In Crime Fiction, Who Gets to Tell the Story?

From The Wall Street Journal:

“When we see serial killers as nebulous killing machines,” author Clémence Michallon says, “we almost give them more power.” 

In her debut English novel, The Quiet Tenant, Michallon examines a murderer’s double life through the eyes of his daughter, girlfriend, victims and longtime prisoner (who’s plotting her escape). The genre-bending thriller, out today, is set to be published in over 30 territories. 

Michallon, 31, decided to invert the novel’s point of view, in part, after feeling uneasy about the genre’s glorification of violence. True-crime dramas, such as Ryan Murphy’s 2022 Netflix series about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and the 2019 Ted Bundy biopic starring Zac Efron, often portray perpetrators as criminal masterminds. Both fueled backlashes, with the families of the victims speaking out against how Dahmer and Bundy were romanticized.

“In a lot of older serial killer novels, the killer is made out to be this cunning genius,” says Alex Segura, an author of mystery books including Secret Identity; whereas in real life, “serial killers aren’t these strategic masterminds. They’re mentally ill.”

In recent years, there’s been a wider movement in crime fiction to sideline perpetrators and focus on victims. This includes Ivy Pochoda’s These Women (2020), a similarly polyphonic thriller set in Los Angeles; Stacy Willingham’s A Flicker in the Dark (2022), which is narrated by the daughter of a serial killer; and Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts (2018), which follows a murder victim, a woman convicted as an accomplice and a detective. 

Around the time she was quarantining with her family in New York’s Hudson Valley in spring 2020, Michallon watched Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer (2020), a docuseries inspired in part by the memoir of Bundy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall, in which the survivors speak directly to the camera about their experiences. “Who were these people? What were they on their way to do? What lives were lost?” Michallon wondered. “We don’t really think about the people who are around them, and what happens to them afterwards and the ways in which they themselves were probably traumatized.” 

In many thrillers, violence tends to be the narrative engine. “Even if the writer is making it clear that they disapprove, or this is a bad and horrific thing that’s happening, it still functions in a sort of plot-architecture way as a moment of excitement,” says Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

4 thoughts on “In Crime Fiction, Who Gets to Tell the Story?”

  1. Agreed that the serial killer being “brilliant mastermind” hype is overblown. The deal with them is that most people are killed by someone they know, so the police have a starting point for whodunit. Serial killers are strangers, so actual detecting has to happen. If I remember correctly, you had to have three victims before determining a serial killer is in play. Add in the lack of technology to aid investigations in famous cases from the past, e.g., the police in one precinct may not have known about the victims in other towns — and it just seems like the killers are fiendishly clever.

    The now-defunct Crime Library website used to archive a lot of true crime cases, and in one article they specifically tackled this misconception. I liked the point that Ted Bundy moved from a state without the death penalty (Oregon, I think) to one that did have it — Florida. Good Ol’ Sparky.

    • Or require it.
      They’re not going up against Sherlock Holmes, exactly.

      Serial killers are great fodder for certain kinds of stories, though. Most particularly on TV. Aftervall, what better fit for serialized story telling tgan a serial killer? 😉
      NBC’s BLACKLIST features a criminal mastermind who is both.

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