaths of Marybeth Tinning's Nine Children by Joyce Egginton (Morrow, 1989; Jove, May 1990), and Ann Rule's Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder (NAL, 1987 and Signet, 1988), both dealing with infanticide perpetrated by disturbed mothers upon their own offspring. And Death Shift: The True Story of Nurse Genene Jones and the Texas Baby Murders by Peter Elkind (Viking, 1989 and Onyx, May 1990) examines infanticides carried out by a pediatric nurse in San Antonio, Tex.
Other studies of serial murders look at killers who seem to choose victims more randomly, although evidence often reveals that even in these cases there is method in the madness of their selection processes, as in the murderous work of David J. Carpenter, whose deeds are chronicled by Robert Graysmith in The Sleeping Lady: The Trailside Murders Above the Golden Gate (Dutton, April 1990). Carpenter went on a three-year rape and killing spree along hiking trails in the Bay Area and was captured after one of the greatest manhunts of this century.
All in the Family
"In looking over the books that have worked particularly well over time, I don't think there's any question that murders explored within the context of family life offer the most drama, the most titillation, and I think, probably reach to people's deepest fears," advises Roger Cooper, senior v-p and publisher of the Berkley Publishing Group. Wasted: The Preppie Murder by Linda Wolfe (Simon & Schuster 1989, and Pocket Books, August 1990); and Beyond Reason: A True Story of a Shocking Double Murder, a Brilliant and Beautiful Virginia Socialite and a Deadly Psychotic by Ken Englade (St. Martin's, May 1990), deal with young people who have everything that money can buy but who lack discipline and direction and are not convinced that their parents love them. They end up forming dangerous liaisons with other disturbed young adults that eventually lead to murder.
Both of these authors document the mentalities of their subjects and present a picture of the legal and social ramifications of the crimes. Avon's Carolyn Reidy notes that for many people, part of the appeal of these books "lies in the realization that the rich can be victims, too."
Many titles take a peek at family murder with a regional dimension. Craig A. Lewis's Blood Evidence: A Story of True Crime in the South (August House, June 1990) is an example of a regional murder story in which the atmosphere of a particular place—in this case, Shreveport, La.—adds a special character to the book as a whole.
The Woodchipper Murder by Arthur Herzog (Holt, 1989; to be published in paperback by Zebra) investigates a Connecticut scene of the crime and a case in which a husband who lies about the disappearance of his wife is quickly caught up in a net of incrimination. And Murder in the Carolinas by Nancy Rhyne (John F. Blair, 1988) proves that local cases can have universal appeal, presenting, rather unusually, 13 cases of family treachery in an anthology format.
And Warner senior editor Rick Horgan highlights another aspect that seems to contribute to the popularity of many titles: "The more innocent and vulnerable the victim, the more likely the success of the book." Abandoned Prayers: The True Story of Obsession, Murder and Little Boy Blue by Gregg Olson (Popular Library, December 1990) is a case in point. It's the story of a young boy murdered by his father, an Amish man who, the publisher tells us, "disappeared from his community and crisscrossed the country abusing his child. The locals who discovered the boy's corpse buried him under a headstone marked 'Little Boy Blue.'" This is a clear example of a book with an extremely sympathetic victim.
Another title that looks at innocent victims—but this time outside the family—is the story of a disturbed woman who gunned down school children at play in Illinois in 1988, Murder of Innocence: The Tragic Life and Final Rampage of Laurie Dann by Joel Kaplan, George Papajohn and Eric Zorn, is scheduled for hardcover publication from Warner this fall.
Drugs, the Mafia and Spies
Harper & Row publicity director Karen Mender points out that most publishers do not distinguish subcategories as such within true crime. But readers are often drawn to a particular type of book within the true crime spectrum, for instance, drug-related titles. A notable example is Kings of Cocaine: An Astonishing True Story of Murder, Money, and Corruption by Miami Herald reporters Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen (Simon & Schuster, 1989 and Harper Paperbacks, May 1990). Unusually long for the genre at 680 pages, this book documents the workings of the $8-billion-a-year Colombian drug cartel.
Espionage-related crime is chronicled in such books as Clifford Stoll's The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (Doubleday, 1989 and forthcoming from Pocket Books, November 1990). While many true crimes are cast in the form of police procedurals, this book recounts the stalking of a computer "hacker" who was methodically prowling national networks to gain access to American databases. The computer-whiz author becomes the hero of his own story.
Mafia crime also has its share of reading fans. The Plumber: The True Story of How One Good Man Helped Destroy the Entire Philadelphia Mafia by Joseph Salerno and Stephen J. Rivele (Knightsbridge, 1990) and "Please Don't Kill Me": The True Story of the Milo Murder by William C. Dear and Carlton Stowers (Houghton Mifflin, 1989 and Ballantine, 1990) are examples of this category.
