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Pictures at an Execution

Pictures at an Execution

Wendy Lesser

ISBN 9780674667365

Publication date: 07/21/1998

This book is about murder—in life and in art—and about how we look at it and feel about it. At the center of Wendy Lesser’s investigation is a groundbreaking legal case in which a federal court judge was asked to decide whether a gas chamber execution would be broadcast on public television. Our grim and seemingly endless fascination with murder gets its day in court as Lesser conducts us through the proceedings, pausing along the way to reflect on the circumstances of violent death in our culture. Her book, itself a murder mystery of sorts, circling suspensefully around a central point, is also a meditation on murder in a civilized society—what we make of it in law, morality, and art.

Lesser narrates the trial with a sharp eye for detail and an absorbing sense of character. Questions that arise in the courtroom conjure other, broader ones: why are we drawn to murder, as an act and as a spectacle? Who in a murder story are we drawn to—victim, murderer, detective? Is such interest, even pleasure, morally suspect? Lesser’s reflections on these questions follow the culture in its danse macabre, from Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song to the Jacobean play The Changeling, from Errol Morris’s documentary The Thin Blue Line to Crime and Punishment, from Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer to Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, from Weegee’s photographs to television’s movie of the week. Always anchored in the courtroom, where the question of murder as theater is being settled in immediate, human terms, this circle of thought widens outward to the increasingly blurred borderline between real and fictional murder, between event and story, between murder as news and as art. As gripping as its subject, Pictures at an Execution ultimately brings us face to face with our own most disturbing cultural impulses.


  • Lesser’s mesmerizing study about the spectatorship of murder...demonstrates why a televised execution cannot succeed as either deterrent or moral instruction. A significant addition to the literature of capital punishment.

    —Robert Taylor, Boston Globe


  • Wendy Lesser is editor of The Threepenny Review.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press