Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Bad Company

Sandra Parshall

In general, I don’t enjoy the company of serial killers.

I mean the fictional kind, of course. Like most writers of crime novels, I’d be scared witless to encounter one in person.

Literary serial killers often seem more focused on their relationships with the police and FBI than on murder itself. They’re heavily into bet-you-can’t-catch-me games and prone to writing jokey, taunting letters to their cop pals. When they’re finally caught at the end of the story, they often crave praise from the cops for their cleverness. I was good, wasn’t I? There's something almost sexual about it, and not in an enjoyable way.

Before we reach that point, we're likely to get lots of scenes in which the killer cackles maniacally as he plots his next crime and savors the shock he’s about to deliver not only to his victim but to the cops and FBI. It also seems essential in fiction that every serial killer be given a snappy nickname, so the writer dreams up a “trademark” that will spawn one. If the killer writes messages to the cops on sticky notes and attaches them to his victim’s foreheads, he can be The Sticky Note Killer and everyone in the book will begin to suspect friends and co-workers who leave sticky note reminders on desks and refrigerator doors and calendars. This adds tension.

From what I’ve read about real-life serial killers, they’re a sad, sick bunch, immersed in the darkness of their own minds and souls, and focused obsessively on satisfying an urge that most of us can never understand. Killing is what matters to them. The clever killer who taunts the police and revels in the chase is rare in reality.

A lot of mysteries and thrillers are utterly unbelievable, but if I’m entertained I usually don’t care. However, most serial killer novels are dead serious, if you’ll pardon the expression, and they’re supposed to “entertain” by scaring us. To be scared, I have to believe that the threat could be real, that I could encounter it in my own life. So when I open a novel to find a detective and a serial killer carrying on a warped version of courtship, I’m inclined to mutter Give me a break and close the book. Writing in the killer’s voice, and making him scary rather than ludicrous, is especially hard to pull off. Few writers have done it convincingly.

Which brings me to Jeff Lindsay and Dexter.

Why do I like Dexter so much? He’s not especially handsome or charming or witty (although the Dexter books drip with black humor). Dexter was bent forever when his mother was slaughtered in front of him and he, a small child, was left to sit in her blood for days before being rescued by the cop who became his foster father. He feels an urge to kill, but he gives in only when he comes across someone who genuinely deserves his attention. He dispatched a hospital nurse who was trying to euthanize his foster father. He murdered a priest who had molested children. He kills other killers who prey on the innocent. His victims are carefully chosen. He rids the world – let’s be honest here – of the scum we all occasionally wish we could bump off. Dexter doesn’t play cat and mouse games with the cops. He works with them as a blood evidence analyst, and he’s deeply afraid of being found out. Now and then he yearns to be normal, to really be the person he pretends to be, but he knows that normalcy would bore him out of his mind.

Usually I try to avoid serial killer novels, preferring instead stories of ordinary people driven to extremes by some upheaval or betrayal in their lives. Dexter is the only serial killer I’ve been able to read about repeatedly without becoming totally repulsed. (I lost interest in Hannibal Lecter long ago, and don’t get me started about Patricia Cornwell’s French werewolf.) On the whole, I like the Showtime series based on the Dexter books, but only the written word does full justice to the character.

I don’t know how long Lindsay can keep Dexter's story going, but if the author remains faithful to the character and doesn’t slip into the cliches that mar so many serial killer books, I’ll continue to enjoy Dexter's company.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I have long been puzzled by why people enjoy being scared. So far, I haven't been drawn to read the Dexter books or watch the series. But I have been disturbed by the huge posters in the NYC subway advertising the second season of Dexter on TV. They show a very goodlooking Dexter with a wide, charming grin on his blood-spattered face. The caption is "America's favorite serial killer." What part of the American psyche do these ads appeal to? Not as benign as what you're talking about, Sandy, imho.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, I think the ads for the Dexter TV series are dreadful. They do appeal to the worst in people, and they make Dexter look like the maniacal serial killers that populate so many thrillers -- guys who love to wallow in blood. Dexter actually takes extraordinary precautions to avoid making a mess, and he doesn't get blood on himself. It's hard to capture such a complex, contradictory character in an ad, so Showtime went for gut-level images. They've probably repulsed a lot of viewers and kept them from tuning in.

Barbara said...

Elizabeth, your question reminded me that Val McDermid commented in The Guardian several years ago "certain kinds of fear are actually pleasurable. Adrenaline is, after all, a fabulous drug. It produces a great high, it's legal and it's free." She goes on to say more about gender issues in particular and how shaping fear for entertainment can be "a very good tool for avoidance of responsibility and deflecting criticism." (The article is called "Fear and Loathing" and it came out in 2000 - a very interesting piece.)

Social issues are often framed in terms of anxiety - what should we be afraid of and why; my cause or your cause needs attention and support in order to address that thing we just made you afraid of, or which you've been made afraid of, so we can ride on its coattails. Scaring people is a rhetorically and emotionally powerful tool and it happens in a lot of ways.

As for Dexter, I loved the first book because of its weird poetry and the way that the narrator was self-aware of his own messed-up identity but baffled by the usual rules of human interaction. But that came through less for me in the second book and I haven't read any more or watched the show. The thing I loved was already done; the serial killer plot (and the vigilante defense) was the least satisfying aspect of the first book, and that's what's left to work with once Dexter's identity situation has been worked out (I'm different; other people have odd rules I'm trying to follow but don't understand; oh well).