Aiding & Abetting: Promoting Crime
Donna Gould, publicity director at Berkley, is convinced that true crime is "a publicist's dream." And while many have already credited television with igniting the public's interest in the genre, publicists also see television as an ideal medium for further promoting their wares. Susan Richman, v-p and director of publicity at Macmillan, finds that national talk shows are very receptive to true crime authors, "especially if the writers are accompanied by one or more of the principals in the crime." Adam Rothberg, senior publicist at Pocket Books, says, "I think that by its very nature, the subject of true crime makes it attractive to certain media outlets that otherwise are often not interested in working with books: the television tabloid shows as well as tabloid magazines."
But Michaela Hamilton, executive editor of NAL/Dutton, warns of the perils of overexposure. "I think it's very tricky to bring a book out on a case that's gotten front-page headlines, because in so many cases consumers feel they already know the story inside out before the book appears."
The True Colors of True Crime
Virtually every category of publishing today seeks to have a look that announces to the reader, subliminally or otherwise, the sort of book to expect. In true crime you absolutely can tell the book by its cover, both in cloth and paperback. The jacket of a true crime hardcover tends to reflect the more probing, psychological nature of its content through a softer, more sensitive portrait of an individual or of the scene of the crime, while a paperback jacket tends towards the more lurid, with bloody photographs of the victims or perpetrators, and screaming headlines. But both share one predominant attribute: they are black, white and red all over.
But between the covers, are these books solely concerned with blood and gore? The emphasis on the grisly varies, of course, but a significant majority have another agenda as well: they explore the darkest corners of our lives and try to give them some meaning or context. Ann Rule, the author most often cited by publishers as a major influence today, has a good insight into the genre's fans: "I've taken an informal poll of readers who come to my autographing sessions, and find that very many of them are women. Often they confide, 'I don't know why I'm fascinated with these books about terrible crime!' And I ask them, 'If you found a spider in your bathroom what would you do with it?' And do you know, most say they would gently remove it, and let the spider go free outdoors!"
In the end, perhaps the broad middle American audience keeps reading true crime to understand the extremes of human behavior, to be advised of danger and, yes, to experience a visceral horror that makes us grateful for our more ordinary lives.
Jane Caputi (essay date Fall 1990)
SOURCE: "The New Founding Fathers: The Lore and Lure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Culture," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 1-12.
[In the essay below, Caputi discusses the place of serial killers in contemporary culture.]
Jack the Ripper
He was the first.
—cover blurb from a 1988 collection of stories on the Ripper
Ted Bundy—A Man With Vision
—A Man With Direction
—A Prophet of our Times
—flyer advertising a student program on Bundy, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, April, 1989
Freddy's [from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" Series] fame—make that notoriety—was confirmed by the National Coalition on Television Violence, which in a recent survey found that children ages 10 to 13 are more familiar with Freddy and his Paramount counterpart Jason of "Friday the 13th" than with such famous historical figures as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. Jason was recognized by 72 of the 100 children surveyed and Freddy by 66, while poor Honest Abe was identified by 36.
Recently, as I watched an MTV show, "The Week In Rock" (Sept. 16, 1989), I was taken aback as the announcer commented, "Now for some news from Boston—home of baked beans, B.U., and at least one renowned serial strangler." How blithe, normalizing, and easy a reference to atrocity. Yet, why should I have been surprised? Just one year earlier, in autumn, 1988, Great Britain and the United States "celebrated" the centennial of the crimes of "Jack the Ripper." Mourning, which might seem appropriate to the occasion, was notably absent (except in feminist demonstrations and writings). Rather, light-hearted Ripper paraphernalia, such as a computer-game, T-shirts, buttons, mugs, and a blood-red cocktail, appeared throughout England. Most strikingly, in both the United States and England, the legend of the Ripper was ubiquitously retold and millions were refamiliarized with its elements—in a massively promoted made-for-TV movie, innumerable newspaper accounts, an exploitation thriller, Jack's Back, and scores of new books on the master killer.
This recent mythicization of the Ripper continues a process that has been in motion since 1888. Elsewhere, I have argued that "Jack the Ripper" is father to an "age of sex crime" and that his status as an ambiguous (both heroic and monstrous) cultural icon legitimates male violence against women. The crimes of the Ripper have provided a cultural category for a new type of crime (the territorial, ritualistic, nicknamed, serial sex slayer) and acted as a role model for subsequent killers, including "The Boston Strangler," the "Son of Sam," the "Yorkshire Ripper," the "Green River Killer," the "Hillside Strangler," and so on—killers who then go on to generate legends and attract cult-like behavior of their own. Serial sex killers such as these are celebrated (sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly) along a cultural gamut including made for TV movies, rock 'n' roll songs horror fanzines, jokes, pornographic magazines such as Hustler, and extreme sadist publications. Simultaneously, a parallel cult can be discerned in the adulation given (primarily by teenage boys) to the fictional screen counterparts of the modern sex killer, such as "Freddy Krueger," the child molester/murderer from the Nightmare on Elm Street movie and television series, and "Jason," the hockeymasked multiple murderer from the Friday the 13th film series.
