True-Crime Stories Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Accounts of real-life crimes have appeared in literature throughout recorded history. Some of the oldest such accounts can be found in early scriptural writings that many people regard as real history. Both the Torah and the Bible tell the stories of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel by his brother Cain and of the kidnapping and sale of Joseph by his brothers. The births of both Moses and Jesus were followed by the murders of infants. Indeed, the pivotal event of the Christian faith is told in the story of a political crime, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Some of the tragedies and histories of William Shakespeare depict politically motivated crimes such, as the assassination of Julius Caesar and the crimes committed by the Scottish king Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible dramatizes the stories of the late seventeenth century Salem witch trials, which were documented in such works as Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693).

Modern true-crime stories, however, trace their origins to several developments in the nineteenth century, particularly the establishment of police forces in response to growing urban crime problems, the emergence of the novel as a dominant literary form, the development of the social sciences—especially psychology—and the influence on literature of the philosophy called determinism. The modern true-crime novel, a descendant of the tradition of American literary naturalism, reached its apex in 1966 with the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and has remained among the most popular subgenres of literature.

Historical Background

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The heart of a crime story is the riddle of what happened and why. The riddle motif was common even in ancient times, as in the riddle of King Solomon in the Old Testament and the riddle of the sphinx in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex (c. 426 b.c.e.). The plot of a crime story develops as a revelation of various clues to the riddle’s solution, which is revealed at the end. In the nineteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution drove many people from rural to urban areas in search of manufacturing jobs, and urban crime consequently rose, professional police forces were developed to keep order. In 1841, the American writer Edgar Allan Poe published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” generally acknowledged as the first modern detective story. During the 1880’s, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes, the prototype of the modern fictional sleuth. The popularity of the type was later extended by such practitioners as Wilkie Collins, G. K. Chesterton, and Agatha Christie in the British Isles. By the 1930’s, the genre experienced a “Golden Age” among American writers such as Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.

True-crime story form developed more than fifty years after Poe’s first detective story. However, some novels before the twentieth century contain elements of real crimes. For example, English novelist George Eliot used the 1801 case of Mary Voce, who poisoned...

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True Crime vs. Mystery and Detective Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The primary literary subgenres about crime are the true-crime story and the mystery or detective story. Although both depict violent crime and may feature similar characters, true-crime stories and novels differ substantially from mystery and detective fiction. Apart from the factual content of true-crime stories, there is a fundamental difference in point of view. In mystery and detective fiction, protagonists are usually detectives, police officers, or amateur sleuths who attempt to solve crimes or masteries. Readers learn of events as the main characters do. In true-crime stories, the focus is usually on the criminals themselves, and the writers are primarily interested in explaining what caused the criminals to commit their violent acts.

In true-crime novels, writers often identify the suspects or perpetrators early and devote most of their books’ space to exploring the biological, psychological, and sociological circumstances that appear to have influenced the characters’ actions. In mystery and detective novels, writers generally withhold the culprits’ identities from both investigators and readers until the climaxes of their stories. In contrast, the climaxes of true-crime stories are typically the perpetrators’ conviction, sentencing, or executions. The climaxes and denouements of the two forms also differ in tone. Mystery and detective stories generally end with the feeling that the final pieces of puzzles are in place. Details of suspects’ trials and punishment may be handled in a few paragraphs, and the tone may be moralistic. In contrast, conclusions of true-crime stories are likelier to be philosophical, focusing on abstractions such as whether or not justice has been served. If the tone of the true-crime denouement is moralistic at all, it may offer an indictment of society itself, rather than individuals.

The writing style of mystery and detective novels tends to be melodramatic, relying on suspense as a primary plot device. By contrast, the style of true-crime stories tends to be a more detached and objective style of journalism. True-crime writers generally primarily use reporting methods, and many have, in fact, worked as journalists.

True Crime and Literary Naturalism

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the 1890’s, naturalism started becoming a central influence on American literature, which was influenced by French writers such asÉmile Zola. Literary naturalism is the application to literature of the principles of scientific determinism—the notion that every event has a cause. At the end of the twentieth century, when philosophical determinism was influenced by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), a strict naturalist would have argued that humans are, in essence, animals, so all human behavior is determined by natural causes. The influence of naturalism in literature broadens the theory to include sociological, economic, and psychological factors that influence human action. In Stephen Crane’s 1893 novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, for example, the main character’s death is attributed to a variety of circumstances, including her parents’ alcoholism, her family’s poverty, and her mother’s rigid Roman Catholicism.

Authors interested in the effect on human behavior of biological and environmental influences began to turn their attention to the worst instances of human behavior—violent crime. At the same time, many early naturalists apprenticed as writers in newsrooms, where they learned the techniques of journalism and had access to accounts of sensational crimes. This combination of circumstances helped to produce novels such as Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899) and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), both modeled on actual cases.

