Why is Friedrich Schiller called the father of the modern true crime story in Germany? It’s because his debut crime story changed the genre. Schiller shifted the focus from sensationalism to motive. Here’s the tale in a nutshell.
Christian Wolf,* the poor, half-orphaned son of an innkeeper, fell in love. Because he was ugly, the only way he could woo his Johanne was by showering her with gifts. To afford them, he hunted in the bordering royal forest. But that was poaching. According to law, all forest game belonged to the sovereign.
Robert, the game warden, also loved Johanne. He wanted nothing more than to eliminate his rival. Robert frequented Wolf’s inn, just to investigate the sources of the innkeeper’s good fortune. The he started tracking Wolf through the woods. He eventually caught Wolf in the act, forcing Wolf to sell his inn to pay the fine for poaching.
Now Wolf had no income. He had no other choice than to return to poaching. But two more arrests led to four years in prison. There, other prisoners taught Wolf how to live a criminal life. After his release, no one would offer him a job, even as a swineherd. Full of anger, Wolf returned to poaching, and when he encountered Robert in the woods, shot and killed him in revenge. Wolf then became the leader of a feared band of robbers living deep in the woods. Theirs was the only society in which he found any kind of acceptance or honor. He became a famous, feared highwayman, known as the “innkeeper of the ‘Sun.’”
One year later, the band’s infighting got on Wolf’s nerves. He realized how immoral he’d become. Wolf decided to cross the border into Prussia, become a soldier, and lead a just life. But on the way to Prussia, a watchman thought he looked suspicious and arrested him. When the judge showed him compassion, Wolf revealed his identity. “I am the innkeeper of the ‘Sun,’” he announced.
Schiller ended the story with the confession. He left out the trial and execution (although they really did occur). Rather, Schiller asks what society did that forced Wolf to turn to crime. Is a law against hunting fair when people are starving? May a law enforcement officer stake out a rival for personal reasons? Have our prisons become schools of crime?
What was the last true crime book you read? Did it focus more on the trial and punishment or on societal conditions that contribute to crime?
*Schiller provided a fictitious name. The real criminal, on whom this story is based, was Johann Friedrich Schwan.
(c) 2014 Ann Marie AckermannRead More
Murder mystery authors harbor a secret they don’t want you to know. I won’t exactly tell you the secret (it would spoil mystery books for you forever after), but I can tell you a bit about the theory behind it.
At a writers’ conference for murder mystery authors near Seattle in the early 1990s, I learned a bit of the craft. Classic whodunits follow a proscribed convention. The culprit appears in the opening chapter(s), where the author identifies him or her by using a trick based on Jungian psychology. According to theory, your subconscious mind picks up on that trick and knows instantly who the murderer is. And that is what makes the mystery emotionally satisfying: you know the right guy has been caught. At the end, your conscious knowledge of the wrongdoer’s identity catches up with your subconscious awareness.
Identifying the perpetrator is what lies at the heart of the murder mystery. It also underscores the difference between true crime and the murder mystery. In most cases, we already know the identity of the killer before we pick up a true crime book. As one critic put it, “It is not the identification of the killer that provides the [enjoyment] in the true crime tale (as it does in detective fiction), but the ascription of an intelligible motive for the crime.”* Germany’s renowned poet, Friedrich Schiller, would agree. In his first true crime story, he wrote that dissection of the criminal’s motive is the driving force of the true crime genre.
What do you think prompts most people to read true crime today? Motive? Entertaintment? Curiosity about police investigations?
Literature on point:
*Sara L. Knox. Murder: A Tale of Modern American Life (Durham, N.C.: Duke Universtiy Press 1998) pp. 110-11.
Friedrich Schiller, Criminal from Lost Honor.
(c) 2014 Ann Marie Ackermann
What distinguishes true crime from other non-fiction? If you were to measure its pulse, where in the story should you place your two fingers?
The German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) would say motive. He should know. He revolutionized the true crime genre in Germany. Before Schiller came along, the German true crime genre had a different emphasis. It provided sensational details of misdeeds and the criminal’s repentance. Those details were supposed to instill a respect for the law and scare the readership into upright behavior.
But Schiller bucked convention and he admitted it. The problem with the sensationalist crime story, he wrote, is the emotional distance between reader and criminal. It leaves readers shaking their heads over behavior they don’t understand. They no longer view the perpetrator as human, but as a different species. If the author really wants to move the audience, wrote Schiller, he or she must pick up a scalpel and dissect the motive. Readers must not only see the protagonist commit crimes. They must see him want to commit them.
How do psychology and circumstances interact to produce criminal conduct? That became the new focus of Germany’s true crime genre. In the introduction to his own true crime story, Schiller wrote: “In the entire history of mankind, no chapter is more educational for the heart and soul than the history of human aberrations. For every great crime, an equally great force is at work.”
What was the last true crime story you read? Did it focus more on motive, sensationalism, or forensic techniques?
Some literature on point:
Gail K. Hart, Freidrich Schiller: Crime, Aesthetics, and the Poetics of Punishment (Newark: University of Delaware Press 2005)
Jeffrey L. High, Schiller’s Literary Prose Works: New Translations and Critical Essays (Rochester, New York: Camden House 2008)
(c) 2014 Ann Marie AckermannRead More
Who is the most famous true crime author in the world? Truman Capote, perhaps? Or Ann Rule?
If you travel back to the French and German origins of the true crime genre, you’ll find Germany’s greatest poet. He not only wrote his own true crime story, he edited a true crime collection and gave the new genre his blessings. And you know his name. World-renowned for writing the Ode to Joy and William Tell, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) launched the true crime genre in Germany.
But it was France that inspired him.
Most scholars credit Francois Gayot de Pitaval with creating the contemporary true crime genre. He published a collection of criminal cases between 1734 and 1743. Although he wasn’t the first author to write about crime, he offered something new. Pitaval probed the psychological depths of the criminal mind and retold the stories with narrative flair. This combination captivated the public. Pitaval’s collection became a bestseller of the 18th century, sparking translations and further editions.
In Germany, Schiller was fascinated. He inaugurated Pitaval’s collection in Germany by editing the debut German edition. In his introduction, Schiller recommended studying criminal cases. Crime, he wrote, is a thought-provoking, fertile field for fiction. His own true crime story also prefigured the modern true crime story. We’ll look at that story in a future blog.
What is your favorite true crime story and why do you like it?
Mine is And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi and Bruce B. Henderson. I like the exotic location (South Sea atoll) and the fascinating way the authors cast doubt on desert island arithmatics. Four (the number of people on the island) minus two (the number of people who disappeared) doesn’t necessarily equal two (the number of murderers).
Some literature on the French and German origins of the true crime genre:
Albert Borowitz, Blood & Ink: An International Guide to Fact-based Crime Literature (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2002)
Mary Lindemann, Narratives of Dismembering Women in Northern Germany, in Women and Death 1 (Helen Fronius, Anna Linton, eds.; Rochester, NY: Camden House 2008) pp. 76-92.
Martin Rosenstock, The Anti-Detective Novel in German, English, and Swiss Literature (dissertation, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, 2007).
(c) 2014 Ann Marie Ackermann