This is a provocative and challenging book, apparently intended to be the first of a series of parallel enquiries by Duclos and his colleagues into the relationship between popular culture and violence. It is primarily a re-interpretation of well-known cases, rather than an offering of fresh data, and it is written in a kind of throw-away style in which assertions are made without substantial (or sometimes any) empirical evidence. First published in Paris in 1994 by French sociologist Denis Duclos, this is an important contribution to study of the American way of violence in general, and to the analysis of serial murder and mass culture in the postmodern world. Indeed, Duclos opens with the observation that the study of mythological origins of culture are so significant because while contemporary violence has been removed from the lives of the upper middle class, it is making an increasingly dramatic comeback in popular fiction and the press, where it is often associated with outsider groups (p. ix).
Duclos ranges very broadly indeed: while commenting on bits of the sociological literature he takes the reader on a kind of guided tour through recurring themes he perceives in the mentality of multiple murderers and the cultures that produce them. These themes include the mythology of Odinic warriors, as well as the realities of humiliation, vengeance, the hunt and capture, and cruelty. But he always remains focused upon the Anglo Saxon mythology that, Duclos argues, there is a beast at bay within us all. Such a belief, Duclo argues, is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: propagated by all levels of mass culture (especially novels, films, and television), it re-shapes individuals notions of their identities. For him, for example, serial killer Kemper becomes an Orestes figure, a quasi-legitimate avenger of the paternal order demeaned by an abusive mother: by beheading his victims, Kemper transformed the female love object into a trunk, a part-body that is cleanly separated from the power of speech (p 76). Again, Duclos sees the Nordic myth of the mad warrior as forming the base of crime culture in America; yet is itself deeply rooted in similar myths in the classical culture (p 206). The extreme individualism, rooted in the Nordic myths is most apparent in America, where the population is recruited so heavily from Anglo Saxons, Germans, Scandinavians and Irish, with shared cultural traditions of the avenging warrior. This also provides scripts which are swallowed whole by American culture, and allow mad warriors such as Timothy McVeigh, David Berkowitz or the Unabomber to cloak themselves in the garments of freedom fighters, using religion and moral values as a cover-up for their insanity (p 209). This is a bold and courageous theoretical leap, but it fails to explain why the non-Anglo Saxon French seem to produce about the same proportion of serial murders as do the Anglo Saxon British or Germans.
One of the central debates in the study of violence in general, and multiple murder in particular, is the causal significance - if any - of culture. For example, in Hunting Humans I tried to argue that American culture consistently transmitted messages venerating the notion of personal honour, even glorifying violent acts and violent actors, and that this might be used as a partial explanation for Americas extraordinary homicide rates. In Men of Blood I tried to compare this US culture with English culture, finding that the norms of public formality, courtesy and non-violence went a long way towards shaping what is one of the worlds lowest homicide rates. Yet Philip Jenkins, in a series of signficant papers and books, has argued that the situation is infinitely more complicated than that, that in fact we have very little understanding of what causes variation in homicide rates. Moreover, our comprehension of serial murder rates is based on profoundly inadequate data: indeed, ultimately serial murder rates may prove to be a mere reflection of a nations general homicide rates - sitting at perhaps one percent of all murders.
In this debate jumps Duclos, with a fresh perspective. He observes that the US per capita homicide rate - the highest in the western industrial world - is double the French and quadruple the Canadian rates; notes that the ferocity of US rates is not a function of media influence or arms availability, but the fact that there is a limited number of hardened criminals who are veterans of heinous crime (p 1) and who commit several thousand murders each year ( p 2). The central question, Duclos claims, remains why does American culture seem to breed so many monstrous, cunning and determined criminals (p 2) .
Despite its refreshing boldness, the book contains a number of important ethnographic errors and omissions. For example, Duclos still retails the fantastical stories of Henry Lee Lucas claims of hundreds of victims more than a decade after they have been officially discredited. In addition, he does not seem to know that the inflated claims made by the US Dept. of Justice in the 1980s have also been discredited, and no one any longer believes that hundreds of serial killers annually claim thousands of victims in the U.S. He does not seem to be familiar with the important relevant work on US literary culture and mythology done by Joel Black in The Aesthetics of Murder, or the ground-breaking statistical work of Philip Jenkins in Using Murder. Nevertheless, such flaws detract from, but do not damage immeasurably the theoretical thrust of the work, studded as it is with insights and hypotheses.
On a personal note: since British philosopher Colin Wilson has referred to me in print as the American psychiatrist, while brawling actor Oliver Reed has introduced me on British television as an American psychotic, and Duclos refers to me as both a Canadian sociologist and a criminal sociologist, I should like to make it clear that I was born in Leader, Saskatchewan in 1939, my University of Toronto PhD is in anthropology, and I have never been indicted for a criminal offence.
Department of Anthropology
Memorial University of Newfoundland
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