Theodore Dreiser’s Groundbreaking Novel

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Dreiser’s An American Tragedy is the most significant true-crime novel prior to Capote’s In Cold Blood. Many critics regard its publication as the apex of naturalism in American literature because it is such a clear and mature illustration of the naturalistic perspective. Dreiser was born into a family so destitute that he was probably lucky to survive childhood, and he became particularly interested in how young men of little means achieve any success. During his apprenticeship as a young newspaper reporter, Dreiser encountered numerous cases following this pattern: A young man in an entry-level clerical job becomes involved with a young woman, sees his advancement threatened by the relationship (particularly by an out-of-wedlock pregnancy), and kills the woman, hoping thereby to resolve his predicament. Dreiser was so interested in sensational violent crimes that he kept a file of clippings, and he and other young reporters formed an informal supper club to discuss such cases. A similar group that met in Chicago during the 1890’s was named the Whitechapel Club, after the area in London in which Jack the Ripper had murdered prostitutes during the 1880’s.

The factual basis behind An American Tragedy is well known. In 1905, young Chester Gillette was boating on an upstate New York lake with his pregnant girlfriend, Grace Brown, who fell, or was pushed, out of the boat and disappeared. Gillette was convicted of murder and executed in 1908. Before Dreiser wrote An American Tragedy, he visited the area where...

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The Middle Period, 1925-1965

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Novels about crime combining naturalistic ingredients continued to be written from 1925 to 1965. Most examples fall within the literary mainstream and are generally classified as fiction, even though they are typically based on actual murder cases. Examples include William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932), James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and Meyer Levin’s Compulsion (1956).

Faulkner’s novel was influenced by a murder, castration, and lynching that occurred near the author’s native Oxford, Mississippi, in 1908. It may also have been influenced by the 1919 murder of an Oxford woman by her husband. Cain’s novel was inspired by a case in which the proprietor of a gas station that Cain frequented in California killed her husband. Cain also said that he developed his interest in the psychodynamics of lovers involved in murders together from the Ruth Snyder/Judd Gray case in New York in 1927. Cain’s novel is significantly shorter than earlier novels of the same type, and its economical journalistic style makes his book an important precursor of true-crime novels such as Capote’s.

In the essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Richard Wright describes how he sketched out his “native son,” Bigger Thomas, and then found him in Chicago newspaper accounts of a 1938 murder case. In a 1973 essay, Wright’s friend Margaret Walker Alexander described how Wright plotted his novel by covering his apartment floor with newspaper clippings. Levin’s Compulsion is a fictionalized account of the notorious Leopold-Loeb murder case, also in Chicago, of 1924. In that case, two rich university students who fancied themselves above the law killed the cousin of one of them, apparently to see whether they could outsmart authorities (they did not). Cain and Levin, writing about homicides perpetrated by two people, are interested in the psychological phenomenon the French call folie à deux (madness of two), or how two people influence each other to commit acts that neither is likely to commit alone. In this respect, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Compulsion are important predecessors of In Cold Blood.

In Cold Blood and New Journalism

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In November 1959, when Truman Capote read a New York Times story about the Kansas murder of a low-level Eisenhower administration official, Herbert Clutter, and his wife, daughter, and son, he knew he had found the ideal subject for the “nonfiction novel” he had planned to write for nearly ten years. As Capote saw it, members of a picture-perfect family in the American heartland had been killed in their own home in the middle of the night. There were no suspects and no theories.

The saga of Capote’s journey to Kansas with his childhood friend Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), in search of his story is now famous and was the subject of two feature films, Capote, in...

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After Capote and Mailer

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

After around 1980, books about violent crimes have tended to vary more in approach and style than before In Cold Blood. The subgenre also grew to include television and film adaptations of prominent true-crime books, and it developed an Internet presence. Cable and satellite television have contributed to this development; some companies offer channels specifically geared to crime and or true stories. Some true-crime stories have been around long enough to spawn more than a single film adaptation. For example, a black-and-white studio version of In Cold Blood appeared in 1967, and a television miniseries version commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the novel’s publication in 1996.

In a sort of...

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Modern True-Crime Novels

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

True-crime books published after In Cold Blood can be grouped into several categories. Those written primarily from a law-enforcement perspective affirm the status quo and present murderers as threats to society. Notable examples of this type include Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974), by Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Charles Manson and his “family” in California, and Fatal Vision (1984), Joe McGinniss’s account of physician Jeffrey Macdonald’s trial for the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters at their home on the Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina. McGinniss later wrote several other true-crime books, but Fatal Vision is particularly...

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Enduring Popularity of True Crime

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As the true-crime subgenre has become more popular, some writers have built careers on it. Ann Rule, a former Seattle police officer and the author of about twenty books, is a case in point. Other well-known true-crime authors include Edna Buchanan, a former crime reporter for the Miami Herald; Jerry Bledsoe, a former reporter for the Greensboro News and Record, and Joe McGinniss, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who has written at least three best-selling true-crime books. These writers generally have official Web sites through which readers can engage them in discussions of their work. Many other sites, such as that sponsored by the cable channel Court TV, sponsor online archives about criminal...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Algeo, Ann M. The Courtroom as Forum: Homicide Trials by Dreiser, Wright, Capote, and Mailer. Edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Discusses how courtroom scenes are portrayed in An American Tragedy, Native Son, In Cold Blood, and The Executioner’s Song. Algeo argues that a trial reveals important aspects of the time period in which it occurs and that each book reveals the author’s attitude about social issues, particularly crime.

Biressi, Anita. Crime, Fear, and the Law in True Crime Stories. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2001. Argues that accounts of crime...

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