Paul Fischer’s The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures: A True Tale of Obsession, Murder, and the Movies (Simon & Schuster 2022) is a rather misleading title. Yes, it is about the man who invented motion pictures, on record as being the first man to record a moving photograph, but it is not at all about obsession, murder and barely at all about the movies.
In theory, yes, this is what the book is about because the story at hand revolves around one Louis Le Prince, the “Father of Cinematography” who went missing before he could reveal his invention to the world. However, this book is not at all interested in what could very possibly have been an incredibly engaging theory of conspiracy and murder. Instead, author Paul Fischer is much more interested in the history of photography, its technical elements, and how it progressed into cinematography. The problem with this structure is that the person and story he’s chosen to talk about is not what or who we’re given. Instead, we’re given everything else, and interestingly enough, very little true crime.
Louis Le Prince was a French artist fascinated with photography and became determined to figure out how to record images rather than just capture them. The person who came the closest to performing this miracle before Le Prince was Eadweard Muybridge, who actually does have a place in true crime history as he would commit murder years after becoming famous for his invention, but this book isn’t about him. Instead, the text focuses on Le Prince, which is unfortunate because Muybridge is much more interesting.
Le Prince managed to achieve his goal, but he never would get the chance to share it with the world because he would vanish soon after. Vanish without a trace, later declared dead. To this day, no one knows what truly happened to him, but there are theories, the most popular being that his death was a hit ordered by none other than Thomas Edison so that the famous inventor could take the invention, and credit, for himself. This is what The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures is about.
Interesting, right? Thomas Edison accused of murder! Stealing an invention! That’s juicy stuff. It wouldn’t have been too hard to explore either because as history would show, Edison was often accused of stealing the ideas and designs of other inventors. In fact, he spent much of his time in and out of court from being sued by people who claimed that he stole their revolutionary devices. This is where the book could’ve shined. Instead, the book is a rambling collection of facts and details that seem to be about everything except for Louis Le Prince. Many needless facts bog down every page, and technical details about camera work alongside summaries of past events to make it easy to lose the plot of the book.
The real star of this book is Lizzie Le Prince, the intelligent artist turned educator wife of Le Prince. Her presence takes up more pages than anyone else, but it’s hard to get into any of the details of such a remarkable woman, who is the one that originally pointed the finger at Edison when her husband vanished, because of the way Fischer recounts them. No emotion or proper order comes through the pages, except during the moments of discussion about one Thomas Edison, who Fischer is clearly not a fan of.
It seems that Fischer was attempting to replicate the narrative style in Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City (2003), where the text focuses on two disparate plots revolving through time until they eventually meet. However, whereas Larson’s book was outlined to follow a timeline, it worked. Fischer’s text is not so successful.
This book wasn’t for me in the style that it was written. For me, the best nonfiction reads are the ones formatted like novels. There is a narrative that not only enables you to get to know and follow the life of the “protagonist” but to learn about the story as it naturally progresses. This book has a difficult time staying on task, and moreover, struggles to present the facts of the case effectively.
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About the Writer:
Rachel Roth is an author and poet living in South Florida. A graduate of the University of South Florida with a Bachelor’s in English and a Certificate in Creative Writing, she’s written for several horror anthologies and literary journals including 101 Horror Proof, Pandemic Unleashed, and Darkness Wakes. The horror story, The Undead Redhead: The Girl in the Mall is her debut novel.