Where does a story begin? With the first words written on virgin white paper? There is always a before, and an after: is this still part of the story?
Maybe I'm asking the wrong question because countless stories start in the middle of the action.
I believe an interesting story begins the moment equilibrium is upset.
Can I ask you something now? To say that true crime is having a renaissance, is an understatement, right? Because it is officially hot! And regardless of its elite livery, is true crime fundamentally distasteful?
True crime is drama blending entertainment with the real-life investigation. Do you consider it quality TV? Or does it only speak to our ambivalence about consuming real-life tales of horror?
Most of us have excuses for our interest in true crime as if enjoying it offers an insight into our preferences.
Real crime can be a catharsis for our primal urges: a source of gloating, a controlled environment to emulate the sensation of fear, a way to arm ourselves with the idea of the knowledge to protect ourselves from the mischief of monsters. Or is our fascination with crime two sides of the same story? Isn't true crime less embarrassing when it's been scrubbed clean? Every crime a guilty pleasure?
One night at a dinner party some thirty years ago, an author and bookseller, not very well known, in those days, began to vie over serial killings. A fairly new topic at the time, although the French had known about the idea since the fifteenth century when a nobleman was found to have kidnapped, tortured, and murdered one hundred and fifty young children. For whatever reason, that noble lord was never seen as a serial killer.
The writers’ guests were shocked, sickened, but above all enraptured.
Incidentally: the nobleman I mentioned earlier was the inspiration for another story. A fairy tale or a fable, as it were and has lost neither its popularity nor its fascination since the seventeenth century.
Bluebeard is often interpreted as a cautionary tale about curiosity (and the need to restrain it, especially in females), and that women should simply obey their husbands. Although I have a different interpretation of the fairy tale, the message was well-received in the seventeenth century: wayward women were
considered dangerous back then. A belief that unfortunately still prevails in some circles.
But fairy tales should not be taken literally. Often these stories are a strange dance between many unconscious forces, as they manifest themselves in the collective psyche.
Bluebeard's story also taps into deep undercurrents of sex and violence. But what I find most concerning about it, is its timelessness. Many women still live this story. Sometimes literally. They begin a relationship, only to discover that their partner is a physical and emotional monster.
Doesn't this fairy tale illustrate how men feel threatened by female curiosity and their thirst for knowledge? Today, there are still far too many Bluebeards around, who are afraid to share their knowledge with women (and thereby make them stronger).
What many men still don't seem to understand is that educated women will raise healthier and better children and that these educated children will be the building blocks of a better society. Educating women is the most powerful tool to change the world. When you educate a man, an African proverb says, you raise an individual. But when you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation.
Let's return to the France of some thirty years ago. One of the guests was then in her twenties and was about to start a career as a television producer.
-"I was utterly entranced." she later said, "We had to make a movie out of that."
The writer's build was rather doughy: he had a round belly and a pale face, the result of a sedentary life in the semi-darkness of the margins. There was something vague and ghostly about him. He lived in his own little world where he owned a small second-hand bookshop specializing in mysteries and crime and sometimes worked as an assistant on the set of small pornographic productions.
His blue eyes started to sparkle and a smile spread across his face as he started talking about his pets. But he also preserved a wealth of photographs of cadavers in various states of decomposition. A friend of the time told of him that he had an extreme attraction to the macabre and that he loved to tell the story of his mother's first husband who was beheaded by Nazis.
Serial killers seem to have a peculiar appeal to the modern imagination. The sex and the gore, of course, are involved, as is the prospect that the normal-looking lives of normal-looking people can conceal an unimaginable monstrosity, playing on our nervous instincts, that society is unraveling at a rapid pace.
Our author wrote book after book about the new stars of crime with almost surgical precision. Long, dense anthologies of data and gruesome details, with no storyline to speak of: the work of a hoarder of murder trivia. He was prolific, all be it repetitively, but through countless editions, he managed to sell millions of copies of his books. And with that, he became a celebrity in his own right and was regarded as the best serial killer expert in the world. Radio and newspapers invited him when violent crimes had been committed, asking him to explain the motives of the perpetrator.
He was an unusually glamorous star, with fans queuing for hours for an autograph. To make a long story short, it's a good thing that pathological lying has traditionally not been seen as a disease. Yes, our author was very creative and successful....but everything was made up and he soon disappeared into the obscurity of oblivion.
But the industrial true crime media rages on. What does that teach us? Not much about crime, but even more about ourselves.
