Synopses & Reviews
Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Over the past thirty years, serial killers have become iconic figures in America, the subject of made-for-TV movies and mass-market paperbacks alike. But why do we find such luridly transgressive and horrific individuals so fascinating? What compels us to look more closely at these figures when we really want to look away? Natural Born Celebrities
considers how serial killers have become lionized in American culture and explores the consequences of their fame.
David Schmid provides a historical account of how serial killers became famous and how that fame has been used in popular media and the corridors of the FBI alike. Ranging from H. H. Holmes, whose killing spree during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair inspired The Devil in the White City, right up to Aileen Wuornos, the lesbian prostitute whose vicious murder of seven men would serve as the basis for the hit film Monster, Schmid unveils a new understanding of serial killers by emphasizing both the social dimensions of their crimes and their susceptibility to multiple interpretations and uses. He also explores why serial killers have become endemic in popular culture, from their depiction in The Silence of the Lambs and The X-Files to their becoming the stuff of trading cards and even Web sites where you can buy their hair and nail clippings.
Bringing his fascinating history right up to the present, Schmid ultimately argues that America needs the perversely familiar figure of the serial killer now more than ever to manage the fear posed by Osama bin Laden since September 11.
"This is a persuasively argued, meticulously researched, and compelling examination of the media phenomenon of the 'celebrity criminal' in American culture. It is highly readable as well."—Joyce Carol Oates
andquot;A fascinating account of the intersection of reality and fantasy, The Legendary Detective connects Dashiell Hammettand#39;s world of such fictional detectives as the Continental Op and Sam Spade to Samuel Hammettand#39;s (the same guy) experience of the real world of Pinkerton and Burns detectives working to break strikes and stir up political strife. Itand#39;s a penetrating story of the development of a contemporary legend via the interplay of the detective business and the culture industries which has lastingly influenced our understanding of urban life.andquot;
andquot;Lisa Downing's latest book is an original and daring attempt to prod us to rethink our conventional, inherited, and normative conceptions of the figure of the murderer. Downing convincingly and disturbingly argues that murderers are not really 'others,' but that the subjectivities of murderers should be located on a continuum with us. The Subject of Murder
is a profoundly relevant feminist/queer contribution to our understanding of our present historical moment.andquot;
and#8220;The Subject of Murder is an original, superbly researched, and important work that deserves a broad readership. It will be of interest to audiences from a wide range of disciplines, from French literature to cultural studies, sexuality studies, and queer studies; from popular culture to criminology and sociology. There has never been a book quite like it.and#8221;
andquot;The Subject of Murder
is the kind of book that you didn't know you needed until you read it, and then you cannot understand how you ever thought about its subject without it! Murderers, as Downing points out, are cast as singular, exceptional, and remarkable in Euro-American cultural life. However, using a Foucauldian framework to fold murder and violence intot the set of discursive frames that produce modern human identity, Downing shows us how to see the murderer as a product of modernity rather than as the subject it wishes to suppres. A remarkable book.andquot;
andquot;Lisa Downing's case studies demonstrate a remarkable intellectual dexterity in moving between the abstract ideas that shape the subjects she discusses and the materiality of the lives of those thus shaped. The Subject of Murder
is at once an intellecutal tour de force, and, like its subjects, is absolutely fascinating.andquot;
andquot;Over nearly a century, a symbiotic relationship developed between detective practices and the popular culture industry that depicted them. The Legendary Detective is a masterly analysis of private detective work within the context of popular culture, revealing their interweaving and mutual influence. Mass-market literature made detective work look glamorous, which in turn provided a model and an incentive for memoirists like Alan Pinkerton, Charlie Siringo, and William J. Burns. Detectives wrote field and case reports that they and the home office polished and no doubt embellished to impress clients whose expectations were influenced by popular culture; fact and fiction blurred. Waltonand#39;s analysis is brilliant.andquot;
Private detectives and detective agencies played a major role in American history from 1870 to 1940.and#160; Pinkerton, Burns, Thiels, and the smaller independents were a multi-million dollar industry, hired out by many if not most American corporations, who needed services of surveillance, strike breaking, and labor espionage.and#160; Not only is John Waltonandrsquo;s account the first sustained history of this industry, it is also the first book to trace the ways in which the private detective came to occupy a cherished place in popular imagination.and#160; Walton paints lively portraits of these mythical figures from Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant eccentric, to Sam Spade, the hard-boiled hero of Dashiell Hammettandrsquo;s best-selling tales.and#160; Thereandrsquo;s a great question lurking in here:and#160; how did pulp magazine editors shape the image of the hard-boiled private eye, and what sorts of interplay obtained between the actual records (agency files, memoirs) of these motley individuals in real life and the legend of the private detective in mass-market fiction?and#160; This history of the private eyes and this account of how the detective industry and the culture industry played off of each other is a first.and#160; Walton show us, in clean clear outline, the figure of the classical private eye, and he shows us further how the memory of this iconic figure was sustained in fiction, radio, film, literary societies, product promotions, adolescent entertainments, and a subculture of detective enthusiasts.
