Praise for Twisted Tales Events
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‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill
Saturday, 31 May 2014
Jean Murley interviewed by David McWilliam
David McWilliam will be presenting at and co-running True Crime: Fact, Fiction, Ideology, a one-day academic conference about the genre, at the Manchester Conference Centre on Saturday 7th June 2014. Click here to see the full programme and links to registration.
DM: What is true crime?
JM: This is a great question—the short answer, of course, is that true crime is a popular genre, multi-faceted and presenting representations of real crime (primarily murder). But who cares about short answers? We’re academics! Strictly speaking, in terms of the genre, true crime is a set of narrative conventions and strategies which include the presentation of one criminal event (often a series of them), simultaneous distancing from/identification with the killer, deep contextualization of the crime(s), a narrator who is an insider in some way, and the mixing of fictional elements such as imagined dialogue or re-enactments with facts. True crime is a way of making sense of the senseless, but it has also become a worldview, an outlook, and a perspective on contemporary life—one that is suspicious and cynical, narrowly focused on the worst kinds of crimes, and preoccupied with safety, order, and justice. The cultural work of true crime is fixated on the presentation of both horror and justice, of deep rips in the social fabric produced by acts of horrific violence alongside the mending of those same rips. Different iterations of the genre—on TV, films, books, and internet materials—highlight different aspects of crime using various narrative strategies, but the basic template remains the same: crime, context, pursuit, and punishment. As with any popular genre, true crime both reflects and is shaped by its own cultural contexts, and as the genre has matured and evolved, varying forces work to shape it. At present, there is a heavy emphasis on representations of historically interesting or previously-overlooked crimes. Looking through the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday, I noticed a survey review of four true crime texts covering Belle Epoque Paris, Medieval Paris, Nazi Berlin, and contemporary Philadelphia. The geographical or historically-themed true crime text is seeing a slight vogue at the moment, a (welcome?) departure from the serial-killer theme of the 1980s and 90s.
DM: Why is true crime so fixated on murder? There is no shortage of newspaper columns about other extreme crimes, such as child abuse, that explore motivation, pursuit, capture and punishment, but this does not carry over into true crime. Does this have anything to do with the generic conventions and/or taboos in the marketplace?
JM: This is a question I’ve thought about often. The simple answer is that because murder is the most serious transgression one person can commit, there is endless fascination about it. It’s the biggest, baddest thing we can do, and there’s no end to the questions about it—why? how? what was going through that person’s head when they did that? What did the victim see, feel, experience? Could I do something like this, ever? What would drive me to commit this kind of act? But I think the fascination runs deeper than that. Murder is finality, it is definite, and—perhaps most importantly for true crime—it seems to be knowable. Epistemologically, murder appears to be something eminently knowable in our precarious, uncertain, and unstable world. What could be more clear? Somebody was killed, and somebody did it. End of story. Murder presents an opportunity for us to encounter factuality, knowability, and truth. The police and our various systems of justice and punishment deal with facts, and are engaged with a quest for the truth. This satisfies our collective need not just for justice and retribution, for re-ordering the world after the serious disorder of crime, but also our need to know, to have a collection of facts that cannot be disputed or interpreted or argued about. True crime is fixated on murder because it offers answers. And I think this is why the unsolved cases, the ones where serious questions and doubts linger—Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Sam Sheppard, Jeffrey MacDonald, to name just a few—stay with us for so very long. On the one hand, an unsolved case presents endless opportunities for theorizing and revisiting the crime; but in another way, an unsolved or questionable case breaks knowledge in an unacceptable way, and that lingers like a wound that just won’t heal. The unknown juxtaposed with the known—a murder, but no killer identified—is deeply vexing, on many levels.
This question also makes me think about Errol Morris’s groundbreaking true crime documentary film, The Thin Blue Line. In addition to being a film that played a huge role in freeing a wrongfully convicted man, Randall Adams, Morris very cleverly questions the knowability of murder through repeated re-enactments of the crime itself. Even though it is clear that David Harris, and not Randall Adams, killed police officer David Woods, the “official” version of events remained entrenched and inscribed in the public record—until Morris questioned the conviction with his film, through the many and multiple re-enactments of the murder. This is the powerful work that true crime can do, in both freeing an innocent man and in causing the viewer to question what is known about any act of murder. Some of the best forms of the genre do this.
DM: Mark Seltzer describes the genre as 'crime fact that looks like crime fiction'. Would you agree that some of the more explicit true crime also looks like horror fiction?
JM: Absolutely. But this is really two separate (but related) questions. Some true crime is called “crime porn,” not unlike the “torture porn” horror films such as the Saw series (and many others). Exploitation or an emotionally charged presentation of the ultra-violent and graphic elements of true crime is one of those moral gray areas that we find whenever violence is represented in popular culture. The question is always one of emphasis—are we more interested in the squeamish details of what is actually done to particular bodies in criminal acts, or are we more interested in the biography, motivation, and psychology of the killer? And of course, this is morally problematic, as the victim becomes just a body, violated in unimaginable ways and presented for consumption by viewers/readers who hide prurience behind a kind of curiosity motivated by moral outrage. True crime operates in an emotional register very similar to that of horror, with a cast of monsters and predators endlessly violating and killing “innocent” or unwitting victims. The rhetoric of true crime echoes that of horror, and the graphic and explicit details of bodily violations are many.
