A Counter-History of Crime Fiction: Supernatural, Gothic, by Maurizio Ascari

By Maurizio Ascari

This booklet takes a glance on the evolution of crime fiction. contemplating 'criminography' as a approach of inter-related sub-genres, it explores the connections among modes of literature similar to revenge tragedies, the gothic and anarchist fiction, whereas considering the impression of pseudo-sciences similar to mesmerism and felony anthropology.

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This technique recurs in Chaucer’s ‘The Prioress’s Tale’, where a child is murdered by a group of Jews who are annoyed by his song of devotion to the Virgin. From the pit where he has been thrown, the child denounces his murder post-mortem, by starting to sing his favourite hymn. In this anti-Semitic tale of martyrdom, divine detection is linked to a miracle, not to a premonitory dream, but the story reiterates the belief that the blood shed will condemn murder with a voice of its own, notably when the sin is particularly offensive to God, as is the case in these two stories, featuring a pilgrim and a pious child in the role of victim.

Torture was also discussed in an appendix in which the compilers of the Calendar extolled the wisdom of British laws, which abolished this ‘inhuman practice’ in 1772, although it still prevailed ‘in some of the English settlements abroad’ – a comment which clarifies the import of the above-mentioned story. After arguing that ‘No man can be judged a criminal until he be found guilty’, Knapp and Baldwin went on to trace the practice of torture to its origins: This custom seems to be the offspring of religion, by which mankind, in all nations, and in all ages, are so generally influenced.

The idea that murder carries the seeds of its own discovery and punishment was reassuring in a world where social control was inefficient and criminals had a good chance of getting away with their misdeeds. Detection before Detection 19 As Foucault reminds us, it was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that monarchies developed an efficient ‘“economy” of power’, that is, procedures which allowed power to circulate pervasively throughout the entire ‘social body’. Before that, monarchies fought forms of subversion – such as criminality – by means of ‘spectacular and discontinuous interventions’:3 in other words, punishment was ‘exemplary’ because it was exceptional.

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