andldquo;Iandrsquo;m in a business where people come to me with troubles. Big troubles, little troubles, but always troubles they donandrsquo;t want to take to the cops.andrdquo; Thatandrsquo;s Raymond Chandlerandrsquo;s Philip Marlowe, succinctly setting out our image of the private eye. A no-nonsense loner, working on the margins of society, working in the darkness to shine a little light.
The reality is a little differentandmdash;but no less fascinating. In The Legendary Detective, John Walton offers a sweeping history of the American private detective in reality and myth, from the earliest agencies to the hard-boiled heights of the 1930s and andrsquo;40s. Drawing on previously untapped archival accounts of actual detective work, Walton traces both the growth of major private detective agencies like Pinkerton, which became powerful bulwarks against social and labor unrest, and the motley, unglamorous work of small-time operatives. He then goes on to show us how writers like Dashiell Hammett and editors of sensational pulp magazines like Black Mask embellished on actual experiences and fashioned an image of the PI as a compelling, even admirable, necessary evil, doing societyandrsquo;s dirty work while adhering to a self-imposed moral code. Scandals, public investigations, and regulations brought the boom years of private agencies to an end in the late 1930s, Walton explains, in the process fully cementing the shift from reality to fantasy.
Today, as the private detective has long since given way to security services and armed guards, the myth of the lone PI remains as potent as ever. No fan of crime fiction or American history will want to miss The Legendary Detective.
The subject of murder has always held a particular fascination for us. But, since at least the nineteenth century, we have seen the murderer as different from the ordinary citizenandmdash;a special individual, like an artist or a genius, who exists apart from the moral majority, a sovereign self who obeys only the destructive urge, sometimes even commanding cult followings. In contemporary culture, we continue to believe that there is something different and exceptional about killers, but is the murderer such a distinctive type? Are they degenerate beasts or supermen as they have been depicted on the page and the screen? Or are murderers something else entirely?
In The Subject of Murder, Lisa Downing explores the ways in which the figure of the murderer has been made to signify a specific kind of social subject in Western modernity. Drawing on the work of Foucault in her studies of the lives and crimes of killers in Europe and the United States, Downing interrogates the meanings of media and texts produced about and by murderers. Upending the usual treatment of murderers as isolated figures or exceptional individuals, Downing argues that they are ordinary people, reflections of our society at the intersections of gender, agency, desire, and violence.
About the Author
Lisa Downing is professor of French discourses of sexuality at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. She is the author of numerous books including Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth-Century French Literature, The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault, and coauthor of Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters.
Table of Contents
Introduction - Idols of Destruction: Celebrity, Consumerism, and the Serial Killer
Part One: A History of Serial Murder
1. The Victorian Killer as Media Star: Jack the Ripper and H. H. Holmes
2. Defining the Enemy Within: The FBI and Serial Murder
Part Two: Serial Murder in American Popular Culture
3. Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers and the Hollywood Star System
4. Out of This World: Aliens, Devils, and Serial Killers in Television Crime Drama
5. Next Door Monsters: The Dialectic of Normality and Monstrosity in True-Crime Narratives
6. The Unbearable Straightness of Violence: Queering Serial Murder in True Crime
Epilogue - Serial Killing in America after 9/11