Redeeming American Psychos
In 1799, Charles Brockden Brown packed three grisly killings into Ormond, and ever since, the American novel has churned with ambivalence toward murder. On one hand, it is a crime of unimaginable cruelty. On the other, it is endlessly fascinating. The double attraction has proved impossible to resist— in movies and on TV, murder is even more popular than extramarital love. The problem, at least for American novelists, is that “it has been going on too long for it to be news,” as Raymond Chandler pointed out. For murder to be novel, it must be something more than murder.
Enter the novel of the sensational murder. From Richard Wright’s Native Son through Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, American fiction has told the story of the moral monster whose crimes electrify an entire community. Almost without exception, the novels about them have explored the killers’ minds and motives, bringing readers into their inner lives, establishing an intimacy with them. It fell to Truman Capote to put the finishing touches on the literary demoralization of murder. In Cold Blood is often praised as the first “nonfiction novel,” but Capote’s true legacy was to make the use of the word evil almost as trashy as the interior decorating choices in his murder victims’ home.
About the Author
With this issue, D. G. Myers inaugurates a monthly fiction chronicle in these pages. He is the author of our Literary Commentary blog at commentarymagazine.com/section/literary.