For journalists, Jack the ripper was a cornucopia. There was nothing new about Jack's murders, but what was new was his interaction with the press, and we have loved serial killers ever since. In a way, they seem to kill for us (and not because of their inevitable compulsions.), but rather to shock an audience, terrorize a city, outsmart the police, and bring us together in the stories we can tell about it. Killings for headlines, Netflix documentaries, driven by the desire for fame and power, and the easiest way to get our attention.
The golden age of the serial killer almost coincided with the rise of women's liberation. And who are the killers we pay the most (or prefer) attention to? Correct! The ones who kill nice girls. Beautiful (/white) girls from the middle class, the exceptions to the general rule that women are disposable. That looks bad for the police, which makes the idea of a serial killer mastermind all the more appealing. Plus, you can't blame yourself for failing to take down a genius, or someone protected by evil in its purest form.
Serial killers have helped us see prisons as places that seal their inhuman evil from the rest of the world, forgetting that they contain human beings.
If we like serial killers, and I think, no, excuse me, I'm convinced we do them. We love them most, if we know them a little bit far, so we can joke about them, and hide our real fears.
And then there's something out there, almost too obvious, to notice: true crime media, by definition, is set in the past, otherwise, it would just be called news.
Thanks to Dr. Lector's success, serial killers have taken over the entertainment industry. Why is it that we are no longer afraid of serial killers? Maybe because we have so much more to terrify us, and we can finally focus on the enemies we need to fight: the resurgence of white nationalism, and mass shootings that make serial killers look like amateurs. These forces were always present, but we were too busy. So busy that we preferred to retell fiction.
Amid the lucrative true-crime boom, many people have noticed that the genre is having its moment. May be true, but it is an extraordinarily long moment
Crime stories have always compelled us. The Victorians reveled in death already. One could even roam the blood-spattered walls of the victims' chambers, and if you didn't have time for that, you still could go to the victims' funerals. And let's not forget the penny dreadfuls and the penny bloods, which existed long before paperbacks and cable TV.
It is clear that we love beautiful girls. So much so that we continue to tell and reproduce her story. And of course, kill. Time after time. She is always unique and always a juicy mystery.
The concept is quite simple: usually, it starts with finding a girl's murdered body. The first episode is about solving her murder, and there are all sorts of permutations from there, but generally, it's about the mysterious propulsion, of a dead girl's body.
Of course, there are also stories about beautiful boys being murdered. Cozy mysteries that go back to the nineteenth century, where, for example, one finds a body with no identification marks in the library, and no one in the house knows who it is, and they have to figure out the riddle. Not just who he is, but who killed him and how. (Ring a bell?). The man's body is usually fully clothed (unlike the dead girl).
Domestic violence is behind so many murders of women, and often there is a long history behind it, all too well known by the authorities. If we're going to frame those murder stories as mysteries, we have to leave out that part of the story that makes it clear who did it. Only then can we call it a whodunnit and make it appear as a mathematical problem. Simply telling that men beat and kill their wives - no one is interested in that.
Violence is not a mystery. The solution is so much bigger than just finding out who did it. Framing things as a mystery always misses the point. When a mass shooting takes place, people want to know why. And when we get the motive, it is indecent. Why? Because there is nothing that can justify shooting people.
So many misogynists in our culture have a deep fear of being seen as a villain. ( or that they are far from innocent). That makes fertile ground for anger. But aren't we all guilty of the terrible things that happen to women, or the bad things that happen to black people? (And with other marginalized people in our culture.)
Many (privileged) people have a hard time with that. They soon get the feeling that they are being accused of something that is not their fault. They feel themselves as victims; a product of upbringing (and privilege). All, not their fault. And let's not forget that, from a narrative perspective, women are easier to get along with when they are dead. (And therefore, more sympathetic).
I started with the question of where a story begins. But I believe that's the wrong question. When does a story start?
Daybreak is beautiful but happens in a breath. One moment the sun is below the horizon and the next high in the sky.
Doesn't every story have a precise moment somewhere when it begins? Maybe centuries ago. And that moment can be determined by the writer of the story: when he or she chooses to open the curtain, exposing a millisecond where readers get a glimpse of the hero or heroine rising over the horizon.
And what about the end? I know that an unresolved ending leaves the reader with countless questions and potential frustration.
The reader cannot help wondering how the story will probably continue. After all, the ending is what makes a story a story. Without it, all you have is a series of events and incidents. Entertaining perhaps, but ultimately not going anywhere, like many TV shows that go on and on, without ever revealing anything.
A story without an end is not satisfying. After investing our time in a story, we want to know who committed the murder, and that the villains were defeated. And if they aren't, we want a clear understanding of why. And that, dear reader: in the case of this story, IOU…..