Literary crime is an ambiguous mirror of social values

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Hard to quote a quoter sometimes, but I’m still working with Charles Brownson:

“Cawelti writes, “Literary crime is an ambiguous mirror of social values, reflecting both our overt commitments to morality and order and our hidden resentments and animosity against these principles.” It is the same “mixture [-p.20] of horror and fascination, of attraction and repulsion” that drives the horror genre and that persists regardless of whatever sort of crime is the flavor of the moment, from nineteenth century poisonings to twentieth century gangsters and urban violence to twenty-first century paranoid political conspiracies of global reach.” (pp.19-20)

Ref: Charles Brownson (2014) The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers: Jefferson, North Carolina

quoting: Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, Romance. Chicago: University f Chicago Press, 1976. p77

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The Gothic and the Detective

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“The Gothic is a genre based on the same warping or tearing of the social fabric that will be used to invoke the Detective. The causes of the threat are different, but the cure is the same; the Gothic dream world evaporates upon waking into the rational one.” (p.17)

“An impediment delaying the full development of the crime story was a difficulty that the Gothic did not solve: the absence of a language needed for straightforward talk about violence and death.” (p.20)

Ref: Charles Brownson (2014) The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers: Jefferson, North Carolina

Vigilante justice and the legal culture of arrest on suspicion

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I’m interested in the concept of vigilante justice. It seems to me that vigilante justice of a sort is reasonably common in young adult fiction and urban fantasy. Anyway, I read an interesting opinion piece on the topic; Meena Radhakrishna considered several incidents in India represented as vigilante justice by the press, even though in each case those treated to this form of ‘justice’ all proved innocent of the supposed crime.

Radhakrishna writes: “Recent incidents of lynching in different parts of the country have to be viewed in the context of the law itself allowing the arrest of innocent people on mere suspicion, especially denotified and nomadic people.” (p.16)

“, various sociological explanations have been given for occurrence and recurrence of such incidents. The Bihar lynchings in September 2007, especially, aroused a lot of comment. Horrified national and international reactions largely included denouncement of the inefficient and callous law and order machinery in the concerned state (mainly the police), and the failure of the criminal justice system. This analysis reasoned that a public fed up with delays in dispensation of justice decided to take the law into its own hands and “settle scores with the miscreants”. The solutions to this state of affairs were then seen to be, predictably, gearing up of the police, speedier trials and more self-restraint on the part of the public, however provoked.” (p.16)

However, Radhakrishna explains: “There are some commonalities which will bear pointing out emphatically. Firstly, in all the five cases, the communities suspected of theft (in the case of pardhis, of rape and murder), were nomadic/denotified communities. Secondly, in all the cases it is mere suspicion of crime, not the proof of crime which seemed to justify the public killings or other forms of punishment like rape or burning down of a whole village. Thirdly, in all the cases, the mob was not made up of unknown, nameless ‘citizens’ or a faceless ‘crowd’ as implied in the press, but was constituted of identifiable people. …Fourthly, the law and order keepers in all the …cases [described in this article] were actually present or were informed of the incident well in advance and they did nothing to stop the beatings in time to save the lives of those who were caught by the mobs. …” (pp.16-17)

There are no issues of justice to be settled here since we are talking of crimes here which the accused did not commit. In other words, innocent people have been caught and handled recklessly and in a most barbaric manner. How has any “justice”, mob, or instant, or vigilante, been dispensed?
A point to be emphasised here is that the Indian law itself allows apprehending of innocent people under mere suspicion, and denotified and nomadic people are regularly rounded up by the police under the mob was not made up of unknown, nameless “citizens” or a faceless “crowd” caste members of the concerned region. certain preventive sections of the Indian Penal Code (ipc). This gross injustice is something the rest of the civil society is witness to without questioning, encouraging a state of affairs where suspicion will continue to substitute for hard evidence for vulnerable groups. However, this daily injustice on these communities by the police machinery is not the reason for such group violence. It merely helps in justifying it for its perpetrators in the likes of cases cited above.” (p.17)

Thought-provoking stuff!!! This same culture of suspicion standing in for hard evidence is something children face, too, at least in New Zealand and other English-speaking countries I’ve been to. How wide-spread is such a culture?

