True crime does pay : narratives of wrongdoing in film and literature
Burt, Andrew T.
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This dissertation examines true crime's ubiquitous influence on literature, film, and culture. It dissects how true-crime narratives affect crime fiction and film, questioning how America's continual obsession with crime underscores the interplay between true crime narratives and their fictional equivalents. Throughout the 20th century, these stories represent key political and social undercurrents such as movements in religious conservatism, issues of ethnic and racial identity, and developing discourses of psychology. While generally underexplored in discussions of true crime and crime fiction, these currents show consistent shifts from liberal rehabilitative to a conservative punitive form of crime prevention and provide a new way to consider these undercurrents as culturally-engaged genre directives. I track these histories through representative, seminal texts, such as Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925), W.R. Burnett's Little Caesar (1929, Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (1952), and Barry Michael Cooper's 1980s new journalism pieces on the crack epidemic and early hip hop for the Village Voice, examining how basic crime narratives develop through cultural changes. In turn, this dissertation examines film adaptations of these narratives as well, including George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951), Larry Cohen's Black Caesar (1972), Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me (2010), and Mario Van Peeble's New Jack City (1991), accounting for how the medium changes the crime narrative. In doing so, I examine true crime's enduring resonance on crime narratives by charting the influence of commonly overlooked early narratives, such as execution sermons and murder ballads. I introduce the "bad man" archetype as a lens for examining how true crime has affected gangster and Blaxploitation narratives. In addition, I stress changes in the killer's understanding of popular psychology as a commentary on how crime fiction continually prioritizes the lone killer and locale as a justification for criminal actions. Through applying a consistent, long-reaching history of true crime to a study of fictional crime narratives, this dissertation stresses an understanding of how fictional elements can affect culture until the two become inseparable and stresses a comprehensive view of criminality. As such, crime serves as a cultural barometer for deconstructing the sociological, psychological, folkloric, and musicological undercurrents driving the American mythos.