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