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Meena Radhakrishna (2008) Crime of Vigilante Justice Economic and Political Weekly 43 (2) Jan. 12-18, pp.16-18

Book to check out – Bloody Murder

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Bloody Murder

The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature

Michelle Ann Abate

Publication Year: 2013

Given the long-standing belief that children ought to be shielded from disturbing life events, it is surprising to see how many stories for kids involve killing. Bloody Murder is the first full-length critical study of this pervasive theme of murder in children’s literature. Through rereadings of well-known works, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, and The Outsiders, Michelle Ann Abate explores how acts of homicide connect these works with an array of previously unforeseen literary, social, political, and cultural issues. Topics range from changes in the America criminal justice system, the rise of forensic science, and shifting attitudes about crime and punishment to changing cultural conceptions about the nature of evil and the different ways that murder has been popularly presented and socially interpreted. Bloody Murder adds to the body of inquiry into America’s ongoing fascination with violent crime. Abate argues that when narratives for children are considered along with other representations of homicide in the United States, they not only provide a more accurate portrait of the range, depth, and variety of crime literature, they also alter existing ideas about the meaning of violence, the emotional appeal of fear, and the cultural construction of death and dying.

Violence and time in North America – some thoughts from Isabel Allende

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Actually, as well as liking some of Isabel Allende’s ideas about Memoir and memory, I also found her comments on violence and time interesting. She wrote (and I hope I haven’t eliminated the context in which she writes this):

“I’ve been so thoroughly incorporated into the California culture that I practice mediation and go to a therapist…. I have adapted to the rhythm of this extraordinary place….”

“The North Americans’ sense of time is very special. They are short on patience. Everything must be quick, including food and sex, which the rest of the world treats ceremoniously. Gringos invented two terms that are untranslatable into most languages: ‘snack’ and ‘quickie,’ to refer to eating standing up and loving on the run … that, too, sometimes standing up. The most popular books are manuals: how to become a millionaire in ten easy lessons, how to lose fifteen pounds a week, how to recover from your divorce, and so on. People always go around looking for shortcuts and ways to [-p.189] escape anything they consider unpleasant: ugliness, old age, weight, illness, poverty, and failure in any of its aspects.
This country’s fascination with violence never ceases to shock me. It can be said that I have lived in interesting circumstances, I’ve seen revolutions, war, and urban crime, not to mention the brutalities of the military coup in Chile. Our home in Caracas was broken into seventeen times; almost everything we had was stolen, from a can opener to three cars, two from the street, and the third after the thieves completely ripped off our garage door. At least none of them had bad intentions; one even left a note of thanks stuck to the refrigerator door. Compared to other places on earth, where a child can step on a mine on his way to school and lose two legs, the United States is safe as a convent, but the culture is addicted to violence. Proof of that is to be found in its sports, its games, its art, and, certainly not least, its films, which are bloodcurdling. North Americans don’t want violence in their lives, but they need to experience it indirectly. They are enchanted by war, as long as it’s not on their turf.” (pp.188-189)

Ref: Isabel Allende (2003) My Invented Country: A Memoir. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. Flamingo: London

Serial killer films – the monstrosity of the body and the slipping of the mask

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I think I’ve found another critic I like… Steffen Hantke addresses the ‘monstrous’ nature of serial killers, writing that:

Much of the recent discourse on monstrosity is more interested in the question what monsters mean than what they look like. […For example, Marie-Helene Huet declares that:] ”By presenting similarities to categories of beings to which they are not related, monsters blur the differences between genres and disrupt the strict order of Nature”” (p.34)

“In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the sight of the creature fills its creator with ”breathless horror and disgust”; Victor finds himself literally ”unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] had created” (57). Bram Stoker’s eponymous Dracula (from the 1897 novel), capable of moving about the crowded London streets without attracting attention, has none of these physical markers of otherness, and yet there are moments when his true nature becomes visible, his body becoming spectacular, ”panther-like in … movement,” his ”eye-teeth long and pointed,” and his general appearance transformed into something obviously ”unhuman” (266). Stevenson’s Edward Hyde (1886) already announces a shift from the surface of the body to its depths. Though Hyde’s appearance still elicits a shock of physical revulsion [-p.35] reminiscent of Shelley–the ”very essence of the creature” is ”something seizing, surprising and revolting” (39)–the physical markers of his otherness are already less distinct. Witnesses point to ”something displeasing, something downright detestable” (7), something ”abnormal and misbegotten” (39), about him, though no one can ”specify the point” (7). This difficulty in locating the exact location or nature of Hyde’s ”deformity,” however, does not detract from the witnesses’ certainty that it is indeed Hyde’s body which bears ”Satan’s signature” (12). Seeing this body commit a monstrous act is not required to understand its true nature. His is the transitional body in the history of the Gothic, one which gives ”an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation” (11-12). These examples illustrate that monstrosity never really leaves the body as its preferred site of manifestation, though it may become detached from any particular bodily characteristic.” (pp.34-35)