While such mythmaking proceeds unabated, serial murder itself has become an increasingly prevalent reality in modern, Western life. Justice Department official, Robert O. Heck, sums up the general situation:
We all talk about Jack the Ripper; he killed five people [sic]. We all talk about the "Boston Strangler" who killed 13, and maybe "Son of Sam," who killed six. But we've got people [sic] out there now killing 20 and 30 people and more, and some of them just don't kill. They torture their victims in terrible ways and mutilate them before they kill them. Something's going on out there. It's an epidemic.
Although Heck's statement is superficially correct, his language works to obscure what actually is going on out there, for the "people" who torture, kill, and mutilate in this way are men, while their victims are predominantly females, women and girls, and to a lesser extent, younger men. As these hierarchical lines indicate, these are crimes of sexually political import, crimes rooted in a system of male supremacy in the same way that lynching is based in white supremacy. That recognition, however, is impeded by longstanding tradition for, as Kate Millett noted in her classic work, Sexual Politics:
We are not accustomed to associate patriarchy with force. So perfect is its system of socialization, so complete the general assent to its values, so long and so universally has it prevailed in human society, that it scarcely seems to require violent implementation. Customarily, we view its brutalities in the past as exotic or "primitive" custom. Those of the present are regarded as the product of individual deviance, confined to pathological or exceptional behavior, and without general import. And yet … control in patriarchal societies would be imperfect, even inoperable, unless it had the rule of force to rely upon, both in emergencies and as an ever-present instrument of intimidation.
The most commonly analyzed form of such patriarchal force is rape. Early feminist analysts of rape asserted that rape is not, as the common mythology insists, a crime of frustrated attraction, victim provocation, or uncontrollable biological urges. Nor is it one perpetrated only by an aberrant fringe. Rather, rape is a direct expression of sexual politics, a ritual enactment of male domination, and a form of terror which functions to maintain the status quo. Similarly, the murders of women and children by serial killers are not the result of inexplicably deviant men. On the contrary, sexual murder is a product of the dominant culture. It is the ultimate expression of a sexuality that defines sex as a form of domination/power; it, like rape, is a form of terror that constructs and maintains male supremacy.
Heck's statement invokes shared knowledge of a tradition of serial murder beginning with Jack the Ripper, that, as he puts it, "we all talk about." Indeed, we all do. In this essay, using several representative killers, I will trace some of the ways that modern culture talks about the sex killer. I will survey the folklore and popular culture representations of these killers (both actual and fictional), and interpret these for what they tell us about male supremacy, cultural constructions of monstrosity and horror, as well as fears of the future.
Father to An Age
Two women cops working twice as hard for half the glory … TONIGHT: Decoys for a Jack the Ripper.
—TV Guide ad for the premiere episode of Cagney and Lacey, 1982
Imagine … a study of feminism from the point of view of Jack the Ripper … a novel that bristles with irony and wit.
—New York Times, review of Confessions of a Lady-Killer (1979)
A third class of strangers are so utterly beyond the pale that they seem alien not only to the group, but to the human species. I refer to monsters, indicated by names like: pervert, degenerate … psychopath … fiend, demon, devil … Jack the Ripper.
—Orrin Klapp, 1962
[Jack the Ripper] that great hero of my youth, that skilled human butcher who did all his work on alcoholic whores.
—Charles McCabe, San Francisco Chronicle, 1971
Jack the Ribber
—a restaurant in New York City
I need some help here. Some hands. Just send me anybody. Jack the Ripper. I'll take anyone who's good with a knife.
—Hawkeye on M∗A∗S∗H, c. 1973
And Jezebel the nun, she violently knits, A bald wig for Jack the Ripper, who sits, At the head of the Chamber of Commerce.
—Bob Dylan, "Tombstone Blues," 1965
The ghost of Jack the Ripper hovered over Washington today.
—ABC Nightly News, 29, Nov. 1984 (in reference to Federal budget cuts)
Husband: Who's there?
Voice: Jack the Ripper.
Husband: It's for you dear.
—The Benny Hill Show, c. 1980
Mrs. Hanson … had always worn an extra enforcement of petticoats against an ever-potential Jack the Ripper.
—Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life, 1933
Traces of the Ripper's presence constantly intrude into urban women's consciousness. Walking down my street in Manhattan recently, I came upon graffiti emblazoning the Ripper's name on a side of a building. That same week the Lesbian Herstory Archives forwarded to me a threatening letter from "Jack the Ripper" "THE ORIGINAL JACK not a cheap imitation. I've conquered death itself and am still on this earth waiting to strike again."
—Judith Walkowitz, 1982
As just this brief sampling of references indicates, the figure of Jack the Ripper preoccupies this culture in the form of a pervasive and particularly all-embracing metaphor (though, obviously, with different meanings for women and men). The mythic Ripper inspires awe and laughter, he is viewed as both hero and monster, and he is hailed by many as a key innovator, not only in the annuals of true crime, but also in the imagination of modern horror. In a recent discussion of that genre, two of its practitioners, writers Harlan Ellison and Gahan Wilson, traced the origins of modern horror to Jack the Ripper:
ELLISON: Everything that scares us today dates back to Jack the Ripper. He is still the operative icon of terror. He may be small potatoes by current standards … but the Ripper started it. He created the form.
WILSON: Just as no one paints landscapes the same way since Turner, a creative monster like the Ripper changed the landscape of what scares us. He inspired generations.
Wilson and Ellison seem quite vicariously thrilled by the Ripper, if not actually heroizing him as a "creative monster" who blazed their path into the realms of horror. But, of course, this is an expedient and gender specific thrill; as men, they personally have little to fear from the Ripper and do not have to suffer any consequences of that aggrandizing mythicization.
The crimes of the Ripper occurred in the Whitechapel district of London, an area well-known as a center of poverty and prostitution. The still unknown killer has been credited with as many as twenty murders, although probably only five were the work of the one man; others were imitative or unconnected crimes. The killer made no attempt to cover up his actions. Rather, he left the bodies on display, out on the open street in four instances. Furthermore, he (or, far more likely, someone pretending to be the killer) advertised his crimes by writing letters to police, press, and citizen groups, nicknaming himself in one letter, taunting the police, predicting future crimes, and even mailing in half of a human kidney to the chief of a Whitechapel vigilance group (the letter writer claimed to have eaten the other half). The victims, all prostitutes, were not raped; their throats were slit from behind and then the sexual and other organs were severely mutilated. While similar atrocities indubitably had occurred before, indicated, perhaps, in legends of werewolves and vampires, or tracked as isolated incidents of "lust murder" in the nineteenth century, it was not until 1888 in London that the idea of a sexually motivated criminal, specializing in mutilation, dismemberment, and murder, first took shape as a cultural icon.
Many have asked why Jack the Ripper, more than other sex criminals, has left such a mark? Nigel Morland avers: "The melodramatic name of Jack the Ripper … is largely the reason for his immortality, that and the imaginative folk lore which has always surrounded him." In truth, the identity of the Ripper never has been established; this evocative anonymity has been a source for much of the Ripper lore as self-proclaimed "Ripperologists" and "Ripperophiles" continually sift over the known information, proposing improbable and often highly romanticized possible
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Reviews Of True-Crime Publications
David Lodge (review date 11 January 1980)
SOURCE: "From a View to a Death," in The Times Literary Supplement, January 11, 1980, pp. 27-8.
[In the following review, Lodge discusses The Executioner's Song.]
What the American short-story writer Leonard Michaels calls "the condemned prisoner story" (in a book, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, which contains and alludes to several examples of the genre) has exercised a powerful fascination over the modern literary imagination. This is not surprising. Capital punishment, and the ritual associated with it, dramatize the inevitability and finality of personal death with a stark intensity that...
(The entire section is 14654 words.)
William K. Beaver (essay date September 1990)
SOURCE: "Writing True-Life Crime," in The Writer, Vol. 103, September, 1990, pp. 17-19.
[In the essay below, Beaver discusses how to write a successful true crime article.]
The true-life crime genre originated in the late 19th century and has grown in popularity ever since. After nearly forty true-life detective magazines were born and died, modern magazine and book publishers discovered that a solid audience exists for the true-life crime story. Books like The Preppie Murder or The Stranger Beside Me consistently find their way to the bestseller lists.
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Boyer, Allen D. "The Trials of Dr. Sheppard." New York Times Book Review (8 October 1995): 26.
Reviews Mockery of Justice.
Huddleston, Eugene L. "Literary Nonfiction: Extending Its Definition." Midwest Quarterly 33 (Spring 1992): 340-56.
Discusses the nonfiction novel as a genre and comments on the legal problems faced by nonfiction writers.
Mortimer, Penelope. "Lusting after Ghosts." New Statesman (23 November 1979): 812.
Offers an unfavorable review of Norman Mailer's The...
(The entire section is 110 words.)