May 18, 2007

True Crime Writing: Is it worth it?

Laura James, one of the best crime bloggers on the internet, is angry with those that beleive that writing about crime is a voyeuristic activity which profits from that which it seeks to denounce. She fulminates that

I hate it when people say that true crime authors "make money off murder." You'd never say policemen make money off crime, or doctors make money off disease, or soldiers make money off war, or social workers make money off child abuse, or reporters make money off tornadoes.

Laura writes about an interesting issue- there is no doubt in my mind that crime writing done well is not mere voyeurism but actually has a rationale behind it- and I think its a rationale worth understanding.

The first reason why crime writing is worth doing well is that a good crime writer makes us empathise more in two ways. Firstly he or she displays to us the true horror of the crime- the way that lives were cut off and the barbarity of that destruction. One of the greatest chroniclers of man's inhumanity to man is Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, I have only read two volumes of his classic chronicling of Soviet oppression- the Gulag Archipelago- but Solzhenitsyn is one of those writers who brings you to the point where you can imagine the way that the Gulag felt- you feel a sympathetic pain for its victims and consequently an anger that they were betrayed by the society and the times that they lived within.

The second way that a good crime writer can help us understand the world is by helping us understand the criminal. Lets take the work for instance of Ian Kershaw on Hitler- again not strictly a crime writer- but a historian writing about perhaps the most important criminal of history. Kershaw takes you deep into Hitler's mind- analyses his speeches but also analyses his context. He shows how the young man embittered by serial failure and incompetence and elevated into a life of lazy incomprehension developed into a ranting bore in the Vienna cafes, and through the first World War when his talents for spouting at length were recognised by the Army high command into an anti-communist agitator and hence into the leadership of the Nazi party. Kershaw shows how the crimes of Hitler developed out of a unique personality- full of hatred and bile but also with a magnetic charisma- and out of a society around him that for a variety of reasons let this instable and frankly incapable man rise to its top and then dominate European and world history in the 1940s to the detriment of many- not least the 6 million his minions murdered on his instructions during the Holocaust. Again though by showing us why and how this happened- what kind of person Hitler was and how he rose to the top of German politics and how his minions thought obeying him was right- Kershaw succeeds in providing us with something that deepens our understanding of the world we live in without losing the capacity to judge the crimes that Hitler produced.

Laura is right therefore to argue that there is more to writing about crimes and misdemeanours than just voyeurism. A further thought strikes me now. Crime writing enables our faculties of empathy- but it enables us through thrilling us. Classic crime writing- ie writing about domestic crime- can acheive both the sympathetic pain that Solzhenitsyn conjures up and the explanatory force that Kershaw deploys- but does it within a medium that is much more familiar to us- rather than dealing with states, Laura and her companions in the genre deal with families, with things that are much more immediate. Stalin a great mass murderer once said that a million deaths were a statistic, whereas a death was a tragedy: taken as an insight about psychology and the way that we see death I think there is a great deal to what Stalin says (taken as an insight about morality it is repugnant). It is true that it is easier to empathise with the tragic death of x rather than the tragic death of a million- its why in wars poster soldiers develop that seize the imagination- its harder to imagine all the suffering in Afghanistan- but Pat Tillman's death makes it all more real. A great piece of film about crime, Scorsese's Casino or Hawks's Scarface, uses the individual instance to make an observation about much wider issues. True Crime can and I'm sure does do the same thing.

I haven't read much true crime- but I do think that it has a great deal more utility than its critics accord to it- it has the ability of presenting to us issues about life that we may not have thought about seriously without it, making us empathise deeply with other people's losses and also develops our understanding of what makes criminals- something that hopefully may develop our understanding both of how to catch them and how to prevent them committing crimes in the first place.


zee said...

I can't find it, but recently I attended a reader's advisory training on the genres of mystery, true crime, suspense, and horror. Ann Rule had this interesting quote about why true crime is read. Basically it said, that the reader begs to understand so that the events portrayed will never happen to them. At the library, true crime is kind of like the dirty little secret of our collection, along with harlequin romances. But it's intriguing stuff, as demonstrated by its popularity. Why else would we have so many TV shows and movies about serial killers and murders, regardless of whether it is true or fictional.