- The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer by Lisa Downing
In a thought-provoking book, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer, Lisa Downing takes a topic normally reserved for courtrooms, television crime series, and supermarket tabloids, and forces scholars to consider serial murderers according to new historical and artistic perspectives. Downing articulates the ways in which modern serial killers become celebrities and exceptional human beings in the eyes of the public and press, and analyzes the social and cultural purposes their exceptionality serves. Downing pays particular attention to the ways in which gender determines our reaction to murderers. Finally, she considers the role the arts—fictional and non-fictional texts, documentaries, feature-length films, drawings, and paintings—either produced by the killers themselves or other people, play in construction of the “subject” murder. Notably absent from her book, however, is the media sensationalism that often accompanies modern serial killers’ cases. The Subject of Murder is thus unique among studies of modern serial killers.
Previous scholars have alternatively focused on European discourses about the murderer-cum-artist, or used criminology and sexology to pathologize serial killers. Downing combines these two approaches to provide a fresh look at the subject of murder across a broad historical period. The first chapter of the study [End Page 282] provides an overview of the rise of the modern killer beginning in the late-eighteenth century with the Marquis de Sade, in the nineteenth century with the works of Cesare Lombroso and Richard von Krafft-Ebing regarding the science and psychology of the modern murderer, and continuing in the twentieth century with Michel Foucault. For each serial killer studied (see the chapter descriptions below), Downing then gives a close reading of the primary texts associated with the case—writings, testimonies, art pieces, court proceedings, etc. Finally, Downing analyzes each incident from a feminist perspective since, as she argues, it is rare to find discussions, scholarly or otherwise, in which a female murderer’s penchant for crime is not attributed to failed femininity.
Each of the book’s seven chapters is devoted to one serial killer. The three nineteenth-century murders she discusses are France’s Pierre-François Lacenaire and Marie Lafarge, and England’s Jack the Ripper. For the twentieth century Downing considers British killers Myra Hindley and Dennis Nilsen, and American serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Selecting equal numbers of adult male and female serial killers allows Downing to deconstruct both masculinity and femininity. The final chapter is devoted to children who kill: Mary Bell, Jon Venables, and Robert Thompson from Britain, and the Columbine Shooters from the United States. In the chapter on children who kill, Downing finds that our shock at their crimes is attributed to the fact that children are deemed innocent and pure, and to kill goes against the very nature of childhood. Similarly, female serial killers are particularly aberrant because they behave in unnatural (i.e. unfeminine) ways. Although male serial killers are also reviled by the public, since the nineteenth century they have been met with a fascination and even an awe that dates back to the Romantic ideal of the exceptional human being. Downing ultimately demonstrates that modern serial killers are not exceptional subjects; they are products and producers of modern society.
The chapters on Lacenaire and Jack the Ripper should prove particularly useful for nineteenth-century scholars since they were cult figures for Romantic and Republican writers such as Pétrus Borel, Alexandre Dumas, Gérard de Nerval, and Théophile Gautier. Lacenaire embodied the Baudelairian trope that man is simultaneously drawn to good and evil. These writers and artists lauded the killer for his exceptional status and his ability to create art through death. It is therefore not surprising that they and others, such as Victor Hugo, featured the celebrated criminal in their works. Hugo’s Le Dernier jour d’un condamné and Gautier’s “Étude de mains: Lacenaire” are two such examples. The self-proclaimed anti-feminist writer...