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