Monstrosity can be forced to manifest itself against the will and efforts of the monster, or it can manifest itself as a kind of Freudian lapse during a moment of inattention.” (p.35)

“This slipping of the mask is only one of the many thematic connections between these nineteenth century monsters and their pre-eminent late twentieth century descendent, the serial killer. The modern serial killer, as we find him in popular film and fiction, has a hybrid ontology. He is, to quote Philip Simpson, ”a fantastic confabulation of Gothic/romantic villain, literary vampire and werewolf, … film noir outsider, frontier outlaw, folkloric threatening figure, and [he embodies] nineteenth-century pseudo-sociological conceptions of criminal types given contemporary plausibility” (15). Despite this bewildering multiplicity of generic sources, Simpson(like many others) comes to the conclusion that fictionalized serial killers are the product of [-p.36] two major influences: the Gothic romance on the one hand, and detective fiction on the other. In the former, they occupy the position of monstrous other, from the dark and charismatic Byronic heroes of Walpole, Radcliffe, and Bronte to the monsters of Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker. In the latter, they appear as superhuman and fiendishly clever criminals plotted against such masterminds as Auguste Dupin or Sherlock Holmes.” (pp.35-36)

Public display of the abject body has become a hallmark of the intersection of Gothic and detective fiction ever since. At first glance, the recent serial killer narrative subscribes to this generic convention as well. Often the killer’s body makes an early appearance–in most cases, before the first half of the novel or film is over. Unlike the ”whodunnit,” the serial killer genre typically shows us the killer’s face early on, and identifies him as the killer. Since he is not part of a familiar circle of suspects, it makes no difference whether or when we see his face. Nevertheless, when we do see it, especially the first time, the effect is usually something of an anticlimax. He is less than what we expected, especially in comparison with what the film has shown us of his residence, his victims’ bodies, and/or the effects that his actions have had on other characters and the community at large. Finally witnessing the killer’s body, we cannot help feeling cheated. It is the moment when the film uncovers its central mystery, yet what is uncovered appears flat, and far from enigmatic. Our appetite for illicit thrills is not satisfied, even though the preparatory stages leading up to this primal scene promise just that. And so what at first glance appears to be well within the rules of the genre instead turns out to be an inversion of one of its basic tenets. The body of the serial killer is not a site of abjection, despite what one might expect from the way its appearance is so often staged. Indeed, the vast majority of serial killers lack that one crucial feature which, according to numerous scholars and critics, effectively defines the monstrous: their evil is not written on their bodies.” (p.36)

“Mark Seltzer calls the serial killer ”the statistical person,”” (p.36)

“As closely related as the fictional serial killer narrative may be to that of the Gothic, or to the horror film generally, this is in fact one of its distinctive features: monstrosity is never revealed in that scene, so typical of the horror genre, in which the monster is glimpsed for the first time, his appearance inspiring a terrified shriek from a (typically female) character. In the traditional horror film, language breaks down when confronted with the monstrous. The scream of abject terror marks a descent into the pre- or non-lingual, and thus signifies the collapse of culture. Not so when the monstrous appears in the guise of the serial killer. Like characters in the narrative, we respond with bafflement rather than horror, with incomprehension rather than disgust, and with a need to reiterate the question–Could that really be him?–rather than with a terrified scream that rings through the horror genre’s familiar Gothic hallways.” (p.37)

“Monsters, according to yet another scholar, speak of the ”fears of contamination, impurity, and loss of identity,” carrying the outward manifestations of these fears on their bodies (Cohen14-15).” (p.38)

