Thursday, November 03, 2011

Serial Killers


I was two episodes into Luther 2 on BBC America-when it occurred to me that I had had my fill of serial killers.

Truthfully SKs are not a very interesting lot. Their back stories are always the same. Their little fetishisms, surprisingly alike. Candles, religious symbols, hair, stolen body parts, carved mementos.

Yet writers love to write them. And even more, TV shows love to do them.
Are they easy to write? Sexy? What is it about them that so attracts us? I blame Hannibal Lector for most of this. I do admit to liking the TV series Dexter, but that series is larger than the idea of a serial killer. Or I tell myself that.

Are you attracted to books/movies/TV about serial killers? Is there one that stands out for you?
Or do you think we should put this plot device to rest as we did with multiple personality disorders and various other plot conceits of the day? I've had it. Give me a serial killer I can love. I dare you.

38 comments:

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Easy, Blackburn by Bradley Denton. It's the greatest book you haven't read yet (unless you have tread it).

Also one of my absolute favorite books, bar genre, has to do with multiple personality disorder and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's called Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff.

Anonymous said...

No, I am not a serial killer lover. Jackie seems to read a lot more serial killer books than I do.

And certain authors seem to write nothing else. What's up with that?

On the other hand I can second Brian's endorsement of BLACKBURN.
Very good book.

Jeff M.

Al Tucher said...

Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris, is a long time favorite of mine, but I think it's more because of the intricate plotting than the serial killer aspect.

Anonymous said...

I don't say it's the best but an interesting variation on the theme is KILLING THE SHADOWS by Val McDermid, in which criminal profilers themselves are being targeted by the killer.

Jackie says she reads books by authors she likes because of the writing and the series characters, not because they are serial killer books, but she does seem to read quite a few of them.

Jeff M.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Patti, I couldn't agree more. I wrote a story over at The Killing Pandemic that pokes fun at the serial killer trope.

Dexter is cool, but TV has really ruined serial killers for me. One of the only writers who consistently crafts interesting stories about SKs, for my money, is Richard Godwin.

Thomas Pluck said...

Red Dragon was excellent. It set out to make a sympathetic serial killer and succeeded. However, that is fantasy.
It's a simple recipe. You put a child in a cage where might makes right. Where its pain does not matter. Where he who inflicts the pain rules the world. I like Dexter as much as the next, but sitting in a container of blood for a few days isn't Carnation instant serial killer mix.
What's amazing is with the revolting banality of childhood abuse that we don't have more unempathic killers out there. I agree with Andrew Vachss that this is no absolution for the behavior, because so many abused children refuse to repeat the cycle.

Psychopaths will always interest us, but the weird fetishes like moths in your larynx and convoluted religious motifs are artifice. It is about power and early imprinting, like a baby goose following the first thing it sees. If you're raised by a monster, and are never nurtured, chances are you'll imprint on the abuse of power. Maybe you'll mutilate people, rape them, rob and beat them, or just foreclose on a million homes and call it business.

Chad said...

I have to agree with Brian. Read Blackburn by Bradley Denton. Also, By Reason of Insanity by Shane Stevens. Then you're done. Never have to read another serial killer book again. Ever.

Paul D. Brazill said...

The best serial killer story for me was the post-Hillsborough episode of Cracker, with Robert Carlyle.

A serial killer immediately makes a story that bit more far fetched than I prefer-especially when it happens in England.Doesn't mean that I can't enjoy the story but ...

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Truth is, I am over serial killers, myself. Perhaps they have more TV appeal because they're lurid. And we might find the psychology interesting for a bit. But there are far, far too many fictional serial killers out there...

John said...

I am fed up with books about serial killers, vampires and zombies. I so wanted to like BLACKLANDS, a recent CWA award winner, and it turned out to be about yet another serial killer story - and a child serial killer no less. I shut the book and have no intention of finishing it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

CRACKER was a terrific series, wasn't it?
I think as far as TV goes, SKs are easy to write. They can plug in a bunch of OCD behavior. And the plots are seldom truly complex. And the scare factor is high in them. Someone who murders his wife is just not as threatening to the viewer or to the cops investigating it.

