True Crime

There has always been a huge public appetite for details of real criminal cases, from ancient Rome, when spectators would clamor for the best view of gladiatorial combat, to the fascination in early modern England with public executions. The current popularity of “true crime” is today’s manifestation of this appetite.

This course will be devoted to a study of American true crime writing since 1950, and the relationship between crime and American culture. Depending on the writer, true crime can adhere strictly to well-established facts in journalistic fashion, or it can be highly speculative. A lot of true crime writing is produced quickly to capitalize on popular demand; it is usually formulaic and very conventional. The best writing of this kind reflects years of thoughtful research and inquiry and  may have considerable literary merit. Plenty of it offers the comforting message, for all the bewildering and seemingly random violence of this world, it is usually possible for us to know what really happened and who’s responsible (even though this is rarely true). In this course, we will discuss the blurred line between art and advocacy, narrative’s love of doubt, and the reasoning of the criminal mind. To this end, we’ll be examining a selection of different styles of true crime writing with an emphasis on quality. We’ll also take a detour into other media, such as documentaries and podcasts.

Weekly Assignments

Week 1: Introduction to the Course: What is true crime writing? Why do people love true crime? Read: Harold Schechter, “Introduction,” True Crime: An American Anthology, Library of America, 2008, ppxi-xx (10 pages). Laura Miller, “Sleazy, Bloody, and Surprisingly Smart: In Defense of True Crime,” Salon, 2014. Bill James on Popular Assumptions about True Crime, Popular Crime, Simon & Schuster 2012, pp6- 9, pp436-444 (11 pages).

Week 2: Crime Scene Photography. Read: Brittain Bright, “The Transforming Aesthetic of the Crime Scene Photograph: Evidence, News, Fashion, and Art,” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 38.1 March 2012: 79-102 (23 pages).

Week 3: The Case Study: Leopold and Loeb Read: Miriam Allen DeFord, “Superman’s Crime: Loeb and Leopold”, Murders Sane and Mad, 1965 (20 pages). Lecture.

Week 4: Shock and Sensation: True Detective Magazine. Read: W.T. Brannon, “Eight Girls, All Nurses, All Pretty, All Slain,” True Detective, 1966. Lecture.

Week 5:  Hard-Boiled Crime Writing. Read: James Ellroy, “My Mother’s Killer,” Crime Wave (1999)(13 pages). Jack Webb, “The Black Dahlia,” The Badge (1958)(11 pages).

Week 6: American Gothic. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, Brother’s Keeper (1992) (1 hour 44 mins).

Week 7: Forensic Case Studies & Autopsy Reports Presentations: Read: Lisa B. E. Shields, M.D.; Cristin M. Rolf, M.D.; and John C. Hunsaker, III, M.D., J.D. “Sudden Death Due to Acute Cocaine Toxicity—Excited Delirium in a Body Packer,” Journal of Forensic Science, November 2015, Vol. 60, No. 6, p1647-1651 (5 pages). David A. Lilienstein MD a, Carin M. Van Gelder MD, “A mystery: One wound, multiple bullets,” Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine 15 (2008) p343–345 (3 pages). Julie Coyle, B.S.; Karen F. Ross, M.D.; Jeffrey J. Barnard, M.D.; Elizabeth Peacock, M.D.; Charles A. Linch, B.S.; and Joseph A. Prahlow, M.D., “The Eyeball Killer: Serial Killings with Postmortem Globe Enucleation,” Journal of Forensic Science, May 2015, Vol. 60, No. 3, p642-647.

Week 8: True Crime Memoir 1. Vanessa Veselka, “The Truck Stop Killer,” GQ Magazine, November 2012. Lecture.

Week 9: “Not Criminally Responsible”: The Insanity Defense. Read: Bill James, “The Insanity Defense,” (p305-309) (4 pages) Rorschach test.

Week 10: Forensic Aesthetics. Read: Dorit Cypis, “The Aesthetics of Legal Process (the sight/site of justice),” July 2007. Lecture.