The Pistorius trial, Peter Murphy’s A Matter for the Jury (2014) and Fritz Lang’s M (1931)

The international media is full of the news that South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp.

Without for an instant forgetting that real people rather than fictional characters are involved in this case, it’s been fascinating watching the trial unfold, and seeing how judge Thokozile Masipa has evaluated the arguments presented by the prosecution and defence, and key points of South African law – such as the distinctions between murder (planned/intending to kill), common-law murder (intending to kill, or knowing that your actions might kill, but without malice aforethought) and culpable homicide (not intending to kill, but guilty of negligent action; akin to the British concept of manslaughter). There’s now of course lots of debate about whether those distinctions have been applied correctly.

Interesting too, is that South African crime writers have been asked for their views on the case in press coverage from South Africa to the UK, Germany and the US, thereby taking up the role of social commentators. Two interesting pieces are Margie Orford’s on ‘the imaginary black stranger at the heart of the defence’ and Deon Meyer’s on how our fascination with the case is linked to our fear of death and a need to see justice done. Both are well worth a read. (I’ve just seen another excellent piece by Orford here: a reaction to the verdict in the larger contexts of male violence and South Africa’s macho culture.)

As is often the way, the extensive discussion of the Pistorius trial has intersected with two other crime narratives currently on my radar, both of which draw on real cases and feature trials. I’ve just finished reading Peter Murphy’s A Matter for the Jury (No Exit Press, 2014), an excellent courtroom drama that explores a murder trial in the era of capital punishment (which was abolished in Britain in 1965, a year after the narrative takes place).

Based loosely on the James Hanratty case, the novel is illuminating in three key respects: it shows the tremendous pressure defence barristers were under when their client faced the death penalty; it shows how evidence has to be marshalled into a convincing narrative for the jury, who deliver the final verdict in court (a contrast here to the Pistorius case, which in accordance with South African practice had no jury); and it shows the sometimes contradictory and inadequate nature of the law (for example, murder ‘in furtherance of theft’ is deemed a capital offence, whereas murder and rape is not). Like all the best crime novels, A Matter for the Jury raises difficult legal and moral questions that are not easily resolved: it’s a rich and absorbing read.

A classic crime film, freshly re-released, has also been in the papers: Fritz Lang’s 1931 Expressionist masterpiece Meine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M – A City Searches for a Murderer), whose child killer, played by Peter Lorre, is modelled on the real figure of Peter Kürten.

I’m delighted to see this film back in the spotlight. Brilliantly made, it contains a fascinating depiction of a trial set up by Berlin’s network of criminals, who capture ‘M’ ahead of the police. This kangaroo court features criminal boss Schränker in the role of ‘judge’, who promptly prejudices proceedings by declaring that child murderers should forfeit any legal rights due to the nature of their crimes. The argument of the lone ‘defence lawyer’ – that M cannot control his actions due to a psychiatric disorder and needs treatment by doctors – is rejected by the criminals, who are only prevented from lynching the accused by the arrival of the police.

Critic Horst Lange* convincingly argues that this scene functions as a warning allegory about the rise of National Socialism: Schränker is shown wearing a Gestapo-like leather coat, using Nazi terminology, and sweeping aside legal conventions in order to secure the result that he wants. At the same time, the film leaves the question of appropriate justice open at the end of the film, closing with a shot of the grieving mothers whose loss can never be made good. If you’ve not yet had the chance, I highly recommend a viewing: it’s an extraordinary film that’s visually stunning and remains extremely thought-provoking. It’s rightly been given a 5 star rating by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.

* Horst Lange, ‘Nazis vs. the Rule of Law: Allegory and Narrative Structure in Fritz Lang’s M’, Monatshefte 101/2 (2009), 170–85.

16 thoughts on “The Pistorius trial, Peter Murphy’s A Matter for the Jury (2014) and Fritz Lang’s M (1931)

  1. Mrs. P – I’m always fascinated by the relationship between real-life crime stories and crime fiction. So many novels are based on real events, or at least inspired by them, and sometimes, real events are stranger and more compelling than fiction.