George said...

The best serial killer novel I can think of is a tricky piece of work by Marc Behm called EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. Very different and unique.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Fix it on the gruesome index.

MP said...

The first serial killer novel I can remember reading is Lawrence Sanders' "The First Deadly Sin" back in the early 70s. It's still one of the best. Sanders went on to become something of a hack, but those early novels of his are quite good.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

As I've written before: "Years before Dexter there was Blackburn, and everyone who has read or seen Dexter needs to check it out. Not only is Denton the better writer, but Blackburn is also the better character."

Chad, the only other novel I would add to that small but great group is All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones.

I'm actually drawing a blank right now on another sympathetic SK (if I'm remembering right). I'll have to hit my shelves later and see if I can remember.

George said...

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER isn't gruesome at all. It's sophisticated and sly.

David A. Gibb said...

Patti,

While I believe you are discussing fictional serial killers here, I must say that I've always found true stories to be much more compelling - especially when the truth is much stranger than fiction.

I've just published a book (Camouflaged Killer: The Shocking Double Life of Canadian Air Force Colonel Russell Williams, Berkley Books, October 2011) which is one such case.

Colonel Williams commanded the country's largest and busiest air force base while simultaneously preying on local women. He quickly progressed from fetish break-ins/thefts to sexual assaults (where he tied up the women and took lurid photos of them), to full-fledged sexual homicides. And he managed to fly under everyone's radar, while personally piloting the prime minister, defense minister, chief of defense staff, and even the Queen of England!

The story has other elements too - an attempt to frame his neighbor, a police officer who came close to interrupting one of his attacks but failed to intervene, great interrogation-room dramatics, and a community - and country - in shambles. You can't write 'em stranger than that!

So I dare ya! Read my book, and tell me it's not something completely different. :)

Perhaps serial killers will begin to intrigue you again!

Cheers,

David A. Gibb
www.camouflagedkiller.com

Gerard Saylor said...

I've never heard of BLACKBURN by enjoy the Dexter novels.

The real life serial killers are so often schlubs. Little personality or intelligence. Unlike the cliched fictional killers with PhDs, extravagant methods of murder, love of opera, so on, so forth.

Gibb's comment reminds me of Bernardo and Homolka.

Dana King said...

I gave up on serial killer stories a long time ago, unless one appears as part of a series by an author I already read. (CITY OF LOST GIRLS by Declan Hughes comes to mind.)

I think it's a cheat by the writer. He doesn't have to come up with any plausible motivations or consequences. All he has to worry about is indulging his talent for sadism or gruesomeness.

Pass.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

The only two SK books I've read are THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by RLS and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS including the movie. Two other SK films I've seen are PSYCHO and ZODIAC. I no longer watch SK films but I bent the rule for ZODIAC because of Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo.

Dan_Luft said...

I also liked the Cracker episode with Robert Carlyle.

The Eye of the Beholder is, I guess a serial killer novel but it's more of an exercise in style and mood -- great book though.

As far as a plot device goes, a serial killer is a bit like Hal 9000. It's just this thing that kills other things, not that interesting.

I did really like the serial killer episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the old HG Wells/Jack the Ripper Movie TIME AFTER TIME.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Ordered Blackburn, which joins the roughly 500 books I have on the TBR.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Real-life serial killers no, but fictional, yes, if it is also a good story. "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis, and "Zombie" by Joyce Carol Oates are favorites. Have not read any recently, they have become too cliche. "The Devil's Rejects" by Rob Zombie was a movie that was pretty entertaining.

Dorte H said...

No, there are not many books about serial killers I like either.

A book which seems to be about a serial killer but is not, is Jane Casey´s The Burning. Because this plot is so in (apparently), it is labeled serial killer, but all the bloggers I know have made a point of telling their readers that it is not that kind of book.

