Sunday, April 22, 2018

Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (1998)

Karen Halttunen's academic study of true-crime literature is admirably long on cogent analysis but woefully short on the crime details that I, for one, long to dwell on. Probably that's actually an admirable aspect of the book too, not to mention part of the point. Halttunen keeps her focus well in the past—starting with execution sermons from the 16th and 17th centuries and continuing on with the Enlightenment and its aftermath. The section titles tell much of the story: The Murderer as Common Sinner, The Birth of Horror, and The Pornography of Violence, followed by sections on domestic and misogynistic violence and a discussion of the concept of legal insanity. She sees legal insanity as Enlightenment adherents clinging to their values and beliefs that human nature is innately good. I recognize myself a little in that, and certainly in the bloodthirsty audience she finds clamoring for the details in all eras. That's covered well in the section on the pornography of violence. She identifies two basic themes in this fascination with crime: horror, and mystery, both of which emerged in the 19th century and have continued strong since. Interestingly, true-crime literature has always been the low-class cousin to finer literary arts. This is true even when it's all fiction, as horror and mystery genres remain generally disreputable, relegated to certain ghettos. Halttunen writes, "Contemporary popular culture is still troubled by the moral implications of its own sensationalism, haunted by the pornographic quality of the endless pursuit of ever more grisly murders. But this relentless barrage of murder stories is due to the inability of any single murder to explain 'how could there be such evil?' True-crime literature is engaged in an endless exploration of a question to which we have no satisfying answer." To be honest, I mostly came to this book looking for titles of true-crime books that might sound worth tracking down. But there is no bibliography, and the titles scattered across the text and 60 pages of notes are mostly old tomes likely available only in a few specific libraries. So foiled again. I think the shared interest in crime verging on obsession (Halttunen is obviously well read in true crime), coupled with a resistance to indulging it, may actually be one of the most interesting aspects of this book, if frustrating. This is good stuff, but set your expectations right.

In case it's not at the library.

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