“Though audiences of serial killer narratives still derive their thrills from what Carrollcalls ”felt agitation,” its source cannot be the killer’s abject body, which is all solidity and bland surface. Hence, all attempts made by such narratives (especially in the medium of film) to visualize the serial killer’s inherent evil meet with a significant challenge, as monstrosity must somehow manifest itself visually. Efforts made at visualizing evil are often conceptualized as a sudden, unexpected, occasionally unobserved (other than by the audience) slippage during the killer’s otherwise seamless performance of normality; the same slippage mentioned above with respect to the Gothic monsters Dracula and Mr. Hyde. Every once in a while, the mask of normality slips, revealing the face of evil underneath.” (p.38)

Moreover, murder ”like any event, is a transitory thing,” even when it is repeated obsessively by the serial killer (Knox8). This goes some way towards explaining why films of this genre place so little emphasis on the visual representation of the murders themselves, and why they seem to share the killer’s treatment of the victims as two-dimensional and interchangeable. More importantly, [‘]The essence of the act can only ever be captured in its author. If the murderer is found to be irresponsibly insane, that vital element of authoring intent is lost and the status of the event is thrown into doubt. The insane murderous act becomes merely a kind of automatic writing, its origins obscure and unintelligible. Then, it is madness itself that becomes the subject of scrutiny, not murder.[‘] (Knox 57)” (p.44) … “While the serial killer embodies ”the mystery, the enigma of origins” (9), our focus is channeled away from the murders as a textual site where monstrosity can manifest itself.” (p.44) … “In this context, it is important to stress that the serial killer narrative, despite its rotten reputation, typically practices a degree of reluctance when it comes to showing explicit scenes of excessive violence. Conventionally, it removes itself visually from the immediate depiction of the violent act.” (p.44)

“…serial killer cinema deliberately rejects the visualizing strategies routinely availed of by other genres, with the result that the [-p.45] killer’s actions appear as a rather attenuated site for the display of spectacular monstrosity.” (pp.44-45)

“The fact that this representational option seems largely closed off returns us to the body as a site of monstrosity, and to the scenes of slippage discussed above. When the killer’s mask of normality falls for a moment, thereby enabling to see the turmoil and homicidal chaos underneath, this slippage is predicated on the assumption that because something is concealed it must be authentic. The chaos is his true identity, the calm normality a mask. But this assumption is not necessarily true.” (p.45)

As audiences repeatedly exposed to images of spectacular violence, we are taught to experience pleasure when controlled by a narrative that elicits from us unwilling manifestations of intense emotion. Held in breathless suspense, or jolted out of our seats by expertly timed shocks, we habitually flinch or groan in synch with the events on the screen (again it is Williams whose discussion of ”body genres” ties together hardcore porn and the horror film). But by reminding ourselves of our genre expertise we also experience pleasure in exercising control over these shocks and visual attacks. Horror films in particular can be said to elicit this type of pleasure in their audiences by foregrounding or thematizing genre conventions….” (p.48)

“Denied visual and narrative pleasure in all the familiar places, audiences of the serial killer film must look elsewhere. The films themselves oblige, mobilizing various maneuvers to distract from the void at their center. In one such maneuver, monstrosity ”slides off” the body of the serial killer and attaches itself to the space he inhabits. The process of zeroing in on this intimate space determines the narrative, driving it towards a climactic moment of penetration when the Gothic darkness is dispelled and the secrets of the killer brought to light (through images, writings, collections of trophies, clues to developmental regression or childhood trauma, etc.). Monstrosity also attaches itself to the bodies of the killer’s victims, which are almost always construed as objects of abjection.” (p.49)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Steffen Hantke (2002) ‘Monstrosity Without a Body: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film’ Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities. 22(2), pp.34-54

Abstract: “Hantke examines the portrayal of serial killers in various late 20th-century films and analyzes how the monstrosity of the serial killer character is represented. Unlike popular monstrous figures from literature and from early 20th-century horror cinema such as Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and Mr. Hyde, the dangerous and horrific qualities of serial killers are not manifest in their physical appearance; in fact, a defining characteristic of the serial killer film is the absolute ordinariness of the villain’s looks. Hantke extensively details the ways in which a serial killer’s deeds, rather than his physical body, become the locus of his monstrosity. Characters analyzed include: Norman Bates in “Psycho,” Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and the schizophrenic serial killer in “The Cell.”” (p.34)