An appetite for details of violent death

January 23, 1994|By Francine Prose | Francine Prose,Newsday

Title: "Pictures at an Execution: An Inquiry Into the Subject of Murder"

Author: Wendy Lesser

Publisher: Harvard University

Length, price: 270 pages, $24.95 Many years ago, I had a summer job as a lab assistant at the Bellevue Hospital morgue in New York. For me, the most attractive perk of my job was the opportunity to spend time with people who'd had long, as it were, hands-on experience with mayhem and murder. At lunch hour, I used to listen, enrapt, as colleagues regaled me with tales of memorable autopsies and of the famous murdered dead, of people killed in appalling ways and found in unusual places.

In case there was ever any doubt, the recent proliferation of "true-crime" books and tabloid television shows have made it abundantly clear that I was -- that I am -- hardly alone in my fascination with murder. Now, an intriguing new book by Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review and author of "His Other Half: Men Looking at Women Through Art," addresses our apparently insatiable appetite for the grisly details of violent death.

At the center of "Pictures at an Execution" is a 1991 court case in which a San Francisco public-television station sued for the right to broadcast the execution by lethal gas of a convicted killer. Throughout the book, Ms. Lesser repeatedly circles back to the facts and the broader legal and moral implications of KQED vs. Daniel B. Vasquez.

One comes to see that, for Ms. Lesser, this complex and fascinating trial functions like a key clue in a murder investigation -- an essential piece of evidence that she keeps turning over as she attempts to fathom the reasons we are so attracted to the spectacle of murder:

"Who in the murder story are we drawn to -- the victim, the murderer, the detective? Why . . . are we so interested in seeing murder, either enacted or caught in the act? What are the sources of pleasure in a murder story, and how do these kinds of pleasure connect with any sense of the morally suspect or reprehensible? Is it morally reprehensible to take an interest in murder, and is it possible to talk about these things without sounding either self-righteous or sleazy?"

In her lively consideration of these (ultimately insoluble) questions, Wendy Lesser examines the complex connections between murder and theater, murder and humor, murder and aesthetics, the ways in which our hunger to witness violent crime reflects and feeds our highest spiritual -- and our lowest voyeuristic -- impulses.

She draws on literature and film, on fiction and reportage, "high" art and low. Her curiosity -- and her sources -- are impressively wide-ranging. The texts she discusses include "Columbo" and "Macbeth," Primo Levi and Jim Thompson, "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Thin Blue Line," Poe and Dostoevski, Weegee's photographs, the writings of Paul Bowles and Patricia Highsmith, Jean Stafford and Janet Malcolm.

Her readings of these works are at once bravely opinionated and carefully reasoned, uninfluenced by politics, fashion or conventional wisdom. She has more sympathy for killers and their victims than for the writers who tell their murder stories with anything less than total integrity, candor and good faith.

Indeed, what's most engaging about "Pictures at an Execution" is the way in which Ms. Lesser's intense involvement with her subject is mediated by a cool rationality that militates against sentimentality, cant and disingenuousness. It's bracing to watch active moral intelligence at work, ready to question anything, including the writer's own motives: the possibility of piousness and the role of what Ms. Lesser calls "the sleaze factor."

LTC "Pictures at an Execution" involves readers in a sort of conversation with its author. Some readers may agree with Ms. Lesser's conclusions but are less than entirely persuaded by certain aspects of her argument: for example, her near-equation of legal execution (state murder) with the more bloody, passionate -- and less clinical -- "everyday" killing that we read or hear about with such depressing frequency in newspapers and on TV.

One may feel that the circumstances surrounding these two sorts of violent death -- one inspired by some primitive hunger for retribution, the other by hatred or greed -- are so different that they evoke in us two extremely different sets of emotional and moral responses. But ultimately, it hardly matters whether we agree with everything that Wendy Lesser posits in "Pictures at an Execution." We can read the book with pleasure, interest and admiration for the play of her intelligence and the seriousness of her involvement.

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