Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 8: Sidebar on Serial Killer Fiction

Between Ali's column on American mystery writers and the fact that we've been asked for copies of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo about half a dozen times a day for the last few weeks (sorry, folks, we're currently out), I've been thinking about serial killers. As characters, that is.

As a matter of personal opinion, I find the vast majority of fictional serial killers to be not so much characters as cultural litmus strips. What's the worst thing we can imagine this year? Apparently, Nazi rapists. Not that I don't think Naziism is wrong and rape is unforgiveable. It's just that the characterization of Nazi rapist serial killers in currently popular fiction works more to tell me what people currently find most repulsive than it does to create a believable killer.

My reading in the area is somewhat limited, since my tastes in mystery fiction run to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, Elizabeth George, and Erin Hart. But I have read the occasional serial killer story, and so far, I have found exactly two serial killer characters who stand up as characters with interesting motives.

One is Hannibal Lecter. The other is in Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders. They are the only two fictional serial killers who have frightened me.

Nota bene: I have only read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris; I have not read any of the other books featuring Hannibal Lecter for the specific reason that I don't want any more explanation of the character. What makes him so scary to me in The Silence of the Lambs is that on the one hand, he has all the knowable traits of a highly intelligent, apparently entirely self-serving yet, apparently, sporadically humane individual while simultaneously desiring things that repulse the normal person on the most basic levels. The mystery of how he can justify this to himself is, in calculated places, left to the reader to fill with the reader's own most frightening imaginings, and I strongly believe that horror, as a genre, is most artfully accomplished when the author very carefully selects what not to tell the reader.

As for the character in Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders, I can say very little without spoiling the story for those who might choose to read it, other than that once the reader reaches the explanation of the serial killer's reasoning, the sheer simplicity of the reason contrasted with the killer's willingness to enact all those killings to complete one simple purpose is what makes the killer terrifying.

What is it about the other hundreds of fictional serial killers that doesn't work for me? Some of them have very clever themes; I suppose I can appreciate that in the same way that I can appreciate a well-done parade float; but I am interested neither in what childhood trauma turned them into killers (isn't it almost always a childhood trauma?) nor in how cleverly they masquerade as ordinary people, nor again which species of non-normal sexual proclivity they have now. I do not want to be told why I should understand the killer as the necessary product of something (i.e., trauma); I do not get excited about the cleverness level of duplicity (sorry, Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne, I will always like the X-Men more than you for that reason); and above all, I am consistently underinterested in knowing about the perviest sex the author can imagine.

Which is all another way of saying that I only find serial killers interesting when they are at least somewhat mysterious. When they can tell another character why they kill and still not quite make sense because how, how can a person make the amoral leap to deciding that killing people - not out of revenge, not out of self-defense, not even for selfish or ambitious reasons, but killing people who are usually strangers, and more than one at that - is even possible? (And please don't say because they were traumatized. Trauma is horrible and affects people deeply, and I take it quite seriously as a basis for character motivation, but trauma doesn't deprive people of free will entirely, and also - ease up on the exposition already. There is far too much of that in current fiction.)

Anyway, if the serial killer is unscary, that removes an element of suspense. Which makes the story just another police case, or even more commonly, a romance story about the people trying to solve the case. At the moment, I'm pretty bored with stories about people deciding to have sex because they're both facing a dangerous enemy. No, scratch that, I'm almost always bored with that.

But again, this is all just my opinion, so I'm inviting discussion here. What is it that makes serial killer stories interesting to you? Which ones are the best, and why? Why should I or should I not read Red Dragon? Teach me; I want to know.

***Oops! Edited to add: I just realized there is a third multiple-person-killer in modern fiction that I find to be a fully developed character. Try The Butcher Boy by Patrick McGrath. It's one of those stories in which you start out sympathizing profoundly with the main character and then, suddenly, around page 100, you start feeling queasy, and by page 200, you want to throw the book down and collar the author and ask "How did you make me agree to this?!" I love that. Call me a sucker for Pied Pipers, but I love it.

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