However, this is also a question about the mixture of fact and fiction that is an essential element of true crime, and that raises other significant ethical questions. True crime always relates details about acts that simply cannot be known, as the witnesses are dead and/or silent. Killers—when they talk—lie, and murder victims can’t talk. So, writers put words into the mouths of people, they relate conversations that might have happened, place their characters into situations likely to have occurred, and so on. This can’t be avoided, as the demands of a good narrative call for good details. But is this something we want to do? Is it OK to imbue the cultural memory of a significant crime with fictional elements? Is it warranted to give murderers the dimensions and weight of literary characters, to make the killers more memorable than their victims? Is this even avoidable, when crafting stories about events? I don’t know. But it’s important to think about these questions and to ask them of the genre. I think that in its best forms, true crime asks these questions of itself.
DM: What are true crime’s best forms? How do some true crime texts question the worldview and/or narrative techniques of the genre?
JM: I think the best true crime asks questions—not just about murder and crime, punishment and justice, truth and lies, but about the genre itself. One of the first books to do this is Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, of course, and Mailer does this through placing himself squarely within the narrative and showing us the machinations of commerce attached to a high-profile case. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer question representations of violence while engaging in those same representations, which is very difficult to do. I think Henry takes more risks and ultimately succeeds in this endeavor, by calling on the viewer to be conscious of the act of viewing. NBK fails in the same endeavor because Mickey and Mallory Knox are too attractive, sexy, and compelling, and Stone falls into the old trap of Milton’s Satan—that evil is often more interesting and beautiful than the good, and this is, after all, entertainment. Henry isn’t afraid to present ugliness in its questioning of voyeuristic interest in violence.
In TV shows, I think that The First 48 is doing really important cultural work; although it doesn’t stick to the conventions of true crime, it does present real crimes, unadorned and without the layer of compelling interest garnered by serial or sexual murder. The First 48 asks inherent and subtle questions of the true crime genre by ignoring the conventions, although the demands of creating narrative interest still hold, such as highlighting certain detective characters, emphasizing some of them to the exclusion of others, etc. I find the LA Times “Homicide Report” extremely interesting, as it does similar cultural work—presenting actual murder, in context, but without the glittering coat of sensationalism that most murder narratives still use.
I also find some of the newer murder narratives really interesting—books like Terri Jentz’s Strange Piece of Paradise or some of the historical true crime which seems to be trending at the moment, the movies Zodiac, Capote, and Infamous, and the “Red Riding” trilogy of TV shows. Each of these true crime forms indicates a different direction for true crime, a kind of “meta-non-fiction,” as they examine the larger contexts of murder and the making of murder narratives. We seem to be moving in a direction that is slightly away from the strict conventions of the genre and into uncharted territory—the Jentz book is written by a woman who was a victim of an axe-wielding killer who, luckily, didn’t succeed, and the text follows her quest to identify her attacker. The others break the boundaries of the genre by emphasizing context or the nuts-and-bolts of murder narration, to the exclusion of a concentration on the psycho-killer. I think this is a wonderful new direction in true crime.
This question is actually huge, and I could go on much longer, but I won’t…
DM: How did you come to research true crime and what challenges did it present?
JM: I’ve always enjoyed the genre, and in graduate school I turned that fascination into scholarship. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on true crime texts, analyzing major volumes in the genre and arguing for their significance. One of the major challenges in doing this work has been my own mission to gain recognition that true crime is an important genre worthy of serious and sustained study. Trivialized because it is popular, true crime has been marginalized as “trash” because of its subject matter, that of tabloid-worthy subjects and topics. But it does serious and important cultural work, and even in its worst, most sensationalistic iterations, true crime is always asking “why?” Why do we do such horrible things to each other? Why are we so interested in murder? What can be done about this? These are crucial questions about the human condition, and true crime is one of the only forms of popular culture that asks them, and sometimes even attempts answers. In my Ph.D. program, I was very fortunate to find advisors and mentors who encouraged the study of popular culture, so I didn’t encounter many hurdles in that regard. But my work has been marginalized at some inter-disciplinary academic conferences, and I can’t help but think that it’s because true crime is seen as unimportant. I heartily disagree.
Some of the more practical challenges I’ve encountered as a true crime scholar involve tracking down hard-to-find old magazines—the Library of Congress and a privately-held treasure trove in New Jersey have been invaluable in my work. Out-of-print true crime volumes are quite easy to find, thankfully, on Amazon, although some are prohibitively expensive.
DM: Will Collateral Damage also explore true crime texts, or are you planning to look at other forms of crime non-fiction?
JM: Collateral Damage will present the personal stories of eight people who experienced wrongful conviction through the incarceration of a loved one; in a way, this book is true crime of a new type, because I will be narrating real crimes (and the “crime” of wrongful conviction), but from the perspective of the people affected by it, rather than fixating on the details of the crime itself and its aftermath. Crime never occurs in a vacuum; neither do wrongful convictions. These are stories that have yet to be told, and they are an important part of the vast social injustice wrought by all-too-common miscarriages of the criminal justice system. Wrongful conviction narratives are rapidly becoming their own genre, with such texts as Grisham’s An Innocent Man, Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson’s Picking Cotton, and the many first-person narrated volumes that relate the experience of wrongful conviction.
I am also considering doing a second edition of The Rise of True Crime; the genre is growing so rapidly and in such interesting directions, that I need to update the book!