Rob Kitchin said...

Well, I've written a serial killer novel, but I've no real interest in reading them and read very few (although I read a fair few where one of the characters has killed a number of people but not in a serial killer ritual, psychologically obsessive fashion - Dave Zeltserman's books come to mind). I was more interested in the notion of the perfect murder and a handbook for killing and getting away with. A serial killer story allowed me to explore that. In the first draft the killer never featured, just his handiwork and the handbook chapters, and his identity was never revealed and he wasn't caught or punished. What I discovered was publishers hate a completely open end with no resolution (which was the other thing I wanted to do - loads of murders are never solved - and nearly all my stories have ambiguous or open ends). There were a few compromises in the published version. Personally, I prefer the first version. SK novels largely work because the device is almost guaranteed to create a lot of tension and a page-turning effect.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And I think that's why they make good TV series too. Tension is not what I am looking for usually.

Kent Morgan said...

A serial killer and a child in jeopardy are the two plots that make me put a book back on the shelf. That's unless I've read the author and like the work. I can't count the number of times I was in our local independent mystery bookstore and commented out loud "Not another serial killer novel" and refused to give a new writer a chance.

Deb said...

I've never been a big fan of the serial killer genre; I like mysteries where the murderer has a plausible motivation, not just because he/she is a psycho. That being said, a few years ago I read an interesting novel that (as I recall) was written in the first person from a serial killer's p.o.v. (although none of the murders was gruesomely detailed). I've racked my brains and tried to remember the author or the title, but I can't. I know it had the word "Gentleman" in the title and I remember the author saying that she based the novel on her own experience of discovering that one of her neighbors was a serial killer. Perhaps someone will remember the book and share the title. I'm not saying you'll love the killer (you won't), but I did find the book interesting and not too gory.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth?

pattinase (abbott) said...

And the worst, of course, is a serial killer who targets kids.

Cap'n Bob said...

I agree with EYE OF THE BEHOLDER. You might also see a neat little movie called KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS.

Charlieopera said...

Tom Ripley remains my favorite, although the series became weaker as Highsmith kept working him. The first was brilliant. I also liked reading Red Dragon so one more for HL. that’s about it, though ... my wife loves Dexter but we’re always at odds over TV. She claims if I like something, it means she’ll want to kill herself. I watched 3/4’s of one Dexter show and wanted to kill myself several times. I don’t get it (Dexter) at all ... and I’d definitely kill myself before reading about such a character.

Go Bills! Go Lions!

Deb said...

Patti--that's not it. The book I'm thinking of was more recent and was written by a woman. I definitely remember "Gentleman" being in the title and the author's afterword where she wrote about learning that her neighbor was a serial killer. I know it's going to drive me crazy until I remember the name of that book!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Love KIND HEARTS.
Ripley was a good one. But he killed differently--because people got in his way. Not our of some need to kill.
My husband doesn't like Dexter much either.
I'll keep thinking, Deb.

Dan said...

I don't devour serial killer fictions but I do tend to read/watch the occasional unique take. Of late (and worth it)...

-- Books

American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis

- Very Bad Deaths (2004) by Spider Robinson

- John Wayne Cleaver Series
I Am Not A Serial Killer (2009) by Dan Wells
Mr. Monster (2010) by Dan Wells
I Don't Want to Kill You (2011) by Dan Wells

-- Movies

Deep Red (75 Argento ITA)
I Saw The Devil (10 Kim KOR)
Zodiac (07 Fincher USA)

-- Television

Epitafios (2004)
Wire in the Blood (2002)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Loved Epitafios and of course, WIRE IN THE BLOOD. ZODIAC was so good.

Richard R. said...

Like Jeff,I don't care to read SK novels, but Wife likes them a goodly bit. She reads John Connelly, Carol O'Connel, etc.

Erik Donald France said...

Not a fan of serial killer stories but I do like Dexter for being a little different.

Wow, cool to see Stephen Graham Jones mentioned up above here . . .