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American Literary History 12.4 (2000) 780-793

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The State of the Art

Joel Black

Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination By Karen Halttunen. Harvard University Press, 1998
Murder: A Tale of Modern American Life By Sara L. Knox. Duke University Press, 1998
Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture By Mark Seltzer. Routledge, 1998

A murderer is always unreal once you know he is a murderer.

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

No other act so flagrantly exposes the contradictions lying just beneath the surface of American culture the way murder does. Typically occurring in industrialized, urban environments, American violence appears as a regressive phenomenon, a reminder of the savage brutality and primitivism that made the US such a modern, progressive nation in the first place. Then there is the mass media's role to be considered--even as (or because) it's depicted everywhere as news, art, and entertainment, murder somehow remains unrepresentable and unreal. By making murder a public spectacle, the media fail on the one hand to convey the private and intimate nature of death, and they fail on the other hand to make violence sufficiently sensational for their increasingly desensitized and anesthetized viewers. As for medical and legal experts, their special interest in murder is belied by the pretense of professional disinterest on which their authority rests. Finally there is the paradox that as the most abhorrent of crimes, homicide is routinely punished by execution: by killing the killer, the American criminal justice system essentially assumes the murderer's own role.

Contradictions such as these tend to be overlooked by scientific studies which consider murder a sociological, pathological, or criminological problem to be analyzed, explained, and resolved. For some time there has been a pressing need for studies that approach murder as a cultural phenomenon and that recognize its inseparability from the plethora of mass-mediated representations of violence circulating throughout American society. Fortunately, we now have three works, all published in 1998, that adopt such an approach. Both Karen Halttunen's Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination and Sara L. Knox's Murder: A Tale of Modern American Life [End Page 780] treat murder first and foremost as a story that, in Halttunen's words, "involves a fictive process, which reveals much about the mental and emotional strategies employed within a given historical culture for responding to serious transgression in its midst" (2). Indeed, the phenomenon that Knox calls the "transmutation of event into narrative" (193) takes on a new importance when the event in question happens to be murder, and especially actual murders that are endlessly retold in the popular, contemporary, and above all fictive mode that has misleadingly come to be designated true crime. Alternatively, Mark Seltzer's Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture takes up this sensational criminal class as a symptom of a hypertrophied American society that cannot be reduced to any conventional notion of representation or narrative. How can the murderous subject's story be told when his identity and even his individuality is not easily specified, when the presence of this virus lurking amid the algorithms of mass-mediated culture can only begin to be detected after a series of apparently random, violent eruptions in the systemic order?

Despite their concern with entirely distinct periods of American history, Halttunen and Knox take a similar approach to their subject. Both authors focus on the literary and cultural conventions at work in American murder narratives, critiquing, as Knox writes, the "generic conventions of the tale of murder" (145), or in Halttunen's case, the "set of conventions surrounding the collective response to murder--conventions that run so deep in modern liberal culture that they appear to be natural, instinctive, when in fact they are historically contingent" (6). Halttunen's thesis that a decisive shift in the discourse of murder took place in eighteenth-century New England is elegant and powerful. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, she shows that the dominant form of murder narratives...


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