    • I am too, Margot. I admire how a skilled writer can draw on a genuine case to create a narrative that makes us think deeply about the impact of crimes and legal justice – in a way that is not sensationalist or salacious. The flip-side is the thinly veiled or true-life story that feels largely exploitative. To be avoided…

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Mrs P. I like a good courtroom drama. Yes, it has been fascinating following the case, never forgetting that real lives have been torn apart. I think that is not always given enough weight in fiction.

    • Absolutely, Chrissie – I couldn’t agree more. And yes, you make an interesting point about whether writers properly acknowledge the irreversible damage that a crime such as murder does. There’s a real spectrum of depictions on display, and I guess this often has to do with the type of crime narrative the author is using. For example, a Golden Age crime novel that features the body in the library as a plot device vs more realistic treatments of crime in, say, an urban police procedural.

      George Pelecanos nails how inadequate even ‘successful’ notions of justice can be to the family of a murder victim: ‘What they needed right now was the satisfaction and peace of knowing who killed their son. That false pat on the shoulder, telling them that the murder had been “solved”. Of course, no murder ever got solved, not unless you could bring back the dead. And there’d always be another grieving mother, right behind the last.’ (Hard Revolution, Phoenix 2005, p. 259).

      • Thanks for the brilliant quotation from George Pelacanos. It illustrates perfectly how fatuous the idea of closure is. There is no end to that kind of grief.

  3. I remember the Hanratty case all too well, and the pervasive sense that there was something seriously awry with the verdict — a sense later confirmed by reading Paul Foot’s excellent Who Killed Hanratty? Not sure I could read a novel based on the case . . . and I’m not sure why I feel this way about it!

    • Perhaps the sense that authors may cross a certain line (for example by putting words into the mouths of real people who can no longer speak for themselves?).

      I should say though, that Murphy’s novel isn’t directly based on the Hanratty case; some elements are transposed, but it’s not what you would term a detailed account of the real case. Murphy says in a brief afterword: ‘while this book is not based on the case of James Hanratty, I have made use of some of the details, and of the evidential problems that arose in that case’. Sounds ambiguous – possibly intentionally! It’s very well done, though.

  4. I am not a big fan of court dramas or crime ficiton. I sill have to watch ‘The Jury’ starring my always-beloved Rachel Weisz and based on a novel… Having said that I have just heard of the Hanratty case and it sounds very interesting, so maybe, even though elements are transposed, I should give ‘A Matter for the Jury’ a try! Thank you as usual, Mrs. P 😉

    • You’re welcome, Elena! Courtroom dramas aren’t for everyone (I think we all have certain genres or subgenres that we don’t really get on with and that’s fair enough). I couldn’t read lots of them in a row, but it’s nice to try something a little different every now and then. One of the reasons I liked A Matter for the Jury was its depiction of the social changes beginning to take place in legal circles in 1960s London (e.g. women starting to break into the ultra-conservative profession of being a barrister). That gives it more substance than some other courtroom dramas.

  5. Off topic, I spent the weekend in Wales watching “Hinterland,” which is superb, all 400 minutes of it. Love the cast. But for the first three episodes, everything was gray — the sky, the fields, the mood. I thought it would never change. But then in episode four, the sky was a magnificent blue, the fields were blooming. The vista was magnificent.
    And the main detective, fantastic.
    I could lose myself in the Hinterland any weekend.

    • First of all, Kathy, I’m delighted that you liked HInterland! Great to hear that its appeal holds good over the pond!

      And yes, the sun does sometimes shine here in Wales – we’ve just had the most glorious summer (but I guess cheery, sunny days wouldn’t really suit the mood of the series…). I agree that Richard Harrington does a great job as Tom Mathias. I’m looking forward to seeing how this character is developed in the second series.

    • It’s a cracker, isn’t it? I’m glad you enjoyed studying M. I’m going to be teaching it to my year one students this term and am looking forward to seeing what they make of it. Still relevant after all these years…

  6. Yes, Richard Harrington is good, very good — intense, brooding, introspective, tending to detect alone — and handsome. He can act. I felt his emotional pain in these stories as he always ends up dealing with the murderer by himself and talking to them.
    Well, I guess I’m glad this series isn’t shown over here every week. I am not reading because of this and other good dvd series. I’m glued to the dvd’s.

  7. Pingback: Deutschi Crime Night and the ‘Crime Fiction in German’ volume | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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