Two Genres: True Crime versus the Murder Mystery

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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.

Green gargoyleAt 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.

Friedrich Schiller

Friedrich Schiller

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

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How Schiller Changed the True Crime Genre

Gargoyle in Ulm, Germany; Pixbay.com

Gargoyle in Ulm, Germany; Pixbay.com

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?

Gallows by shutterstock.com

Gallows by shutterstock.com

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.

Statue of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, Germany

Statue of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, Germany

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 Ackermann

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French and German Origins of the True Crime Genre

Gargoyle in York, England, by Cindy Goff, shutterstock.com

Gargoyle in York, England, by Cindy Goff, shutterstock.com

Who is the most famous true crime author in the world? Truman Capote, perhaps? Or Ann Rule?

Think again.

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.

The German "New Pitaval," an offshoot of the original French Pitaval collection

The German “New Pitaval,” an offshoot of the original French Pitaval collection

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.

Friedrich Shiller, iStock photos

Friedrich Shiller, iStock photos

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

 

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